Don’t be discouraged by the not-always-intuitive interface and many instances of commercial breaks even in the paid tiers—Hulu boasts some of the best programming of any streaming service. It benefits in particular from a rich back catalog of titles, including a terrific array of current and classic network series as well as must-sees from overseas (such as a robust amount of anime). With its FX partnership, Hulu is not only home to the entire FX library, but also some great new collaborations like The Bear and Reservation Dogs. Plus, the streaming service’s originals are also stepping up with series like The Great and Only Murders in the Building.
Because of this, while you can add Starz, HBO, and other premium networks to your Hulu subscription (including a Live TV option that also opens up more series On Demand), we are keeping this list to what you can get with just the basics.
Below are our picks for 50 of the best TV series you can find on Hulu, which should keep you binging happily for many months to come.
Behind the Mask
Created by: Josh Greenbaum
Original Network: Hulu
This beautiful, quiet, and soulful documentary series explores the lives of those who work as mascots, examining how things are different inside and outside of their suit. From high school and college mascots to minor and major leagues, Behind the Mask highlights the hardworking people whose faces you would never recognize, but whose wonderfully cartoonish embodiments of team spirit have become iconic for fans. Garnering Hulu one of its first Emmy nominations, the series is a bittersweet tale of those who may labor unseen, but bring joy to untold numbers of people. The series does the same. —Allison Keene
Single Drunk Female
Created by: Simone Finch
Stars: Sofia Black-D’Elia, Rebecca Henderson, Sasha Compère, Lily Mae Harrington, Garrick Bernard, Ally Sheedy
Original Network: Freeform
In Simone Finch’s comedy series Single Drunk Female, Samantha (Sofia Black-D’Elia) is forced to move back to Boston and live with her mom Carol (Ally Sheedy) after her public intoxication at work leads to a criminal conviction. Once home, she must confront the fact she is an alcoholic, albeit one who has functioned for years. She needs a job and a sponsor. And, she needs to own up to the mistakes she’s made. The result is a series that blends humor with a raw and honest look at addiction. Sheedy is fantastic as a mom who loves her daughter but makes a lot of mistakes in her efforts to support her, while Black-D’Elia shines as a woman who continues to make frustrating choices even though she wants to do better. —Amy Amatangelo
Developed by: Wellesley Wild, Steven Spielberg
Stars: Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell, Tress MacNeille
Original Network: Hulu
Given how rough things have felt lately, Animaniacs—the zany, satirical slapstick show about three cartoon characters causing mayhem—returning after over two decades off the air, couldn’t be more welcome. It’s not an escape from reality, as the reboot leans into its political commentary, but it’s a much more colorful, joyful version of it, where nearly any problem can be solved with a giant hammer pulled out of one’s pocket. Animaniacs only wants one reaction from audiences of any age, and that’s laughs. It succeeds tremendously.
Hulu’s rebooted series maintains the same core of the original series, bringing back Steven Spielberg as a producer and many of the same voice actors, composers, and writers who created it. Each 24-minute episode block consists of three shorts of varying length, usually two starring the Warner brothers Yakko (Rob Paulsen) and Wakko (Jess Harnell), and the Warner sister, Dot (Tress MacNeille), with the middle segment going to Pinky (Paulsen) and the Brain (Laurice LaMarche). Without any narrative throughline, Animaniacs remains a show you can watch in any order and enjoy.
