Best TV shows 2021: Midnight Mass, Hacks, The White Lotus and more – CNET

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Midnight Mass (2021)

Netflix

As we head toward the end of the year, it’s time to make holiday plans (as much as that’s possible in the current situation), prepare early for Christmas presents and, most importantly, sort out what TV shows you’re going to catch up on now that you have the time.

From a contemplative slow-burn horror, to a unique comedy, to Jean Smart in Hacks, 2021 didn’t disappoint. Scroll down for the best TV shows of the year so far (according to CNET). We’ll keep adding to this list, especially if there are any glaring omissions.

Read more: Best movies of 2021 so far

The best TV shows of 2021 (so far)

Midnight Mass

Netflix

I’m a huge fan of Mike Flanagan, so I was buzzing for his latest series Midnight Mass. After the first two episodes, I was calling it one of his best. Then, as it went to places I really didn’t expect it to go, it took me a minute to appreciate how sublime it really is (I wasn’t a massive fan of its chaotic ending, but the overall package is something else). If you’re into slow-burns, Midnight Mass is seven episodes of steadily building foreboding and dread. The scary moments will catch you off guard, and the existential monologues will fascinate (just don’t make the mistake of learning to anticipate when a character’s about to set off on one — the predictability removes you from the otherwise mesmerizing viewing experience).

— Jennifer Bisset

Reservation Dogs

FX

Reservation Dogs comes from the mind of Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), so you know it’s good. The comedy follows Elora, Bear, Cheese and Willie, a small gang of teenagers living in rural Oklahoma. With a strong focus on character development, the comedy might surprise you with touching moments, amid the constant stream of dry wit. Slamming down some mostly accurate Indigenous representation, especially when it comes to dialogue filled with local slang, Reservation Dogs is essential viewing. Don’t miss it.

— Jennifer Bisset

Mare of Easttown

HBO

It wouldn’t be a best TV shows list without Mare of Easttown. Kate Winslet on the small screen is a privilege to watch and here’s hoping — praying — for a season 2 of the lauded HBO show. Winslet’s totally raw performance as a police detective solving a small-town murder has flung her into hot contention for a best actress Emmy. Fingers crossed she takes it home. (She won her first and only Emmy in 2011 for Mildred Pierce.)

— Jennifer Bisset

50M2

Netflix

Part of the reason I enjoyed Netflix’s Lupin is that the protagonist is funny, charming, a bit self-deprecating and smart enough to take care of himself. We also get to meet a cast of well-thought characters, fully-realized personalities — good and bad — who help make the story so engaging and compelling that you don’t mind having to get the story by reading the subtitles (I don’t speak French).  

Those are the same reasons I enjoyed 50M2 on Netflix. I don’t speak Turkish either, but I had absolutely no problem laughing — and gasping — as the story unfolds through Season 1. Set in modern-day Istanbul, the story centers around Shadow, the No. 1 henchman for a shady businessman who’s his adopted father (Shadow doesn’t remember his past.) When things take an unexpected turn with the boss, Shadow ends up hiding out in a small tailor shop — size: 50-meters square — after the local community mistakes him for the son of the deceased tailor. Shadow is straightforward and likable, with a moral code that shows underneath it all he’s a decent guy.  By Episode 8, he — and we — realize the locals have become his family. I sure hope there’s a Season 2 because the first one ends with quite the cliffhanger.

— Connie Guglielmo

We Are Lady Parts

Peacock

It surprised me how much I liked We Are Lady Parts. That’s probably thanks to the title, so don’t let it put you off. The six-episode series follows an all-female Muslim punk band in the UK. These characters are stunningly different to general representations of Muslim women. They play songs with lyrics like, “Voldemort’s alive and he’s under my headscarf.” They’re tattooed. They smoke weed. Yet the whole thing has the same tone of Schitt’s Creek. You’ll fall in love with the characters, the music and lead Anjana Vasan, whose awkwardness and line delivery are hilarious. A wonderful, feel-good gem.

— Jennifer Bisset

Untold

Netflix

Can we do documentaries?

Sweet, OK. Untold is the latest documentary series from Chapman Way and Maclain Way, the creators of Wild Wild Country. 

