The Top 25 TV Shows of 2021 – The Final Five

Now that it’s 2022, it’s time to wrap up the BestTV shows of 2021! You’ll never guess number one unless you’ve ever talked to me!

5. Marvel on Disney+ (Disney+) – So this is me being basic and a coward. Do I like Marvel stuff? Yes, I do. The biggest franchise in the world makes things I like. Sue me, you know? And really I’m combining this year’s four Marvel shows as a single entry and ranking the whole experience for the year. WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and Hawkeye. (No, I’m not counting the animated What If? because I didn’t like it and stopped watching it.) It’s my list and I answer to nobody.

It’s fun to see how the TV shows are feeding into the movies and vice versa. After a year off, Marvel’s careful schedule was in jeopardy, which is going to be an issue when you have TV tying into movies to build a continuity and then nothing comes out for a year. As a result, we didn’t really see this synergy click in until late in the year when Hawkeye followed up on the Black Widow movie and Spider-Man had to deal with the multiversal fallout created, in part, by Loki. No Way Home didn’t get into why there’s a multiverse so it was a little more self-contained, but next year’s Doctor Strange sequel has “multiverse” right in the dang title and heavily features Wanda. A Captain America movie with the former Falcon in the role has been announced (though not scheduled yet). It remains to be seen whether they can do this without alienating people who haven’t seen everything – they certainly haven’t been able to do it in comics but this feels a little more like there are a couple of adults with their hands on the tiller.

World-building aside, I had fun with all these shows individually. I watched some with a friend, which I’m only just now learning is a good way to watch TV. WandaVision kicked things off with a clever and stylish series – putting a couple of Avengers (one of whom died onscreen) in a tribute to classic sitcoms was an irresistible premise and even beyond trying to work out what happened, I loved seeing Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in all these different styles. You don’t really think of them as funny, but they kind of nailed it. Turns out Bettany has “sixties sitcom drunk” in his back pocket and I don’t know how you even prepare for that in this day and age. A couple of viral moments and a finale that I thought was really moving, and that’s a quality show that just happens to have a scene where robots shoot beams at one another.

Falcon and Winter Soldier was more straightforward and I think came with lower expectations. For my part, the militaristic parts of the Marvel Universe are my least favorite and that’s the whole deal for both of these characters. But I loved the micro-focus on a world where half the people disappeared and then came back years later. The movies are never going to devote time to how that screws up the real estate market, but we got that here and I’m into it. John Walker and the return of Helmut Zemo brought some surprising energy and by the end, I’m losing my mind when Sam wears his Captain America suit. Loki is maybe the one that’s going to have the most effect on the next few years of Marvel projects with the introduction of (a variant version of) the next big villain and a new fractured timeline. The TVA stuff was really enjoyable and I loved the variant Lokis, including Richard E. Grant as a dead ringer for the classic comics version. I’m glad to see it’s getting a second season because I want to see more of these dopes.

Hawkeye was a great synthesis of the comic by Matt Fraction and David Aja while also bringing in completely new angles, including the new Black Widow and the Netflix Kingpin getting involved at the end. After a slow start, this series was so much fun and the finale was one of the most purely enjoyable episodes I watched all year. Barton and Kate versus like a thousand tracksuit bros. Ant-Man arrows. Lalo Salamanca from Better Call Saul not being a bad guy. The Kingpin’s Hawaiian shirt. Elevator fight. It was great.

I’m looking forward to next year’s shows. Guys, it’s fun to be excited about things!

4. Hacks (HBO Max) – Despite a million differences (including that no prominent members of the creative team or cast has been exposed as a monster), Hacks kind of fills the Louie void in my life. An often sad show, albeit with perfect jokes, about life in comedy? I need that. There is virtually nothing else it has in common with that show, and I want to make that clear because that’s a heck of a comparison to make and I don’t want anybody to think I’m casting aspersions on Jean Smart’s private life.

Struggling millennial comedian Ava gets a job working for the legendary Deborah Vance. (Think Joan Rivers. It’s not a one-to-one match, but it’s enough to get her basic deal.) Neither of them particularly respects the other’s work, and I feel like maybe we as the viewer aren’t supposed to, either. Deborah is one of those elder statesmen of comedy who can command a room on autopilot but it’s borderline Catskills stuff, and Ava is a pretty lazy writer. (Every time Deborah asks her for an alternate or to pitch a joke, it is always terrible.) There was a time when I thought this was some sort of ungracious hot take, but the title of the show is literally “Hacks” so I’m maybe cleverly turning text into subtext.

