The Top 25 TV Shows of 2021 – Part One

It’s that time of year – time for the annual Best Of Lists. This year, I have a Top 25 TV shows. Frankly, that’s a lot of shows so I’m going to break this up over several days. This time, it’s 16-25. And let’s be honest, there’s not really a huge swath of difference in between my seventeenth favorite show and my twenty-third favorite show, so for this batch, I’m just going to do alphabetical order.

A.P. Bio (Peacock) – Just canceled for the second time, this show was always too weird for its original home on NBC, starting with its premise that would feel more at home with Tim & Eric than on network TV. (Disgraced Harvard professor gets a job teaching advanced biology, a subject he is not qualified to teach, in a high school. He does not actually teach anything and also seems to have only the one class hour every day.) But to its credit, the show never tried to present that premise as anything that made a lick of real world sense and just went from there. Always Sunny’s Glenn Howerton and a killer supporting cast that included folks like Paula Pell and Patton Oswalt and a whole class full of hilarious misfits made this weird show something truly special. And in this year’s fourth season (its second on streaming), it delivered some excellent, innovative episodes. The season premiere was almost entirely made up of fan fiction the students wrote in a variety of genres (but mostly erotic). Jack reunited with his estranged father (living legend Bruce Campbell) for the sole purpose of sabotaging his wedding. A witch foretold dire futures. A cult overran the school. A student’s YouTube series played a key role. It was an absolute delight, and I’m going to miss this bonkers show.

Archer (FXX) – After approximately a million seasons, this show is basically being grandfathered onto my list every year. But it’s still warranted – I have so much fun watching Archer every year. Even as creator and showrunner Adam Reed stepped back, it’s stayed consistently entertaining. This season, the spy agency formerly known as ISIS (and still not officially renamed) ran into financial trouble and seeing Archer and company run operations on a budget was a nice twist to the formula. A running nemesis throughout the season, Archer’s continuing physical rehabilitation, and the PR rep (Pamela Adlon) trying her best to salvage the whole situation made for some good throughlines that gave the season a solid identity. A flashback to Archer’s first assignment (with special guest Bruce Campbell, his second appearance on the list already) and the annual return of Barry were highlights of the year. I’m running out of things to say about Archer after twelve years, but I’m still excited to watch each new episode. 

Cruel Summer (Freeform) – This one came as a surprise – it’s not a show I would ever have noticed on my own, but a recommendation from my friend (and Ape Hive logo designer) led me to check it out. And yes, as you’d expect from Freeform, it’s a teen drama. The premise here is that a popular girl, Kate, was kidnapped and a nerd, Jeanette, Single White Femaled her way into Kate’s social circles, even taking her boyfriend. But the reason this made the list is the innovative structure – each episode is set on the same day in three consecutive years. In 1993, Jeanette is a sweet kid who’s sort of obsessed with one of the cool girls. In 1994, Kate has escaped her abductor and made the claim that Jeanette knew where she was the whole time and didn’t tell anybody. And in 1995, we’re gradually learning what is and isn’t true while Jeanette’s life falls apart. All three years use a different color palette with distinctly different looks for the lead characters so it’s always immediately clear what timeline you’re seeing. The actors adapt to the format beautifully and the storytelling is absolutely wild – the way the show parcels out information is fascinating. It’s really clever and well-executed. If this was a show about homicide detectives and not teen girls, it’d be shortlisted for the Emmys and you’d be hearing about it every day. I’m glad I broke from my usual viewing patterns to check this out.

Disenchantment (Netflix) – Matt Groening’s animated fantasy series aired its third season early this year and I kind of forgot about it until I was wrapping up the list. (Sorry Kevin Can F Himself – you lost your spot.) The thing is, Groening’s shows are a microcosm of how TV has changed since 1990. The Simpsons is nothing but standalone episodes with a cosmic reset in between. Every so often a marriage or death or new job actually sticks, but for the most part it works like old school sitcoms. Futurama had serialized elements that would recur from time to time until eventually building to a resolution, though most episodes were largely unattached. You’d get an episode about Nibbler’s true nature once a season, you know? And now you have Disenchantment. And whether it’s because it’s a streaming show or because Groening and Co. learned from Futurama’s years of courting cancellation that you can’t meander for too long these days, it’s all serialized all the time. Which makes it less rewatchable than the other shows – it’s hard to just pick a Disenchantment episode at random when you’re tired and cranky – but it makes for compelling viewing when the season drops.

Dr. Death (Peacock) – Another friend recommendation, I probably would have missed this miniseries. True Crime is not necessarily my jam these days, and this was a fascinating story with great performances from Joshua Jackson, Christian Slater, and maybe the last time we’ll see a baggage-free Alec Baldwin. Beyond that, the presentation was so much better than it needed to be. It was cool, for lack of a better word.  Every episode played out over multiple timelines, which seemed like a way to showcase Jackson’s ability to play his criminally incompetent surgeon at different stages of his fall (and also ensure that the final episode wasn’t a full hour of him just getting destroyed in court). And there were just so many clever touches that kept this from being a by-the-numbers presentation. In just a few minutes of one episode, there’s a lengthy parody of the Dallas opening credits, a scene that’s unnecessarily subtitled just because the diegetic music is so loud (and they’re in a waiting room, so the loud music is a choice) and a creep pan straight out of The Office that made me laugh out loud. That episode, by the way? Directed by House star Jennifer Morrison. A compelling story with stand-out performances, told in an exciting way, and it’s all hidden under a pulpy title. It’s good!

