We know that many of you reading these end of the year lists are TV fanatics. And when it comes to something like our 30 best TV shows of 2021, you’ve been there done that. So this list is for those of you who are ready to go to the next level of niche, who want a binge watch that you can proudly introduce your friends and family to and say “you may not have heard of it, but it’s really good!” The only reason why most of these shows were left off of our Top 30 list is because they were too under-the-radar to garner enough votes—simple as that!
So in the glut that is Peak TV, here are the 11 shows that need and deserve your love.
Developed by: Joe Port and Joe Wiseman
Watch on Paramount+
Based on the UK series of the same name (which itself is streaming on HBO Max), the delightful Ghosts has become a bona fide hit for CBS. So why is it on a list of under-the-radar shows? Because it’s a CBS comedy, and if you’re an elder Millennial such as myself, you could be knocked over with a feather to learn this is one of TV’s best series. But don’t sleep on it.
Ghosts follows a young couple, Samantha and Jay (Rose McIver and Utkarsh Ambudkar), who inherit a large country estate that is, turns out, filled with ghosts only Sam (after she goes through a near-death experience) can see and hear. These ghosts aren’t scary though, they’re mostly friendly and occasionally annoying in their demands to smell bacon or have Sam turn on the TV. They also make for a fantastic comedy ensemble. Comprised of a small percentage of those who have died on the estate’s property from the beginning of time, the ghosts rule the roost: Bossy Revolutionary War soldier Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones), kind Boy Scout leader Pete (Richie Moriarty), pants-less Wall Street bro Trevor (Asher Grodman), uptight lady of the manor Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky), certified hippie Flower (Sheila Carrasco), flamboyant jazz singer Alberta (Danielle Pinnock), deadpan Lenape tribesman Sasappis (Roman Zaragoza), and the oldest of all the ghosts, Thorfinn (Devan Chandler Long), a Viking.
As Sam and Jay work to establish a B&B, the ghosts both help and hinder the process in earnestly funny ways. The charming CBS series is not quite as cozy as the UK’s version, and features a few unfortunate hallmarks of American sitcom formatting that can feel heavy-handed, but when it hits, it really hits. Best of all, Ghosts is family-friendly enough for everyone to enjoy. —Allison Keene
Created by: Mae Martin and Joe Hampson
Watch on Netflix
No show was as emotionally affecting or as funny this year as Netflix’s dark romantic comedy Feel Good. Co-created by Mae Martin and Joe Hampson, the semi-autobiographical show depicts the relationship between a fictionalized version of Mae, a comedian and recovering addict, and George (Charlotte Ritchie), a school teacher who’s previously only ever dated men. The series’ excellent first season details the couple’s meet cute and subsequent romance, and it only gets better in Season 2. With just six short episodes, Feel Good wastes no minute of its run time as it tells a beautiful story about love and identity while digging into deeply complex issues related to trauma, addiction, recovery, and sexuality. Although it can be heartbreaking to watch Mae slowly and reluctantly peel back the layers of their pain, the show has no shortage of laughs. It’s both subtle and not, never shying away from depictions of queer sex or the long-lasting effects of trauma. The result is a show so good you almost can’t believe it exists, let alone that we were blessed with two seasons of it. —Kaitlin Thomas
Created by: Michael Waldron
Watch on Starz
Created by Loki’s Michael Waldron—with Mike O’Malley serving as showrunner—Heels follows brothers Jack (Stephen Amell) and Ace (Alexander Ludwig) Spade as they navigate their way through the world of local, independent professional wrestling in their small, fictional Georgia hometown of Duffy. The series begins nearly a year after the shocking death of their father, “King” Tom Spade (David James Elliott), a local hero who left behind a legacy and big shoes to fill. He also left behind the family business, the Duffy Wrestling League (DWL). Family man Jack, who plays a heel in DWL and hold the company’s championship belt, takes over the responsibilities of running the promotion (booking wrestlers, writing the storylines, courting sponsors, and everything else he can possibly do to grow the DWL), while devil-may-care Ace—the promotion’s top face—has dreams of making it big in professional wrestling and finally getting out of Duffy the way Wild Bill did.
