31 TV shows to watch in 2021
These are the shows that will help get you through year two of the pandemic
If you're anything like me, quarantine has resulted in you watching a lot of TV.
Thankfully, the reinforcements are here. Though the start of the 2021 TV season was always going to be a little weird, there are some great things in the pipeline, from sci-fi and fantasy epics to escapist comedies to comforting friendship dramas.
There's no telling for sure what will be the next Tiger King or Queen's Gambit, but there are plenty of great candidates to obsess over. Here are 31 options for getting you through the year.
1. Dickinson (Apple TV+, Jan. 8)
Dickinson is a show that shouldn't work, but absolutely does. When the first season, starring Hailee Steinfeld, premiered in late 2019 as part of Apple TV+'s launch slate, people weren't quite sure what to make of its zany, overly anachronistic telling of Emily Dickinson's life. "This freak of a show … [is a] wholly unsuccessful and tonally inscrutable piece of work," panned one baffled critic. But just because the real Emily Dickinson likely didn't twerk doesn't mean her story needs to be exclusively handled with the dusty seriousness of A Quiet Passion; when it comes to getting at the slant truths of her life, creator Alena Smith is wickedly spot-on. And good news: The second season is reportedly even "smarter, weirder, warmer, [and] sexier" than the first.
2. Pretend It's a City (Netflix, Jan. 8)
Here's the thing about New Yorkers: they'll complain endlessly about their city, but as soon as an outsider says a word against it, they transform into its fiercest, loyalist, profanest defenders. And perhaps no one makes that love-hate relationship clearer than Fran Lebowitz, who comes pretty close to being New York's living patron saint (she's also the saint of staying home and doing nothing, although these days, the two are unfortunately mostly one and the same). Martin Scorsese already made a 2010 documentary about Lebowitz, but he returns to pick her brain in this seven-part half-hour series for Netflix, where she's as hilariously blunt and insightful as ever.
3. All Creatures Great and Small (PBS, Jan. 10)
If you are looking for a soothing, warm, zero-stress escape from the world, might I suggest All Creatures Great and Small? Based on the popular novels about a rural veterinarian by the British author James Herriot, the story is set in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930s, where a fictionalized Harriet is hired to work for an eccentric veterinarian. Though it takes some getting used to (farmers tend to be a skeptical lot), he soon settles in as the trusted attendee of the community's cattle, horses, and a prima donna Pekingese. The whole thing is extremely British; like the original BBC series that ran from 1979 to 1990, this comes to us from the U.K., as part of a collaboration between Channel 5 and PBS' Masterpiece Theater. But to sum up why a simple, gentle, feel-good show is worth your time, I leave you with this description from The Times: "Cow gets sick, cow gets better. Hurrah." Indeed!
4. WandaVision (Disney+, Jan. 15)
There will be no shortage of Marvel TV shows coming out this year, between Loki, Ms. Marvel, Hawkeye, She-Hulk, and Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but at the top of my list is WandaVision, which is set after the events of Avengers: Endgame. While Disney hasn't been too forthcoming about details, the trailer appears to show Wanda Maximoff (AKA the Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (who, yes, was dead the last time we saw him) living together in an I Love Lucy-style 50s sitcom universe. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has assured that WandaVision works as a stand-alone and that even people who aren't familiar with the intricacies of the MCU will be able to jump right in. "If you haven't seen any of them and just want to step into this weird thing because you love The Dick Van Dyke Show, it's going to work," Feige told Entertainment Weekly. "But if you've been tracking the 23 movies we've made and following along the stories into Phase 4, there'll be a wealth of rewards waiting for you as it all unfolds."
5. Gomorrah (HBO Max, Jan. 12)
It's about time! Though the rest of the world has already seen seasons three and four of the popular Italian crime drama Gomorrah, rights issues in the U.S. had long prevented stateside fans from knowing the fates of the great crime families of Naples. At last the show has found a home at HBO Max, where the third season will be available for streaming starting this month. Likened to The Godfather, The Sopranos, and The Wire, Gomorrah has been described as "the unmissable, ultimate mafia show," with its third season, which debuted on Sky Italia in March of 2019, even outperforming Game of Thrones in Italy. The whole world is watching — how about you?
