As the 2021 TV year draws to a close, it’s remarkable to count how many really fine things came out this year (especially considering the production challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic). From a mind-blowing documentary about the Beatles to some of the freshest new comedies (including one about Indigenous kids created by a majority-Indigenous writer’s room) to stylish thrillers (Lupin fans, unite!) to must-see destination dramas (Sunday nights are back with the likes of Mare of Easttown and Succession), it’s been a big year for the small screen. Our critics name the 20 best of the best for grownups, listed here in alphabetical order. See if your list matches ours, and discover gems you may have missed the first time around.
The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, 60, turns 150 hours of 50-year-old footage of the Beatles in the studio creating 14 songs (and doing their last public performance) into a spanking-new docuseries with scenes you’ve never seen before.
Watch it: The Beatles: Get Back, on Disney+
The Chair (Netflix)
Don’t miss Sandra Oh’s comedy about the new chair of the English department at a floundering college. Jay Duplass is great as her fellow prof and maybe-lover-to-be, spiraling after his wife’s death, and Holland Taylor, 78, and Bob Balaban, 76, as irascible elder colleagues. It’s touching and funny, and a wicked satire of undergrad wokeness gone mad as a hatter to boot.
Watch it: The Chair, on Netflix
In a riveting performance, Michael Keaton’s, 71, role as a doctor caught up in the opioid epidemic confirms his reputation as the master of ripped-from-the-headlines dramas.
Watch it: Dopesick, on Hulu
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Grace and Frankie (Netflix)
Lily Tomlin, 82, and Jane Fonda, 83, have even more fun than they did in 9 to 5 as two lifelong rivals and besties who join forces after their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen, 81) and Sol (Sam Waterston, 81) leave them for each other.
Watch it: Grace and Frankie, on Netflix
Hacks (HBO Max)
In the intergenerational show of the year, Jean Smart, 70 (Designing Women), stars as a Las Vegas comedy legend forced to mentor an up-and-coming comic (Hannah Einbinder). Smart, who got nominations for Watchmen, Fargo and 24, won her first lead actress Emmy for this extremely juicy role. High time!
Watch it: Hacks, on HBO Max
Ewan McGregor outdoes himself as the designer who rose from humble circumstances, made Jackie Kennedy and Liza Minnelli look legendarily sensational, founded a fashion empire, and partied way too much at Studio 54.
Watch it: Halston, on Netflix
This suspenseful, mirthful, utterly wonderful thriller-comedy about France's most wanted gentleman thief (Omar Sy), out to avenge the downfall of his late father at the hands of rich guys who aren't half as clever, was Netflix's utterly unexpected No. 1 2021 hit. Deservedly.
Watch it: Lupin, on Netflix
In a new Netflix original series adapting Stephanie Land’s best-selling memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, Margaret Qualley plays a single mom, and Andie MacDowell, 63 (her actual mom), plays her lively, apparently mentally ill mother who refuses treatment and acts out in a dramatic way that is God’s gift to an actress. A grueling but important study of domestic abuse, poverty and overwhelming dysfunction.
Watch it: Maid, on Netflix
Mare of Easttown (HBO)
The year’s best murder mystery is also an absorbing portrait of a small town full of unkeepable secrets, with indelible performances by Kate Winslet, Jean Smart and Julianne Nicholson.
Watch it: Mare of Easttown, on HBO
Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
In a comedy that's also a satisfying whodunit, three strangers obsessed with true crime stories (Steve Martin, 76, Martin Short, 71, and Selena Gomez) investigate a gory killing in their fancy building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. “Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan live in our building — she becomes my girlfriend,” Martin tells AARP. “Tina Fey is a very famous podcaster, and Sting plays himself, a celebrity in the building."
Watch it: Only Murders in the Building, on Hulu
In its tragic (yet aesthetically triumphant) final season, the show with history's biggest LGBTQ cast jumps forward to New York in 1994, when AIDS became the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44. Our ballroom MC hero Pray Tell (Billy Porter, 52) contends with health troubles and upstart rivals.
Watch it: Pose, on FX
Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)
Tired of the same old coming-of-age teen comedies? Try America’s first-ever series made by Indigenous Americans, about kids on the rez in Oklahoma looking for a way out. It’s funny, touching, authentic — and it's got great grownup stars, too: Gary Farmer, 68 (Smoke Signals), and Zahn McClarnon, 55 (Longmire).
Watch it: Reservation Dogs, on FX on Hulu
In the superb show about power struggles in a super-rich, entertainingly evil family, downtrodden son Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) has the upper hand over his domineering dad, Logan (Brian Cox, 75) — or will dad “go full [expletive] beast” on his upstart offspring? New cast members Alexander Skarsgard and Adrien Brody liven up the wicked mix.
Watch it: Succession, on HBO
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
A heartwarming, dark-horse hit comedy that's the antidote to our bitter times. Jason Sudeikis plays a relentlessly upbeat American football coach who knows nada about soccer but gets hired to coach a soccer team in England.
Watch it: Ted Lasso, on Apple TV+
The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime)
You knew this 10-episode adaptation of MacArthur genius Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning novel about escaping slaves by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) would be worth seeing. But it turns out to be an epic, Handmaid’s Tale-topping dystopian masterpiece that dwarfs every other new film or TV show.
We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)
In the unlikeliest breakout hit of the year, an all-female, all-Muslim British punk band conquers London with tunes like “Voldemort Under My Headscarf” and covers of “9 to 5” and “We Are the Champions” (they are!).
Watch it: We Are Lady Parts, on Peacock
The White Lotus (HBO)
Mike White (School of Rock, Enlightened) crafts an amusingly scathing satire about a resort on Maui where dark shadows lurk under sunny skies. Jennifer Coolidge, 60, rules as a vulnerable, ultimately horrible guest.
Watch it: The White Lotus, on HBO
The Wonder Years (ABC)
The 1980s hit about coming of age in the ’60s is back, this time chronicling the life of a Black kid (Elisha “EJ” Williams) in Montgomery, Alabama, and his family. “One thing about being 12 that hasn’t changed over the decades is that it’s around 12 that you figure out what your place is in the world,” says Don Cheadle, 57, who narrates the show.
Watch it: The Wonder Years, on ABC
Yellowstone (Paramount Network)
One of TV’s biggest hits sounds a lot like Succession, only it’s got eight times as many viewers. Kevin Costner, 66, plays John Dutton, a fabulously wealthy Montana rancher whose kids fight for his approval, and he schemes to thwart developers, Indigenous tribes and other rivals for power. Think of it as Succession with murders, or The Godfather with cowboy hats.
Watch it: Yellowstone, on Paramount Network
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.