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The 15 best TV shows of the year (so far)

A collage of photos from five TV shows.
Clockwise from top left: “The Underground Railroad,” “Chad,” “City of Ghosts,” “Hacks” and “Run the World” are among the top TV shows of 2021.
(Amazon Studios / Turner Entertainment / Netflix / Starz Entertainment / HBO)
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We love a season preview, don’t get us wrong. But when the question you’re asked most frequently is “What should I be watching right now?” looking to the future has its limits. So instead of a calendar of the summer premieres we’re most excited about, we’re changing things up with a list of the best TV shows of 2021 (so far), curated by The Times’ TV team.

From the buzzed-about (“Mare of Easttown,” “WandaVision”) to the under-the-radar (“City of Ghosts,” “The Gloaming”), the 15 titles below are sure to include something for every taste. Read on to find a summer’s worth of TV recommendations to queue up on those nights when you (still) want to stay in.

After more than a year of pandemic life, we know you’re ready to get off the couch. Here are the summer TV shows that deserve an exception.

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“Chad”

Nasim Pedrad as a teenage boy dances onstage in a leather jacket.
Nasim Pedrad in “Chad.”
(Scott Patrick Green / Turner Entertainment Networks)

The comedy “Chad,” which stars former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Nasim Pedrad as the most awkward teenage boy ever (if that’s even possible) has been in the works for quite a while — it was being promoted a few years ago, even before “PEN15.” So my expectations were low when I tuned in to its premiere. But I was taken with Pedrad’s convincing performance and the overall sweetness of tone. Plus, the comedy is sharp and the cast’s chemistry is strong. I realize the show isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I believe “Chad” has the potential to grow on you if you give it a chance. (Available on: TBS) —Greg Braxton

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3

“City of Ghosts”

Four animated children crouch under a table, looking at a map.
The intrepid children of “City of Ghosts.”
(Netflix)

Los Angeles is often misunderstood by those who don’t bother to see it beyond shallow pop culture clichés and outsider hot takes. A solid rebuttal is “City of Ghosts,” an all-ages animated series that follows a group of kids who look for ghosts around the city to document their stories. As quirky and cute as it is soothing and informative, the show is a celebration of L.A.’s often overlooked history, diverse communities and neighborhoods. The series also shows that topics like discrimination, gentrification and cultural appropriation can be approached in ways that even younger viewers can understand. (Available on: Netflix) —Tracy Brown

4

“Girls5Eva”

Four women in headphones sing into microphones in a recording studio.
Paula Pell, left, Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Busy Philipps in “Girls5eva.”
(Heidi Gutman / Peacock)

Another fractured fairy tale of New York from executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (“30 Rock,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), Meredith Scardino’s satirical musical comedy charts the turbulent reunion of a briefly famous ’90s girl group. A marvelous, motley cast whose combined experience takes in pop music, sitcoms, “Saturday Night Live” and Broadway — Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Paula Pell and Renée Elise Goldsberry— mocks culture old and new, mixes humiliation and empowerment. Like many show business stories, it is at once anti-sentimental and sentimental as hell. (Available on: Peacock) —Robert Lloyd

5

“The Gloaming”

A closeup of a woman sitting outside at night looking contemplative.
Emma Booth as Molly McGee in “The Gloaming.”
(Bradley Patrick / Starz)

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One of the joys I’ve experienced as a TV reporter through the years is discovering a series that I know absolutely nothing about. The only things I knew about Starz’s “The Gloaming” before it premiered was that it had a weird title and the network had sent me a creepy candle in the shape of a baby’s head as a promotion. My TV was tuned to Starz when the first episode came on, and I was instantly hooked. The show is set in Australia’s Tasmania, and the scenery is both moody and stunning. There’s an unresolved old crime, a grisly murder mystery, attractive but damaged characters, ghosts and witchcraft. Watching this series is like taking a vacation. Watch it with the lights off. (Available on: Starz) —Greg Braxton

6

“Hacks”

Three women with makeup and hair tools stand around Jean Smart, in a sparkly black jacket, backstage.
Jean Smart stars in “Hacks.”
(Jake Giles Netter / HBO Max)

Jean Smart continues her well-deserved career renaissance in “Hacks,” a bitingly funny and surprisingly moving comedy about comedy — and much more. She stars as Deborah Vance, a legendary Joan Rivers-esque stand-up whose Las Vegas act has grown stale. To freshen up her shtick, her agent pairs her with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), an entitled 20-something comedy writer whose career has stalled thanks to an insensitive tweet about a closeted politician. The yawning generation gap between the women eventually gives way to a kind of wary understanding about the fickle nature of their industry. (Available on: HBO Max) —Meredith Blake

