First, a disclaimer: I still have yet to see some of the bigger television releases of the year. Juggernauts like Succession, Mare of Eastown, WandaVision, Squid Game, and The Crown (and more) will be notably absent from this list, not because they’re not great, but because I simply haven’t watched them yet. Judge the following list accordingly.
Bo Burnham: Inside
In the ever-changing landscape of entertainment, it’s become harder and harder to discern what qualifies as television and film. Straddling that line with aplomb is Inside, Bo Burnham’s newest comedy special for Netflix. What makes Inside unique isn’t its extended runtime (87 minutes) or its subject matter (the pandemic) but in how it came to be. Every single facet of the production – save for a producer credit or two – is attributed to Burnham: directing, writing, songwriting and composing, cinematography, editing, lighting, and more. Every stand-up special is naturally the product of its star but Inside literally wouldn’t exist without Burnham. He touches on virtually every aspect of the pandemic, from his personal mental health to awkwardness with sexting to the state of comedy in 2020. That he peppers the special with catchy, hilarious tunes – do NOT ask me how many times I’ve listened to the soundtrack in its entirety – doesn’t hurt either.
Many shows have tried and failed to recreate the sense of possibility that worked so well for Adventure Time, but Infinity Train perhaps comes closest. The HBO Max series reached its final destination this year with its fourth season, continuing to deliver strange environments mixed with a lurking darkness. For those unfamiliar, each season involves a new protagonist who finds themselves stuck on a never-ending train with a strange number on their arm. Every train car contains a different world, some simplistically surreal, and some based in reality with some kind of puzzle to solve. The bite-sized episodes (usually about 10 minutes each) efficiently tell a compelling story full of laughs and drama. Part of the fun is seeing which strange direction the next episode will go in, and in seeing the inventive obstacles for the heroes to overcome. Just like Adventure Time, Infinity Train proves that emotionally resonant material can come in smaller bits while still providing plenty of silly fun along the way.
It’s become increasingly difficult to make superhero productions that feel fresh in 2021. But the adaptation of Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, and Ryan Ottley’s graphic novel subverts expectations with emotional honesty and brutal action sequences. As tired as superhero origin stories are, Invincible feels refreshing by making its protagonists occasionally unlikeable. A murderer’s row of voice talent, including Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, JK Simmons, Zazie Beetz, Andrew Rannals and so many more, lend an authenticity to the story of a group of people who realize that being a superhero may not be everything they thought it would be. The story balances thrilling set pieces with grounded drama, like high school popularity or disappointing your parents. At its heart, Invincible is a coming-of-age story where its protagonist discovers that he is Superman, and that his father is a monster. The possibilities are endless.
Loki was the only MCU show I watched on Disney+ this year – outside of the first two episodes of Hawkeye, which I likely won’t be returning to. I don’t know what it was specifically about Loki which drew me to it, but I was quickly sucked in by the show’s genre malleability. Sometimes a buddy-cop comedy, sometimes a rom-com, sometimes a sci-fi time travel story, but rarely – and perhaps beneficially – a superhero adventure, the show focused on the redemption of one of the MCU’s best villains. That Tom Hiddleston had the likes of Owen Wilson, Sophia Di Martino, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and more to bounce off of helped make Loki an enjoyable watch, whether consumed all at once or bit by bit. Though it would have been nice to spend more than six episodes with the show, series creator Michael Waldron clearly has grander designs: unlike the MCU’s other offerings this year, Loki will return again, somewhere down the road. Here’s hoping the show retains the same sense of fun in season two.
Master of None: Moments in Love
The future of Master of None has been in doubt since the second season ended way back in 2017, despite a heap of critical and popular acclaim. So the announcement of a third season came as a big surprise in early 2021. But what was perhaps most surprising was that the newest season would exclusively feature Lena Waithe’s Denise and series co-creator and star Aziz Ansari would barely appear but would direct each episode. Moments in Love takes place years after the events of season 2, with Denise navigating marriage and early success as an author. The five episodes feature grounded and devastating performances from Waithe and Naomi Ackie, and Ansari beautifully directs each episode with a fly-on-the-wall style that calls to mind Japanese master director Yasujirō Ozu. I’m confident the camera never moves at all throughout the entire season. The newest batch of episodes may not be as lighthearted or humorous as those that came before it, but thanks to Ansari, Waithe, and Ackie, it’s perhaps the show’s best outing yet.
