The entire TV business has been focused on streaming for a while now, but 2021 felt like the year the industry began treating its streaming platforms as the alpha and omega, with traditional broadcast and cable networks viewed as content suppliers for series’ eventual streaming homes, at best. Of the 20 wonderful shows we picked for our list of the year’s best television, 15 of them debuted exclusively on a streamer, and the other five came from places like HBO and FX, where the line between the linear channels and, respectively, HBO Max and FX on Hulu has become so blurry as to seem nonexistent. There’s still good work being done in traditional TV — The Wonder Years is in the midst of a fine reboot on ABC, for instance, while Starz’s Blindspotting was one of several cable shows from our midyear best-of list that just barely missed the cut for this final one — but it may be time to get used to streaming hegemony in rankings like this.
The thing about the streamers is that there are so many of them, and they’re producing so much varied content, that this list contains multitudes. We’ve got tragedies that offer surprising moments of comedy, plus comedies that unexpectedly demand to be taken seriously; social satires produced in different countries that could not possibly resemble each other less; and even a pair of Avengers spinoffs that have nothing in common other than some shared Marvel backstory.
There’s been a lot of great work on the small screen this year. These shows loomed the largest.