Heels is a series that sets out to not just push back the metaphorical curtain (as opposed to the literal curtain) on the world of contemporary professional wrestling, but to examine how the lines of reality can be blurred—something professional wrestling takes to another level. That’s especially true when wrestling is literally your family’s whole life, the thing that you hope puts food on the table. Heels asks the questions one would expect a show about professional wrestling to ask: When does kayfabe (the established “fake” world of wrestling) become a shoot (the real world)? When does a shoot become kayfabe? What happens when those worlds co-exist? And in the specific case of Heels, how do these characters balance work and family when both are inextricably linked? It’s territory that Heels has its characters absolutely thrive in from the very moment we meet them. —LaToya Ferguson [Full Review]
Created by: Liz Heldens
Watch on Hulu
Have you loved Scott Foley ever since his days on Felicity? Do you need a little joy in your TV line-up? Are you looking for more body positivity on the small screen? Have I got a show for you! In The Big Leap, smarmy reality show producer Nick Blackburn (Foley), icy choreographer Monica (Mallory Jansen), and former dancer Wayne (Kevin Daniels) come to Detroit to produce a reality show called, that’s right, The Big Leap. They’re casting everyday people—of all backgrounds, ages, sizes, cultures, and sexual orientations— to put on a modern retelling of the ballet The White Swan. Gabby (Simone Recasner) is a single mom who gave up her dreams of dancing when she became pregnant right after high school. Professional football player Reggie (Ser’Darius Blain) sees the show as a chance to reform his less-than-stellar reputation. Paula (Piper Perabo) is a corporate executive looking to add more meaning to her life. Mike (Jon Rudnitsky) recently lost job and sees the show as a way to win back the wife who left him. Julia (Teri Polo) is feeling the mid-life reality of her husband and her children ignoring her. And finally, Gabby’s best friend Justin (Raymond Cham Jr.) doesn’t realize how talented he is, while twins Brittney (Anna Grace Barlow) and Simon (Adam Kaplan) are (the worst kind of) child stars all grown up.
Part soap opera, part comedy, part dance extravaganza, the series is a pure delight and compulsively watchable. Every episode pulls you into the drama and refreshing romantic entanglements while delivering surprising plot twists and heartbreak (the show gets a lot of credit for following through on a tragic turn of events). As entertaining as Foley always is, this is easily the best role of his career. He perfectly embodies a man who will gleefully do anything for ratings no matter the emotional cost. But somehow we are still rooting for him, and maybe even feel a little bad for him at times. Foley infuses the role with humor and humanity and that makes all the difference.
Although the cast has some very familiar names, part of the reason it works so well is that so many of the characters are played by people you haven’t seen a million times before. (Newcomer Recasner is the definition of a discovery.) While the first season of The Big Leap was a perfect 11 episodes, I’m so wanting a second season. The show needs ratings to be able to dance on. Take the leap and watch this gem. —Amy Amatangelo
Created by: Elizabeth Ito
Watch on Netflix
Not to be confused with the other Ghosts on our list, City of Ghosts is almost impossible to describe. One part gentle animated kids’ series, one part deeply humane city documentary, and one part wild artistic experiment, animator Elizabeth Ito’s short, six-episode love letter to the richly storied, non-famous neighborhoods of Los Angeles landed on Netflix so quietly back in early March that literally no one I’ve raved about it to has even heard of it, let alone seen it floating in amongst their personalized recommendations. Sure, part of that might be that few of those same people I’ve raved to live/share a Netflix queue with kids under the age of eight (City of Ghosts’ most obvious target audience), but for as complex, funny, and emotionally overwhelming as the innovative series is, it really deserves to be thrown in front of the widest audience possible.
