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
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