The Best TV Episodes of 2021

Television today comes in bulk, as anyone who spent more than seven hours with the Beatles over Thanksgiving weekend can attest. But just as a marathon jam session can yield a few tight singles, television’s most memorable show is still often the well-designed single episode. As Mike Hill and Margaret Lyons, ending another year as television critics for The New York Times, here are some of the 2021 installments that topped our personal hit shows. James Ponyozek


More than 30 European actors – including stars such as Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno – spoofed and mercilessly in this French drama, playing clients, potential clients or angry ex-customers of the fictional talent agency ASK. In this episode of Season 4, an American stepped in, and Sigourney Weaver, who spoke more than acceptable French and played herself as a totally charming manipulator, was flawless. (Streaming on Netflix.) Mike Hill

Lots of children’s shows are cute but “City of Ghosts” is beautiful too, and its poetic melancholy about Los Angeles would be at home in this premium cable drama. Instead, it’s in this gritty nature cartoon about ghost-hunting kids who have a podcast. I loved every episode of this show. But I chose “Bob and Nancy” because it is about puppet theatre, and thus plays with ideas of moving inanimate objects – a rich ground for a show in connection with the spirit world. (Streaming on Netflix.) Margaret Lyons

This teen kidnapping mystery has captured all the hallmarks of prestigious crime shows – split timelines, dark lighting, episodic secrets – and reassembled it with the YA glow of the ’90s. It was one of the highlights of the summer. But shows like this are just as good as their finals, and “Cruel Summer” manages to deliver both a happy ending and a thrilling dark twist. (Streaming on Hulu.) Margaret Lyon

Texting can be a mainstay for TV shows, and a way to use pop-up bubbles to give characters a phone-enabled teleportation. Not so much in this hilarious and witty half hour that rookie rapper Dave Burd (and lost) has dated Doja Cat. While the two musicians fawned their thumbs, “Somebody Date Me” showed how context and time can change the meaning and readability of the smallest (mis) internet connection. Fantastic emoji! (Streaming on Hulu.) James Ponzyk

Each season of this alternate history of the Space Race is a multi-stage booster rocket. The slow-motion early episodes take a lot of fuel, building energy and narrative strength until the show reaches escape velocity. (Flight engineering readers, I beg you not to validate my metaphors.) The white-knuckle season two finale skillfully moved a docking maneuver, as the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union over the moon and menacing war on Earth required risk and sacrifice on two celestial bodies and points in between. (Streaming on Apple TV+.) James Ponzyk

Black Church music and society co-starred in two commendable hours of television. Aretha Franklin’s lively streak reached its climax as it focused on the recording of the 1972 live album “Amazing Grace” at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in which the artist’s past and present are fused into the melting pot of soul. In Bose, a grim diagnosis leads Billy Porter (Billy Porter) back to his hometown and church community, to confront the homophobia that drove him out of it and give voice to the music that supported him. (Stream ‘Genius: Aretha’ on Hulu; buy ‘Pose’ on Amazon.) James Puniozek

This CW drama about a blind woman and her companions, who run a dog rescue agency and get involved in drug dealing and murder, is nothing more than a thriller to draw from. But the relationship between its central characters, Murphy (Perry Matfield), Jess (Brock Markham) and Felix (Morgan Krantz), has developed into one of the most believable and influential portrayals of friendship on television. When Murphy finds herself stranded in a strange country, the strength of those relationships is the basis for a tight and painful hour. (Streaming on Netflix.) Mike Hill

Tension and deceit run through the veins of this sporadic procedure around the British Home Affairs Unit, and no better show emerges. You can denote almost any loop; This, with one of the heroes following a dirty cop in an abandoned industrial estate because that’s what the job called for, was off the charts. (Streaming on BritBox.) Mike Hill

At just 13 minutes, this elegant short story about the corpse of a giant washed up on a beach one day captures, in perfect shot, humanity’s tendency to desecrate marvels, witnessing a world-changing event and simply deciding to carry on. Based on a short story by J.J. Ballard, “The Drowning Giant” is here rendered in a mostly realistic, animated form, with clean giant cheeks, clean fingernails, and a muscular chest in haunting detail. In an age when so many shows are blending together, this episode stands out with its light touch and melancholy imagination. (Streaming on Netflix.) Margaret Lyons