Hacks is part of a long tradition of TV comedies that are about people who make comedy, but that’s almost always a hit with me. And really you could make a show that was about Deborah or a show that was about Ava and I think they both work. In Ava’s case, the easy pitch is “Female Crashing but also not the worst TV show ever made” (I hate Crashing so much. Don’t get me started.). For Deborah, there’s a whole show in the later years of an iconic comedian. We see that she was almost huge but some missteps and institutional sexism kept her from being a Johnny Carson (Again, she’s basically Joan Rivers.) but she’s still been amazingly successful and is rich enough to be weird and get away with it. I’d watch either one of those shows and be psyched about it. I feel like I’ve seen similar takes on this sort of comedy generational gap but it’s always been about men, which is a very different and arguably less interesting dynamic. (Who can forget the magical combination of Billy Crystal and Josh Gad?) I’m in no position to have any great insights on the theme of antagonistic mentorship in a field usually dominated by men, given that I am not a woman and have been fantastically unsuccessful in comedy. I can enjoy it, though.

What I love is the way the central relationship never quite solidifies. It’s mercurial, with their attitudes toward one another constantly shifting. When Ava finds a reason to respect Deborah, that’s going to go away when Ava tasks her with going into an antique shop to spend thousands of dollars on a pepper grinder. When Deborah softens toward Ava, Ava is virtually guaranteed to pull some sort of nonsense that loses her. They’re Walter White and Jesse Pinkman without the crimes. I love seeing this constantly shifting dynamic.

Ultimately, though, it’s really funny. The performances are all pitch perfect. In a short season, there isn’t a lot of time to develop the supporting cast as characters, but they’re all people that I’m happy to see and I know they’re going to deliver whenever they get a scene. The jokes are perfect, hitting that balance of pathos and absurdity that I crave. Give me a show about comedy where people are sad most of the time and you’ve got me. (Except for Crashing.)

3. Succession (HBO) – Remember when Game of Thrones ended and you’d see a lot of thinkpieces about what TV’s next water cooler hit was going to be. The show that you had to watch as it aired, like LOST or Breaking Bad, just to be a part of the conversation. And it’s never the show you’d expect. If “Dragons but with incest” was a weird hit, nobody could have expected “Business drama” to be its successor. But I don’t think I saw more discussion of a scripted show all year than I did for Succession. (Granted, a lot of that was horny discourse, but discussion about which characters should bang is still discussion.)

Let’s be clear, I called it a drama, but Succession is funny. It’s Mad Men funny, and man, do I love Mad Men.  (If I can plug my podcast again, Hayley and I talked about this at length.) Kendall’s birthday party was the perfect example. There are key plot points for the overall arc of the season, some real darkness and devastating performances, and then it’s also hilarious. Tiny Wu-Tang? The entrance tunnel? The treehouse? Roman’s constant digs? Cousin Greg trying to get a date with Kendall’s assistant and tapping into the anxiety all tall awkward men have when it comes to talking to short women with cool hair? It’s fantastic! Tom spent several scenes this year researching prison reviews online, as if there’s some sort of Jail Yelp. In fact, it’s possible that every Tom scene was funny this year. I can’t immediately think of one that wasn’t and also his last name is “Wambsgams” which is inherently hilarious.

Oh! Also every scene where Alan Ruck’s Connor appears. The eldest Roy child, he’s the one who punched out of the family business and also has political ambitions. And by “political ambitions” I mean “has no experience but wants to run for President”. He’s been an ineffectual joke from day one and it just gets funnier the higher he sets his sights. He has this bit in the finale where he confronts his siblings about the way he’s not included in the family machinations and he demands that they show him the respect he’s due and there’s a way to read that where it’s a great moment for his character. But he’s so perfectly drawn by this point that it’s so, so funny because you know that nobody really cares and sure enough, he is a non-factor in every big event that follows. It’s amazing.

