TV stayed winning in 2021, benefiting from streamers investing more in long-form content while even more audiences stayed home binging. Most of the shows on this list were shot partially or even completely during the pandemic, shouldering the extra safety costs and inherent challenges. And the shows got better. Seriously. It was a great year for television. Just look at this list. Our upcoming best movies issue can’t compete.
1. Reservation Dogs (Disney+)
The jokes are so mischievous and laid back in Reservation Dogs you almost miss how monumental the show truly is – it just hits like Atlanta, Fleabag or a pound of really good skunk. Toronto-based actors D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs front the comedy series about teens from Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma who hustle for a way out of the rez while simultaneously defending their territory against an encroaching rival gang. That push-pull is at the heart of Sterlin Harjo’s loving series, which delicately grapples with intergenerational trauma and loss. His characters fight to keep their sadness at bay in a hopeful show that finds healing in tradition, community and a good laugh.
When we were hooked: From the moment they jack the chip truck in Episode 1 (F*ckin Rez Dogs). RS
2. Succession — season 3 (Crave)
“I’ve seen you get fucked a lot,” says Tom Wambsgans, in a recent Succession episode. He’s speaking to Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the mutinous heir to Murdoch-like media baron Logan Roy. “And I’ve never seen Logan get fucked once,” Tom adds. As the son-in-law to Logan, Tom, played cunningly by Matthew Macfadyen, has been the toxic but vulnerable jester in the Roy family’s outer circle. He, like us, has been watching over three seasons as Kendall tries to seize the reins of the family’s empire, only to be crushed by Logan (Brian Cox) or stabbed in the back with Shakespearean flair by his own siblings. This is a show about power dynamics that don’t shift, where rich, white and manipulative characters stay put while going in circles, playing a chess game that never ends because they don’t want it to. They just love yelling “check!” – never mind the repetition. The show still surprises, as with that aforementioned moment with Tom. He sums up Succession in an unexpectedly heartbreaking way with a spiel that gives Macfadyen the opportunity to bring new layers to his incredible, ever-evolving performance. That’s how Succession stays winning.
When we were hooked: From the moment dad fucks around and sends his son a literal trojan horse in episode 2 (Mass In Time Of War). RS
3. Sort Of (CBC)
Never mind all the firsts – that this show features the first non-binary lead character in Canadian TV history, or that star and co-creator Bilal Baig is the first queer South Asian Muslim actor to ever head up a prime-time TV series here. The fact is, Sort Of is all kinds of fabulous. Sabi (Baig) is a gender-fluid millennial Pakistani-Canadian in Toronto who works both as a nanny and as a bartender at a queer watering hole. When they catch their boyfriend cheating, and the hipster family they nanny for has a crisis, Sabi must decide whether to stay and deal with things or escape to Berlin with their bestie (Amanda Cordner). And then there’s Sabi’s own family, which they’re studiously avoiding. What makes the show so great is the complexity of the characters, each of whom is going through some sort of transition, and the authenticity of the writing. Representation matters, and it’s reflected not just onscreen but in the show’s writer’s room, pool of directors and group of consultants. This is TV done right.
When we were hooked: Episode 3, after Sabi’s compartmentalized worlds come together. GS
4. Dickinson — season 3 (Apple TV+)
Apologies: we arrived far too late to Alena Smith’s off-centre historical comedy, which is now ending its pitch-perfect run after three seasons. (In our defense, the initial pitch of “What if Emily Dickinson, but twerking” wasn’t the sharpest marketing decision.) Hailee Steinfeld is magnetic as hell as the young Emily – poet, activist and romantic, forever bristling at her low status as an unmarried woman in mid-19th century America, and deeply in love with Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), who happens to be engaged to Emily’s golden-boy brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe). Smith’s conceit is to make us see this progressive character as literally ahead of her time, using modern slang and a hip-hop soundtrack to set Emily and her friends apart from their traditionally minded elders. (Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski find endless depths in Emily’s loving parents, sympathetic to their daughter’s frustration but fundamentally incapable of understanding it.) And after two seasons of Emily and her crew engaging in spirited debate about moving America forward, the Civil War arrives in season 3, forcing them to test their idealism – and express their allyship – in a much more literal sense. We admit it: we missed out. You don’t have to.