Though it premiered to little-to-no fanfare on Apple TV+ in 2020, Mythic Quest quickly established itself as a show that knew exactly what it was from the beginning. Though this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that it was co-created by TV veterans Charlie Day, Megan Ganz, and Rob McElhenny. McElhenny and Charlotte Nicdao have formidable chemistry as video game visionaries who butt heads more often than not, leading to some hilarious set pieces. Ashley Burch, Jessie Ennis, Imani Hakim, David Hornsby, Danny Pudi, and F. Murray Abraham round out what may be the best cast on TV, who each expanded and deepened their character arcs throughout the second season. A workplace comedy with an endless range of story possibilities, Mythic Quest blends off-the-wall humor with a surprising amount of heart.
Only Murder in the Building
Breaking news: Steve Martin and Martin Short are really funny together! Ok, so maybe the duo have some familiarity, but they reached new heights both together and separately in Hulu’s true-crime spoof dramedy. The show, co-created by Martin and John Hoffman, spins a yarn of murder and betrayal, while also riffing on the tropes that are rampant amongst true-crime podcasts and TV shows. Martin and Short are delightful together, but Selena Gomez holds her own amicably, often playing the straight man to their eccentricities. The show also features delightful supporting turns from Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Jayne Houdyshell, and Jane Lynch to create a weird but grounded ecosystem ripe for drama. The show itself doesn’t stray from murder-mystery mainstays – red herrings, overlooked clues, and hidden agendas among them – but those elements are forgivable when the cast is so enjoyable together.
Star Wars: Visions
Star Wars is all about control. Or, at least, it has been since Disney took the reins from George Lucas. The mega-studio has gone through more directors in its films than perhaps any other franchise, all in the sake of maintaining the carefully cultivated image for the IP that its fans so desperately crave. Which is why Visions is so refreshing for a Star Wars property: the studio relinquished creative control to nine different Japanese animators to tell whatever stories they want in this galaxy far, far away. None deal with the Skywalkers or the events of the films directly, and they’re all the better for it. Each episode has a distinctive look – “The Duel”, directed by Takanobu Mizuno, is one of the best looking animated productions in any medium in a long time – and each uniquely fits the kind of story they’re telling. Whether you watch one episode or all, Visions is an endlessly re-watchable offering that breathes new life into what was becoming a fairly stale franchise.
Perhaps the internet has touched on this already, but Ted Lasso‘s second season wasn’t perfect. Apple TV+’s critical darling stumbled occasionally – sorry, Coach Beard – but overall successfully continued to explore Ted’s damaged psyche and how it’s affected others. The show brought in Sarah Niles as Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, a sports psychiatrist, and mined plenty of drama from Ted’s anxiety. The show benefited most from Toheeb Jimoh’s expanded screen time as Sam, and his subplot with Rebecca and their romance together was heartbreaking but effective. But Brett Goldstein and Juno Temple may ultimately be the MVPs of the season, as their relationship grew through ups and downs. That I could continue down the line to espouse each cast member’s strengths only speaks to Ted Lasso‘s deep bench. The online discourse around the show and its quality fluctuated as rapidly as a Richmond match, but its writing, acting, and directing all worked in tandem to deliver another solid season of television.
The Underground Railroad
We already knew before 2021 that Barry Jenkins was a masterful filmmaker. But his adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad proved that point beyond a shadow of a doubt. For ten episodes, Jenkins beautifully explores the horrors of slavery through a mostly fantastical lens. Though the pre-Civil War era of American history is well-worn ground in film by now, this is a look at slavery unlike any that’s come before. Thuso Mbedu gives a breakout performance as Cora, an escaped slave trying to evade capture and make it to freedom. Virtually every element of the production works in tandem to create a uniquely wondrous but haunting experience: from the sound design to the costumes to the cinematography to the score and production design. Jenkins’ direction prevents the often grim themes at play from succumbing to any type of misery porn, always allowing the human spirit to shine through the darkness. Jenkins arguably made one of the best films of the last decade in Moonlight, and The Underground Railroad may go down as one of the best television events of this decade.