6. Painting with John (HBO, Jan. 22)
It has long been my dream to own one of actor and musician John Lurie's quirky and colorful paintings, which have titles like "I need to know if there is life after death and I need to know kind of soon" and "I have moved to a bucket inside a cave. Please do not visit. Thanks." The next best thing, though, will be watching Painting With John, Lurie's first unscripted series since the cult favorite Fishing With John aired in 1991, in which Lurie would take his entertainment-industry friends on dramatically uneventful fishing expeditions. Painting With John appears to be angling as the kind of anti-Joy of Painting, with Lurie stressing in the trailer that "none of the trees in my painting are happy; they're all miserable, they're very unhappy." Though he announces point blank that "I was hoping this show would be educational, but I really don't know what the f--k I'm doing," when it comes to Lurie, you're just happy to be along for the ride.
7. Firefly Lane (Netflix, Feb. 3)
Abbi and Ilana. Issa Dee and Molly Carter. Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia. Television is full of epic female friendships, and Tully Hart and Kate Mularkey's bond looks like it'll be one of the classics. Firefly Lane is the decade-spanning story of their relationship, from when they meet at the age of 14 and become inseparable, to their relationships, heartbreaks, jealousies, and joys later in life (as adults, Tully and Kate are played by Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke respectively). This will be one to watch on Netflix Party with your gals, for sure.
8. The Equalizer (CBS, Feb. 7)
Nabbing the coveted post-Super Bowl spot for 2021 is The Equalizer, CBS' reboot of the classic 1980s series. The original series starred Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a vigilante type who uses the ominous ad: Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer. The 2021 reboot, however, puts Queen Latifah in the lead role as Robyn McCall, "an enigmatic woman with a mysterious background who uses her extensive skills to help those with nowhere else to turn." While many gender-swapped reboots tend to be a disservice to actresses, The Equalizer is a uniquely inspired swap — how does the story and implications change when it is a woman helping people with nowhere to turn to, rather than a man? Hopefully the 2021 Equalizer trusts itself enough to explore the question, and find out.
9. Clarice (CBS, Feb. 11)
We're big fans of Hannibal here at The Week, but it's already somehow been half a decade since the best show on television (at the time!) was canceled. Now CBS is looking to get in on the magic of Silence of the Lambs television with its own show, Clarice, named after the FBI trainee played by Jodie Foster in the 1991 film. Set one year after the events in Silence of the Lambs, the show follows Clarice (Rebecca Breeds) as she tracks down serial killers and sexual predators for the FBI. Intriguingly, Clarice won't be able to mention or feature Hannibal Lecter due to rights issues, but as executive producer Alex Kurtzman explained to Entertainment Weekly, "it's been quite liberating because we have no interest in writing about Hannibal — not because we didn't love the films and the show, but because it was done so well by so many people that it didn't feel fresh for us."
10. Shadow and Bone (Netflix, April)
We might have another year to wait for Amazon's Lord of the Rings TV series, but you only have to make it to April for the year's first high-budget fantasy show. Based on the Grishaverse novels by Leigh Bardugo, which include the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology, the story is set in the Russia-inspired Kingdom of Ravka, which has been divided in two by a barrier of darkness. Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Lin), a young soldier, has the ability to manipulate light, and she must hone her powers to save her best friend and her country. Bardugo has said the show will be "radically different" from the books, but "in the most amazing way."
11. The Nevers (HBO, summer)
The Nevers was supposed to be the big return to TV for Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, but HBO announced it was parting ways with the writer/director last year during emerging allegations of his misconduct on the set of Justice League (in a statement, Whedon wrote that he had "realize[d] that the level of commitment required moving forward, combined with the physical challenges of making such a huge show during a global pandemic, is more than I can handle without the work beginning to suffer"). Prior to Whedon's exit, he had described the show as "maybe the most ambitious narrative" he's worked on yet, with The Nevers focusing on a group of women during the Victorian era who have extraordinary powers. The show will star Outlander's Laura Connelly as Amalia True, the leader of the group. Though diehard Whedonites were undoubtedly disappointed by the director's exit last November, ScreenRant points out that the show has been in production since July 2019, with production wrapping in October 2020, so "it's likely that Whedon's influence will be felt in at least some of the drama's ten episodes."
12. The Book of Boba Fett (Disney+, Dec.)
The Book of Boba Fett is one of the approximately one gazillion Star Wars TV shows that Disney+ is in the process of making, and was confirmed by the post-credits scene at the end of the second season of The Mandalorian. Set during the same timeframe, The Book of Boba Fett will continue to star Temuera Morrison as the titular bounty hunter, and Ming-Na Wen as Fennec Shand; Robert Rodriguez, who directed the Boba Fett episode of The Mandalorian, is also set as executive producer. Meanwhile, Mando and Baby Yoda will return in 2022.
