best shows 2021

Good shows can comfort and uplift. They can also disturb, haunt and unsettle. The TV landscape continues to grow more vast every year, producing not only a wealth of great brand-new shows, but also great new seasons of familiar ones. Team FC curates their favourite international shows across genres currently streaming. Note: These shows were selected from the ones currently streaming on Indian platforms.

1. Midnight Mass

Streaming on: Netflix

It takes a while to get into Mike Flanagan’s seven-episode series, which starts off as the slowest of slow burns. But keep the faith and you’ll be rewarded with a climactic fire and fury of Biblical proportions. Though steeped in Christian iconography, which it alternately adopts and subverts, the show works as a critique of any organised religion that turns devotees into blind fanatics, while also acknowledging the comfort that only belief in a higher power can bring. It’s a tightrope that’s anchored by a stellar performance from Hamish Linklater, playing a priest who arrives at the desolate Crockett Island, only for a series of miracles to follow right after him. 

2. Pretend It’s a City 

Streaming on: Netflix

A docuseries often carries the frequently unacknowledged burden of making reality as captivating as fiction. A documentary needs to hold your attention for a couple of hours, a docuseries usually twice as much. If it is not the time that intimidates the format, it then is the structure — each episode needs to be original. And it is difficult to derive originality from a world of platitudes. Fran Lebowitz, on whom Martin Scorsese’s docuseries is based, single-handedly transforms these expectations of the genre into a myth. The series is, as such, a stream of consciousness — Scorsese films his conversations with Lebowitz as they discuss a wide host of topics, mostly about New York. But it’s not the conversations or topics that beguile you, it is Lebowitz’s humour. A boomer with the spirit of a jaded twenty-year-old, Lebowitz is a hoot and so is Pretend It’s a City

3. Squid Game

Streaming on: Netflix

It’s fashionable to doubt ultra-popular and “mainstream” Netflix titles – not least one of the most watched shows in the history of the internet – but the wickedly warped series only proves that this is still South Korea’s moment. Yet another allegory for the Korean debt crisis wrapped in the absurdly harmonious premise of a do-or-die childhood game competition, Squid Game straddles the invisible line between commentary and gory entertainment with unapologetic glee. The characters – played by Korean stars familiar only locally before this – have become global icons almost overnight, slowly twisting the knife that Parasite had so cleanly stabbed the heart of world cinema with. Adjectives like ‘addictive” and “deceptively clever” are now par for the course for breakout South Korean shows, especially for the ones that transcend the popularity of the soapy K-dramas and make a permanent mark on post-pandemic culture. 

4. WandaVision

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

It’s only fitting that the first Marvel/Disney+ streaming series was a love letter to television itself. Released during the pandemic, the journey of WandaVision’s protagonist Wanda (a fantastic Elizabeth Olsen), cannily captured the way people turn to entertainment as a coping mechanism. But as the show progressed and Wanda lost herself in sitcoms till their laugh tracks rang hollow, it assumed deeper significance as a tale about the importance of confronting, instead of repressing, one’s grief. WandaVision utilised its weekly release format to great effect, dropping breadcrumbs in each episode that had the internet feverishly theorizing what would come next, while still staying true to the story it knew it wanted to tell. Bonus points for the beautiful central romance between Wanda and her partner Vision (Paul Bettany), a rarity in a franchise that doesn’t do romance well at all. 

5. Mare of Easttown 

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

Mare of Easttown isn’t a particularly new HBO venture — they have created and produced numerous shows of this ilk. I often wondered why this series stood out amongst a sea of crime dramas whose similarities outnumbered the differences. One reason is Kate Winslet, a powerhouse of an actor. She plays Mare, a detective investigating the murder of a young woman alongside other petty crimes. She also has domestic, parental, and romantic duties to attend to. This is precisely what grounds the show compared to its spiritual siblings — Mare of Easttown is situated in the quotidian, and when it needs to distance itself from the ordinary, it does so effectively and thrillingly. Also, Evan Peters as Detective Zobel is a treat to watch and Jean Smart as Mare’s mom even more so. 

