2021 may not have been the full-on return to normalcy and joy that so many had hoped for after the nadir of 2020. But at least there was some great TV — tons of it in fact, packed with standout performances. These are the people who made us smile, cheer and swoon, to whom we pledge our eternal thanks and devotion for making this partial rebound year that much more bearable.
While they didn't make our tep ten, honorable mentions go out to the following: Hacks's Jean Smart, Saturday Night Live's Bowen Yang, WandaVision's Kathryn Hahn, It's a Sin creator Russell T. Davies, Shan from Survivor, and the tie-dye hoodie from Only Murders in the Building.
Debbie Allen has long deserved recognition as one of the most talented and accomplished entertainers of her generation, and 2021 was the year she finally got it in a Kennedy Center Honors presentation that, while moving, was short-changed because of COVID restrictions, It seemed for a moment that her lifetime achievement award at September's Primetime Emmy Awards would be similarly truncated, but the legendary producer-director-choreographer-actress got her moment in the spotlight at the better-than-expected Emmys telecast, when she delivered the speech of the night, an emotional note of gratitude, attitude (do not put a clock on her!), and a call to the next generation.
Speaking of the Emmys, Evan Peters walked away with a Supporting Actor statue for his performance on Mare of Easttown as a fresh-faced police detective who tries to solve the murder of a teenage girl along with Kate Winslet's harsher, less yielding Mare. For an actor who had previously been under the campily stylistic wing of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story and one of countless X-Men, the idea of Peters and Winslet in scenes together might have seemed like a complete mismatch. But Peters turned in a career-best performance as Detective Colin Zabel, an open, vulnerable character who turns out to be charming and sweet enough that the audience started rooting for him and Mare to get romantic. Which obviously only made the turn the story ultimately took that much more devastating.
We had no idea how desperately we needed Fran Lebowitz's unique brand of know-it-all crankiness when Netflix debuted Pretend It's a City. The series of conversations Lebowitz had with director Martin Scorsese on the subject of New York City's many foibles, annoyances, indignities and ultimately irreplaceable quirks was the perfect splash of acidity just as we were feeling a little too morose about how much the pandemic had warped big city living in general and New York in particular. Fran's appeal isn't that she's always right — though clearly she'd say she is — it's that she has so very much to say about every conceivable topic under the subject header of "living in New York" that we, like Scorsese, can sit in rapt attention for hours at the majesty of her discontent.
A newcomer to the Mike Flanagan Haunted House Universe, Linklater arrived in Netflix's Midnight Mass as the most intriguing of characters: a newcomer and seeming outsider to this small town with deep roots and deeper resentments. As the new parish priest in this decidedly Catholic town, Linklater was central to this twisty story whose religious foundations become more and more central to the story as it unfolds. If any of this intrigues you, run don't walk to Netflix to watch the entire season, which sees Linklater tear the house down in a performance that is at once scary and sentimental, holding the center of a daring piece of religio-horror fiction.
From the very first episode of The White Lotus, you just knew that the season was going to belong to Jennifer Coolidge. This is no slight to the rest of the show's fantastic cast — particularly Steve Zahn, Alexandra Daddario, Murray Bartlett, and Natasha Rothwell — but rather an acknowledgment that what Coolidge was delivering as eccentric rich lady Tanya was not only jumping off the screen but also perfectly exemplified her appeal as an actress over the years. With this prestige perch on HBO, it seemed like pop culture was finally about to have a moment of recognition that Jennifer Coolidge is one of our most consistently fascinating character actors. As The White Lotus unfolded, Coolidge delivered on that promise, most spectacularly in Tanya's barely-controlled tearful eulogy for her mother.
After WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier each nudged the Marvel Cinematic Universe along in their own ways, Loki came around and appeared to be telling a story completely outside of the continuity of the MCU as we knew it. Fans knew better, though, and anticipation was high going into the season finale for how Loki's adventures in fixing and un-fixing the sacred timeline would end up altering the MCU going forward. We got our answer when guest star Jonathan Majors showed up as an unnamed character called "He Who Remains." MCU fans, of course, already knew that Majors had been announced as playing villain Kang the Conqueror in the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Whatever his name, the character as played by Majors — who was already coming off of an Emmy nomination for last year's Lovecraft Country — managed to monologue his way through the finale with enough charisma and magnetism to set himself up as one of the most intriguing figures in the franchise going forward.
The Saved by the Bell reboot on Peacock had already established itself last year as a shockingly creative, wildly funny spin on the '90s teen series, and one of the show's MVPs was Josie Totah as vain influencer Lexi. This only became more apparent in the show's second season, with Totah taking up the mantle established by performances like Jane Krakowski's Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock. Totah's best moment in season two came with a spotlight episode as Lexi was determined to stage a school play in order to evade the deluge of concern after another case of transgender discrimination hit the news. Totah's status as one of TV's most prominent trans actresses exists hand-in-hand with her delivering the show's most reliably big laughs, making her one of the most exciting players working in TV today.
The Friends reunion on HBO Max had been anticipated for years, and when it finally arrived, it was a mixed bag. There were weird decisions made when it came to time allocation, with too much real estate given to nonsensical celebrity cameos, and far too much James Corden. But easily the best part was watching the six main cast members reunite on their original stage. And with every arrival, the face that lit up the most brilliantly was Lisa Kudrow's. Everybody in the cast was clearly touched in one way or another to see each other again in that space but Kudrow's spirit was the one that radiated off the screen. May we all one day be lucky enough to have an old friend be that happy to see us when we roll around again.
RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars season six was a triumph in a lot of ways, with indelible lip syncs (check out our Best Reality Show Moments of 2021 for some Laganja Estranja appreciation) and the first ever trans winner of American Drag Race in Kylie Sonique Love. Season eleven all-star Silky Nutmeg Ganache was the third queen eliminated, a sad end to her story... or so we thought. All season, RuPaul had been teasing the "game within a game," which turned out to be a lip-sync gauntlet for all the eliminated queens to try to get back into the main competition. That's where Silky got her real redemption, winning six lip-sync face-offs in a single episode, including one where her opponent declined to compete, so Silky performed "Barbie Girl" against herself, lip-syncing the male and female vocals with male and female drag on either side of her body. It was a sight to see, and a triumphant moment that nobody saw coming.
New York City is never hurting for representation on television, but 2021 really delivered when it came to representation for the neighborhoods above the theater district. Only Murders in the Building was one of the year's funniest and most charming comedies while also delivering the Upper West Side apartment envy that some of us are always looking for. Gossip Girl returned with a reboot that helped put the Upper East Side back on the map as the playground for Manhattan's most affluent and sexually fluid teens. And even though they weren't TV shows, In the Heights and West Side Story proved that Washington Heights and Harlem are where you can find the best dancers and swooniest romances in the city.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.