No other show, after all, is experimenting so productively with the animation styles it uses to tell its story: The majority of City of Ghosts’ backgrounds consist of real, stylized photos of Los Angeles, while different episodes incorporate everything from stop-motion animation to borrowed footage from live-action shows from the 1970s (see this clip for the latter). No other show, after all, is experimenting so effectively with how it uses dialogue to tell its story: In true documentary style, both the kids who make up the core Ghost Club and the L.A. residents (both ghostly and living) who they interview over the course of their project to document lived experiences across L.A. speak like real people—which is to say, awkwardly, and with many pauses, repeats and ums. This would be a compelling enough approach on its own, but Ito takes the “real people” idea a step further, echoing her use of real photos as background illustrations by casting actual neighborhood experts from around the city as the adults her fictional kids go out to interview—legendary punk rocker (and Atomic Café owner) Nancy Sekizawa, included. — Alexis Gunderson
Creatd by: Don Mancini
Watch on Peacock
Ask yourself: what do you want from a Chucky TV show?
If you want believable dialogue, compelling characters, and a coherent narrative, this may not be the place. If you want a demon doll who creatively and excessively kills a host of human characters in ways that will make you laugh, groan, and be grossed out, then yes: Chucky delivers. Not that these two things can’t exist simultaneously, but when it comes to USA and Syfy’s campy horror series based on the enduring franchise, you need to opt-in to the good-time gory fun with these caveats in mind.
Chucky comes from Child’s Play mastermind Don Mancini, and takes place in Hackensack, New Jersey. The prolific killer doll is matched with a new friend quickly: Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur), an artsy middle-school outsider who likes making freaky doll sculptures, picks Chucky up at a yard sale. Jake can’t quite manage to pull Chucky’s head off to add him to his collection, though, and pretty quickly comes to understand that this Good Guy doll is actually a Bad Guy and a vicious killer—one who wants to ostensibly “help” Jake through some difficulties at school and at home, whether Jake wants him to or not.
Ultimately, the Chucky series is accessible for those starting out with the franchise and (I am assured) those who have enjoyed Chucky’s journey and various incarnations over the years. CG may smooth out some of his movements and facial expressions more than in the past, but the practical puppetry remains the star. Every time an unassuming kid or parent holds this bizarrely large doll, the tension begins to build. Will he wink, flip a bird, or grin before reaching for his knife? Or will he just remain calm and quiet, except for the occasional declaration: “Hi, I’m Chucky. Your friend till the end…” —Allison Keene [Full Review]
Created by: Tassie Cameron and Sherry White
Network: IMDb TV
Watch on Amazon Prime
Starring Adrienne C. Moore (Orange is the New Black) and Meredith MacNeill (Baroness Von Sketchshow) as a comically mismatched pair of Toronto detectives—one irons her t-shirts! one wears mismatched socks!!—who are obliged to team up to take down a local opioid operation, Canadian import Pretty Hard Cases (née Lady Dicks) is, as one might expect with leads like Moore and MacNeill, extremely funny. I mean, there’s a reason the Odd Couple dynamic (especially in detective shows) is such a classic. And letting both halves of that dynamic be steered by women? You love to see it.
Still, I can’t say that I came into 2021 wanting yet another police procedural. I mean, making room in my heart for Brooklyn Nine-Nine to take its final (andfamously re-written) bow was one thing. But to leave the door open for a new procedural to take its place? Didn’t seem likely!
And yet, Pretty Hard Cases—which, coincidentally, premiered for American audiences at pretty much the same moment B99 bowed out—won me over. The strength of its explicitly diverse core cast, which includes both Hollywood vets like Karen Robinson (Schitt’s Creek) and Tara Strong (literally any cartoon you’ve ever watched) and Canadian stalwarts Al Mukadam, Daren A. Herbert and Dean McDermott, certainly helped. But ultimately it was the fact that series creators Tassie Cameron and Sherry White, who had just finished writing the first season when COVID locked the industry down in the spring of 2020, watched what happened with George Floyd and summer of reckoning that followed and took the same considered step back as B99 did, scrapping whole scenes and rewriting storylines to better address the rot of police brutality and systemic racism at the heart of North American-style policing.