When we were hooked: Episode 4, This Is My Letter To The World. NW
5. The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video Canada)
We weren’t ready for this. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’s runaway slave odyssey is a vivid and overpowering experience that rallies from horrifying trauma to peerless beauty. The words and world in Colson Whitehead’s magic realist novel – where the underground railroad consists of literal locomotives and tracks – springs to life in a lush and sensual cinematic series that follows Thuso Mbedu’s Cora through biblical scenes of scorched earth and autumnal paradise. The violence is a lot, but Jenkins is mainly here for the romance. The period and its people haven’t been captured this lovingly since… well… Beloved.
When we were hooked: Episode 2, South Carolina. RS
6. We Are Lady Parts (Showcase On Demand, STACKTV channel on Amazon Prime Video Canada)
Produced for Channel 4 in the UK, Nida Manzoor’s rollicking comedy about a London punk band composed entirely of young Muslim women is spiky, scrappy and consistently hilarious, with a cast of diverse characters who represent no one but themselves. Anjana Vasan is the comic centre as Amina, a gifted guitarist crushed by performance anxiety, but Sarah Kameela Impey brings a growling charisma to the role of lead vocalist Saira, whose anger issues complicate her life as much as they power her music. And it’s got the best Dolly Parton cover I’ve ever heard.
When we were hooked: Episode 1, Play Something. NW
7. Only Murders In The Building (Disney+)
Co-created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, this magnificently silly comedy follows three New Yorkers (Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez) who take it upon themselves to solve a murder in their massive apartment complex by launching a podcast about it. The show works perfectly as an example of the genre it’s deftly skewering, creating an ideal springboard for character comedy, sideways social observations and stylistic tangents like an episode performed almost entirely without dialogue. And Martin has crafted his best role for himself since Roxanne, playing to his strengths as a physical performer and his ability to find pathos in unlikely places.
When we were hooked: Episode 1, True Crime. NW
8. Squid Game (Netflix)
Squid Game is proof that billions of people all over the world are capable of binging a Netflix show with subtitles (or dubbed English, but what are you doing?) if it’s compelling enough. The Korean battle royale drama is an alternately riveting and agonizing parable of capitalism. And it’s also very fun, even during moments of disturbing ultraviolence. Sure, it doesn’t quite stick the landing – things take a bit of a dip when we meet the white American “VIPs” – but that doesn’t kill the thrill. This show is a goddamn phenomenon.
When we were hooked: Episode 1, Red Light, Green Light. RT
9. Ted Lasso — season 2 (Apple TV+)
The second season of Jason Sudeikis’s fish-out-of-water sitcom may not have the freshness of the first, but that’s fine. This season is about exploring the limitations of its hero’s philosophy. What happens when someone doesn’t want to be their best self? Season 2 introduced Sarah Niles as Richmond FC’s new psychologist, giving the show someone who can see right through Ted’s defense mechanisms, while also orchestrating a season-long heel turn for Nick Mohammed’s tragically insecure Coach Nate and giving Brett Goldstein’s profane teddy bear Roy Kent even more room to shine.
When we were hooked: Episode 4, Carol Of The Bells. NW
10. NYC Epicenters 9/11–2021½ (Crave)
Spike Lee’s epic homage to New York City is frequently jarring, going from ugly cry face to dad joke in a heartbeat. While many networks were commemorating the September 11 attacks with paint-by-numbers documentaries, this nearly eight-hour miniseries gives us a highly personal, frequently surprising and discursive portrait of a city in crisis mode while contrasting and paralleling 9/11 and the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Detailed accounts from frontline workers, politicians, activists, witnesses, survivors and celebrities (Lee conducted more than 200 interviews) suggest the ways historic and contemporary social forces collided in a multitude of dramatic narratives contained within far-reaching tragedies.