MacGruber (Peacock) – Will Forte’s seemingly one-joke character from SNL returned to TV and I loved it. And for the record, the original MacGruber sketches were only one-joke in the sense that they all had the same punchline. But the way Forte handled his MacGyver parody brought different variations every time. And then the 2010 movie expanded his world in ways that were brilliant and stupid simultaneously. The whole thing where MacGruber is absurdly violent and specialized in ripping out the throats of his enemies is central to the character even though it’s not part of the sketches or based on anything in the show it was originally parodying. And as it gets further from the source material (there’s not even a single joke in the whole series about making life saving inventions out of household materials), it just gets funnier that Forte is still sporting the mullet and the MacGyver wardrobe. At this point, I’m really just talking about why I think the concept of MacGruber is funny as opposed to anything specific about this series. It’s great. It’s violent and funny and has all these bizarre choices from Forte. It’s a dead-on parody of direct-to-video action movies and builds on the established world of this ridiculous character in fun ways. I love MacGruber and I’m here for whatever format he appears in next.

Mr. Mayor (NBC) – I just love the shows that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock create. And that extends to the shows they produce from their past collaborators. Tracey Wigfield and Meredith Scardino have both created favorite shows over the last few years and I’m just fully on board. And this one has Ted Danson as the Mayor of Los Angeles and that man is a national treasure. My one issue right off the bat is that the short first season (plus a Christmas episode) makes this feel like more of a side project, but hopefully that’ll be remedied with the upcoming second season. This thing is moving up the chart next year, I’ll tell you right now. Basically, the Fey/Carlock model results in my favorite kind of jokes and then they get people like Danson, Holly Hunter, Bobby Moynihan, and Vella Lovell to deliver those perfect jokes. Holly Hunter in particular turns in a bizarre and hilarious performance that you don’t expect from somebody with such a prestige reputation. (Check out the way she runs in the Christmas episode – that’s an Amy Sedaris level of commitment to physical comedy). And Moynihan is somehow playing a mean-spirited caricature of me and I don’t know how that happened.  (Asked what three people, living or dead, he would invite to dinner, he replies “Batman, and Batman’s parents; I think that would be nice for Batman.”) I hope this gets enough attention for a good, long run.

Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) – This was an unexpected delight. I’m going to be honest with you, I haven’t been into any Steve Martin projects for a long time. Between a stretch of bland family movies and all the bluegrass stuff that I’m never going to care about, I just haven’t paid attention. Martin Short is reliably the best performer in mediocre projects, and I don’t really know who Selena Gomez is. I’ve heard her name and I understand that she’s famous but this is maybe the first time I’ve seen her and I feel like if you tried to tell me what she’s famous for, it would be a lot of things that I didn’t know about. This was weeks in before I checked it out, and I ended up loving it. This is the first of the Martin/Short collaborations that really feels like it played to their strengths, and Gomez is absolutely fantastic, mixing it up with the old pros while simultaneously keeping it grounded and not feeling out of place. I was so pulled along by the story that it was only in retrospect that I can process how many absolutely wild bits there were. Tina Fey as Sarah Koenig, the whole podcast angle, Jane Lynch as Steve Martin’s stunt double. It’s the rare comedy mystery that succeeds on both levels.

Search Party (HBO Max) – This is one of my favorites and I’m so glad it got a second life on HBO Max after TBS did everything they could to bury it, beyond just the fact that it was airing on TBS. The original premise had a group of directionless young people getting obsessed with the disappearance of a girl they only sort of knew and then that first season ended with them committing murder. They believed it was self-defense but the fact that they chopped up and hid the body sort of made things worse. And it’s gone on from there, with Alia Shawkat’s Dory taking the fall, facing court, and this season, being abducted by an obsessed fan (Cole Escola). By the way? One of three shows on my best of list that involves somebody being held captive. Cool trend. It’s maybe the weakest of the four seasons just because that’s kind of an oppressive throughline and it removes any interactions with her friends, who are all fantastic. (John Early’s out and proud Elliott gradually becoming a conservative pundit has been a particular delight.)  But even a slightly off season is still funnier than most anything on TV. The final season is coming early next year, and while I hate to see it end, I’d rather it reach a planned ending and resolution than just getting ignominiously dumped again.

Squid Game (Netflix) – It’s impossible to ignore this particular phenomenon. A South Korean battle royale series that somehow became Netflix’s biggest hit. Granted, Netflix can find a metric to call everything their biggest hit, but it seems like everybody watched this one. And you can see why – the premise is well-worn but has a couple of twists (the debt angle, the children’s games) that make it more immediately appealing. The iconography is so striking – the weird playhouse designs and the hooded henchmen with shape faces just work. And here’s something that I liked even though it maybe didn’t work like it should: I liked all the storytelling dead ends. You could cut the organ harvesting and even the whole thing with the undercover cop because none of it really matters. It’s not important to us to see the man behind the mask exposed and none of it impacts any of the characters who are crucial to the story. But it works for me because it feels kind of like old school TV. Streaming shows are made as a season and usually fully written before shooting. This felt like the old days when you had to fill twenty-two episodes and there would be some blind alleys that never get resolved but they filled an episode or two. I don’t know that I’ll ever care about a network drama again, but as recently as Gotham they were dedicating significant airtime to a Bruce Wayne clone who eventually disappears without any explanation as to where he came from. I like that feeling of just having a weird subplot that gets resolved without impacting anything else. And despite the final episode being mostly unnecessary, those games were riveting and sometimes soul-destroying. Gonna be a long time before I shake that glass walkway.

Next time it’s numbers eleven through fifteen and that’s where I start ranking!

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