7

“Mare of Easttown”

Kate Winslet stands outdoors on a stretch of grass in a winter jacket and gray muffler.
Kate Winslet in “Mare of Easttown.”
(Sarah Shatz / HBO)

Obviously, there’s the accent. The way Kate Winslet has mastered the Philadelphia inflection of her character in HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” — generating dozens of headlines and inspiring a sketch on “Saturday Night Live” — is more than enough of a reason to tune in. But the crime drama is also one of the most tense and riveting mysteries on TV. Winslet plays Mare Sheehan, a former high school basketball star who now serves as a local detective in a fictional small town in Pennsylvania’s Delaware County — known affectionately to residents as Delco. As jaded about her job as she is tenacious, Mare is haunted by the unsolved disappearance of the daughter of a former teammate while trying to investigate the recent murder of a teenage girl — all while dealing with her own personal turmoils. It’s a nice mix of a slow burn and a nail-biter (wait ’til you get to that bathtub scene!). The cherry on top is the superb scene work between Winslet and Jean Smart, who plays Mare’s mother, Helen. The duo’s mother-daughter dynamic, toggling between moments of epic comedy and heartbreaking drama, makes for scenes worth re-playing … and turning into memes; #sneakerfart (Available on: HBO, HBO Max) —Yvonne Villarreal

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8

“Painting With John”

A man with a goatee stands behind cups holding paintbrushes and other artist supplies.
John Lurie looks at life from an art studio on a tropical island in “Painting With John.”
(HBO)

A show about art that is itself an art project. Mixing the staged and unstaged in some unreckonable proportion, John Lurie’s quasi-sequel to his 20th century series “Fishing With John” finds the erstwhile saxophonist and indie film actor living in tropical semi-isolation, riffing with his (more amused than bemused) hired help, remembering the old days, contemplating the new days and making detailed stream-of-consciousness watercolors. He also pretends to be an elephant but lets you know, “I’m not really an elephant. I’m John.” (Available on: HBO, HBO Max) —Robert Lloyd

9

“Philly D.A.”

A man in a gray suit stands in a room lined with boxes.
Larry Krasner in “Philly D.A.”
(PBS)

In their eight-part “Independent Lens” documentary about newly elected Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Larry Krasner, whose reformist zeal becomes one of the city’s central flashpoints, filmmakers Ted Passon, Yoni Brook and Nicole Salazar achieve that rarest of feats: to produce “political” television that succeeds in dramatizing, at human scale, the most pressing issues of the moment — thorns still attached. As Krasner and his handpicked advisors face recalcitrant prosecutors in their own juvenile division and judges hellbent on maintaining their “discretion” (read: power), “Philly D.A.” emerges as a complex, compelling portrait of a system in the throes of change, trading neutrality for honesty, balance for truth. Plus, it features a cast of characters — such as bail reform activist LaTonya Myers — and a number of set pieces — including a closed-door meeting about Krasner’s victory speech — so sublimely memorable you could never mistake it for fiction. (Available on: PBS, PBS Passport) —Matt Brennan

10

“The Real World: Homecoming”

A group of people stand next to a pool table; a smiling woman holds a cellphone as four others look at the screen.
Heather B. Gardner, left, Kevin Powell, Norman Korpi, Julie Gentry and Andre Comeau in “The Real World: Homecoming: New York.”
(MTV)

Reality TV returned to its kinder, gentler roots this year with “The Real World: Homecoming: New York.” The nostalgic six-episode series follows the original cast of “The Real World,” now in their 40s and 50s, as they return to the SoHo loft where they taped the groundbreaking MTV show in 1992 and reflect on their unexpectedly transformational role in American pop culture. For Gen X and older millennials, who grew up watching early seasons of “The Real World” on MTV, the reunion feels like our very own “Big Chill” moment and serves as a reminder that reality TV, though frequently maligned, can also be a force for positive social change. (Available on: Paramount+) —Meredith Blake

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11

“Run the World”

Two fashionably dressed women laugh together under an umbrella as they walk on a city sidewalk.
Andrea Bordeaux, left, and Corbin Reid star in “Run The World.”
(Cara Howe / Starz)

