TV is such a long medium that entire seasons and series are bound to have its subpar periods. Sure, I could give you a list of TV series that kept their level up consistently throughout 2021, but that’s not really why I tune in. It’s the glorious little moments that bring me the greatest delight, so, I give you a list of my favorite TV moments of 2021.
Dickinson Season 2 Episode 7 – Spa Day
As much as Dickinson, a reworking of Emily Dickinson’s life from a modern perspective, is about correcting history, it also takes plenty of time to skewer outdated (or so we hope) customs. Think of these blunt asides as the lighthearted version of The Last Duel, and nowhere is that lampooning more joyously prevalent than when the Dickinson women go to an 1800s spa. The place specializes in water cleansing, so there’s plenty of uncomfortable steaming, dunking, dumping, and soaking of their bodies, including a wide-stanced immersion of their nether regions that this group of immaculate physical comedians play up with gusto (this is why Jane Krakowski is here). The relaxation day comes off more like punishment, but they soldier through just like they soldier through being women in the 1800s, if with a bit more branch slapping, cold sheet cocooning, and what can only be described as stretch moaning. It’s all silly and every so dated, if only because it’s just distant enough from our modern wellness routines.
Euphoria Special Episode Part 2: Jules – Connections Made
The doubters of Euphoria often cry style over substance, which the two special episodes, conceived and shot while in pre-vaccine COVID times, completely dispels. Production restrictions forced both episodes to be largely two-handers, stripping the series of much of its immersive storytelling tricks. In its bare bones version, though, it’s still just as tough and tender a viewing experience as ever. In Jules’ episode, it embraces one of its greatest strengths: viewing addiction not just as the struggles and triumphs of its central addict, Rue, but as a wide-reaching, influential experience for everyone who loves her. The same as the addict gets overwhelmed and messes up so do those close to them, its rapaciousness spreading the tragedy far and wide. When Jules, with the help of a therapist, draws comparisons between her feelings for her mother (who suffers from addiction) and for Rue, the girl she loves but could be strangely callous towards, so much of this deeply flawed character is instantly understood.
Yellowjackets Season 1 Episode 5 – Seance Time
Coming in at the tail end of the year and not wrapping up until 2022 doesn’t exclude Yellowjackets from being one of the most satisfying shows of the year. Marketing couldn’t encompass what it was: a stranded girls soccer team fights for survival against supernatural elements while decades later their adult counterparts fight to keep whatever happened out there a secret. You know it gets gross, but the series takes its time descending into chaos, with plenty of detours for sleeping around, shooting the shit, and being fuckups (this applies to the adults and teens). The cherry on top of the series so far is the requisite seance, which starts out with plenty of lighthearted questions to their “ghostly visitor” (it’s one of the girls with a blindfold on. Everyone knows this is just for fun). That is, it’s fun until one of the girls becomes possessed for real and starts speaking French, which leads to the most perfect freaked out teen exchange:
“But she sucks at French.”
“W-what is she saying?”
“I don’t know. I suck at French too!”
It turned out okay, though. The religious girl threw a Bible at her and everything was fine.
It’s a Sin Episode 5 – Jill Lays Blame
I wasn’t sure It’s a Sin lived up to the hype until its waning moments. The series was an effective AIDS drama, delivering a well constructed slip into the horror story that’s been told on repeat for decades. Then came the final episode, which layed out truths that have barely been uttered due to the precarious place gay men have been in ever since a virus taught them their place. Few lessons are more clear than being the epicenter of a pandemic society deemed wasn’t worth stopping, and as an act of self-preservation most mainstream depictions still capitulate to the people who turned their backs. Well, series creator Russell T Davies threw that notion aside and stated the plain, simple truth about who created the AIDS pandemic. In its refusal to let those in power off the hook, it achieved a transcendent, brutal moment of honesty.
Sasquatch – The Brief Appearances of Wayne and Georges
The pair listed as “sasquatch hunters / life partners” are the criminally underused, absolute perfection you expect from a true crime docuseries about a triple murder that’s been pinned on a sasquatch. Much of their screen time is spent bickering over who believes what extreme aspect of Bigfoot lore, and in these flickering moments you see them as the kind of warm, perfectly matched oddballs who just belong together. The series gets pretty dark, and Wayne and Georges are the earnest, uncomplicated guys you need to get through it. May they get the proof they want and live happily ever after.
Mare of Easttown Episode 4 – Oops, Your Ex
For a show that was billed as Kate Winslet Investigates Murder, the true glory of Mare of Easttown lays in its ensemble, which forms a sprawling web of small town support and antagonism. Never is that more potent than within the household of Winslet’s Mare Sheehan, which is held down by three generations of women. The pitch perfect Jean Smart, Winslet, and Angourie Rice endlessly bicker and show up for each other, a portrait of a family that is gloriously touching and funny in its messiness. Messy is exactly the word for the chain of events set off by Rice’s Siobhan bringing her new girlfriend home Little does she know that Smart’s Helen had just whisked her ex downstairs (Helen needed some me time with a hidden container of ice cream). Who cares if it has nothing to do with the murder mystery? The clusterfuck is television at its finest.
Mare of Easttown Episode 5 – The Funeral Announcement
I’m breaking my ‘one per season’ rule. If you know, you know.
