The best TV shows of 2021 (so far), from ‘Girls5Eva’ to ‘Mare of Easttown’

·8 min read
The best TV shows of 2021 (so far), from 'Girls5Eva' to 'Mare of Easttown'
The best TV shows of 2021 (so far), from 'Girls5Eva' to 'Mare of Easttown'

2021 is turning out to be a pretty good year for television.

By this time last year, the television industry (and the rest of the world) was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, with production shutdowns, abbreviated seasons and delayed shows. And while there were a few really wonderful TV series that came out of 2020, it was a bit of a slump compared to recent years.

But like many other things in 2021, TV is changing for the better. New shows are premiering with speed, old favorites are returning (for better or worse), and there's more choice than ever, from the explosion of streaming services to cable and broadcast.

Culled from a great crop of series old and new, USA TODAY picked the 10 best TV series in 2021. From a Freeform series with heart to an Apple TV+ epic, the shows are a diverse collection of comedies and dramas, streaming and cable, full of A-listers and unknown actors. They're the kind of shows that can make you excited for the second half of 2021 (if vaccinations and reopening weren't exciting enough).

10. ‘Girls5Eva’ (Peacock)

Busy Philipps as Summer, Sara Bareilles as Dawn Solano, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Wickie Roy and Paula Pell as Gloria on "Girls5Eva."
Busy Philipps as Summer, Sara Bareilles as Dawn Solano, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Wickie Roy and Paula Pell as Gloria on "Girls5Eva."

The first great original series to come out of NBCUniversal’s new streaming service, “Girls5Eva” is a sweetly funny sitcom created by Meredith Scardino and executive-produced by the “30 Rock” team of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. “Girls” is about a has-been 1990s girl pop group – played by Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps and Paula Pell – that tries to make it again in middle age. Occasionally, the series is nostalgic to a fault, but mostly, it's a biting satire of what the music industry (and Hollywood) does to women who reach a certain age. With hilarious earworms (“Dream Girlfriends” and “The Splingy”), a cast brimming with energy and chemistry, “Girls” is the kind of happy-go-lucky sitcom that feels right for a vaccinated summer.

9. ‘Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet’ (Apple TV+)

Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) and Ian (Rob McElhenney) are the platonic heart of Apple TV+'s workplace sitcom "Mythic Quest."
Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) and Ian (Rob McElhenney) are the platonic heart of Apple TV+'s workplace sitcom "Mythic Quest."

The peppy workplace sitcom from Apple, set at the offices of a fantasy video game company, came back for a second season this month with searing jokes and boisterous spirits. The series is a spiritual successor to comedies like “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” full of positivity (even amid black comedy), interoffice dynamics and a cast that's fabulously in sync. From the creators of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” it's more comedy than cringe, and has leveled up (pun intended) in Season 2.The platonic relationship between co-workers Poppy (Charlotte Nidao) and Ian (Rob McElhenney) is the series’ best, a source of humor and heart without a whiff of romantic tension – a refreshing change of pace from many an office sitcom.

8. ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’ (Freeform)

Kayla Cromer as Matilda and Maeve press as Genevieve on "Everything's Gonna Be Okay."
Kayla Cromer as Matilda and Maeve press as Genevieve on "Everything's Gonna Be Okay."

Not many TV series set in the modern era have smoothly incorporated the COVID-19 pandemic into their stories, but Freeform’s teen dramedy is adept at bringing the seriousness of real life into its stories. In Season 2, “Everything," created by and starring Australian comedian Josh Thomas, continues the story of Nicholas (Thomas), a 20-something who becomes a guardian of his sisters Genevieve (Maeve Press) and Matilda (Kayla Cromer), who is on the autism spectrum, after their father dies. Although “Everything” spends much of Season 2 in quarantine, the show's humor isn't diminished. In fact, the claustrophobia of pandemic life served to enhance the show’s sense of humor and capacity for hijinks.

More: How 'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' avoids Hollywood's (and Sia's) pitfalls portraying autism

7. ‘Shrill’ Season 3 (Hulu)

Aidy Bryant in "Shrill."
Aidy Bryant in "Shrill."

Aidy Bryant’s Hulu comedy saved the best for last. Its third and final season is a superb send-off, sendoff, featuring some of the actress’s best work, along with banner scripts from the writers (Bryant is one of them, too). Based on writer Lindy West’s memoir, “Shrill” started as a more singularly focused series about Annie (Bryant), a fat woman who spent most of her life trying to hide because of her weight, only to finally realize that while society was wrong for discriminating against her, she was never a bad person for being fat. In Season 3, Annie continues on that journey, navigating life as a single woman who's finally confident and self-assured. But it's the scene-stealing performance of Lolly Adefope, who plays Annie’s roommate, Fran –who becomes more of a lead than a supporting character this year – that elevates Season 3. The eight-episode season wraps up the story with care, but it’s hard not to want more.

6. ‘The Underground Railroad’ (Amazon)

Thuso Mbedu as Cora Randall on "The Underground Railroad."
Thuso Mbedu as Cora Randall on "The Underground Railroad."