That’s the word that keeps coming to mind when thinking about this show: joyful. Animaniacs may not match other animated shows’ high-brow humor or enthralling stories, but it’s able to contain so much unadulterated fun that the other things I may be looking for don’t seem to matter. Hulu’s new season isn’t a reimagining of the original; it’s a continuation. And though it’s been many years since they left the airwaves, the Warner Siblings haven’t missed a beat. —Joseph Stanichar
Created by: Loren Bouchard
Stars: H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman, Larry Murphy, John Roberts, Kristen Schaal
Original Network: Fox
Bob’s Burgers, from creator Loren Bouchard, runs the risk of being shoehorned into the middle ground between its brethren: The Simpsons (now more American institution than mere TV program), and Family Guy (the rat-a-tat gag factory devised by Seth MacFarlane). That it nonetheless manages to carve out a distinctive identity—with the Belchers goofily surviving crisis after crisis at the titular diner through a heady brew of whip-smart puns, witty musical numbers, gross-out humor, and real, true kinship—is only surprising if you’ve never seen it. Once you have, its warm, sentimental streak, so deftly balanced with its zanier elements, is impossible to miss: As Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) says in the Season Two finale, reading a review of the titular diner, “We did did have a rather unique and strangely inspiring experience while we were there. This shabby little dive seems to hold a special spot in the dingy town’s heart. ”Matt Brennan
Life & Beth
Created by: Amy Schumer
Stars: Amy Schumer, Michael Cera, Susannah Flood, Yamaneika Saunders, Michael Rapaport, Laura Benanti
Original Network: Hulu
There is so much going on in Amy Schumer’s new dramedy series Life & Beth on an emotional level. The show explores how the hardest parts of Beth’s (Schumer) adolescence are tied to her parents, in particular her mother, with honesty and sensitivity. Visiting one’s childhood home means something different for everyone, but for Beth, it means realizing that her hurt, teenage self is still very much a part of her.
The show’s stacked cast deserves a shout-out as well. Michael Cera is so endearing as Beth’s love interest John, and he and Schumer have a strange but undeniable chemistry together. Susannah Flood plays Beth’s emotionally cagey and hilarious sister, Ann, in one of the most layered performances of the series. Michael Rapaport and Laura Benanti knock it out of the park as Beth’s flawed but loving parents. As for Schumer, she’s going out of her comfort zone here, and she does it well. —Clare Martin
Created by: Aidy Bryant, Alexandra Rushfield, Lindy West
Stars: Aidy Bryant, Lolly Adefope, Luka Jones, John Cameron Mitchell, Ian Owens
Original Network: Hulu
Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant takes center stage as Annie, an overweight woman who wants to change her life. But it’s not what you think: So many TV series, from This Is Us to Netflix’s repugnant Insatiable, build entire storylines about a fat woman losing weight. Before we even get to the opening credits, a total stranger tells Annie, “There is a small person inside of you dying to get out … You could be so pretty.” Annie’s got a boyfriend who makes her leave through the backdoor so his roommates don’t see her, as a mom who drops not-so-subtle hints about dieting and exercising. But an unexpected event in the first episode forces Annie to reassess her life and flips the proverbial script on the “fat woman” story TV and movies are so fond of telling. Amazingly, Annie doesn’t have to lose weight to improve her life. She’s ready to advocate for what she deserves. Bryant is so utterly charming, you can’t help but root for her. Lolly Adefope is also a true breakout as Annie’s best friend, Fran. The series is a delight. “I’m the one with the fat ass and the big titties, so I get to decide what we do,” Annie says. Damn straight, she does. —Amy Amatangelo
The Golden Girls
Created by: Susan Harris
Stars: Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty
If you were born in the 1990s, you probably missed out on this gem of a comedy. Now all seven seasons are available finally on a streaming platform. The story of four senior citizens—the sarcastic Dorothy (Bea Arthur), her take-no-prisoners mom Sophia (Estelle Getty), the flirtatious Blanche (Rue McClanahan) and the daffy Rose (Betty White)—resonates to this day because it’s an honest story about friendship and building a family out of your community. And the show was surprisingly progressive, tackling topics including gay marriage, teen pregnancy and the AIDS epidemic. But mostly it was hilarious. Once you’ve watched, you’ll thank these four amazing women for being your friend. —Amy Amatangelo
20. Little Fires Everywhere
Created by: Liz Tigelaar
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Joshua Jackson, Rosemarie DeWitt
“You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices! Options that being rich and white and entitled gave you.”
That’s Mia (Kerry Washington) screaming to Elena (Reese Witherspoon) during the emotionally charged fourth episode of the new Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere.
The line sums up the crux of a series that explores the complicated themes of race, wealth, and motherhood with a delicate aplomb. Based on the Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel of the same name, the eight-episode series follows the sequence of events that occur when Mia moves to the storied community of Shaker Heights, Ohio with her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) in 1997.
Elena’s friend Linda (Rosemarie DeWitt) has struggled with infertility for years and has finally adopted a baby with her husband Mark (Geoff Stults). Their lives have been wrecked by miscarriages and still births. Their adopted daughter Mirabelle is the answer to years of prayer and heartache. Meanwhile, Mia’s co-worker Bebe (Huang Lu) decides to fight for custody of the baby she abandoned. The mother-focused stories continue, and eventually come to a boil: these proverbial “little fires everywhere” become harder and harder to extinguish as the series progresses.
