The best show on TV in 2021 is about the worst people on television — a bunch of selfish, self-centered monsters who have way too much money and way too little compassion. But it’s wildly entertaining.
1. “Succession” (HBO)
I still haven’t figured out if this is a comedy or a drama — it’s dark and dangerous and then suddenly hilarious. But this high-class soap opera about family intrigue and the battle for control of a media empire is always engaging and frequently surprising. The characters are fascinating. And perhaps the most astonishing thing about “Succession” is that it’s so watchable even though there is not a single character worth rooting for.
Available on-demand from HBO and streaming on HBO Max.
2. “The Big Leap” (Fox)
I’m well aware that “Leap” isn’t going to appear on a lot of top-10 lists. It flailed around more than a bit during its 11-episode run. But this show about a reality show about a production of “Swan Lake” featuring regular folks made me laugh, made me cry, made me fall in love with the characters, made me root for romance — and made me look forward anxiously to watching it every week. What more could you possibly ask for in a TV series?
Streaming on Fox.com, Hulu and Fubo, and you can buy it on Google Play, iTunes, Amazon and Vudu.
3. “It’s a Sin” (HBO Max)
This AIDS drama is about so much more than just the disease. The five episodes take us inside the the lives of five young, gay men who move to London in the early 1980s — pre-AIDS — and follow them over the next decade as the plague devastates them and their community. In a way, it’s more tragic now than it was then to think of the all the smart, funny, talented young men whose lives were cut short. And adding to the tragedy is the discrimination and scorn that was heaped upon them. It’s not non-stop tragedy — there’s a lot of humor — but tears will be shed.
Streaming on HBO Max.
4. “Hacks” (HBO)
Even if I didn’t love Jean Smart — and I really love her — I’d tell you how good this series is. She stars as standup comedy legend Deborah Vance, whose act is beginning to wear thin, so she hires 25-year-old Ava (newcomer Hannah Einbinder) to help her update the jokes. Deborah is caustic and sometimes downright mean — as is “Hacks” — but both the character and the series have an abundance of heart. Plus, it’s funny.
Available on-demand from HBO and streaming on HBO Max.
5. “Schmigadoon” (Apple TV+)
If you love Broadway musicals — and who doesn’t love a good Broadway musical? — this is for you. It’s both a tribute to and a parody of the genre, loosely based on “Brigadoon” and replete with odes to other productions. The cast is fabulous, including Keegan-Michael Key, Cecily Strong, Kristin Chenoweth, Jaime Camil, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski, Martin Short and Aaron Tveit. And it’s just plain fun to watch.
Streaming on Apple TV+.
6. “Ghosts” (CBS)
I was not a fan of this absurd show when it started, because the first couple of episodes were simply remakes of the Britcom on which this is based. But this comedy about a couple sharing an enormous old mansion with a group of ghosts has grown better and better. And grown on me. It’s not just funny, it’s heartfelt and surprisingly sweet.
Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBS/Ch. 2. Streaming on Paramount+
7. “Only Murders in the Building” (Hulu)
The unlikely teaming of Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as true-crime podcast fans who team up to solve a murder in their posh New York apartment building just sort of low-key reached out and grabbed viewers. The mystery was engaging, but the three stars — as well as supporting players like Tina Fey and Nathan Lane — kept me coming back for all 10 episodes.
Streaming on Hulu.
8. “All Creatures Great and Small” (PBS)
This reboot of the series based on the books by James Herriot, which he based on his own life, had to be the most charming thing on TV this year. The tale of a young veterinarian who took a job in 1930s Yorkshire, England, wasn’t explosive or over-the-top, but it made simple life seem important as it built drama, romance and comedy. Plus, there were animals and it was gorgeous to look at.
Season 1 is streaming on PBS Passport, which requires that you become a member with a minimum donation of $5 a month. It’s also available on iTunes. Season 2 will begin airing Sunday, Jan. 9, on PBS/Ch. 7.
9. “Yellowstone” (Paramount Network)
Prime-time soaps haven’t ruled television since the 1980s. Westerns haven’t been a big thing on TV since the 1950s and 1960s. But “Yellowstone,” a prime-time soap/Western, has become about as big a hit as there is anywhere on TV — because it’s good. Too bad Utah let it get away, allowing the production to shift from mostly in Utah to entirely in Montana.
New episodes air Sundays at 6 p.m. on Paramount Network. Season 4 episodes are streaming on fuboTV, Philo and Sling. Seasons 1-3 are streaming on Peacock.
10. “Murder Among the Mormons” (Netflix)
This three-part documentary about forger-turned-murderer Mark Hoffman, his lies, the terror he created in Salt Lake City and how it was all tied to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is fascinating for those of us who remember when it happened. And even more fascinating for those who were unaware of Hoffman and his crimes.
Streaming on Netflix.
“Abbott Elementary” (ABC), “The Beatles: Get Back” (Disney+), “Cowboy Bebop” (Netflix), “Dopesick” (Hulu), “The Expanse” (Amazon Prime), “For All Mankind” (Apple TV+), “Foundation” (Apple TV+), “Genera+ion” (HBO Max), “The Good Fight” (Paramount+), “The Great” (Hulu), “Loki” (Disney+), “Maid” (Netflix), “Mare of Easttown” (HBO),”The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” (Disney+), “The Morning Show” (Apple TV+), “Muhammad Ali” (PBS), “Never Have I Ever” (Netflix), The Nevers” (HBO), “New Amsterdam” (NBC), “Pose” (FX), “Reservation Dogs” (FX on Hulu), “Resident Alien” (Syfy), “Rutherford Falls” (Peacock), “Squid Team” (Netflix), “Starstruck” (Netflix), “Superstore” (NBC), “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+), “This is Us” (NBC), “The Underground Railroad” (Amazon Prime), “What We Do in the Shadows” (FX), “Yellowjackets” (Hulu), Young Sheldon” (CBS).
• This list is, by necessity, drawn from the shows I actually watched in 2021. No one has time to watch everything — there were almost 500 scripted series, plus sports, plus news, plus documentaries, plus reality shows …
• Limiting a list to 10 is nearly impossible. I considered swapping in almost all of the shows listed as honorable mentions.
• No, I don’t watch just the shows listed above. There are a whole lot of very entertaining shows that aren’t listed.
• I probably forgot something that deserved at least an honorable mention. No slight was intended.