Keeping up with the deluge of quality new and returning series this year was a downright punishing task, but those who did were rewarded with a bounty of fantastic shows and with them, standout episodes. The best episodes of this TV year brought sharp comedy, riveting drama, and more often than not had us talking for days. Picking only ten episodes to represent the year was achallenge, and limiting each show to only one contender made it even tougher.
Though they didn't ultimately crack the top ten, honorable mentions go to: RuPaul's Drag Race: All-Stars 6 for their lip-sync extravaganza; It's a Sin's exhilarating premiere; and Only Murders in the Building's penultimate episode as the central mystery began to click into place.
Without any further ado, here (in alphabetical order) are our ten favorite TV episodes of 2021:
Midway through its bonkers-good second season, Evil decided to show off with a near-silent episode that brought its trio of ecclesiastical investigators to a monastery that enforces a strict vow of silence. The episode itself plays like a little vacation from the longer-arcing storylines of the season, albeit one that involves demon cabinets, stigmata wounds, and swarms of possibly demonic instincts. Spotlighting the show's spirit of mischief that sets it apart from pretty much every other series on TV, "S Is For Silence" was also the perfect showcase for the show's trio of stars and their fantastic chemistry.
Streaming on Paramount+
The best episode of this deeply underrated comedy about an early Aughts pop girl group attempting a comeback doubled as one of the year's most knowing and on-target trips through queer online culture. When the group goes to play a Pride event, Wickie discovers that she's a gay icon for the viral video of her melting down during a production of Maskical! The Musical, while Gloria discovers that the gays don't care about her, even if she did get the first gay divorce in the country. Writer Matt Whitaker and stars Renee Elise Goldsberry, Paula Pell, and guest star Bowen Yang (as a Wickie fan who's profiting off of her) are a scream in an episode that lovingly skewers queer fandom, diva worship, and Patti LuPone's famous Gypsy tirade.
Streaming on Peacock
It's hard to end a limited series well, but Mare of Easttown turned in a finale that was thrilling, twisty, and emotionally devastating. It also clarified for a lot of viewers who may have been obsessing for weeks about who killed Erin McMenamin that the real story in Mare of Easttown was the small-town relationships that had been bruised and battered through some cruel turns of fate. Kate Winslet and Julianne Nicholson both richly deserved the Emmys they eventually won for this episode where their friendship was the thing that hung precariously in the balance until the very end.
Streaming on HBO Max
The most difficult decision on this list was settling on which episode of The Other Two's spectacularly hilarious second season to choose. And with all due respect to the episodes in which Cary accidentally tweeted out a nude, Chase joined a homophobic church, and the show mercilessly skewered Instagays who document their nauseating domestic bliss, it had to be this episode, where Brooke repeatedly breaks a non-disclosure agreement after sleeping with an NBA star and Cary starts "dating" a gay-baiting actor. Brooke and Streeter's NDA hijinks pushed the show farther into madcap comedy than ever before, and it paid off delightfully, while Cary's subplot is not only a funny/sharp critique of the gay publicity arms race but also a trip into surreality that ends with the most perfect Jordana Brewster cameo.
Streaming on HBO Max
Q-Force, Netflix's animated spy series about an all-queer team of secret agents, was either slept on or dumped on when it premiered earlier this year, which is a shame because it turned out to be a joke-dense, clever, and compelling little comedy, with some real touches of brilliance. A lot of that brilliance came in the "EuropeVision" episode, a lunatic mission to a fictional European country that mashes together EuroVision, The Princess Diaries, Vox Lux, and Ariana Grande in an episode that also feels anchored by the Deb character and drops a big revelation about Laurie Metcalf's V. Show this show some respect!
Streaming on Netflix
Succession's third season delivered psychosocially damning birthday parties and imprecisely delivered dick pics, and in one madcap hour had the Waystar Royco chairman going piss-mad at the investors' meeting. But Jesse Armstrong's show saved the best for last in a season finale that crescendoed in thrilling, heartbreaking, and ultimately jaw-dropping style. The relationship between siblings Kendall, Shiv, and Roman had become unbelievably toxic over the course of the season, so it only made a strange kind of sense that they came back around the other side to find their common bond as the whipped and mistreated children of Logan Roy. Finally on the same page, the siblings' once-elusive resolve to stick together and take down Dad was galvanizing … and their ultimate defeat due to a series of betrayals, some more likely (Caroline) than others (Tom!) was truly crushing.
Streaming on HBO Max
Top Chef's Portland season was a triumph in trying times, featuring one of its all-time best casts, creative challenges, and thoughtful nods to the local food scene. It was also a triumph of logistics and adaptability, with the COVID-19 pandemic requiring some tweaks and changes to the usual format. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Restaurant Wars, traditionally the most anticipated episode of the season. With COVID restrictions making the usual task of setting up a pop-up restaurant impossible, the show instead gave viewers something new and exciting, with teams competing in full view of the judges to create an ideal "chef's table" experience. The episode lost none of the usual high stakes of Restaurant Wars and, true to form, one of the season's heavy hitters had to pack their knives and go.
Streaming on BravoTV.com
WandaVision's entire season ranks among the most compelling and thrilling TV experiences of the year, with its best episode being its very first, jumping into its high concept with both feet, and putting Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda and Paul Bettany's Vision in the middle of a Dick Van Dyke Show reality without a single note of explanation. The atmosphere was tonally spot on … until it wasn't, at which point the episode's earlier commitment to the old TV aesthetics was weaponized against the audience in the brief moments that Wanda's fantasy began to crack. A perfect omen for the season that would follow.
Streaming on Disney+
Often with What We Do in the Shadows, it's the little things and small digressions that make the biggest and most hysterical impact. The vampires' field trip to Atlantic City packed a lot of promise, and it delivered, from sending Guillermo on a world tour to retrieve dirt from Nandor, Nadja, and Laszlo's homelands to Colin Robinson teaching Nandor about the Big Bang, but by far the biggest laughs came from Nadja mistaking the Rat Pack cover group for the real thing, recalling her glory days (complete with archive photos) of partying with Frank and Dean and Sammy.
Streaming on Hulu
Here's another series where choosing a single standout episode was a challenge, but Mike White's unsparing comedy of privilege and compromise reached a peak in this episode, thanks to its centerpiece scenes featuring Jennifer Coolidge's eccentric, grieving Tanya sharing her experience of spreading her mom's ashes in the ocean with young couple Shane and Rachel's pleasure cruise. The episode also features the two scariest teenage girls in history inundating Steve Zahn's character with their theories about the revelations that his father was gay and died of AIDS, and poor Armond tumbling further and further down his spiral towards self-destruction. "Mysterious Monkeys" was Mike White at his finest, mastering cringe humor, vicious interpersonal warfare, and bracing honesty.
Streaming on HBO Max
Joe Reid is the senior writer 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.
TOPICS: 2021 In Review, Evil, Girls5eva, Mare of Easttown, The Other Two, Q-Force, Succession, Top Chef, WandaVision, What We Do in the Shadows, The White Lotus