Top 10 TV Shows of 2021

The Crimson Arts Board presents its TV favorites of the year, from "Arcane" to "Squid Game."

10. ‘Feel Good’ (Season Two)

“Feel Good” is a show with a singular energy — equal parts hilarious and gut-wrenching, just like its writer, lead actor, and real-life inspiration Mae Martin. Season Two takes the original’s explorations of trauma, addiction, and codependency to new heights, producing one of television’s most riveting, authentic stories about healing from childhood sexual abuse and attempting to save a once-codependent relationship. “Feel Good” shines brightest when it explores the grey space between our assumed binaries, providing groundbreaking representation through its nonbinary lead and unraveling, too, our binaries of innocence and guilt, good victims and bad victims, salvageable relationships and unsalvegable ones. —Joy C. Ashford

9. ‘Insecure’ (Season Five)

For the fifth and final season of creator and star Issa Rae’s widely beloved HBO half-hour, the “Insecure” writers’ room could have packed up and taken a victory lap. Instead, the groundbreaking show, originally adapted from Rae’s web series “Awkward Black Girl,” continues to put out some of the funniest and most insightful meditations on race, careers, and relationships to ever grace our televisions. The beating heart of “Insecure” has always been the joys and complexities of the friend/soul-mate-ship between protagonist Issa Dee (Rae) and her ride-or-die Molly Carter (Yvonne Orji), and this season is no exception. With only one episode remaining, the show still has a number of loose ends (read: exes) to tie up after a heavy dose of time jumps and shenanigans. But whether or not “Insecure” sticks the landing, its legacy is secure. —Amelia Roth-Dishy

{shortcode-466dd00207ccc6b3cfe979114b56153c45223db2}8. ‘Arcane’ (Season One)


In what can only be described as one of this year’s best combo moves, the world’s largest esport gave rise to Netflix’s best-rated original series when the streaming service teamed up with developer Riot Games to release “Arcane,” a beautifully animated expansion of the “League of Legends” universe. The excellent first season transports viewers to two fantasy sister cities as the growing divide between them threatens disaster. With Netflix and Riot’s recent announcement of the show’s renewal, time will soon tell what Season Two brings into play. —Clara V. Nguyen

We reviewed the first three-episode act of “Arcane” and loved its unique visual and narrative styles. Read more here.

7. ‘Succession’ (Season Three)

For the past three years, “Succession” has been the show on television that’s just that good. Beyond its sleek corporatism and brutal family parleys, Jesse Armstrong’s masterwork captivates with its bleak, artful examination of a billionaire clan fundamentally incapable of happiness. The show’s first two seasons were defined by infighting and shifting allegiances that built strategically to middle son Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong)’s public denouncement of his father Logan (Brian Cox) in the Season Two finale. Leading up to the show’s third installment, fans were apprehensive about what could top that dramatic climax — and their anxieties weren’t entirely unwarranted. Though the third season of “Succession” relies on a more covert species of anxiety, Armstrong sustains a strong run through moments of disquieting vulnerability and a surprise subversion in the final episode. Despite the marked change of pace, some things don’t change: Logan Roy is king, and he doesn’t plan on abdicating the throne anytime soon. —Isabella B. Cho

{shortcode-0ef7e6a84a07e6883b5cc40b105d2748a095730f}6. ‘The White Lotus’ (Season One)

Shot on-location in a strict Covid-19 bubble, “The White Lotus” rode into contention for the buzziest show of the summer on its HBO-dramedy pedigree and an addictively good set of performances from a stellar ensemble cast. Created, written, and directed by Mike White, the six-episode season tracks an ultimately fatal week in the intertwined lives of guests and staff at the fictional White Lotus Resort in Hawaii. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel; the fireworks come from sharp writing, finely drawn characters, and the foreboding juxtaposition of a lush setting with the inescapable thrum of human ugliness. As the pandemic heightened a collective pillorying of the few who could afford luxury vacations in sequestered locales while the world burned, the show skewered its wealthy travelers with subtlety and verve, tapping into questions about class, white ignorance, and physical and emotional labor that could not have been more timely. —Amelia Roth-Dishy

We examined the all-too-familiar delusions of the white, wealthy Mossbacher family in a thinkpiece on “The White Lotus.” Read it here.

