It never gets easy, picking out a Top 10 list. Every year, I struggle to rank my favorites; every year I’m moving them up and down the list until the very last minute; and every year I look back and wish I could alter the order. Complicating matters is the ever-growing number of series releases by the ever-growing number of TV outlets. Too many good series need to be left out these days. That said, here are the 10 series that gave me the most pleasure in 2021, along with a “Second 10” — shows that easily could have been in the Top 10 on a different day. I trust you will let me know what I got right, and, of course, wrong.
1. “Succession” (HBO)
OK, OK, so there are no “likable” characters in this brutally sarcastic portrait of the American ruling class. Plenty of strong TV shows — “Seinfeld,” “Veep,” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” come to mind — have thrived on moral bankruptcy in all its fascinating iterations. The Roys, billionaires and media tycoons, may not be nice, but what’s that got to do with fun? The show returned in October for season three after a long pandemic delay, and it has been a fall treat that has dominated the TV conversation (thank you, weekly release schedule). The scripts have been spikier than ever, as the characters seem to become more twisted — and more profanely witty — with each new episode. There really is no one to root for in this Machiavellian pit of self-interest — except, perhaps, the writers, who outdo themselves with each new insult. The layers of infighting among creator Jesse Armstrong’s ensemble of drama queens are dazzling, as the siblings jockey for Dad’s money, power, attention, and, assuming there is any in the cranky husk that is Logan Roy, love. It’s all a little “King Lear,” a little “The Crown,” a little “Billions,” and a lot good.
2. “The White Lotus” (HBO)
The unsparing satire of Mike White, the guy behind the two-season wonder “Enlightened,” reached a new high in this faceted series. It’s a murder mystery, a cringe comedy, an upstairs-downstairs drama, and — despite the gorgeous Hawaiian setting — a study in ugly white American entitlement. White’s collection of one-percenters spend a week at the titular resort, and we watch them exploiting the hard-working staff, trying — but usually failing — to relax. White ultimately gives the characters enough depth and history to make them much more than just vehicles for his big points, and the acting is superior. Jake Lacy, usually the rom-com sweetheart, plays beautifully against type as a spoiled preppie, and Murray Bartlett is perfection as his foil, the passive-aggressive resort manager. Jennifer Coolidge, meanwhile, does some of her best work to date, as a broken, childlike woman grieving her mother, using up Natasha Rothwell’s spa director before spitting her out. The show is a dark take on “Fantasy Island,” loaded up with topical questions about fragile masculinity, class, sexual identity, and race, without ever sinking under their weight.
3. “We Are Lady Parts” (Peacock)
A spoonful of comedy certainly can help the eye-opening material go down, and in the most delightful ways. To wit, this buoyant British comedy about punk music as a gateway to salvation, and, more originally, about the variety of ways to live as a Muslim. It quickly became one of my favorites of the year, and I binged and recommended it with a passion. Set in London, it’s about an all-female punk band whose members are Muslim — but none fits into a stereotype, as women, as performers, and, most clearly, as Muslims. The show dodges all the more familiar, EZ-to-read tropes that we usually get fed, so that a devout Muslim woman can also be a tattooed wild child with a jagged haircut who finds all kinds of redemption and freedom in performing curse-filled songs. The story line is built around the shy Amina, who wants to be in the band — if she can stop vomiting from stage fright. But all the characters are fully — and wonderfully — dimensional. The songs are catchy, too. By the way, the show has just been renewed.
4. “Hacks” (HBO Max)
What it means to be a woman in comedy. How stand-up comedy has shifted across the decades. How to age gracefully in the public eye. How to reach across the generation gap. Certainly the entertainment-biz comedy “Hacks” is loaded with rich themes. But it’s all anchored by the charisma and timing of Jean Smart. She plays a broad Joan Rivers-like comic named Deborah Vance whose Vegas residency is running out of gas. When her agent tries to goose her creatively by hooking her up with a 25-year-old comedy writer who’s dryly ironic and in-jokey, the two begin a mentor relationship that is twisted, tense, and beautiful. Smart is a joy to watch throughout, as Deborah begins to understand that her high comfort level and her stubbornness are taking a toll on the freshness of her performances and her material. Mrs. Maisel, this could be your future.
5. “Maid” (Netflix)
Watching this 10-episode miniseries can be challenging — not because it is bad, but because it is potent enough to drive home some of the anguish and danger of domestic violence and poverty. Based on Stephanie Land’s memoir, it provides viewers with an intimate look at a broken social-service system, one that leaves Margaret Qualley’s Alex trying over and over to find help and stay safe. It’s as if she’s been tied up in red tape and is unable to get free. As she fights to earn enough money to leave the abusive father of her toddler daughter, she also copes with the excesses and whims of her mentally ill mother, played by Qualley’s mother, Andie MacDowell. Qualley is excellent, making Alex easy to root for by underplaying. She doesn’t ask for our sympathy, letting the facts of Alex’s life speak for themselves instead. This drama puts a stalwart, determined human face on the working people in this country who are so often treated like political chess pieces.
