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The 11 best TV shows of 2021

An illustration of actors in three television series
Lorraine Ali’s top TV series of the year, from left, Lucie Shorthouse and Faith Omole in “We Are Lady Parts,” Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen in “Wandavision” and Beanie Feldstein in “Impeachment: American Crime Story.”
(Illustration by Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; photographs by Laura Radford / Peacock; Marvel Studios; Tina Thorpe / FX)
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Year-end lists are my least favorite thing. Seriously. I’d rather watch Maury Povich while eating bland supermarket hummus on wilted celery than commit to 10 shows. (Or, in this case, 11.) It’s so ... final. With that in mind, please consider the below a sampling of all the shows that challenged the darkness of the pandemic and the democratic crisis with boundary-pushing humor, drama, fantasy, science fiction and everything else they had in their creative arsenal.

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‘Reservation Dogs’ (Hulu)

Four teenagers walking in a row dressed in black suits and white shirts
Paulina Alexis, from left, Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Lane Factor in “Reservation Dogs.”
(Shane Brown/FX)

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Hulu’s dramedy about Indigenous teens living on an Oklahoma reservation breaks so many television norms that it should win the Emmy for outstanding disruption, if there were such a thing. It’s the first domestic TV series for which the writers and directors are all Indigenous, with a predominantly Indigenous cast and crew and an Indigenous showrunner, Sterlin Harjo, at its helm. But it’s the dream-like delivery of the story — shot entirely in the Muscogee Nation — and its eccentric characters that give “Reservation Dogs” its understated brilliance. It’s an authentic yet surreal coming-of-age story from a community that’s been underexplored, and frequently exploited, by Hollywood. About time.

3

‘Hacks’ (HBO Max)

A woman looks in her dressing room mirror while drinking champagne
Jean Smart in “Hacks.”
(Jake Giles Netter/HBO)

The comedy world, and its abhorrent treatment of women, is the backdrop for this HBO Max comedy starring Jean Smart as Deborah Vance, a successful Las Vegas stand-up who’s in danger of losing her headlining slot at the casino where she’s performed for decades. Younger acts are moving in on her turf, so the tough, salty comedian is told to freshen up her routine and is reluctantly paired with a Gen Z comedy writer named Ava (Hanna Einbinder). Their generational differences and personality clashes lead to deeply hilarious and poignant commentary on feminism, cancel culture, ageism and the nature of true friendship.

4

‘Only Murders in the Building’ (Hulu)

Three people stand in a doorway looking shocked
Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin in “Only Murders in the Building.”
(Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

True-crime buffs and their obsession with murderous podcasts are parodied in “Only Murders in the Building,” Hulu’s half-hour comedy starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as strangers who all live in the same upscale Manhattan apartment complex. When a violent death occurs in their building, the unlikely trio connect over their love of the whodunit podcast “All Is Not OK in Oklahoma” — and the notion that they possess the armchair-detective skills to solve the real-life crime. The more they sleuth, the deeper the mystery becomes. And everyone’s a suspect. Even Sting (played by Sting). Fans of the ID Channel and “Serial” will recognize themselves in this perfectly absurd comedy about three people with an unhealthy habit. But we true-crime fans deserve to be lampooned, especially when the outcome is this damn funny.

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5

‘We Are Lady Parts’ (Peacock)

Five teenage girls lined up along a bedroom wall
Lucie Shorthouse, from left, Faith Omole, Anjana Vasan, Juliette Motamed and Sarah Kameela Impey in “We Are Lady Parts.”
(Laura Radford/Peacock)

An all-girl Muslim punk band takes London by storm ... except it doesn’t in Peacock’s half-hour British comedy, written, directed and produced by Nida Manzoor (“Doctor Who”). This band of sisters (not the biological kind) can’t land a gig let alone find a female guitarist until it happens upon Amina (Anjana Vasan). There’s another problem or three: She’s a Don McLean fan, has terrible stage fright and is seeking a husband rather than fame. Rock tropes and Muslim stereotypes are putty in the hands of this taboo-busting series, where culture clash, racism, empowerment and faith collide in songs such as “Ain’t No One Gonna Honor Kill My Sister but Me” and “Voldemort Under My Headscarf.” Anarchy in the U.K., inshallah. (Read our full review)

6

‘Yellowjackets’ (Showtime)

The teenage survivors of a plane crash sit around a fire in the wilderness
The teenage survivors of a plane crash go feral in “Yellowjackets.”
(Kailey Schwerman/Showtime)

I’ve described this weekly drama as “Lord of the Flies” meets “Heathers” and the Spice Girls meet the Donner party for a reason: It’s warped, wicked and grippingly good. Showtime’s survival epic follows members of a girls high school soccer team who are forced to survive in the wilds of Ontario for 19 months after their plane crashes in 1996 on the way to a match. Set to a killer ’90s soundtrack, the addictive series hops back and forth between then and now, when Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, Tawny Cypress and Melanie Lynskey play the present-day versions of the girls who made it back alive. How they survived the ordeal has been a source of public fascination, and now, on the 25th anniversary of the crash, someone is threatening to tell all. We can only assume the truth is full of ghoulish unpleasantries. But the suspense is too much. ... Spill it! (Read our full review)

We surveyed The Times TV team to come up with a list of the 75 best TV shows you can watch on Netflix. As in, tonight.