The series is set in the 1990s but its themes, particularly those surrounding what defines motherhood, are timeless. The conversation around race and privilege are perhaps even more relevant today than the era in which the show is set.
Washington is fantastic as Mia. Her hard, angry exterior barely conceals her vulnerability. She’s a fiercely protective mother who may not always make the best choices but always wants what is right. Witherspoon has perfected the entitled character who is blind to her own entitlement, living a life that is so controlled and carefully cultivated that she may have even lost sight of what she truly wants in life. Together, these elements ignite to form a show well worth watching.—Amy Amatangelo
The Handmaid’s Tale
Created by: Bruce Miller
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Joseph Fiennes, Max Minghella, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, Samira Wiley
Original Network: Hulu
With precise compositions and a rich sense of color, The Handmaid’s Tale envisions the intersectional, drawing the interlocking influences of gender, sexuality and status into its portrait of a puritanical dystopia not far from our own: “Blessed are the meek,” Offred (Elisabeth Moss) says in scornful voiceover, referring to the extremists’ empty dictum. “They always left out the part about inheriting the Earth.” Indeed, as she navigates Gilead’s stony euphemisms and loud silences, whether playing Scrabble with the powerful Commander Waterford (Jospeh Fiennes), flirting with his driver (Max Minghella), or (unsuccessfully) avoiding the ire of Waterford’s wife (Yvonne Strahovski), patriarchal dominion becomes the series’ unifying principle, the poison that soaks through the body politic “under His eye.” In this sense, the first great political drama of our authoritarian age is also, as with Atwood’s now three-decade-old novel, a kind of instant classic: Forever of our time. —Matt Brennan
Created by: Ramy Youssef, Ari Katcher, Ryan Welch
Stars: Ramy Youssef, May Calamawy, Mohammed Amer, Dave Merheje, Stephen Way, Hiam Abbass, Amr Waked, Laith Nakli
Original Network: Hulu
A quarter-life crisis has never been sweeter than in Ramy. The half-hour Hulu dramedy follows a fictionalized version of star Ramy Youssef (who also writes many of the first season’s episodes) as he figures out life as a young Muslim Egyptian-American in New Jersey. Co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, along with showrunner Bridget Bedard, find an endearing doofus in Ramy and plenty to say about generational compromise, religious identity, and culture clash. Ramy is easy to watch, radically optimistic, and a groundbreaking portrayal of Islam on screen. —Jacob Oller
Created by: Noah Hawley
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks
Original Network: FX
The trick of creator Noah Hawley’s anthology series isn’t just that he finds a way to take his source material—Joel and Ethan Coen’s extremely smart movie about stupid criminals—and turn the dial to 11. It’s that he’s done it for multiple seasons. Each 10-episode installment has created indelible characters that stay with you long after the last tragic turn of events has unfolded. Whether it’s Martin Freeman’s hapless Lester Nygaard in Season 1, Jean Smart’s cold and calculating Floyd Gerhardt in Season 2, or Ewan McGregor’s bumbling Stussy twins in Season 3, each season has brought us its own cadre of terrific actors. Hawley also has a knack for discovering talent, including Allison Tolman as the first season’s quietly determined detective Molly Solverson and Bokeem Woodbine as the second’s unforgettable, calmly terrifying Mike Mulligan in Season 2. Hawley deftly explores universal themes like the death of the American dream, the struggle to feel self-worth, and the potential evil that lurks inside many of us. He does this with dark humor, eloquent violence, and thought-provoking plot twists. Hawley upends our expectations. Things never unfold the way we expect. And we cannot wait for more. —Amy Amatangelo and Whitney Friedlander
Don’t Trust the B— in Apt 23
Created by: Nahnatchka Khan
Stars: Krysten Ritter, Dreama Walker, James Van Der Beek, Liza Lapira, Michael Blaiklock, Eric Andre, Ray Ford
Original Network: ABC
“I’m not perfect / I’m no snitch / But I can tell you / She’s a b— (buzzer sound)”
Created by Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat, Always Be My Maybe), Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 starred Krysten Ritter as Chloe, a chaotic grifter (among other things) and the titular “B—”, and Dreama Walker as June, her new roommate, fresh off the bus from Indiana. But the entire point of Don’t Trust the B— was to warp and subvert standard “fish out of water” and hangout sitcom tropes.