The result? A complex, thoughtful (and still funny!) story that—though its moments of progressive catharsis do occasionally ring too much of fantasy to be satisfying—doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. A diverse police force helps, the series suggests, but it can’t solve everything. Letting women have institutional power helps, too, it argues, but it won’t fix what’s broken within that same institution’s basic structure. Because at the end of the day (tiny spoiler to follow), all you really need to get out of the kind of trouble that would derail pretty much any young, Black life is to be a white boy with ties to literally anyone in power.
It’s infuriating. But at least Pretty Hard Cases understands why, and seems prepared to address it. Which, if you’re in Canada, will happen imminently: Season 2 premieres on CBC in early January. —Alexis Gunderson
Created by: Nida Manzoor
Watch on Peacock
“Own your freakiness, before it owns you.” So rings the declaration of Muslim mother, fierce bassist, and indomitably sweet spirit Bisma (Faith Omole). While she serves it as a piece of encouragement to the perpetually nervous, stage fright-ridden, but dorkily charismatic Amina (Anjana Vasan), it could easily translate to a subheading for Peacock’s raucous musical comedy series.
Documenting the accidental (but transformational) addition of the sometimes hapless, staunchly buttoned-up microbiology PhD student Amina to an all-woman, devoutly Muslim British punk band that takes delight in shredding the ears of its disapproving audiences, creator Nida Manzoor’s series revels in the same tone of cathartic outrage as its titular band’s riot grrl, punk, and heavy metal idols. With instantly lovable characters who practically bathe in anxiety around their interpersonal relationships, played by a cast of delightfully excitable performers who thrive in the series’ melodramatic, stylized interludes, the show’s first season is a combination of loud joy, anger, and terror that is especially well-suited for an audience facing the challenges of coming into their own, or coming out themselves.
In addition to a genuinely exciting soundtrack and brilliant bits of silliness in each episode, the series also sets itself apart by making the girls’ repeated screw-ups a necessary launch pad on the road to DIY stardom. In its season finale rendition of “We Are the Champions,” there’s little doubt that no matter how often they get knocked down, the girls will keep rumbling, and continue to fine-tune their freakiness through encouragement and raw enthusiasm of their sisterhood. —Shayna Warner [Full Review]
Created by: Christian Linke and Alex Yee
Watch on Netflix
Netflix and RiotGame’s Arcane, based on the decade-old League of Legends multiplayer online battle arena game, is a revelation. Stunningly crafted in a mix of 2D and 3D by French animation studio Fortiche Productions, Arcane is created and showrun by League video game architects Christian Linke and Alex Yee. For 10 years, the duo and their studio have cultivated a passionate and massively dedicated community of eight million players who have immersed themselves in the games, tie-in comics, and music videos that make up the complex mythology of the world. But as so many videogame-to-movie adaptations have proved, even hit games have a rough time translating to a new medium. It’s the perpetual challenge for even the best creatives: finding the right balance of fan service while engaging non-gamer audiences.
Not unlike other heavy world-building series like Game of Thrones or Shadow and Bone, Arcane mostly concerns itself with political and familial conflicts in a world where magic exists. If you happen to be a gamer, the art deco-meets-steampunk aesthetics of Piltover and Zaun will immediately draw parallels to the lauded Bioshock games. If you’re not, it doesn’t matter because a huge part of the appeal of the series is getting lost in how visually immersive every frame of this show is. The textures, lighting, and color palettes—dank and neon in the under city, which juxtaposes against the more pastel and metallic topside—are a feast for the eyes.