Starz’s aspirational comedy series takes the “Sex and the City” formula and elevates it. By the end of the debut season’s eight episodes, I was deeply invested in each of the four ambitious and accomplished women at its center, and loved the strong and honest bonds they shared. And because it makes hanging out in Harlem hot spots look so glamorous and fun, the show has cured me of whatever anxieties I once had about rejoining society after the pandemic. (Available on: Starz) —Ashley Lee

12

“Sasquatch”

A closeup of a man standing outside and holding a cellphone against his ear.
David Holthouse in “Sasquatch.”
(Hulu)

Bigfoot lore, true crime and weed culture meet in “Sasquatch,” Hulu’s three-part docuseries about the mysterious 1993 murder of several men in the Emerald Triangle, a swath of wilderness renowned for its natural beauty, marijuana production and Yeti sightings. Who, or what, mutilated their bodies? The question is at the center of this way-too-intriguing tale, which features a litany of characters that include Hells Angels, “squatchers,” tweakers and guys with names like Bobo. Ancillary subplots abound, including a thread on the fascinating evolution of the region from a 1970s hippie utopia to a high-stakes drug syndicate of booby-trapped compounds, where the missing-person count is higher per capita than anywhere in the nation. (Available on: Hulu) —Lorraine Ali

13

“Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy”

A man in an apron and Stanley Tucci sit on either side of a barrel with a checkered tablecloth.
Stanley Tucci, right, samples prosciutto di Parma in “Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy.”
(CNN)

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Name a better combination than Stanley Tucci and fine Italian cheeses. In CNN’s “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” the veteran actor turned social media thirst trap captured our taste buds as he wandered across Italy, with all the swagger of a man whose body can process dairy, exploring the culinary scene and rich food history of its different regions over the first season’s six episodes. It’s as close as any of us may ever get to roaming the streets of Italy and elegantly inhaling a bowl of pasta with the Tucc. And clearly the masses want more: It will be back for a second season. (Available on: CNN) —Yvonne Villarreal

14

“Top Chef: Portland”

Four people at a long, elegantly set dining table.
Former “Top Chef” contestants have played a major role in its 18th season. Pictured, from left: Melissa King, Amar Santana, judge Gail Simmons and Gregory Gourdet.
(David Moir / Bravo)

The long-running Bravo competition series’ pandemic-compliant tweaks have made the beloved reality show even better. I do not miss watching the contestants run around Whole Foods like chickens with their heads cut off, and I love hearing critiques from its panel of fan favorites, who rotate as guest judges for the various contestant challenges. (Moving forward, “Restaurant Wars” — which pits two teams against each other to create a fine dining establishment from scratch — should be conducted chef’s-table-style only.) Plus, “Top Chef” authentically responded to the past year’s conversations about racial inequity by exploring the underappreciated cuisines of the African diaspora and the Indigenous peoples of Oregon. If only every reality show were this real about the industry that’s showcased. (Available on: Bravo) —Ashley Lee

15

“The Underground Railroad”

Thuso Mbedu, in a loose white gown, lifts an antique holder with a lighted candle in the dark.
Thuso Mbedu is Cora Randall in “The Underground Railroad.”
(Kyle Kaplan / Amazon Studios)

Based on Colson Whitehead’s novel of the same name, this stunningly beautiful, harsh and indelible Amazon Prime Video limited series tackles the horrific reality of American slavery through a surreal fictional lens and messes with time to show how far we have and haven’t come since that original sin. The 10-episode drama, from director Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”), imagines a subterranean locomotive system that travels the Southern United States, connecting runaway slaves to a network of abolitionists and safe houses. But what they find in so-called liberated states are various forms of racism and servitude disguised as something more progressive or pious. Safety and freedom are illusive in the land of the free, no matter how fast or far that train goes. (Available on: Amazon) —Lorraine Ali

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16

“WandaVision”

Elizabeth Olsen, in a striped ’70s-era dress on a period set, holds her hands in front of her as fire forms between them.
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in “WandaVision.”
(Marvel Studios)

Marvel Studios’ first TV series was teased as an homage to sitcoms, with a couple of longtime Marvel Cinematic Universe supporting players finally getting top billing. But “WandaVision” is so much more. Set after the events of “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), “WandaVision” follows Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) as they kick off their new life as newlyweds in a New Jersey suburb. What starts as a mysterious time warp through the decades of TV history is revealed to be a poignant exploration of loss and grief capable of captivating viewers beyond the Marvel faithful. That said, there were plenty of Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the episodes to keep fans engaged in various theories from week to week. (Available on: Disney+) —Tracy Brown

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