Warning: Although we’ve done our best to avoid spoiling anything too major, please note this list includes a few specific references to You, Midnight Mass, Resident Alien, Post Mortem, Snowpiercer, Lupin, His Dark Materials, and Wellington Paranormal, among others.
Months of lockdown in 2020 meant fewer films but more quality TV content than ever before—much of it from streaming platforms rather than traditional broadcast television. Many of those shows were already in the pipeline, however. We feared the inevitable production shutdowns would result in fewer offerings for 2021, as the industry reckoned with rising production costs and the continued fallout from a pandemic that just keeps dragging on. And on.
Fortunately, while there were indeed some hiccups, we still had plenty of fantastic television on hand to take our minds off the grim daily reality, ranging from established franchises and quirky newcomers to imaginative adaptations and several foreign offerings that proved to be surprise breakout hits. With apologies to the many great series we just didn’t have room for on this year’s list, here are our favorite TV watches and binges for 2021, in no particular order:
Geekerati icon Alan Tudyk plays an alien (with an unpronounceable name) disguised as a small-town doctor, Harry Vanderspiegle, who gets roped into solving murders, in Resident Alien. He learned English by watching Law & Order, so at least he has some of the lingo down. The sci-fi dramedy is based on the Dark Horse comics created by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse. Harry’s mission is to wipe out the human race for the good of the planet, but he finds himself wavering in his resolve the more time he spends in the small town of Patience, Colorado.
Harry is assisted by Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko), who tutors him in basic social cues. He is tormented by a young boy name Max (Judah Prehn), the only person in town who can see Harry’s true form. (Harry’s attempts to kill Max to protect his alien identity are hilariously inept, and their mutual taunting eventually gives way to a grudging détente.) There’s also the highly insecure town sheriff, Mike (Corey Reynolds), who insists on being called Big Black, and his long-suffering deputy, Liv (Elizabeth Bowen), who is far more competent than Mike thinks. Local bar owner D’Arcy (Alice Wetterlund) is a former Olympic skier who returned home after a career-ending injury. She and the promiscuous Julia (Jenna Lamia), who owns the bowling alley, vie (in vain) for Harry’s romantic attentions.
Tudyk’s comic gifts are central to the show’s success, but he’s ably supported by the rest of the cast, and the writers clearly love these small-town characters and have done a terrific job of mining them for humor while developing deeper narrative arcs. Bonus points for surprise cameos by Nathan Fillion as the telepathic voice of an octopus in a restaurant tank who converses with Harry—it’s implied their respective species are closely related—and Linda Hamilton as General McCallister, who once saw a UFO as a child and has been hunting for proof that aliens exist ever since. Real-life ufologist Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, of Ancient Aliens fame (or meme-worthy infamy), also makes a brief appearance at a UFO convention in the S1 finale. Resident Alien is a comedic gem, and I can’t wait for S2.
—Jennifer Ouellette, Senior Writer
Star Trek: Lower Decks
Two seasons in, and Star Trek: Lower Decks still seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it proposition for people who were weaned on the ’90s Star Trek shows. Well, put me in the “love it” camp: of the four Trek shows currently airing, Lower Decks is easily my favorite.
Lower Decks succeeds because it knows its subject matter inside and out—it’s a reference-heavy commentary on the original shows, but it also understands why The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager all worked when they were firing on all cylinders. A typical episode of its more confident second season simultaneously parodies old Trek episodes while also just being solid-to-great episodes of Star Trek, and that makes it a refreshing break from the heavily serialized (and often exhausting) drama of Discovery and Picard.
—Andrew Cunningham, Senior Technology Reporter
Snowpiercer is TNT’s TV adaptation of the 2013 film of the same name, directed by Bong Joon-ho, about remnants of humanity trying to survive an ice age inside a 1,001-car train. The train is run by a reclusive transportation magnate named Mr. Wilford, who has separated the passengers according to class and has a nefarious plan to ensure life on the train remains sustainable. The TV series is set seven years after the climate catastrophe that produced the “Freeze.”
Daveed Diggs stars as Andre Layton, a prisoner at the tail end of the train who gets caught up in a revolutionary struggle against the imposed social hierarchy aboard Snowpiercer. Jennifer Connelly co-stars as first-class passenger Melanie Cavill, who is the Voice of the Train, responsible for daily public announcements and the train’s smooth operation (both mechanically and socially).
S1 was a bit of a slow burn but kicked into high gear for the final few episodes, ending on a cliffhanger twist: the re-appearance of Mr. Wilford (Sean Bean), along with Melanie’s presumed-dead daughter, Alex (Rowan Blanchard). Happily, the pacing issues have been resolved with S2.
Freed from the burden of building out an elaborate fictional world, showrunner Graeme Manson and his team of writers delved into the complicated relationships, political machinations, and shifting political loyalties that inevitably arose with Wilford’s unexpected return. Ultimately S2 belonged to Sean Bean, whose portrayal of Wilford gave the series the charismatic, larger-than-life (human) villain it needed to really raise the emotional stakes. He brings just the right mix of sadistic flamboyance and playful cruelty to the character—the proverbial match thrown into what was already a potentially explosive situation.
—Jennifer Ouellette, Senior Writer