While June tried to teach Chloe—whose youthful past involved “psychopath camp” and resenting her extremely kind mother for being in a wheelchair—how to be a decent person or at least less of a “B—,” as the series was smart to explain very early on, Chloe (though certainly not a good person) was the type of fiercely loyal person you’d want in your corner, which allowed for her to work as a character who never truly learned the right “lesson” on an episode-to-episode basis. The general principle would be that June was making Chloe better, though it was more that Chloe was making June worse … which may have, in turn, actually made her better. Sometimes that required Chloe to tranq June or dose her or trick her into signing adoption papers or (the original tactic) having sex with her boyfriend on her birthday cake.
It goes without saying that Ritter was the MVP as the titular “B—”, but Walker was also able to play June in a way that wasn’t just a buzzkill for Chloe’s insanity, instead leaning into the exaggerated nature of all of it, with every reaction (June’s shock and horror at Chloe’s actions are all-time great reaction shots) more impressively exaggerated as time went on. Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 was a live-action cartoon in a lot of ways, and ultimately the series died as it lived: Absurd, surreal, and clearly too weird for the network it was on in the first place. —LaToya Ferguson
Created by: Joss Whedon
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Original Network: FOX
Leave it to Joss Whedon to dream up a space show without aliens. The smart writing he brought to Buffy turned the universe into one big frontier, where those who didn’t conform to authoritarian rule were forced to eke out their livings among outlying planets where the long arm of the law can’t follow. Watch the way-too-short-lived series in full before finishing with its feature length film Serenity. —Josh Jackson
In My Skin
Created by: Kayleigh Llewellyn
Stars: Gabrielle Creevy, James Wilbraham, Poppy Lee Friar, Jo Hartley
Original Network: BBC
Those tuning into In My Skin expecting a poppy British teen comedy will need to look elsewhere—but not until you have first finished In My Skin. It’s not a difficult proposition: The series run five half-hour episodes, though features Welsh accents so thick that subtitles will be a must. But this brief, deeply affecting story defies expectations at every turn.
Another BBC acquisition for Hulu, one that originally aired in 2018, In My Skin follows the story of Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy), a misfit teen who has the weight of the world upon her. She lives two, and eventually three, separate lives. In one, she is caretaker for her unmedicated, bipolar mother. In another she’s a pathological liar trying to escape her real circumstances by pretending to be upper-middle class, and in a third she’s incredibly charming yet vulnerable as a popular girl starts up a flirtatious friendship with her.
Created and written by Kayleigh Llewellyn, In My Skin approaches familiar teen TV beats in naturally awkward ways, with its young cast nailing the discomfort and constant strangeness of high school. The teachers are sardonic, the bullies are gross, and everyone is always fearful that they are ugly and hated. It feels like a real school, and moreover, these feel like real kids. The gloomy skies and cold, damp weather only augment a seasonal sense of unease and longing that permeates teenage life (heck, often adult life as well). And while there are constant small trainwrecks all around, In My Skin manages to find earnest moments of triumph that lift it out of hopelessness. —Allison Keene
Created by: Alison Newman Moira Buffini
Stars: Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville, Jessica Brown Findlay, Dorothy Atkinson, Pippa Bennett-Warner
Original Network: ITV, Hulu
Class. Patriarchy. Mobility. Agency. Sex and sexuality. Repression and Puritanism. Madonna-whore complexes. Hypocrisy. Masks and veneers. Family. Ghosts from the past. The never-ending battle to stay solvent, stay relevant and stay independent in a ruthless, snakes-and-ladders universe. Harlots has it all. First aired in Britain on ITV Encore, Harlots focuses on a bitter rivalry between two brothel-keepers in Georgian-era London, where, according to the opening scene, one woman in five was a sex worker. Madam Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) is scrappy and intensely focused on upward mobility, with an “it’s complicated” family of her own as well as her covey of whores; Across town in Golden Square is Margaret’s nemesis, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), a human glacier whose establishment is less a bawdy-house than a very high-end flesh-boutique. Soap opera-worthy machination and intrigue are hardly the whole story here, though. Harlots is a fascinating contemplation of a woman’s world in which there both is and isn’t freedom from the constraints of a society rife with hypocrisy and utterly tyrannized by money. —Amy Glynn