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7

‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’ (FX)

Two women sit in a living room in their pajamas
Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky, left, with Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp in “Impeachment: American Crime Story.”
(Tina Thorpe/FX)

I’m not sure why the third installment of Ryan Murphy’s anthology series didn’t catch fire the way “The People v. O.J. Simpson” did because it’s as good, if not better, at dramatizing yet another decade-defining news event. This time it’s the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal. The 10-part limited series, co-produced by Lewinsky, focuses on the women at the center of the storm, from Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) to Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) to Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco), as the tale of Bill’s personal indiscretions, the cynical political machinations of Capitol Hill and rise of the hard-right media (such as Ann Coulter) unfold. The stories behind The Story are multilayered and involve enough names and personalities to crash a Palm Pilot. (Read our full review)

8

‘The Underground Railroad’ (Amazon)

An enslaved woman looks at the camera while standing before a mural
Thuso Mbedu in “The Underground Railroad.”
(Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios)

Set in the antebellum South, Barry Jenkins’ powerful limited series “The Underground Railroad” imagines the terrifying journey of the enslaved out of slavery and into freedom. But this is not a story you’ve seen before. Their way out is on an actual underground locomotive that runs under the old South and connects them with a network of abolitionists and safe houses. But who to trust? Based on the novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead, the series is propelled by magical realism but rooted in the brutal history of America’s original sin. The journey is filtered solely through the perspectives of enslaved and/or escaped Black men and women, quite literally peering at the bounty hunters from a hiding place in an attic or at plantation owners who are torturing them to death. Harsh individual experiences mingle with the grace and beauty of Jenkins’ filmmaking for a series that’s unlike any other. (Read our full review)

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‘Lupin’ (Netflix)

A man in a tuxedo looks down a corridor while holding a cellphone
Omar Sy in “Lupin” Part 2.
(Emmanuel Guimier)

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The French spy drama “Lupin” became an international hit almost by mistake. It’s not a huge Hollywood thriller, and there’s nary a gunfight compared with any given hour of the bloodbath that is American scripted crime dramas. Gentleman thief Assane Diop (Omar Sy) uses his brain more than his fists, which is partly why he’s such a refreshing change of pace. Credit Sy’s charm with bringing this unlikely protagonist to life and infusing him with a depth that goes beyond the usual tough-guy-seeking-revenge narrative. His father was a hardworking Senegalese immigrant who was framed for the theft of a diamond necklace when Diop was a child, and his dad was subsequently murdered in jail, a crime that was made to look like a suicide. Inequity played a devastating role in Diop’s life, but he’s learned from a century-old master burglar how to level the playing field. In this thriller, immigrants get the job done. (Read our full review)

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‘WandaVision’ (Disney+)

A superheroine in a red witch costume stands in a suburban downtown
Elizabeth Olsen in “WandaVision.”
(Marvel Studios)

Part Marvel series, part love letter to the history of family sitcoms, the first TV series to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still the franchise’s best offering since launching on Disney+. The limited series, which takes place after the events of the film “Avengers: Endgame,” finds Scarlett Witch Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her android paramour, Vision (Paul Bettany), living a life of domestic bliss. Except they live in houses and eras that emulate the settings and characters from beloved American sitcoms, and their surroundings change with each episode: “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Bewitched,” “The Brady Bunch,” and so on up through “Modern Family.” The bizarre environs are inexplicable, even to Wanda and Vision, or so it seems. ... But this imaginative series brings the surprising story together with creative precision. “WandaVision” cut a unique path into often predictable superhero terrain and delivered the unexpected gem.

11

‘Allen v. Farrow’ (HBO)

Two women sit on an enclosed porch in winter
Dylan Farrow, left, with Mia Farrow in “Allen v. Farrow.”
(HBO)

HBO’s powerful four-part series, from investigative filmmakers Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering and Amy Herdy, is a comprehensive and ultimately devastating documentary that brings new scrutiny to filmmaker Woody Allen’s marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of actress Mia Farrow, his former girlfriend, and allegations that he abused his daughter, Dylan, when she was a child. The docuseries goes beyond the scandalous headlines and makes a compelling argument that Allen, who has always denied the charges, got away with the unthinkable thanks to his fame, money and revered standing in the film world — and that a little girl never received justice. The documentarians pored over years of custody trial evidence, home movies, recorded phone conversations, photo exhibits and more, piecing together a harrowing picture of Allen as an abuser and master manipulator and Dylan (now 36) as his silenced, disbelieved victim. “Allen v. Farrow” may change your perspective on Allen and his work. This is the story of the girl who spoke out against her dad, was silenced, lived in shame for decades and decided it was time to speak truth to power. What’s more powerful than that? Certainly not a Woody Allen movie. (Read our full review)

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12

‘Dickinson’ (Apple TV+)

Two women hold hands on an opera house stage.
Ella Hunt and Hailee Steinfeld in “Dickinson.”
(Apple TV+)

Apple TV+'s half-hour comedy about the great American poet Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) offered a wildly creative and alternate vision of the revered literary figure in her 20s, capturing the essence of a woman born before her time, struggling for independence, driven by the need to write. The third and final season of this smart, irreverent, darkly comic and daring series by Alena Smith left us with the vision of a poet who wanted to make a difference. Taking place in the middle of the Civil War, when the characters and country are faced with tragedy, hopelessness and division, Emily and her poetry became a ray of light in the darkness — just as everything seemed to be falling apart.

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