6. “Mare of Easttown” (HBO)
This darkly lit seven-episode drama is a good-enough whodunit, as the solutions to a couple of crimes unfold after all of the required twists and turns. The ending is a surprise, but not absurdly so (I’m looking at you, “Clickbait”). But “Mare” is more exceptional as a finely paced exploration of its downbeat heroine, who is sitting on a tinderbox of unacknowledged grief and depression. If you don’t deal with it, it will deal with you — that’s the show’s abiding concept. Kate Winslet is pitch perfect — gruff, stoic, driven (except regarding herself) — and so is Jean Smart as her sarcastic, loyal mother. The evocation of a small-town working-class community recalls another potent mystery series, “Broadchurch,” as does the depth of characterizations.
7. “Only Murders in the Building” (Hulu)
Co-created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, this endearing New York comedy is a light whodunit filled with meta jokes, goofy twists, and a lot of satisfying star cameos (including ones by Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, and, best of all, Sting). Martin and costar Martin Short are remarkable, with the kind of rare, perfectly synced timing that takes years to develop. Short’s comic grandiosity and blather never get old. At the heart of the show, and what lasts after the murder mystery is solved, is the warmth that the self-appointed detectives — who include Selena Gomez — find with one another amid a big city of strangers.
8. “The Great” (Hulu)
This comedy, from Tony McNamara, the co-writer of Olivia Colman’s “The Favourite,” deliberately takes massive liberties with history — and triumphs. It is a masterful — and, yes, bawdy — satire about the ascension of Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great in 18th-century Russia. In this year’s second season, Catherine takes over from her fickle husband, Peter (a brilliant Nicholas Hoult), but keeps him alive for her own sexual — and perhaps emotional — purposes. The season has a big added plus, too: Gillian Anderson as Catherine’s nasty mum. Like everything else in this cleverly silly sendup, she does not disappoint.
9. “The Underground Railroad” (Amazon)
It should be illegal to binge this harrowing 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Each episode is packed with emotional heft and best experienced on a weekly-ish schedule. Auteur director Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight” created a stunning visual and aural rendering of a magical realism tale that blends true slavery horrors from our past with some alt-history, including an underground railroad that is literally a railroad built beneath the ground. Cora (an amazing Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) escape the Georgia plantation where they’re abused by the sadistic owners, and they’re chased through a decidedly un-United States by a venomous slave catcher played powerfully by Joel Edgerton. Some episodes lag a bit; others are stunning; and all together it is an indelible portrait of the hope and the despair, and the dreams and the nightmares, that have defined this country for centuries.
10. “The Other Two” (HBO Max)
Yet another sharp sendup of show biz? Yes, please, when it’s this much fun. I liked the first season when it aired on Comedy Central more than two years ago. But I loved the second season, after the series jumped to HBO Max this year. Created by Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, former “Saturday Night Live” head writers, it satirizes fame and the hunger for it deftly, wisely, and, ultimately, compassionately. The titular pair, Brooke (Heléne Yorke) and Cary (Drew Tarver), are trying to use their pop-star brother and their talk-show host mother (a sweet Molly Shannon) to get ahead in New York entertainment, but it’s an uphill battle strewn with humiliation and thankless jobs. They are so close, and yet so far. Ah the trials of fame-adjacency.
THE SECOND TEN
On a different day, any one of these could have fallen into my Top 10.
“The Shrink Next Door” (Apple TV+) Paul Rudd is chilling as a therapist exploiting his submissive client in this fine miniseries.
“Call My Agent!” (Netflix) The fourth season of this smartly entertaining French import continued to coyly upend the vanity of famous actors, all played by their real-life selves.
“Girls5eva” (Peacock) Here’s another punchy sendup of show biz, as a one-hit girl group from 2000 tries to pull off a midlife comeback.
“Dickinson” (Apple TV+) Seasons two and three arrived this year, and both were extraordinary, movingly wrapping up this uniquely modern series about Emily, her loves, and her poetry.
“All Creatures Great and Small” (PBS) It’s corny and sweet and just what the doctor ordered for pandemic-lockdown-related syndrome.
“Love Life” (HBO Max) The second season of this anthology rom-com, starring William Jackson Harper, was a pleasure, with more layers and original twists than the first.
“Impeachment: American Crime Story” (FX) A few potent performances, not least of all by Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp and Clive Owen as Bill Clinton, elevated this historical drama.
“Kevin Can F**k Himself” (AMC) Annie Murphy is a treat in this semi-experimental drama, as a sitcom wife who’s profoundly tired of her husband’s sexist jokes.
“The Beast Must Die” (AMC) Jared Harris and Cush Jumbo are outstanding in this six-episode British revenge thriller.
“Shtisel” (Netflix) The long-awaited third season of this extraordinary drama about an Orthodox family in Jerusalem did not disappoint.