When we were hooked: Episode 1. KR
11. The White Lotus (Crave)
Sure, The White Lotus provided some visual escapism – cabanas! beaches! luaus! – during the pandemic. But Mike White’s tragicomic satire about rich white people having first-world problems at an exclusive Hawaiian resort is a lot more than a travelogue. It’s a savage demonstration of the deadly effects of white privilege on less fortunate people’s dreams, jobs and, ultimately, lives. It’s Howards End meets Survivor. GS
12. Feel Good — season 2 (Netflix)
Toronto expat Mae Martin’s semi-autobiographical Netflix series wrapped up its two-season run this year, letting recovering addict Mae (Martin) and the formerly straight-identifying George (Charlotte Ritchie) reconnect and redefine their chaotic love story. Martin and co-writer Joe Hampson took on a lot more in season 2, adding heavier questions of gender identity and internalized abuse. It made for heavier going but they still found room for Lisa Kudrow to work her brittle comic magic as Mae’s prickly mom. NW
13. Hacks (Crave)
This could have been a simple odd-couple buddy series in which a bisexual Gen-Z comedy writer is stuck creating new material for a veteran stand-up comic who’s coasting and losing her edge. But in the hands of show runners and stars Hannah Einbender and Jean Smart (who won a deserved Emmy for her performance), it’s so much more: a sharp look at the comedy industry and a poignant look at mothers and daughters, both real and surrogate. GS
14. Rutherford Falls (Showcase On Demand, STACKTV channel on Amazon Prime Video Canada)
Reservation Dogs got all the media attention, but there’s room enough for two shows about the tensions between Indigenous people and the white culture that surrounds them. This charming but clear-eyed comedy tackles the legacy of colonialism through the story of best friends Nathan Rutherford (co-creator Ed Helms) and Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding, who also writes on the show), and how Reagan’s commitment to honouring the culture of the (fictional) Minishonka Nation collides with Nathan’s willful ignorance of the way his people exploited hers. NW
15. WandaVision (Disney+)
Marvel Studio’s first foray into TV turned out to be one of the superhero behemoth’s most fun, playful and emotional projects – a meditation on comfort and trauma that also parodies sitcoms like Malcolm In The Middle and The Dick Van Dyke show. It gets a little too Marvely toward the end, but Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany bring both humour and genuine pathos to their performances as Wanda and Vision, and Kathryn Hahn’s literally winking performance is so delightful that her character is now getting its own spinoff. RT
16. Mare Of Easttown (Crave)
Back in the spring, Craig Zobel’s series about a tough-talking, vaping detective (Kate Winslet) investigating the murder of a young woman in a small Pennsylvania town had everyone wondering whodunnit. But what makes the show more than a mere mystery is the depth of its characters (all beautifully performed – three actors won Emmys) and its unflinching look at friendship, grief and guilt. Oh yeah, plus some awesome accents. GS
17. Never Have I Ever — season 2 (Netflix)
The show keeps getting better. And the sophomore season is all about growth, with Devi Vishwakumar (Mississauga’s Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) trying to redeem herself in the messiest situations: a secret love triangle, the rumour mill surrounding a new Indian student and stalking her own mother’s love life. It’s all so cringe but you can’t help empathizing with the teen protagonist, who’s still learning to be comfortable in her own skin while mourning the loss of her father. That’s the magic of the coming-of-age series: it peels back layers to identity and family bonds that reveal themselves in the most embarrassing situations. RL
18. Kim’s Convenience — season 5 (CBC Gem)
Despite the abrupt ending and rushed storylines, what really made the final season of Kim’s Convenience special was the comforting feeling and humour that it’s known for. Classic Kim’s Convenience humour is present in plots like Appa and Umma pretending to live in an upscale suburban neighbourhood so they can use its tennis courts and a local television host taking over Umma’s church announcements. Viewers are left wanting more for the characters, especially Jung, who feels a bit aimless with what he wants to do in his life, and Janet, who is figuring out her sexual identity. RL