It’s about sports, with each close-to-feature-length episode focusing on a different topic. First is the Malice at the Palace incident, where Ron Artest wades into a crowd during a basketball match and started wailing on fans. The second focuses on Christy Martin, the female boxer who exploded into mainstream consciousness in the late ’90s.

Each episode (so far) has been expertly crafted, with great access and interviews. Can’t wait for the remaining three episodes.

— Mark Serrels

Kevin Can F**k Himself

Jojo Whilden/AMC

Kevin Can F**k Himself hooked me with its premise (and its title, honestly): A hot wife/bumbling husband sitcom turned on its head, with the wife, Allison (played by Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy), taking center stage. Through Allison’s point of view, the sitcom is only half the story — when her husband Kevin isn’t around, she’s the star of a gritty, single-cam drama, complete with a drugs-and-murder subplot. The show is an interesting commentary on comedy and storytelling, but the plot is also just plain good.

— Karisa Langlo

Hacks

HBO Max

I’m calling it. Jean Smart is the actress of the year. After a grizzled turn in Mare of Easttown, Smart plays aging-but-still-fabulous stand-up comedian Deborah Vance in all her Vegas glory. As Deborah’s star looks set to fade, she’s paired up with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a young comedy writer who’s just been “canceled” for a tweet. Two worlds collide and it’s comedy gold. 

From Deborah’s acerbic wit to her “Liza’s at the Palace” pantsuit wardrobe, Smart effortlessly shows why this woman has had to fight for recognition all her life. And as Deborah bristles against Ava’s Gen Z wokeness (over everything from old-school stand-up to modern feminism), we realize these women are more than just generational stereotypes. The writing is also perfection. Nothing sums up Deborah more perfectly than the line, “Write me 15 jokes by tomorrow morning. Nothing about pantyhose or the Challenger explosion — I’ve done ’em all!”

Send this show to anyone who tells you women aren’t funny. Better yet, tell them that debate ended decades ago, then put your feet up and enjoy this year’s most perfect piece of television.

— Claire Reilly

The North Water

Nick Wall

Dear all the Hollywood producers and directors who read CNET everyday,

If you make a TV show about a ship (whaling or otherwise) destined for the Arctic and set it in the 19th century and put a bunch of great actors in it (bonus points for Jared Harris or Colin Farrell), I will watch that show and I will absolutely enjoy that show. If you also include a Luke-in-a-Tauntaun scene, you’ll make me a fan for life. 

I look forward to hearing from you.

— Jackson Ryan

Girls5eva

Heidi Gutman/Peacock

If you’re a fan of 30 Rock or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, this is the show for you. From the glorious brain of Meredith Scardino and produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, Girls 5eva follows four women as they try to reignite the glory of their several-hit wonder girl-group days. The cast is stacked: We have Paula Pell, Busy Phillips, Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry and Sara Bareilles star as the titular Girls — and they really understood the assignment. I inhaled this season in just a few days and I have no regrets. It’s equal parts really smart and really silly, and the songs will be stuck in your head for days afterwards. 

— Nicole Archer 

It’s a Sin

HBO Max

Quite simply one of the most powerful pieces of storytelling I’ve ever seen, made all the more forceful by the fact it’s based on true events. The uplifting and devastating history of the 1980s gay community is the story Russell T. Davies (of Doctor Who fame) was born to tell, finding the humanity and inhumanity of the AIDS crisis and society’s reaction to it, with new crushing twists in every episode. Masterfully written and beautifully acted, It’s a Sin is essential viewing.

— Richard Trenholm

Loki

Marvel

How does anyone find the time for television? Keeping up with all the new things is a full-time job. It’s literally my full-time job and I can’t keep up with the streaming services and the original content and the season 2s and the new thing that Netflix just dropped. Lupin? The White Lotus? Halston? Starstruck? Mare of Easttown? Sure, I watched the first episodes of all of those and can say with absolute authority they are all probably fine. Wait, you need more? Look, I spend my life watching Peppa Pig, but apparently that “doesn’t count for the parameters of the article.” Fine. Loki. Loki was good. Happy now? 