Even if you have no interest in picking up any kind of gaming console, do yourself a favor and give Arcane a try. It has more mature storytelling and emotional resonance than many live-action shows do right now. And it deserves to be lauded as the new benchmark for what can be done when it comes to successfully translating worthy videogame universes into a different medium while refusing to dumb down or simplify complex storytelling. Arcane is a world worth getting lost within. —Tara Bennett [Full Review]
Created by: Aisling Bea
Watch on Hulu
I don’t know if the UK and Ireland invented the six episode comedic/confessional TV format, but their writers have certainly perfected it. This Way Up, created by and starring Aisling Bea, stands alongside similarly-styled series like Fleabag, Back to Life, and Catastrophe: A 30s-ish woman on the brink of a breakdown attempts to sort out her life and career in awkward ways, using wry, sharp humor as a mask over deep emotional pain. And for some of us, it is a searing reflection.
In this version of what has proven to be a darkly winning formula, Bea’s Áine is introduced as coming straight out of rehab for a deep depression and nervous breakdown that left her suicidal. Her protective older sister Shona (Sharon Horgan) arrives to take her home, and the two immediately define themselves as an inseparable pair; they fuss, rib each other, and are absolutely each other’s anchor. Shona is confident with Áine that she will be fine, but turns back to the nurse with an implied ”...right?” The answer isn’t worked out yet.
This Way Up is essentially a collection of incredibly well-wrought micro-vignettes, elevating common experiences with warmth and humor in a way that gets to the very essence of the emotions behind them. And those emotions are often monsters. Áine continues to battle the darkness that sent her to rehab in the first place, but it usually happens in quiet moments. Otherwise, she makes fun of herself, never stops talking, and makes constant jokes to deflect personal questions or from delving too deep into what’s really going on with her or how she feels.
This Way Up’s scope is exceptionally tight; it’s a taught, intense experience. The entire series, so far, can be watched in four hours. It’s an easy binge in some ways—Bea and Horgan are genuinely hysterical. In other ways that emotional depth and blunt realness can be overwhelming. But like everything in This Way Up, it comes out of love. If there is a Season 3, hopefully it jumps beyond that first wave to see Áine on the other side, where she wants to be, and where she belongs. Or at the very least, continuing to fight her way up. —Allison Keene [Full Review]
Created by: Dana Terrace
Network: Disney Channel
Watch on Disney+
When I say that little more than the bare-bones structure of Dana Terrace’s animated coming-of-age series, The Owl House, makes sense as a Disney Channel property, fans will recognize that for the tongue-in-cheek compliment it is—not because the series features as its protagonist a bisexual, neurodivergent Dominican-American girl so obsessed with magic that she crashes her way into a witchy alternate universe (though that’s definitely part of it). Rather, it’s because said witchy alternate universe is literally built atop the bare-bones structure of a long-dead, demonic titan. That’s right: This newest addition to the atlas of magical Disney kingdoms includes such landmarks as “The Knee,” “Forearm Forest,” and “Cuticle Valley,” throughout which vicious sorcerers and unsettling demons practice a particularly grotesque variety of magic. Honestly, if at some point in its final, truncated season Luz (Sarah-Nicole Robles) ends up on a romantic picnic with her golem-making girlfriend Amity (Mae Whitman) in “Tongue-in-Cheek Park,” I wouldn’t be surprised. Tickled? Absolutely. But not in the least bit surprised.
It’s not just the gruesome landmarks and queer romance that have made The Owl House such a teen fandom mainstay, however. It’s how much fun Terrace and the rest of her creative team are clearly having, taking the most tired of Teen TV tropes—high school sports rivalries; warring social cliques; suffocating parental expectations—and turning them (often viscerally) inside out. On the Boiling Isles, competition can be deadly, parents can be killers, and close, intimate friendship can be a literal nightmare. Add in an ancient punk grifter (a delightfully chaotic Wendie Malick) as Luz’s cursed would-be mentor, a cuddly skull-capped demon dog as her closest friend (Alex Hirsch, reprising some of his most grating Gravity Falls voices), and a generations-old mystery as to where the demon’s bones they all live on even came from, well—Disney branding notwithstanding—you’ve got a recipe for a true cult teen obsession. —Alexis Gunderson
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