The 23 Best Television Series Of 2021
Photo Credit: HBO Max / Peacock
Television

The 23 Best Television Series Of 2021

For our second pandemic year, television content delivered like never before with a ton of new and returning series to get us through.

Shadow and Act managing editor Trey Mangum, news editor Monique Jones, staff writer Jamil David and contributing writer Shanique Yates put together the below list of the year's best in TV shows.

Also, read the companion list: The 20 Best TV Performances From Black Actors In 2021

In no particular order...

'The Sex Lives of College Girls' (HBO Max)

Photo: HBO Max

Mindy Kaling struck again with The Sex Lives of College Girls, a tale of four college freshmen on a journey to finding themselves (and each other) through their first taste of freedom. The series is hilarious, yet tugs at the heartstrings as we watch each character grow and develop into young women who aren’t afraid to just be, despite what society, family, or the educational institution has to say about it. A great aspect of the series is the strength of its cast, formed with mostly newcomers in Pauline Chalamet, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Amrit Kaur and Broadway’s Renee Rapp. – SY 

‘Yellowjackets’ (Showtime)

Photo: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

Before the real insanity even starts in Yellowjackets, you get the feeling that the girl’s high school soccer team the show is centered around is primed for drama. Luckily (and probably unluckily for the characters), the series throws them into a life-changing series of events looking at their time as high school students after their plane crashes in the wilderness on the way to nationals and the survivors of the incident two decades later dealing with the aftermath of what took place. The series is thrilling with dual timelines, using all the tools we have come to expect from prestige television, turning them on their head into something wholly unique and instantly addicting. Plus, we have to mention the spot-on dual timeline cast featuring Tawny Cypress, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci and Melanie Lynskey – JD 

‘South Side’ (HBO Max)

Photo: HBO Max

While the world continued to fall apart around us, more people found the perfect show committed to Black joy through South Side, the first of two comedies on this list that jumped from Comedy Central to HBO Max and gained a larger audience. Black joy doesn’t look like one thing and, South Side is proof of that. When we are the target audience of a series, it truly shows because this Chicago-based comedy is filled with culture, laughs, and a lifetime supply of wigs that are only meant for us to understand. – SY 

‘Love Life’ (HBO Max)

Photo: HBO Max

Love Life season 2 saw the romantic comedy anthology series take a new direction, following William Jackson Harper this time around and using his talents to the fullest with some added complexity. The series uses all of the tricks rom coms have been using for decades but subverts them in exciting ways, making something unique and more interesting than the standard love stories we are used to seeing. The second season of Love Life is a departure from its first season, improving on virtually everything, and a lot of it has to do with its star’s reliability as a multi-faceted performer. – JD 

‘Invincible’ (Amazon Prime Video)

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

In a culture currently dominated by the superhero genre, Invincible was a refreshing reprieve from the carefully planned out, manicured movies and TV shows from Marvel and the trial and error approach DC has taken. Invincible delivered a violent and emotional adaptation of the comic of the same name from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, capturing new fans and invigorating longtime readers. The series sports an incredible cast with great performances from the likes of Steven Yeun, J.K. Simmons, Mahershala Ali and Zazie Beetz. With its fluid and stylistic animation, and its exploration of the Superman mythos through the eyes of a teenager thrown into an unforgiving world of superheroes, Invincible was a true standout among its comic book peers. – JD

‘The Ms. Pat Show’ (BET+)

Photo: Nathan Bolster/BET+

2021 was a great year for Black multi-camera sitcoms, which were back on screen and better than almost all of the attempts than we’ve seen in a decade (or more). The long-gestating, Lee Daniels-produced sitcom surrounding comedian Patricia “Ms. Pat” Williams (which was co-created with Williams and Jordan E. Cooper) proved that the irreverent comedies of the aughts.   – TM 

‘High on the Hog’ (Netflix)

Photo: Netflix

Soul food has never looked more delicious and feel more meaningful than in High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America. Netflix’s docuseries shone a light on the history and culture behind Black American cuisine. Hosted by chef/sommelier/journalist Stephen Satterfield, Black American cuisine comes alive as its African roots are explored. In just a handful of episodes, you learn how much American cuisine owes to African-American culture, from popularizing macaroni and cheese and oysters to turning “bad” cuts of meat and offal, given to slaves, into world-famous, covetable dishes. – MJ