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Created by: Rob McElhenney
Stars: Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito
Original Network: FX
Made on a shoestring, with scripts that average about three insults a minute, the exceptionally long-running It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows The Gang, a group of egomaniacal degenerates who run an Irish pub in South Philly: Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson’s twins, Dennis and Dee; Danny DeVito as their dad Frank, and Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney as their friends Charlie and Mac. Storylines have included attempting to solve the gas crisis, attempting to get record-breaking drunk on a cross-country flight, and one heck of a coming-out episode in which Mac uses interpretive dance to tell his incarcerated dad that he’s gay. The Gang never change and never grow, but we love them for it. Few shows could get away with so cleverly lampooning major societal quandaries and issues as one in the same season they investigated “who pooped the bed?” And yet it’s always pitch-perfect. —Whitney Friedlander and Allison Keene
What We Do in the Shadows
Created by: Jemaine Clement
Stars: Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Mark Proksch
Original Network: FX
Based on the vampire mockumentary from Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, What We Do in the Shadows brings the sadsack bloodsuckers Stateside. The Staten Island roommates— vampires Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo (Matt Berry), and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), as well as Nandor’s servant, Guillermo (Harvey Guillen)—are all ridiculous and slightly pathetic. The handheld camerawork is the deadpan punchline, with every shaky zoom in on a character during a confessional implying, “Can you believe this weirdo?”
More of the humor comes from the macabre wordplay and deadpan goofiness—often thanks to Berry’s stark, blustery delivery, straight from his BAFTA-winning Toast of London, and the exasperated looks it draws from Demetriou and Guillen—which are then punctuated by violent slapstick, featuring gallons of blood. In bringing the vampire-out-of-water conceit’s mix of comic elements down to the granular level, What We Do in the Shadows harkens back to the strongest parts of the film, which thrived on its charming re-imagining of dopey mythical creatures failing through the world in a way very particular to Kiwi… or, now, Staten Island. And with its documentary style taken just as seriously as its campy effects and extravagant costumes, the cretinous cosplay is beautifully straight-faced and completely winning—especially when the show goes to oxymoronic extremes of mundanity, like a city council meeting about zoning ordinances. —Jacob Oller
Nine Perfect Strangers
Created by: David E. Kelley
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Luke Evans, Asher Keddie, Samara Weaving, Melvin Gregg,Tiffany Boone, Manny Jacinto, Grace Van Patten, Zoe Terakes, Regina Hall, Bobby Cannavale
Original Network: Hulu
A lottery winner, a drug-addicted former footballer, and a grieving family walk into a bar. Well, more like a smoothie bar. Nine Perfect Strangers, the latest collaboration between author Liane Moriarty and Nicole Kidman, is a captivating limited series on Hulu that follows a group of individuals all brought to the gorgeous Tranquillum House for a wellness retreat. As they learn more about their cryptic host, Masha (Kidman), and what brought them there, it’s clear nothing is as peaceful as it seems.
Each guest has come to Tranquillum in search of help, spiritual guidance, or just some good ole fashioned R&R. Francis (Melissa McCarthy) is a novelist looking for inspiration and relaxation after an online relationship turned out to be a scam; Tony (Bobby Cannavale) is struggling with opioid addiction following a sports injury; married couple Jessica (Samara Weaving) and Ben (Melvin Gregg) have lost their spark; Carmel (Regina Hall) is reeling from family drama and motherhood-induced insecurities; and the Marconi family (Asher Keddie, Michael Shannon, and Grace Van Patten) are looking to reconnect after a death nearly tore their family apart. The ninth and final guest, Lars (Luke Evans), is the most guarded and doesn’t make it immediately clear why he has arrived.