For me, there was a big misstep this season, and it was devoting an episode to the Roy family deciding to throw their weight into endorsing a white supremacist as a presidential candidate. It’s a little uncomfortable to be constantly reminded that their main product is basically FOX News as it is, but this hit a little too close to home and I think they overestimated how much fun that wacky idea would be. That’s where it gets really hard to sympathize with the terrible people on any level. Remember that bad thing that wrecked the country? What if we did that on our funny TV show? I can’t decide if I’d rather this never be referenced again or if next season lets it play out in a way that holds their feet to the fire. I mean, the dude said positive things about Hitler to Roman and Roman still endorsed him. That’s going to cast a pall over his future shenanigans.

That complaint aside, Succession was a must-watch this year and a phenomenon that’s actually as good as everybody says it is. The finale was maybe the best single episode of TV this year, where a show that focuses more on character moments than big plot twists just turned everything on its head in a move that actually makes perfect sense but was still a shock in real time. The setup for next season is fantastic and I hope we don’t have to wait another two years. Luckily we’ve got COVID under control and everything is back to normal! No, I haven’t been following the news, why do you ask?

2. Joe Pera Talks With You (Adult Swim) – I love this show so much that it’s a little difficult to talk about. Joe Pera, a Michigan choir teacher, just wants to share the things he’s interested in with you. He is tall and awkward and sweet and he finds joy in little things. Do I identify with him far too much? You know it. It’s a funny and beautiful show that sometimes makes me cry because it’s heartbreaking and sometimes it makes me cry because it’s so lovely and perfect.

This season had a copy of quiet subplots that absolutely delighted me. Joe’s best friend, Gene, retired and struggled to fill the time. By the end of the season, he’s decided to run for President and he makes an absolutely ridiculous video that seems exactly like what the best high school filmmaker could have put together in 2018 (more on that later). And then Joe’s girlfriend Sarah (the great Jo Firestone) started to have second thoughts about her doomsday prepper lifestyle and made some tentative steps out into the world to socialize. I love that, but there’s this feeling of dread. This season, there were a couple of specific references to the year being 2018. Which does track with the established timeline, but I don’t think they’ve ever come out and given a date before. And on the one hand, maybe that’s a way to ensure that this is pre-pandemic and that doesn’t cast a weird pall over the season. But also, it puts the pandemic squarely in their future. Is Sarah going to get comfortable in the outside world just in time for everything to shut down? It’s an alarming prospect that could change future seasons significantly. Not only would Joe’s neighbors, the Melskys, be anti-maskers but Mike Melsky is definitely a “Stop the Steal” guy. I don’t know what the plan is there but I’m actively worried about my favorite show having to face a nightmare year. Two years. Probably three if we’re being honest.

Putting that aside, this season was truly wonderful. There was nothing as heartbreaking as Joe writing an obituary for his beloved grandmother, but there’s still some grief still lurking at the periphery. Joe’s inability to decide what to do with her house is an ongoing issue. Sarah’s difficulties making friends are a little too real. But you also get episodes about Joe explaining chairs or trying to pick a video that’s appropriate to show a high school class.  (Those videos, holy smokes. There’s a truly weird sense of humor in this show that doesn’t manifest in the more realistic stories but when there’s outside media, it is always straight bonkers and I love it.)  There’s an episode that’s (sort of) about owning a second fridge and I feel like that’s very Michigan-specific because when I was growing up, everybody had that extra refrigerator and people who didn’t grow up here think that’s insane. (That trend went away since I was a kid, but Joe lives in Northern Michigan and they hold on to things up there.)  Joe unquestioningly just heading out to stay in the woods for a couple nights because Sarah got a bad feeling is one of the more pure expressions of love I’ve ever seen on TV. 

The finale ends with a scene that made me tear up simply because it’s such a sweet moment between two characters I care about, and it feels like exactly the optimism that’s so out of reach right now.

1. Ultra City Smiths (AMC) – Yes, my favorite TV show of the year is a noir musical comedy. Oh, and it’s stop-motion animation. And all of the characters are baby dolls. Steven Conrad is one of my favorite creators in TV right now – his excellent Patriot and possibly more excellent Perpetual Grace Ltd. are some of my favorite shows of the last decade. They were not hits, so it obviously stands to reason that his next project would be something incredibly commercial. Something like Ultra City Smiths, I guess.