‘Girls5Eva’ (Peacock)

Photo: Heidi Gutman/Peacock

It’s a shame a lot of people probably aren’t entirely sure what Peacock is still, because they’re missing out on the iconicness of Girls5Eva, the upstart NBCUniversal streamer’s best scripted program. Chronicling a millennium, one-hit-wonder girl group and their attempt at reviving their career, Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Paula Pell and THEE Renée Elise Goldsberry are a hoot — so what are you waiting five? – TM 

‘Power Book III: Raising Kanan’ (Starz)

Photo: Starz

While the Power franchise is a massive hit with legions of viewers, the parent series and its spinoff, Power Book II: Ghost, haven’t really received similar acclaim from critics. Enter Power Book III: Raising Kanan, which is the strongest entry in the franchise as the series ups the ante when it comes to storytelling. The strength of the cast is undeniably also a factor in this, with Broadway’s Patina Miller and Hailey Kilgore making their biggest moves into television along with Omar Epps, Snowfall’s Malcolm Mays, Ballers’ London Brown and its young titular star, MeKai Curtis. – TM 

‘Chucky’ (USA/Syfy)

Photo: USA Network/SYFY

A Chucky series isn’t necessarily something people wanted, but somehow it turned out to be one of the best horror offerings on the small or big screen in 2021. With a queer puppy love story and a theme of unlikely friendship at the center, it’s hard to know what’s larger — the heart of the series or its body count. — TM 

‘Mare of Easttown’ (HBO)

Photo; Michele K. Short/HBO

Led by Oscar winner Kate Winslet, Mare of Easttown delivered a captivating season of television, which was the perfect vehicle for Winslet and her co-stars, especially Julianne Nicholson. The central murder mystery and disappearances that were meant to keep audiences coming back every week slowly became secondary to the family drama and unresolved trauma. The series was a powerful look at community and family and what it means to confront the things that have weighed you down. With outstanding performances from Winslet and Evan Peters, Mare of Easttown was exceptional, and the direction it ended up going in was a welcome surprise. – JD 

‘The Upshaws’ (Netflix)

Photo: Netflix

The second of our two Black multi-camera sitcoms on the list, The Upshaws stars Mike Epps as Bennie Upshaw, a mechanic in Indiana with a loving family, but a family not without its issues. Bennie’s wife Regina (Kim Fields) still holds resentment over Bennie having a child why they were on a break in their relationship, and Regina’s sister Lucretia (Wanda Sykes) think he’s a good-for-nothing. However, the family still shows audiences what love and acceptance is all about. Talk about reinvigorating the Black family comedy in a great way.  – MJ 

‘Bigger’ (BET+)

Photo: BET Networks

Despite the news that Bigger won’t return for a third season, it’s important to reflect on why shows like this are necessary to the culture. The comedy series showcases why there’s always bigger and better waiting on the other side. Sometimes you just have to navigate several failed relationships and ideas to get there. From its approach to dealing with anxiety to the messy truth that lies within maintaining college friendship groups, it’s a show that every millennial and #BiggerSeries Hive will hate to see go, but will forever cherish that it indeed put a vision to stories that are important for us to see on our television screens. – SY

‘Pose’ (FX)

Photo: FX

Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy’s groundbreaking FX show was the first on American television to feature a cast of Black and Brown trans women of color. Along with that, it was one of the first to showcase the lives of Black and Brown queer people in New York City during the ’80s and ’90s. Starring Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Hailie Sahar, Angel Bismark Curiel, Dyllon Burnside and Billy Porter, the series gave fans a beacon of light and role models in a time when trans women of color are still fighting for representation, rights, and justice. – MJ

‘Only Murders in the Building’ (Hulu)

Photo: Hulu

Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez proved to be the unlikely comedy trio of the year in Hulu’s breakout smash. With great turns as well from Amy Ryan and relative newcomer Aaron Dominguez, this is peak content to come out of society’s true crime craze…and its peak good. – TM

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ (WOW Presents Plus)