6. Sex Education S3

Streaming on: Netflix

A sensational stretch of television, season 3 of Sex Education educates without condescending to, entertains without pandering to, and challenges without recklessly becoming inaccessible. Following high schoolers — Otis (Asa Butterfield), his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Maeve (Emma Mackey) — in a fictional British town up in the mountains, the resounding, radiant success of the Sex Education franchise is testament that as much as we are interested in seeing sex unfold as an erotic act, we are also interested in sex unfolding as a humanizing one. 

7. Only Murders In The Building

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

When this twisty, smart 10-episode show wasn’t a scathing critique of true-crime podcasts and how they could be predictable at best and exploitative at worst, it adopted a deeply empathetic view of the people who make, consume and feature in them. All while unravelling a compelling murder mystery of its own. Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez turned in endearing performances as amateur New York sleuths attempting to solve a murder, only for them, and the audience, to eventually realise how the loneliness of a big city was the real silent killer. 

8. Succession S3

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

There’s nothing better than a prolonged familial civil war. While it does feel like a never-ending phenomenon, that only translates to a longer show for us to watch. (Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t watched Succession or Season 2) Picking up from where it left off, Season 3 of Succession begins with Kendall waging a public war against his family after his father makes him the sacrificial lamb for their company’s misdoings. If one thought that the first two seasons were solipsistically focused on the Roys, this one doesn’t simply turn the dial up, it breaks it. Zingy and snappy one-liners like, “I’d castrate and marry you in a heartbeat” are peppered throughout the season. And anyone could’ve seen how its final few episodes would end gloriously. 

9. The White Lotus

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

The White Lotus opens with news of a murder, which turns out to be the least interesting part of this sharply satirical series, in which the ultra-wealthy guests at a Hawaiian resort proceed to verbally eviscerate each other. With ‘eat the rich’ as his rallying cry, creator Mark White channels his background as a reality show contestant into this study of capitalism, those who profit from it and those doomed to labour under it. The show’s many pleasures include its whip smart humour, deeply satisfying send-ups of the elite, and an all-time great performance from Jennifer Coolidge, who, as Jennifer Lawrence put it recently, “knew the fucking assignment.”

10. Maid 

Streaming on: Netflix

Ten tense, barbed, and fragile episodes, each an hour long, chart the journey of Alex (Margaret Qualley), a survivor of abuse and a mother of an almost-three-year old. Adapted from Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, the show opens up poverty, emotional abuse, alcoholism, and motherhood with empathy, without flattening the moral complexity of a moment. 

11. The Underground Railroad

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Barry Jenkins, a gentle chronicler of people and their emotions, brings his brand of empathetic tenderness to The Underground Railroad, a 10-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The series follows Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), a slave who escapes from a cotton plantation in Georgia — fraught subject matter that Jenkins handles with an unflinching, yet sensitive gaze, conveying the highs and lows of his characters’ lives with a camera that stays right by their side, every step of the way. If other slave narratives focus on the dehumanization of their characters, this is a celebration of their humanity. 

12. Ted Lasso S2

Streaming on: Apple TV+

If season 1 of Ted Lasso introduced viewers to the concept of constant kindness as a radical act, season 2 doubled down on the sunny optimism while also acknowledging that Ted (Jason Sudeikis)’s relentless good humour couldn’t win over everyone, and even sometimes functioned as a front for his own complicated emotions. It’s the mark of good writing that these ideas didn’t undercut the show’s message, but only made for a deeper, more morally complex season. Where season 1 ended with a white flag and a tender truce, S2 ended with battle lines firmly drawn. And as much as the show has established itself as a fantastic comfort watch, the addition of these explosive tensions can only elevate it. 

(Written by Gayle Sequeira, Ruhaan Shah, Prathyush Parasuraman and Rahul Desai)

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