1. THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Disney+)
So simple, yet so good and satisfying on so many levels, Peter Jackson’s labor of love is less a documentary and more like a Sleep No More-style interactive performance art sandbox where every viewer is free to wander and absorb what they will from the fly-on-the-wall footage of smoking, singing, sniping, knob-twiddling, guitar noodling, newspaper browsing, and more smoking. Look once, it’s a giddy rush, look twice it’s a bittersweet requiem — then suddenly, all you can think about is the mesmerizing anvil solo on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by road manager Mal Evans or the revelatory new footage of the Beatles’ iconic swansong rooftop concert. Truly a three-course multimedia feast for the ages.
2. THE WHITE LOTUS (HBO)
It ain’t easy to steal scenes away from America’s sweetheart, Jennifer Coolidge (featured here in a career-best role as a tragicomic quasi-villain you can’t help but love). But Murray Bartlett outdoes even the Divine Miss C. while achieving instant TV character hall of fame status as Armond, the patron saint of oppressed service industry employees everywhere forced to endure the petty whining of overprivileged Americans (which Mike White turns into a bittersweet symphony in this riveting HBO mini-series about the various casualties of class warfare at a fictional Hawaiian resort).
3. RESERVATION DOGS (FX on Hulu)
This small miracle of a show by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi chronicles the outrageously underrepresented lives of indigenous Americans with surreal wit and clear-eyed generosity of spirit. The story centers on four teens eager to leave their Oklahoma reservation (with Paulina Alexis’s tough yet secretly tender Willie Jack as a particular standout) but extends beyond them to a uniformly fantastic ensemble of friends, foes, relatives, neighbors, and assorted supernatural creatures.
4. ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING (Hulu)
What could have been a toothless vanity piece beating the dead horses of privileged Manhattan elites and the podcasting phenomenon somehow managed to deliver a sharp, funny whodunnit and, even better, Steve Martin’s best performance in well over a decade (anchoring a crackerjack ensemble including Martin Short, Selena Gomez, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Tina Fey, and Jane Lynch).
5. SUCCESSION (HBO)
Despite a tendency to spin its wheels with repetitive plotlines and inconsistent character arcs, the 2021 season was packed with the show’s signature strychnine humor and de rigueur rich people nonsense (like the birth canal entrance to Kendall’s disastrous 40th birthday bash) — but also, in the finale, some incredibly satisfying payoffs to three seasons of setups that will hopefully lead somewhere (and not just X Files us back into a never-ending narrative holding pattern).
6. SOUTH SIDE (HBO Max)
There are lots of shows on this list about rich people, partly because rich people primarily decide what gets on TV. So, kudos to HBO Max for rescuing season two of this Comedy Central castoff about lives outside the 1% — specifically, the comically heightened, sharply observed misadventures of interconnected middle and working class South Side Chicago citizens, from series standout Chandra Russell (as canny cop and wig enthusiast Sgt. Turner) to her frenemy partner, her local alderman, and a philosophical repo man (played respectively by series co-creators Bashir Salahuddin, Diallo Riddle, and Sultan Salahuddin).
7. HALSTON (Netflix)
Getting back to shows about rich people, meanwhile, the compelling performances of Ewan McGregor as the eponymous disco-age designer and Krysta Rodriguez as a realistically layered Liza Minnelli helped to elevate what could have been a standard rise-and-fall mini-series biopic (while actually making us care about the fates of the main characters, unlike another entertainingly over-the-top 2021 high-fashion fictionalization I could mention).
8. PRETEND IT’S A CITY (Netflix)
Two things can be true at the same time. For instance, it’s possible to enjoy both the mean Kyle Mooney/Bowen Yang SNLparody of Martin Scorsese howling continuously at every Fran Leibowitz bon mot while also loving the fact that, in the real world, the former gave the latter seven episodes to ruminate ruefully about everything from the raconteur’s endless exasperation with gawping Manhattan tourists to her friendship with the late, great Toni Morrison.
9. POSE (FX)
Yes, Elektra Evangelista ordering her “nice” mafia minions to ransack a high-end bridal shop so all the guests at Angel’s bachelorette party can dress up in designer wedding gowns was not a strictly “realistic” plotline. But if you came to Season 3 of Ryan Murphy’s groundbreaking series expecting anything but an appropriately operatic finale (and more references to family than the entire Fast & Furious franchise) then you probably didn’t get to experience the incandescent glow of loveliness in your tummy when Pray Tell and Blanca sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to each other in the show’s penultimate episode. So, there’s that.
10. PAINTING WITH JOHN (HBO)
It’s easier to believe that this sequel to an obscure IFC/Bravo hepcat fishing series was a hallucination brought on by too much quarantine than it is to imagine HBO actually produced it. Yet whether it was real or just a wonderful dream, spending six weeks of winter enjoying the surreal paintings, experimental jazz, and grumpy camaraderie of John Lurie in his mysterious Caribbean supervillain lair was unquestionably time well spent.
Honorable Mention: Shtisel, Making the Cut, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Other Two, Girls5Eva, Survivor 41, PEN15, Landscapers, Meyers/Colbert/Kimmel, the first half of Bo Burnham: Inside
Biggest Drop-Offs: Big Mouth, Season 5 (which too often forgot how to make its crass subject matter funny despite a few mostly Shame Wizard and Mongoose King-related high points) and the second half of Bo Burnham: Inside (which somehow assumed we’d all relate to the existential tragedy of having to film a Netflix special during quarantine).
Wildcards: (potentially list-worthy 2021 shows as yet unseen by moi): Yellowjackets, Squid Game, Dopesick, Station Eleven, Hacks, We Are Lady Parts, For All Mankind