— Richard Trenholm

The Nevers

HBO

I’m trying to think of another show that this remarkable endeavor reminds me of. I can’t think of anything. The Nevers unravels the mystery of Victorian Londoners — mostly women — who manifest supernatural powers after a fantastical ship sails over them in the sky. The “Touched” don’t know why they suddenly have powers, and they don’t understand why they are now so feared and hated. I love how the mystery slowly unfolds in each episode until it explodes in the final episode (of the first half of season one). When I started that last episode, I literally thought I was watching the wrong show for a few minutes. It was awesome. I loved the kickass, funny, complicated characters and the fact that I just couldn’t figure out who the real villains are. I keep looking for another show like this. So far, nada.

— Natalie Weinstein

Dr. Death

Peacock

True-crime fans rejoice at this wonderful telling of the horrifying Dr. Christopher Duntsch, who destroyed so many families with his sheer arrogance. Joshua Jackson, who plays Duntsch, fully encapsulates the surgeon of our nightmares. The cast also includes other 90s icons Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater and Kelsey Grammer. Dr. Death grabs you and doesn’t let go until the verdict is delivered. 

— Danielle Ramirez

Starstruck

HBO Max

Starstruck is a classic screwball comedy, starring the lovably goofy Rose Matafeo. She plays Jessie, a twentysomething Londoner who parties it up on New Year’s Eve, then later discovers she had a one-night stand with Tom Kapoor, a celebrity played by Nikesh Patel. Follow Jessie as she juggles odd jobs, from cinema worker to nanny, and her blossoming relationship with a film star that involves no hijinks whatsoever. Watch out for scene-stealer Minnie Driver as Tom’s agent in this witty, neatly crafted comedy package.

— Jennifer Bisset

The Underground Railroad

Amazon Prime Video

Sublime filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) takes on adapting Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad into a powerful 10-episode series. Set in the southern US during the 1800s, the fictional story follows African Americans attempting to escape from slavery via a network of hidden tracks and tunnels. Tapping magical realism and a superb cast, including Thuso Mbedu and William Jackson Harper, The Underground Railroad is an emotional and chilling triumph.

— Jennifer Bisset

Made For Love

HBO Max

Black Mirror, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Satirical comedy Made for Love hinges on Cristin Milioti’s comedic talents. Hazel Green escapes a 10-year marriage — until she realizes her husband, a tech billionaire, has fitted a chip into her brain. He can see her every move and track her down to negotiate their marriage. Hazel searches for freedom with the help of her dad, played by Ray Romano, who’s in an unorthodox relationship of his own. A few twists, a helpful dolphin and socially awkward people also tag along for this disturbing ride.

— Jennifer Bisset

The White Lotus

HBO Max

What was initially a limited series was so good HBO renewed it for a second season. The satire about guests at a fancy resort gradually unveils the darker edges of its picture-perfect postcard. The White Lotus features an incredible ensemble cast, including Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandra Daddario, Steve Zahn, Molly Shannon and more hilarious people, who make this series soar. If that wasn’t enough, a murder mystery with the big reveal waiting till the very end will keep you thoroughly entertained.

— Jennifer Bisset

WandaVision

Marvel

Six hours, released over nine weekly episodes, find Marvel’s Wanda and Vision hopping through eras of sitcom TV, starting in the black-and-white ’50s. Why are Earth’s mightiest heroes now a house wife and a suit working a nondescript day job? It might have something to do with — spoiler — Vision’s death in Avengers: Endgame and a grieving Wanda exploring the full extent of her reality-altering powers. Weird, funny and laden with Easter eggs, WandaVision is an experimental win for Marvel TV.

— Jennifer Bisset

Sweet Tooth

Netflix

This fantasy based on Jeff Lemire’s comic book is the definition of weird and wonderful. Sweet Tooth follows Gus (a stellar Christian Convery), a half-deer half-human child, who lives a sheltered life in the forest with his dad Pubba (Will Forte). Events relating to The Great Crumble, a viral pandemic, sweep Gus into an adventure branching down mysterious, action-filled and highly entertaining paths. Echoes with real-world struggles can be heard in the treetops of this immersive, riveting fantasy world. Genre fans settle in for this fantastic ride.

— Jennifer Bisset

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