Photo: WOW Presents Plus

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK brought the bing-bang-bong in series 2 with winner Lawrence Cheney and standouts Bimini Bom Boulash, Tayce, A’whora, Ellie Diamond, Tia Kofi and others. The season also saw the queens endure the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, giving us a season like never before. Though our sickening U.S. season 13 queen Symone is that girl, everything combined in UK series 2 to make this one of the best Drag Race seasons not only of the year, not only in modern history…but ever! – MJ 

'The Other Two' (HBO Max)

Photo: HBO Max

The Other Two was the underrated hit that everyone needed to watch when it was on Comedy Central, and now, like South Side, has a bigger audience on HBO Max. The second season of the comedy doesn’t miss a beat at all and Heléne Yorke, Drew Tarver, Molly Shannon, Wanda Sykes and company are firing from all cylinders and have us wondering what direction The Other Two Dubeks will head toward in season 3.  – TM 

‘Squid Game’ (Netflix)

Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s Squid Game is the show that took everyone by storm. Part-game show, part-thriller, part-social commentary, the South Korean drama by Hwang Dong-hyuk hit on many of the emotions we have been feeling over the past two years–frustration and anger at government inaction and late-stage capitalism, sadness and grief, and, despite everything, hope when hope seems hard to come by. The season also introduced Americans who might be new to K-dramas to some of its most popular stars, including Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-Joon, Heo Sung-tae, and newcomers like model Jung Hoyeon and Anupam Tripathi. – MJ

'Insecure' (HBO)

Photo: Raymond Liu/HBO

It truly is so hard to say goodbye.  When Insecure first debuted in 2016, we all knew that it had the ability to shift the culture… and five years later — that’s exactly what it did. In the fifth and final season, the characters who have become a part of our lives and the topic of Twitter wars since the very beginning, commit to true growth with the realization that no matter what life throws your way, the show must always go on. – SY

‘Buried by the Bernards’ (Netflix)

Photo: Netflix

Funerals have never been funnier than with Buried by the Bernards, a Netflix reality series starring the Bernards, a family that runs a popular funeral home in Memphis, TN. The family’s cast of characters shows heart and humor, providing levity and warmth while celebrating the lives of their clients. While death and funerals are the toughest parts of life, Buried by the Bernards shows that you can inject some happiness to help manage the pain. – MJ

‘Succession’ (HBO)

Photo: HBO

It’s a testament to how well Succession is written by the number of ways people watch and engage with the show. Whether someone is watching for the interpersonal family drama, its critique of American politics and capitalism, the sharp and hilarious dialogue or the complicated business maneuvers the plot relies on, there’s something there for you. Its third season dives deeper into the world of the ultra-rich Roy family, culminating in one of the best season finales of any prestige show of its ilk. There’s not one bad performance among its large cast, highlighted by Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and Mathew MacFadyen, among many others. The series operates on such a high level from its writing, directing and acting, and its third season has cemented the series as one of the greatest HBO shows ever. – JD

‘Hacks’ (HBO Max)

Photo: HBO Max

Between this, Watchmen and Mare of Easttown, the iconic Jean Smart is on truly one heck of a run right now and it is amazing to witness. Smart thrills as a legendary comedy vet on the Vegas strip in need of a career boost, as is the writer (Hannah Einbinder) who has to work with her in order to save her own career. Carl Clemons-Hopkins rounds out the core trio of this cast who will quickly prove to you upon watching why they’re all Emmy-nominated (and winning, in Smart’s case).  — TM 

‘Harlem’ (Amazon Prime Video)

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Set in the perfect titular location, Harlem (led by Meagan Good, Jerrie Johnson, Grace Byers and Shoniqua Shandai) is a burst of color in a bland narrative that Black women can’t enjoy all that the city of New York has to offer alongside their girlfriends. Four girlfriends navigate relationships, careers, and love through the streets of the home of the Black Renaissance and show that 30-somethings are still trying to figure life out, but just with a bit more experience and cash. – SY 

Honorable Mentions | The Next 10:

 

We Are Lady Parts (Peacock) 

Blindspotting (Starz)

4440 (The CW) 

Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) 

Cruel Summer (Freeform)

Blood & Water (Netflix) 

The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip (Bravo) 

The White Lotus (HBO) 

Drag Race Espana (WOW Presents Plus) 

Run the World (Starz)

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

© 2020 Shadow & Act. All rights reserved.