13. Keeping Up with the Kardashians (E!, TBD)
Don't be rude: Whatever you think of the Kardashians, 2021 will mark the end of a television era as Keeping Up With the Kardiashians concludes this year after 14 years and 20 seasons. The show is what helped launch the Kardashian-Jenner family into the stratosphere of stardom they now occupy — it's pretty crazy to think that when it first started, Kim Kardashian was still best known for a sex tape and her friendship with Paris Hilton. The timing, though, makes sense; the rise of social media, and particularly Instagram, have made Kardashian-Jenner voyeurism instantaneous. Kim was notably spotted filming the final season amid the ongoing drama with her husband, Kanye West; though Kris Jenner has long joked that in the season 20 finale, Kylie "gets married," it might instead end, sadly, with divorce.
14. Succession (HBO, TBD)
Succession is my pick for the best show currently on TV, and HBO assures that it will return at some point in 2021. Kendall Roy and the rest of the family only appear for a few seconds in the network's sizzle reel for the year, though, so we really don't know much of anything about season three just yet. Still, it's a safe bet to assume the next season concerns the fallout of Kendall's backstabbing in the season two finale, the continued ascension of Cousin Greg, and perhaps an answer to why Logan Roy was smiling.
15. Scenes From a Marriage (HBO, TBD)
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are set to reunite in Scenes From a Marriage, an English-language reboot of the 1973 Swedish television show by the legendary director Ingmar Bergman. The new miniseries, on HBO, will take the same themes of its predecessor — "love, hatred, desire, monogamy, marriage and divorce," the network explains — and explore them in the form of a contemporary American couple. The original Swedish series was so influential that "on Wednesday nights, the streets were empty because everyone was at home watching Scenes from a Marriage," and divorce rates were said to have actually spiked in Sweden as a result of the show. Needless to say, writer/director Hagai Levi (The Affair) has big shoes to fill.
16. Gossip Girl (HBO Max, TBD)
I am a shameless fan of the original Gossip Girl, and can't wait for the show to return this year on HBO. The new series picks up with New York's prettiest and most popular Upper East Siders eight years after the original gossip blog went dark, and stars an all new cast of characters (Kristen Bell once again returns to narrate). "This time around, the leads are nonwhite," showrunner Joshua Safran previously told Vulture — you can see their newly-released character profiles here. "There [will also be] a lot of queer content on this show. It is very much dealing with the way the world looks now, where wealth and privilege come from, and how you handle that." The move from the CW to HBO also means the show will likely have more grown-up content. XOXO!
17. Station Eleven (HBO Max, TBD)
WarnerMedia's announcement of a 10-episode miniseries based on Emily St. John Mandel's best-selling 2014 book Station Eleven predated the words "COVID-19," but the timing couldn't be more relevant. The book depicts the world before and after the "Georgia Flu" rips across the globe, killing the majority of the world's population. Though the story spans multiple timelines, Gael García Bernal will have a recurring role as Arthur, a famous actor, while Himesh Patel (Yesterday) and Mackenzie Davis (Terminator: Dark Fate) will star as members of the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who bring entertainment to the pandemic survivors. Donald Glover's frequent collaborator, Hiro Murai (the "This Is America" music video; Atlanta) will direct.
18. Reservation Dogs (FX, TBD)
FX's Reservation Dogs is going to be something special — the half-hour comedy series, about crime-fighting (and crime-committing) Native American teenagers growing up on a reservation in eastern Oklahoma will reportedly be the first show about Indigenous people that is produced and entirely written by Indigenous people. Sterlin Harjo, who is part of the Seminole and Creek nations, and Oscar-winner Taika Waititi, who is of Māori ancestry, are serving as co-showrunners. It sounds like one of the rare, but growing number of TV shows that will represent Native and Indigenous people accurately, and will star D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, and Lane Factor.
19. The Dropout (Hulu, TBD)
There are not one, but two projects in the works inspired by the bizarre story of the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. On television, your option will be The Dropout, a limited series on Hulu starring Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon, and exploring how the "world's youngest self-made female billionaire [lost] it all in the blink of an eye." Holmes, of course, is the dropout the title references, having left Stanford to revolutionize blood testing, only to be charged with "massive fraud." Rather wait for the movie? Bad Blood, from director Adam McKay, will star Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Holmes.
