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Why I made the list: Apart from managing to catch a few excellent movies at the Sitges Film Festival, I felt like I didn’t get to clock in nearly as much cinema in 2021 as I would have liked (and due to COVID, a lot of theatrical releases were pushed back to 2022, anyways).
Luckily, there was no shortage of excellent TV shows in 2021 that managed to make it onto the airwaves despite the coronavirus pandemic. And, as always, there were quite a few that managed to fly under the radar of general audiences due to the glut of quality series out there.
This list is my attempt to spotlight some of the most underseen or underrated TV series from 2021 and help give them some of the love they deserve! I’ll be including both ongoing series I feel are still lacking wide exposure, as well as new shows and miniseries that debuted this year. So, let’s dig in!
As I noted in my review of Monsterland (2020), horror anthology series tend to be incredibly hit-and-miss. Happily, the series adaptation of George A. Romero’s 1982 ode to classic horror comics has an impressive hit rate in general, and even the weaker creepy tales included in this ongoing collection provide plenty of little pleasures.
Anchored by gleefully macabre animated segments featuring the maniacal ghoul The Creep, the show manages to be fun and creative throughout all three of the seasons produced so far. Many of the episodes end up in pleasingly surprising ways, and almost always give the impressive roster of guest stars, including Adrienne Barbeau, Ali Larter, Justin Long, and Michael Rooker, something incredibly fun to play around with.
When a TV series adaptation of Bong Jong-ho’s fantastic Snowpiercer feature film was first announced, it seemed somewhat redundant. The Parasite director had already fully explored the world of a high-tech train divided into class compartments speeding through the frozen wasteland of post-apocalyptic earth and told a complete and satisfying story with a definitive ending.
Most of the first season of the Snowpiercer TV show failed to expel those doubts, despite featuring a great cast including Jennifer Connelly, Daveed Diggs, Alison Wright, and Sheila Vand. And although it had more time to explore both the varied interior of the vast train and the social conflicts brewing between the passengers, the first few episodes felt weirdly flat and were bizarrely fixated on a murder mystery plot that felt like a futuristic spin off of CSI.
Luckily, things greatly improved near the end of season one with a shocking and incredibly welcome twist pulled from the original graphic novels that would majorly shake things up, and the second series went on to deliver. In addition to throwing a few intriguing new characters into the mix, the show also gave the standout holdovers like Connolly and Wright more to do, and things continue to look promising for the upcoming 3rd season.
8. Them: Covenant
Them: Covenant had the misfortune of debuting in the shadow of last year’s excellent, similarly themed Lovecraft Country. But while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its ground-breaking predecessor, it’s still a tense and insightful look at the horrors of racial discrimination in 1950s America.
Although at times rather sluggish in its pacing, it still boasts great performances from the core cast, some brilliantly nightmarish imagery, and a wicked black-and-white flashback episode exploring the origins of the unsettling supernatural goings-on. Plus the subversive casting of perennial good-guy actors, in Devs‘ Alison Pill and True Blood‘s Ryan Kwanten, as the human villains of the piece, worked really well.
Already in its second season, it seems the brilliantly offbeat Evil has yet to catch on with most people. Which is a shame because it is an absolute joy to watch. At first glance, the show appears to be somewhat of an X-Files knockoff with a Catholic church-backed team investigating strange phenomena instead of the FBI and two skeptics instead of one. But the series has a wickedly playful sense of humor that puts it in a unique league of its own.
It also stands out above other X-Files imitators because of the irresistible chemistry between its three leads, especially between Mike Colter’s novitiate priest David and Katja Hebers‘ firecracker psychologist Kristen.
Westworld‘s Hebers is particularly impressive as a complex character who goes through a lot, but regardless never seems to lose her sardonic and infectious sense of humor. She absolutely shines in an almost non-verbal performance in the brilliant season 2 episode “S is for Silence”, pictured above.
The rest of the cast is stacked with reliable supporting performers given juicy roles to dig into, including Christine Lahti as Kristen’s morally dubious mother. Lost‘s Michael Emerson is also delightful as the team’s devious adversary Leland, who may or may not have sold his soul to the devil.
Indeed, one of the great things about Robert and Michelle King’s scripts is that they (mostly) play with the concept of the supernatural being real or not without giving a definitive answer. Meanwhile, they throw in visitations from ghouls and demons created with awesome practical effects that may (or may not) simply be products of the main characters’ fertile imaginations.
6. It’s a Sin
After creating the fantastic Years and Years (2019) and taking a speculative but totally believable peek into the near future of the UK, Russel T. Davies turned his attention to Britain’s not-so-distant past. This 80s-set drama follows the lives of a group of young friends in London as they negotiate the tumultuous events of the decade, most notably the emerging AIDS crisis. And it’s arguably even better than Davies’ last impressive series.
It’s a Sin paints a vibrant picture of the gay scene in the UK capital at the time, capturing the excitement of its young protagonists as they embark on their new lives. At the same time, it expertly weaves in a creeping sense of dread as whispers about a mysterious ‘gay cancer’ begin to seep into and sour their experiences.
As the effects of the virus begin to make themselves known, and the crisis is fuelled by ignorance and reactionary responses, Davies keeps his focus on the devastating human costs of the epidemic. Filled with vividly drawn, sympathetic characters, It’s a Sin is an engrossing and often highly affecting drama throughout its runtime.
5. Brand New Cherry Flavor
I already praised Brand New Cherry Flavor plenty in my full review earlier this year so I’ll keep this short and sweet. While it’s definitely not for everybody, if you’re a fan of David Lynch films and occult-themed shows like AHS: Coven and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, then this awesomely weird series is right up your alley.