Special Season 2 Episode 2: The Ice Caps Are Melting
Much of the comedy in Special stems from a widely acknowledged truth: being around people is awkward if you’re different. Even well-intentioned people with progressive ideals go down overthought rabbit holes that cause the most unusual behaviors to come out, which I’m sure creator and star Ryan O’Connell (who is a gay man with cerebral palsy) has lots of experience with. The whole show has a heightened feel to get that across, so even when the story veers away from Ryan, that truth still hangs over everything. When his mom, Karen, goes to a scream therapy class, it’s there, giving the entire scene an aptly cockeyed (and hilarious) perspective on a group of people lying on the floor screaming about the ice caps.
Feel Good Season 2 Episode 6: Photosynthesis
The many debilitating problems of Mae Martin (the character, but inspired by the co-creator and star of the same name) made Feel Good a rich, jam-packed 12 episodes of television, and despite sitting on Netflix, one of the most underseen. I’m highlighting the last moments of the series, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading, go watch it, and come back. If you have seen it, then you know that the heart and soul of the show is the unhealthy relationship between Mae and George, and the resolution of the series is an understated moment that hints at a much more stable future for them. Ending your series describing photosynthesis? How sweet.
Betty Season 2 Episode 3: I Wasn’t Talking About My G-Spot. I Was Talking About Your G-Spot.
These immaculate lines come from the equally immaculate character Kirt, who best embodies the skater hangout vibes of Betty. We’ve seen this premise a million times, but in transplanting it to a group of young women, the series finds all new chill pleasures. Kirt was simply trying to help some young men make their women happy, but her texted pointers were misread as sexting, leading to this frank explanation of the mistake. Comedy at its finest.
Schmigadoon! Season 1 Episode 2: Cecily Strong’s Drunk Takedown of Basket Auction
My knowledge of musicals comes from the bits and pieces you acquire by being friends of musical theater nerds, or in other words, I don’t know much about musicals. That’s why much of the musical-riffing Schmigadoon! goes over my head, but there’s still plenty for novices like myself to enjoy. My main attraction to the series was longtime SNL MVP Cecily Strong, who takes her fine-tuned drunk comedy out of the sketch series and into the meticulously staged world of a regressive small town that constantly breaks out into song. When the community stages a basket auction, Cecily’s Melissa, emboldened by downing the men’s punch (i.e. the alcoholic one) takes the stage to call out the barely veiled selling of attractive women who can make pies. Her slurred reproach doesn’t land, but it’s classic Cecily at her best, ending with the iconic line “This super hot guy just bought me for $2!” Great win, Melissa.
The White Lotus Season 1 Episode 6: Belinda’s Letdown
The biggest inevitability in The White Lotus wasn’t that someone would die. It was that Tanya would betray Belinda. I mean, a rich, white lady using a Black woman in the service industry for engulfing emotional support, dangling a lasting financial arrangement as bait, and then snatching it away? Even Tanya knew what was happening but allowed herself to hope, an arc that only worked because of the absolutely stunning performance from Natasha Rothwell. Every calculation and emotion she flashed across Belinda’s face made the subplot feel like the richest part of the show, and as she listened to Tanya toss her aside in the season’s final episode, Rothwell delivered an acting masterclass that the show probably didn’t deserve.
Maid Season 1 Episode 1: Any Special Skills?
The editing of Maid is immaculate. Yes, it’s a lot of editing, but it’s also precise, emotive, and tells so much of the story. Less than twelve minutes into the series that knowledge hit me like a brick when our abused and out of options protagonist sees a social worker. She’s just trying to put a roof over her and her daughter’s heads, but the application turns into a foundering interview. After a series of questions sets up that she’s not the kind of person the government will help, the social worker asks if she has any skills. We cut to a series of images that show the young woman as a caring, attentive mother. That’s a hell of a skill. Her answer to the question is no. You may as well hear the system crack.
Dickinson Season 3 Episode 8 – Nightmare Dance
Yes, we got both the second and third seasons of Dickinson this year, the quick turnaround not giving us time to savor the three season arc creator Alena Smith always intended. Still, the tremendous growth of the series is apparent: this final version of Emily Dickinson is a grown-ass woman struggling to balance the conflicting priorities of her family, her lover, and her art. With the season and the series staring down its endpoint, Dickson plunges into a nightmare with one of its trademark breaks from reality, sending Emily into a haunted tomb that taunts viewers with the kind of downer ending traditional history tells us is true. Her family abandons her, her poems burn to ashes, and as she looks at her beloved father, dead at his desk, a suspicious version of her lover appears behind her. Sue is dressed in her finest tux, and she leads Emily through an off-kilter dance where none of their movements are quite right. It’s viscerally upsetting imagery, and it comes from the litany of mistakes Emily has made that could take her towards her traditional, lonely end. I had been hoping with all my might that the series would gift her a better fate. This descent, and this dance, was an ominous sign that it might not, and it sent me squirming and screaming for relief.
The Underground Railroad Chapter 9 – The American Imperative
Of course a series by Barry Jenkins that’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is stunning, and I’m hard pressed to pick a single highlight from each episode let alone the whole season. That’s the name of the game, though, so I’m going with the chilling final words of Arnold Ridgeway. Ridgeway is a racist bastard who enjoys slave catching, and as the end of his life limps towards him, he sum up the morality he and his nation follows. It’s only a slight tweak on the ideas about America that are taught in schools, and it’s moments like this that make this dreamlike series so terrifying. And honest. This is the 2021 series you have to watch.