After the Great British Baking Show, much of the reality competition series has moved away from the gritty in favor of warmth and mystery, and perhaps there is no show warmer and hazy than the craft competition “Making It”. Each episode has its charms but “All the Holidays at Once” was especially exciting, because unlike some of the show’s big projects, making your own Halloween costume is standard fare, even for regular folks. The joy of the contestants presenting their creations to the judges was matched only by the great pleasure of seeing their ridiculous and amazing costumes. Jess has won her adorable alien abduction costume but when it’s all fun, don’t we all win? As a bonus, this episode also featured Milano telling a story about a bat in the toilet, a story that will haunt me for the rest of my days. (Streaming on Hulu.) Margaret Lyon

Having come up with one of the best pandemic-inspired episodes of 2020, this video game industry comedy strives to earn a high on TV in stand-alone modes. This installment gave game writer obsessed with back story C.W. Longbottom (a great story from F. Murray Abraham) his own memories as a struggling science fiction author in the 1970s – a funny and poignant tale of career jealousy and success at a huge cost. (Streaming on Apple TV+.) James Ponzyk

Ry Russo-Young’s three-part documentary about her lesbian mothers and the sperm donor who sued them for parental rights, threatening to break up her family, is built to a powerful and eloquent conclusion. Both emphasized the importance of the battle her mothers fought and questioned the assumptions of everyone involved. (Streaming on HBO Max.) Mike Hale

One rarely gets or sends the “TV now on” text, especially in my field of work. So for that double suspense alone, this interview has earned a place in my heart. It was the kind of programming that no longer exists: a private “tell all” network in which celebrities share real new information with Oprah, the patron saint of soul stripping. There was Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, glowing in the California sun, denouncing racism and frankly discussing mental health crises. That was enough, but they also reset the royal combo, gave Oprah eggs, fought back tears and stared sweetly at each other—all while sitting in the chairs that Christopher Knight from The Brady Bunch sold. TV, baby! I love you! Margaret Lyon

Motsuko Erskine never acted before her daughter Maya cast her to play Maya’s mother in the hilarious and hilarious teen comedy Hollow. Sometimes the daughter knows best. This fascinating episode, in which a chance encounter with Yuki’s ex-husband leads him to look a path she didn’t take, was a rich glimpse into an immigrant’s experience and a subtle performance to end the role of a lifetime, literally. (Streaming on Hulu.) James Ponzyk

Who would have thought that Comic Book Guy’s original story, made in part as a soulful dispatch for a Wes Anderson movie, would be so beautiful? (Streaming on Disney+.) Mike Hill

This brutal and emotional drama just as it needs to be about a devious CIA agent and a young black businessman, partners in the crack wars of early ’80s Los Angeles, still doesn’t get enough attention. This is especially true of stories by novelist Walter Mosley, such as this horrific, tightly packed episode about anger, revenge, improvement, and the desire to move on. (Streaming on Hulu.) Mike Hill

Several parts of this supernatural psychological drama, set in a strange world version of the classic sitcom format, would have made this list. But you might also start at the beginning, with Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vigne (Paul Bettany) playing a home-styled on a 1950s stage whose made-for-television mastery turns out to be a terrifying (and witty) mistake. (Streaming on Disney+.) James Ponzyk

“Shadows” is one of the most entertaining shows on TV right now, and “Casino,” where the gang members head to Atlantic City, was my favorite episode of the season. Nandor (Kayvan Novak) becomes fascinated with the “Big Bang Theory” slot machine — “bazinga” is Sheldon’s war cry,” he explains — and in perfect cascading horror, this leads to a complete fading of his understanding of the universe. “Shadows” is at its best. When the greatness of vampires conflicts with their weaknesses, especially their excitability, and I’ll never see another in-house ad on hotel TV without thinking it’s Colin Robinson’s favorite show.(streaming on Hulu.) Margaret Lyon

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