If 2020 was the year most television production temporarily stopped and entertainment-starved consumers watched whatever they could find, 2021 marked a vast improvement in programming options. Some enduring pandemic-related delays forced popular series like The Mandalorian, Better Call Saul, Better Things and Ramy, among others, to hit the pause button on releasing new episodes, but many more shows debuted or returned in the last 12 months. Here’s a look at some of television’s finest offerings.

Humor with a Bite
Season one of Ted Lasso hit Apple TV at arguably the most-needed moment—during the height of 2020’s Covid-19 lockdown, when confusion and fear about the emerging global virus felt predominant. The story of an eternally optimistic US football coach chosen to lead an English soccer team despite knowing nothing about the game served as a panacea for our collective distress, and season two seamlessly picked up the thread of that feel-good premise while simultaneously introducing darker elements. Case in point: Ted Lasso (played by Jason Sudeikis) was finally forced to confront his own repressed childhood trauma. Critics gave extra props to actor Toheeb Jimoh for his sweetly heartbreaking turn as footballer Sam Obisanya.

Pen15 on Hulu struck an equally hilarious yet poignant tone, despite a premise that many feared would grow tiresome after the first season. Co-creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine play themselves as awkward 13-year-old best friends struggling to navigate middle school, accompanied by a cast of real teenagers in the supporting roles. Season three—also recently revealed to be the last—tackled issues including make-out sessions, friend spats, hopeless crushes and the mortifying ride called puberty.

Satirical Dramas
The White Lotus was initially written by acclaimed TV scribe Mike White as a six-part limited series, but this cringe-worthy social satire about a group of rich white tourists on vacation at a luxe Hawaiian resort was renewed for a second HBO season following its enormously popular debut. Actors Murray Bartlett and Jennifer Coolidge shine extra bright (among a stellar cast) in their roles as a resort manager who’s fallen off the wagon and a disaffected drunken guest reeling from personal loss, respectively.

Succession (also on HBO) likewise deals with uber-wealthy characters, this time personified by members of the Roy family, owners of a global entertainment conglomerate called Waystar Royco. The third season sees all four siblings continuing to vie for power while media mogul Dad (Brian Cox) struggles to defend his position as family patriarch. Pandemic problems sidelined the show for two years following the wrap of season two in 2019, so this year’s premiere was eagerly anticipated by legions of loyal fans. While some complained the output didn’t live up to all the hype, many more consider Succession to be “a brilliant tragedy-satire of the corporate elite.”

New Players
After entertaining us for decades, actor and writer Steve Martin has yet another comedic masterpiece to offer. Enter Only Murders in the Building, a Hulu series in which he stars with best pal Martin Short and former Disney Channel regular Selena Gomez as a trio of true-crime podcast lovers who get embroiled in their own crime adventure when they team up to investigate the death of a fellow tenant in their Upper West Side building. Riotous supporting performances come courtesy of Tina Fey, Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, while a 76-year-old Steve Martin delivers a standout bit of physical comedy in the season finale.

From guffaws to grimaces, Squid Game proved to be Netflix’s last-minute game-changer. The South Korean drama premiered in September—then instantly skyrocketed to the platform’s Top 10 list before breaking records (and beating Bridgerton) as the streamer’s most-watched show ever. Actor Lee Jung-jae stars as one of 456 players who compete in a series of bloody win-or-die contests based on beloved childhood games (like Red Light, Green Light) for the chance to win a fortune and emerge from crippling debt. The fact that this horrific premise drew inspiration from real economic inequities that exist in South Korea only serves to make the show more binge-worthy. And that’s a wrap on 2021 TV! Looking forward to whatever innovative offerings the new year may bring.

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