5. ‘The Underground Railroad’ (Season One)

Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, Amazon Prime’s “The Underground Railroad” follows the journey of two enslaved people, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre), as they plot their escapes. Another masterpiece from the vision of “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, “The Underground Railroad” uses chilling sound elements and poignant filmography to capture both the horrors of enslavement and the sticking power of unspeakable trauma. With the assistance of an on-set therapist to provide a safe space for the primarily Black cast, “The Underground Railroad” successfully portrays the brutalism of this abuse without becoming simply another source of generational Black trauma. —Anya L. Henry

4. ‘Bo Burnham: Inside’

Filmed without a crew and entirely within director, writer, cinematographer, editor, and actor Bo Burnham’s home, “Inside” is a rare example of media produced during the pandemic that’s explicitly about the pandemic itself. Released in May on Netflix, “Inside” is Burnham’s first special since his 2016 “Make Happy” and a testament to the comedian’s resilience and creativity. Through an innovative blend of stand-up, sketch comedy, and original music, Burnham explores the isolation now familiar to us all and its pervasive effects, touching upon such topics as the challenges of digital communication, performative activism on social media, and mental health in the age of Covid-19. Unparalleled in both its message and delivery, “Inside” offers a uniquely comedic yet genuine perspective on life in the past two years with a timeliness we’re unlikely to see again. —Charles W. McCormick

{shortcode-f3b19fcb8cf5b8177dae3c34eb504f96e5f36220}3. ‘Sex Education’ (Season Three)

Netflix’s “Sex Education” is the only show that can get away with a combination of deeply emotional content and absurd comedy in the form of students dressed up as reproductive organs or a naked man using a goat to cover his genitalia. The show’s third season brilliantly dismantles the rhetoric of shame that surrounds sexuality and highlights the beauty that lies in effortless diversity. Every cast member delivers a touching and authentic performance that shatters stereotypes, yielding some of the most realistic portrayals of the high school experience to date. In this season, the show’s beloved characters and a few new faces confront an unbelievably strict administration at Moordale. Audiences are in for a rollercoaster of emotions that culminates with a reminder of the power of self-expression and self-love. With just eight one-hour episodes, Season Three of “Sex Education” is perfectly bingeable, worth watching and rewatching many times over. —Nina M. Foster

We reviewed Season Three of “Sex Education” and deemed it a beautiful exploration of character. Read more here.

{shortcode-d947dd322ff9603ff5c1156bcd120fbff9b0c718}2. ‘WandaVision’

The first television series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe produced by Marvel Studios, “WandaVision” marks a turning point in the MCU’s Phase Four; the series was also the studio’s first overall release since 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic. Created by Jac Schaeffer for Disney+, “WandaVision” sees Avengers Wanda Maximoff and Vision living a blissfully quiet life in suburbia after the events of “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) — but we soon learn that everything is not as it seems in idyllic Westview, New Jersey. Equal parts a love letter to television and a pivotal chapter in the MCU’s grand, overarching narrative, “WandaVision” blends comedy, drama, and action into a clever and deeply poignant narrative that unfolds over nine episodes. “WandaVision” emulates the tropes and aesthetics of sitcoms past to a stunningly creative end — and explores themes like grief and nostalgia with care and affecting insight. The product is a truly unique miniseries that expands the physical and narrative bounds of the MCU and offers its richest character study to date. Indeed, Marvel Studios’ first foray into television remains among its very best. —Jamila R. O’Hara

We reviewed the premiere and finale of 'WandaVision.' Read more here and here.

{shortcode-07232475fe59045c8145ae415718c4cc3fe596f9}1. ‘Squid Game’

Like most sensational shows, South Korean director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Squid Game” brandishes the classic triumvirate of wealth, death, and sex. Marked by an aesthetic of excess, the show is strongest when it manages to walk the line between solemnity and nearly comedic extremism. Are certain allegorical moments heavy-handed? Absolutely. Were the porcine patrons a necessary add? Probably not. Despite its occasional fumbles, Hwang’s winning vision results in an elaborate and macabre joke — his punchline is that the show’s perverse world is an uncanny analog of our own. “Squid Game” extends a politics of despair that looks a good deal like Covid-19’s morbid tango with global capitalism. With an international impact amplified by memefication and social media, the hit series became that rare television show that manages to transcend the realm of entertainment to become a global event. “Squid Game”’s commitment to exploring how ordinary people rationalize acts of violence is both timely and timeless. —Isabella B. Cho

We reviewed “Squid Game” and commended its use of the grotesque to question the economic and political status quo. Read more here.