20. Nine Perfect Strangers (Hulu, TBD)
Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy are basically my dream television duo, so I could not be more excited about Nine Perfect Strangers, a miniseries based Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty's latest novel. The series centers on nine city dwellers who travel to a 10-day Australian wellness retreat run by a mysterious woman named Masha (Kidman). Among the strangers are McCarthy, who will star as Francis, a down-on-her-luck romance novelist, while Luke Evans plays Lars, a divorce lawyer, and Michael Shannon and Asher Keddie play a couple who've lost their son. Expect all the high-gloss intrigue of Big Little Lies.
21. Run the World (Starz, TBD)
Sex and the City meets Living Single? I'll take Glamour's word for it — Run the World could be my new favorite TV show. The eight-episode, half-hour series follows a group of Black friends in Harlem, with Amber Stevens West as Whitney, the type-A "perfect" one; Bresha Webb as Renee, the blunt and cynical one; and Corbin Reid and Andrea Bordeaux as Sodni and Ella, the other half of the friendship quartet. Patricia Field, the famed costume designer of Sex and the City, will be helping out with the wardrobe, and showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser brings the experience of having worked on Living Single, Black-ish, and Dear White People. Plus, the title seems almost surely based on the Beyoncé song. Need I say more?
22. Tuca & Bertie (Adult Swim, TBD)
Last spring, Adult Swim rescued Tuca & Bertie after it was shockingly canceled by Netflix after only one season — to the ecstatic joy of the show's many fans, as well as critics, who'd given the premiere season rave reviews (ourselves included). The second season of the show, by the production designer of BoJack Horseman, will be 10 episodes long and return Tiffany Haddish as the voice of Tuca and Ali Wong as Bertie, her downstairs neighbor and best friend. Having earned a spot on IndieWire's list of the Best Animated Series of All Time and being widely regarded as among the best new shows of 2019, it's fantastic news that Tuca & Bertie was brought back from what would have been a sorry death by the Netflix algorithm. Plus, there's sweet satisfaction in turning up for it on a network that's decided to trust in risky projects, like Adult Swim.
23. The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime, TBD)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad follows the runaway slave Cora (Thuso Mbedu) as she attempts to make her way north, only to discover that the Underground Railroad is not a metaphor, but a literal train line to freedom. So far, Amazon's teasers have been gorgeous — here's another — which is no surprise coming from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins at the helm. The series will span nine episodes and probably reignite the debate over whether it's a TV show or a really long movie. Who cares? Whatever it is, it looks like it's going to be one of the best things we watch this year.
24. Girls5Eva (Peacock, TBD)
By my count, Tina Fey is producing two new comedy series this year: Mr. Mayor on NBC, which you can watch now, and a forthcoming show for NBCUniversal's streaming service, Peacock. That would be Girls5Eva, a comedy about a short-lived '90s girl group that reunites for another shot at fame. The cast looks incredible: Ashley Park (from Mean Girls on Broadway) plays Ashley, described as the "glue" who holds the group together, while singer Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Paula Pell, and Busy Philipps round out the cast playing the rest of the girl group. The logline for the show is "they may be grown women balancing spouses, kids, jobs, debt, aging parents, and shoulder pain, but can't they also be Girls5eva?" We'll soon find out, but I'm rooting for them.
25. Midnight Mass (Netflix, TBD)
Netflix just can't get enough of Mike Flanagan. The creator of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor will have a new, unrelated series this year — Midnight Mass — in which he'll direct all seven episodes. The series focuses on an isolated island community which begins to experience strange events after the arrival of a new, mysterious young priest, and will star Hill House's Kate Siegel, Zach Gilford (The Purge: Anarchy) and Hamish Linklater (Legion) The show doesn't have a release date yet — typical of Netflix — but Flanagan has confirmed to Deadline that "we did not miss a single day of production, and unlike a lot of other shows, we did not shut down once. Not one time. 83 shooting days, without interruption." You might call that ... a good omen.
26. Inventing Anna (Netflix, TBD)
I basically inhaled the fantastically juicy 2018 New York Magazine article "How Anna Delvey Tricked New York's Party People," about how an Instagram influencer managed to con the city's socialites into believing she was a billionaire heiress. Now the story is getting the Netflix treatment, courtesy of Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. The 10 episodes will star Julia Garner as the grifter Anna and Anna Chlumsky as Vivian, the journalist investigating her; The Devil Wears Prada's David Frankel will direct the pilot. This will definitely be one to binge.