The richest man in town and the last hope for Ultra City, Carpenter K Smith, is murdered. The suspects are his children (both legitimate and less so). People like aging starlet Trish McSapphire, Lady Andrea the Giant, the self-styled King of the Night, Police detective Gail Johnson, and Street Hustler Boy (a destitute street hustler in newspaper pants) are among the suspects. Detective Mills, a rookie with a wicked lime addiction and his partner, noted sensualist Nico Onasis, are on the case. Meanwhile, Baby Grace lost $40,000 of a crime lord’s money, Congressman Pecker is weathering another scandal, and Mayor Kevin DeMaximum has a plan involving the city’s tweens. Oh, and the Most Dangerous Man in the World just got out of prison.

Like Conrad’s other shows, it features plotting that seems absolutely loopy but somehow tracks alongside brilliantly absurdist jokes. Surprising connections between characters reveal themselves and people who feel like they shouldn’t even be in the same show collide in inventive ways. It’s just that it’s done with dolls this time. And somehow, that works in its favor.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why Conrad went stop-motion for this series, and there are some obvious reasons. It allows a truly impressive cast to play against type, as well as bringing in people who probably couldn’t commit to a live action show. Debra Winger, John C. Reilly, Kristen Bell, Damon Herriman, Bebe Neuwirth, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph all have the same father, and that father is Kurtwood Smith. That’s easy to accept when you’ve got a cast of dolls. The presentation allows for a scale that would be cost-prohibitive otherwise – an impressive number of locations, a large cast, weird designs like giant mechanized campaign ads that loom over the city, literally casting a shadow over certain locations. 

Creatively, I think the stop motion works in a way that live action wouldn’t. Comedy noir is a hard target to hit, and this is a rapid stream of deliberate jokes. Playing it too deadpan is going to make it feel like Naked Gun and reactions that acknowledge the jokes make it like, I don’t know, every other Leslie Nielsen parody movie. The blank faces of a cast of dolls can sell jokes that are both stupid and intricate. They feel more like they’ve been beaten down by living in a city that, we are constantly reminded, don’t care. The format allows for more surrealism in a way that would break a live action show. Street Hustler Boy walking around in underwear because he sold his pants is a broad joke if you have an actor and a character bit if you don’t. It’s a genius move.

And somehow, Conrad and crew still wring emotions out of these dead-eyed props. Street Hustler Boy is ridiculous but he’s working the streets so he can afford life-saving surgery for his husband 34th Street Chuck. Their scenes are legitimately tender even if every detail is ridiculous. When Mills’ infant son holds tightly to his pinkie finger with his tiny little hand, it’s lovely. The aforementioned Da’Vine Joy Randolph delivers maybe the best voice acting I’ve ever heard, a voice that’s full of love and pain and it’s incredibly affecting even when it comes out of an expressionless face. 

I’ve mentioned some of the cast, but it’s just a tremendous assemblage. Jimmi Simpson as Mills is a standout, but you’ve got Terry O’Quinn (who, along with Kurtwood Smith, appears in all of Conrad’s shows), Luis Guzman, Jason Mantzoukas, Melissa Villasenor, Tim Heidecker, and freaking Tom Waits as the narrator (who has a physical presence in the show). And Alia Shawkat! This cast is so stacked that I forgot about an Arrested Development alum!

I know I’m all over the place here, but I love this show so much. There’s a musical number in every episode. You can find the song from the pilot on YouTube and it’s absolutely hysterical. “Newspaper Pants” is hilarious and weirdly sweet. Kristen Bell, John C. Reilly, and Tim Heidecker all score with great solo performances. It’s incredible. The first time it happens, there’s nothing in the show so far that has led you to believe that there would be musical performances and watching that unfold was an absolute gift.

The season ends without resolving the mystery, and I’m desperately hoping we get another run of episodes. Either way, this is what I want from TV. Show me something I haven’t seen in a way I haven’t seen before. Take big crazy swings. Steven Conrad’s shows have been so unique both in premise and execution and it’s the kind of thing that keeps me excited about television. Ultra City Smiths made me laugh so hard I had to pause the show at least once per episode but it also blew me away with how exciting and different it is. Easily the best TV show of the year for me.

Ultra City, she don’t care.

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