4. American Horror Story: Double Feature
After a great start, I was firmly underwhelmed by the last few installments of AHS: 1984, the retro-styled 9th season of American Horror Story which centered on a seemingly cursed summer camp that seemed to magnetically attract a murderer’s row of crazed killers.
While it started off campy, and, despite all the murders, quite fun, it soon descended into a convoluted mess of random subplots, unlikely backstories, and unbelievable character decisions, much like many AHS seasons past. Still, as usual, I was cautiously optimistic that the creative team could turn things around when they rebooted the story for the inevitable 10th series.
After a seemingly endless prolonged wait due to COVID-related pushbacks, I went into AHS: Double Feature with curiosity and feverish anticipation. As disappointing as it can often be, I still love American Horror Story and get a kick out of the wacky concepts, kitsch style, and awesome acting even when the story starts to go off the rails.
Split into 2 halves (with slightly more episodes in the 1st than the 2nd), the first part, Red Tide, presents a tale about a blocked writer who retreats to Provincetown, Massachusetts in the winter months with his family in an attempt to get his creative juices flowing. There, he meets some sinister local creatives and discovers a problematic solution to his blockage. The story that follows is tight, tense, and incredibly atmospheric, harking back to some of the better early seasons of the show.
Admittedly, the conclusion to that story felt a bit disappointing and the first episode of the second story, Death Valley, didn’t seem very promising. A narrative about a sinister alien conspiracy unfolding across 2 time periods decades apart, I certainly found the historical flashbacks to Eisenhower-era America intriguing, but the present-day scenes were incredibly grating, thanks to the cast of unlìkeable spoilt-brat college students.
However, and perhaps contrary to popular opinion, I seriously came around to Death Valley as the episodes progressed and really started to dig its ridiculous but enjoyable revision of history that harked back to the series’ treatment of Anne Frank in Asylum and their version of the Black Dahlia murders in Murder House. While the annoying millennials remained a bit of a downside, I thought the two parts of the story came together nicely.
Both parts of Double Feature also once again provided a great showcase for its cast, particularly Leslie Grossman, Angelica Ross, and Frances Conroy. Leading lady Sarah Paulson also seriously impressed as paranoid, homeless junkie Karen in the first part and as (a highly fictionalized) version of Mamie Eisenhower in part 2. The fact that this may be her last season is sad, but at least she did get not one, but two, fantastic final scenes.
3. We Are Lady Parts
“One part boredom, two parts identity crisis” – just a sample of the golden one-liners packed into this short but memorable series from Peacock. The concept of a conservative muslim woman getting drafted into a girl punk band would seem to inherently lend itself to comedy, but this consistently hilarious and charming series knocks it out of the park.
Full of genius awkward comedy and likable characters, We Are Lady Parts draws you into its unique world and makes you root for the protagonists to overcome their considerable hang-ups and conflicts just as often as it makes you bust a gut laughing. Bring on season two!
2. The White Lotus
Mike White is a writer with a refreshingly unique voice responsible for films such as The Good Girl with Jennifer Aniston and Beatriz at Dinner with Salma Hayek, and I’m always curious as to see what he will do next. He also created the excellent Enlightened (2011-2013), which I placed at no.1 on my list of underrated TV series of the last 2 decades.
While that brilliant show was, unfortunately, unfairly canceled before its time, he’s been given another crack at an HBO production with The White Lotus. Initially billed as a one-off miniseries, it’s since been renewed for a second season in an anthology format with a new location and a different cast of characters, so it seems that White is having better luck with his second go-around at the network.
The show follows a disparate group of (mostly entitled, rich) guests who arrive at the titular Hawaiian resort for a holiday, as well as the frazzled hotel employees scrambling to placate them and live up to their demands. As with most White projects, awkward, dark humor prevails as the misunderstandings and resentments among the characters bubble to the surface.
The actors are uniformly excellent and the show makes great use of underrated performers such as Steve Zahn, Alexandra Daddario, and Murray Bartlett. But the real scene-stealer is Jennifer Coolidge as ditzy, emotionally troubled heiress Tanya McQuoid.
White, who wrote the part for Coolidge, taps into the actress’ strengths for both deadpan comedy and over-the-top emoting and gave her her best part in years. We can only hope that the cast of characters he assembles for season 2 is half as fun to watch as this group was.
1. In Treatment
I think it’s fair to say that the last couple of years have left most people, even those who wouldn’t even normally dare to consider it, with the feeling that we all need maybe just a little bit of therapy. If you never got around to making that therapist’s appointment, however, you could always tune into this revival of the HBO series and get some second-hand counseling through sessions with Uzo Aduba’s Dr. Brooke Taylor and her patients.
Although the drama about a psychologist and his rotating door of clients was always a solid and affecting drama with Gabriel Byrne in the therapist’s chair, this new incarnation of In Treatment is arguably even more compelling with Aduba as the shrink. The actress excels in a role far removed from her Crazy Eyes persona from Orange Is The New Black, and manages to engage you in her considerable personal turmoil while still convincing as a well-intentioned and compassionate professional.
Brooke’s sessions with confused young Latino care worker Eladio are especially moving. But Aduba shines most in her scenes opposite John Benjamin Hickey, who plays an arrogant, entitled businessman reluctant to engage with his issues.
As with the first series, some of the patients she sees in her week are more compelling than others, and some of the episodes can be slow going. However, in general, the storylines all work together well, and although not the main focus, the shadow of the pandemic is a carefully considered and well-handled looming presence over the show.
So, what did you think of my picks? Strongly agree/disagree? Let me know in the comments, and stay tuned for my first review of 2022, coming soon!