Brutal, unflinching, hopeful and epic, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a tour de force miniseries. Combining Jenkins’ distinct style ("Moonlight") (he directs every episode) with Whitehead’s ahistorical yet deeply familiar story of a literal railroad, "Underground" is a winning marriage. The story centers Cora (Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved woman who takes a train toward freedom but finds horrifying facets of America along her way. With Mbedu’s performance, the haunting score and Jenkins’ direction, “Underground” is a worthy, if sometimes difficult, journey.

More: Barry Jenkins' 'The Underground Railroad' adaptation is overwhelming and triumphant

5. ‘Mare of Easttown’ (HBO)

Kate Winslet as Mare and Evan Peters as Colin Zabel in "Mare of Easttown."
Kate Winslet as Mare and Evan Peters as Colin Zabel in "Mare of Easttown."

Kate Winslet shed her posh English accent for the dialect of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, in this detective drama, with fantastic results. The dark series, which stars Winslet as a local detective battling personal demons while investigating the murder of a young girl and the disappearance of two others, is far more than your basic prestige cop show. More compelling than the central mystery is Mare’s family life, including her struggle with trauma after the death of her son by suicide. The supporting cast deepens the narrative, from Jean Smart as Mare’s Fruit Ninja-slaying mother, to Evan Peters as a young and hungry detective, called in to help with the case, who develops a puppy-dog crush on her. Layered, intimate and fully committed to its Philadelphia setting, “Mare” is so much better than it appears on the surface.

4. ‘Hacks’ (HBO Max)

Ava (Hannah Einbinder, left) begrudgingly interviews to become a new assistant/writer for veteran comic Deborah (Jean Smart).
Ava (Hannah Einbinder, left) begrudgingly interviews to become a new assistant/writer for veteran comic Deborah (Jean Smart).

Call it the spring of Jean Smart. The prolific and always-welcome actress has a great one-two punch of performances this season on HBO (“Mare”) and HBO Max (“Hacks”). In "Hacks," she gets the star turn she’s long-deserved. As Deb Vance, a Joan Rivers-type comedian with a Las Vegas residency and a QVC empire, Smart is in her element and at her best, a prickly diva with hidden depths. When Deb’s residency is threatened, she is forced to take on Ava (Hannah Einbinder, a revelation), a young, self-centered comedy writer who is forced into working with Deb after a dumb tweet leaves her jobless. The two actors are an electric pair, and the show combines sharp wit with a great deal of realism and emotion.

3. ‘Invincible’ (Amazon)

One of the most stirring series of the year is a violent, hourlong animated comic book drama on Amazon, based on characters that aren’t from Marvel or DC. Based on comics by Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead”) and Cory Walker, “Invincible” is on a growing list of superhero TV series and films that that offer a darker, more "realistic" and serious view of what masked superpowered beings would really do to our world. Invincible is the superhero name of young Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), the teen son of noted and ultra-powerful superhero Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons). Mark gained his powers late, struggles with the reality of hero work, and feels inferior to his seemingly faultless father. The old-school animation, married with deep character work and a thoughtful plot that sticks with you, make the series stand out proudly among the comic book crowd.

2. ‘For All Mankind’ (Apple TV+)

The United States has a lot of astronauts on the moon in the second season of alternate history drama "For All Mankind."
The United States has a lot of astronauts on the moon in the second season of alternate history drama "For All Mankind."

Apple’s alternate history of the space race, which posits what might have happened if the Soviet Union had beaten the U.S. to the moon and the competition for the final frontier never ended, was a smart, appealing series in its first season. In this year’s second season, however, it rocketed ahead to a possible spot on a list of TV’s all-time great dramas. That’s thanks to a sprawling, effortlessly talented cast led by Joel Kinnaman, a plausible alternate reality, superb writing and riveting action set pieces. The series is at its best in the second-season finale, involving a U.S.-Soviet standoff in space with the stakes of the Cuban missile crisis. “Mankind” asks big questions, doesn’t shy away from the worst tendencies of 20th century America, and does this all without ever careening into pedantic and patronizing territory. "Mankind" truly flies.

1. ‘It’s A Sin’ (HBO Max)

Nathaniel Curtis as Ash Mukherjee, and Lydia West as Jill Baxter in HBO Max's "It's A Sin," a new miniseries about a group of young friends during the AIDS crisis in London.
Nathaniel Curtis as Ash Mukherjee, and Lydia West as Jill Baxter in HBO Max's "It's A Sin," a new miniseries about a group of young friends during the AIDS crisis in London.

Short, sweet and desperately affecting, this British import from creator Russell T. Davies (“Queer as Folk”) is a stirring chronicle of the 1980s AIDS crisis. As told from the point of view of a group of young gay men living in London, “Sin” chooses character over exploitative tragedy when dramatizing how AIDS ripped through their lives, whether or not they were infected by the disease. The group of characters includes Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a young, charming actor who first refuses to believe a disease could kill only gay men; Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who fled his conservative family for freedom and love; and Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a naïve young tailor tagging along with the cool kids, tickled to be included. Perfectly paced, set to the beat of '80s pop bangers and the neon lights of dance clubs, “Sin” transcends the label of mere “AIDS drama.”

More: Is your favorite network TV series canceled, renewed or ‘on the bubble’?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Best TV shows of 2021: 'Girls5Eva,' 'Mare' rule (so far)