27. Maid (Netflix, TBD)
They're the people you never notice, the ones who quietly clean up your messes for $9 an hour. In her 2019 memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother's Will to Survive, author Stephanie Land describes the false myth of how hard work will raise you from poverty, and what it's like to live as a part of the underclass whose backs the middle and upper classes rest upon. For Netflix, Shameless co-creator John Wells, Margot Robbie's production company, and Shameless and Orange Is the New Black writer Molly Smith Metzler are creating a "female-driven dramedy" inspired by the book, with Margaret Qualley attached in the lead role as the single mother who takes on work as a maid to support herself and her child.
28. Ripley (Showtime, TBD)
Hot priest alert! Andrew Scott of Fleabag fame stars in this eight-episode series based on Patricia Highsmith's bestselling Tom Ripley novels. Scott, who is fresh off an Emmy win, will take over the part of Tom Ripley, who was famously played by Matt Damon in the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley. Showtime explains that in the show, Ripley, "a grifter scraping by in early 1960s New York, is hired by a wealthy man to travel to Italy to try to convince his vagabond son to return home. Tom's acceptance of the job is the first step into a complex life of deceit, fraud and murder." Oscar and Golden Globe winner Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, The Night Of) will write and direct the entire first season, Deadline reports. Still can't get enough of Patricia Highsmith adaptations? Deep Water, starring Ana De Armas and Ben Affleck, will be in theaters (if that's a thing) on August 13.
29. Dexter (Showtime, TBD)
Alright, admittedly a Dexter revival is a major "no one asked for this" situation. But we're bloody intrigued about how Showtime will attempt to take another stab at what is widely considered to have been one of the worst series finales of all time. This 10-episode do-over will bring back Clyde Phillips, the showrunner for Dexter's first four seasons, and its star, Michael C. Hall, as the titular serial killer. The original Showtime series ran for eight seasons between 2006 and 2013, and is over 100 episodes long, so consider this your warning to start catching up now.
30. Halo (Showtime, TBD)
Halo might feel a little 2007 at this point, but this long-in-the-works series (Stephen Spielberg was attached as executive producer way back in 2013) is finally expected to premiere on Showtime sometime this year. Though the specifics of the narrative have been kept under wraps, we know it will be 10 hour-long episodes based on the enormously popular video game of the same name, which relates to a 26th-century war between the United Nations Space Command and aliens known as the Covenant. Showtime's president of programming, Gary Levine, has said the show will be "incredibly respectful of the canon," if that's something you care about, and the ridiculously tall actor Pablo Schreiber will play the supersoldier protagonist Master Chief. Say what you want about Halo, but if this show is even a fraction as popular as the rest of the franchise, it'll be impossible to ignore.
31. Foundation (Apple TV+, TBD)
Apple TV+ has become a friendly streaming service for ambitious — albeit, so far not very good — sci-fi and fantasy series. Foundation is looking to buck the trend, and net Apple TV+ its badly-needed first win. Based on Isaac Asimov's hugely influential trilogy of the same name, Foundation is a thousand-year-spanning epic about humans who are fighting to overthrow the Galactic Empire (it was an obvious influence on Star Wars). The 10 episodes are being overseen by co-showrunners David S. Goyer (who wrote The Dark Knight) and Josh Friedman (Avatar 2, if it really exists), and have the seal of approval from Asimov's daughter, Robyn — but I'm totally on board for one reason and one reason alone: actor Jared Harris.
Bonus: A Sex and the City reboot on HBO Max?
Don't hold your breath for this one; production on the Sex and the City reboot isn't expected to start until late spring, so there's a good chance this series won't actually be out until 2022. Still, we can't not mention the confirmation of the long-rumored return of Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who could be back on screens potentially as soon as late this year. The revival will follow "Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte as they navigate the journey from the complicated reality of life and friendship in their 30s to the even more complicated reality of life and friendship in their 50s," Deadline reports. The other friend in the foursome, Samantha, is notably missing from the description because actress Kim Cattrall has made repeatedly clear she's against returning. That, of course, raises the question voiced by W: "Will anyone even watch … without Samantha?" I can't help but wonder either.
— Earlier from The Week: 24 movies to watch in 2021