19 Love On The Spectrum — season 2 (Netflix)
Finally a dating reality show you don’t have to hate-watch. The second season of the Australian-filmed docuseries about young adults on the autism spectrum looking for love digs deeper into relationships than the first. Following some familiar faces (why hello, Michael!) and a few new ones, the series sensitively explores how to negotiate taking things further or make the “Can we just be friends?” call – the stuff we can all learn from. GS
20. Sex Education — season 3 (Netflix)
Through a stellar cast, brilliant storylines and a fabulous soundtrack, season 3 of Sex Education loudly and proudly tells you that anyone can be who they want to be. The character development has been interesting. Ncuti Gatwa does an exceptional job playing Eric Effiong as he explores what it means to be a Nigerian and gay teenager. The show also does a great job in displaying subtle but all-too-common forms of racism and introduces non-binary characters for the first time. RL
21. Insecure — season 5 (Crave)
Issa Rae’s Los Angeles-set dramedy sure knows how to push its audience’s buttons. The final season sticks to what works – breezy comedy, beautiful filmmaking and big dramatic twists – but also feels slightly more ambitious. It goes deeper into the dynamics that come with aging and responsibility, while staying on the surface in other ways. But hey, if you didn’t get a little mad, it wouldn’t be so addictive. KR
22. RuPaul’s Drag Race UK — Season 2 & 3 (Crave)
There’s just something about the way the Brits do reality TV (and pop group challenges). Drag Race has entered overkill zone as a franchise, but the UK edition’s ace casting has delivered must-see moments, meme-worthy quips and queens you don’t want to stop following on Instagram when the season ends. Some old challenges felt fresh and new ones – like season 3’s get into full drag in under an hour – prove you can teach an old format new tricks. KR
23. Allen v. Farrow (Crave)
The docuseries about Dylan Farrow’s sexual assault allegations against Woody Allen doesn’t bring new information to light. It doesn’t need to really. The same old details feel shockingly new after the #MeToo reckoning that Dylan’s brother Ronan Farrow had a hand in. The Hunting Ground duo Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering directs this with the confidence that today’s audience will be infuriated by how the media and culture handled the allegations and gutted by Dylan Farrow’s own words. RS
24. Nine Perfect Strangers (Amazon Prime Video Canada)
Big Little Lies writer/producer David E. Kelley and star Nicole Kidman’s next Liane Moriarty adaptation was a much more divisive affair, arriving on the heels of HBO’s The White Lotus to tell another story of an exclusive retreat that seems to bring out the worst in its staff and guests. But this was the far weirder show, with a game cast – including Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, Regina Hall, Samara Weaving, Luke Evans, Grace Van Patten, Manny Jacinto and an amazing Michael Shannon – plumbing wilder, sadder depths as broken people looking to reinvent themselves by any means necessary. And it really stuck the landing. NW
25. How To With John Wilson (Crave)
Now in its second season, Wilson’s homemade HBO series remains a treasure: a gentle, absurdist documentary that finds our host starting with a simple topic and following it wherever it takes him. Sometimes that’s a straight line, as when his landlady’s offer to sell him her Brooklyn brownstone leads to an investigation of the odder corners of mortgage brokers. More often than not, it’s a zigzag journey into idiosyncratic weirdness, like the inquiry into New York City’s omnipresent scaffolding that becomes an existential meditation on the human need for structure. Give it a shot. NW
NOW’s critics expand on their choices – and debate their rankings – in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is NOW’s weekly news and culture podcast. New episodes are released every Friday.