Despite her seemingly bizarre ways of healing, Masha truly wants to help all of the Tranquillum House visitors, and believes that she is. Her ideas are weird and fascinating, and encourage the guests to look within to finally get over whatever is holding them back from the happiness she knows is possible in all of their lives. Once they give in completely to her, the results are empowering and at times, frightening. Nine Perfect Strangers takes us along for the ride—a trippy, intense, exhilarating ride—and like the guests of the Tranquillum House, it’s best if we just buckle in and let it happen. —Kristen Reid
Created by: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, Sam Zvibleman
Stars: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle
Original Network: Hulu
Two young women make a comedy about middle school. It’s based on their own experiences, and they name the characters eponymously: Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle). Then they make a really interesting choice, casting their 30-ish selves as the 13-year-old principal characters, and surround themselves with a supporting cast of actual middle schoolers. The result is so excruciatingly awkward it probably out-awkwards actual middle school, which is no small feat. Erskine and Konkle absolutely hurl themselves into the roles, sparing nothing in their quest to anatomize seventh grade in all its disgusting, giddy glory. They’re hilarious, and there are moments when you entirely forget they’re adults. And then there are moments when that fact sticks out like a sore thumb and those moments are possibly the best, because they evoke the competing impulses of the age—to race into adulthood and to go back to the safety of childhood—with a kind of zany, surreal brilliance. These are young people for whom every single minute seems momentous and defining, and who cannot realize that nothing momentous and defining has yet happened to them. —Amy Glynn
My Mad Fat Diary
Created by: Tom Bidwell, George Kay
Stars: Sharon Rooney, Ian Hart, Jodie Comer, Nico Mirallegro, Dan Cohen
Original Network: E4
There are so many reasons why everyone needs to watch the U.K.’s excellent My Mad Fat Diary. Rae Earl (Sharon Rooney in her first role) is the fat teenage protagonist of our dreams. She weighs 16 stone (224 pounds) and has a dirty mouth, which she uses to describe all the things she would like to do to her crushes. It’s hilarious and riveting, raw and honest. But the emotional tone of the show (set between 1996 and 1998) is defined by the knowledge that Rae’s attempted suicide landed her in a mental hospital for four months. Much to her dismay (and luck), she is then reacquainted with her oldest friend, Chloe (Jodie Comer). In the first season, Rae has to straddle between her two worlds: the mental hospital and a new group of friends. The characters deal with abortions, parental abandonment, sex, body issues, and the difficulties of friendships and relationships with an imperfect protagonist who continuously hits rock bottom. But, somehow, hope is felt throughout. Teenagers and their mental health issues are rarely shown, especially with this much realness. But the dark comedy and our desire for Rae to win consistently provide relief. Oh, 90s Brit-pop, we love you so! —Iris Barreto
Created by: J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, Damon Lindelof
Stars: Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Naveen Andrews, Michael Emerson, Terry O’Quinn, Josh Holloway, Jorge Garcia, Yunjin Kim, Daniel Dae Kim
Original Network: ABC
When J.J. Abrams first marooned his plane-crash survivors on a remote island, no one realized the show’s name was a double entendre: It took crowd-sourced blogs to make sense of all the hidden clues, relevant connections, time shifts and intertwined storylines, and each season gave us far more questions than answers. But there’s something refreshing about a network TV show that trusts the mental rigor of its audience instead of dumbing everything down to the lowest common denominator. Even given the highly divisive series finale that had to make sense of the series’ lore in a way that connected to its exceptional character relationships, sometimes it’s good to be a little lost. —Josh Jackson
Over the Garden Wall
Created by: Patrick McHale
Voice Stars: Elijah Wood, Collin Dean, Melanie Lynskey, Christopher Lloyd
Original Network:Cartoon Network
Patrick McHale’s Cartoon Network miniseries Over the Garden Wall feels ripped out of a previous decade (to say which, exactly, is a bit of a spoiler), and its creepiness is incidental yet pervasive in the way that only old-timey artifacts often achieve. Two half-brothers, Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean), follow a bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey) through the Unknown, an increasingly disorienting realm inspired by vintage Americana and haunted by The Beast (Samuel Ramey), a terrifying figure seen only in short glimpses throughout the show. For all of its charms, The Unknown operates on its own nightmare logic, and Wirt, the stuffier brother (voiced to anxious perfection by Wood), wants little to do with its demon-possessed house girls or living pumpkin towns. The emissaries of The Beast, beginning with a rabid, wide-eyed hell-wolf in the first episode, are not at all toned down for the show’s ostensibly young audience, and the twist revealed in the final two episodes is much heavier than one would expect to see on Cartoon Network. If you wrote off Over the Garden Wall as just another manic children’s comedy, think again—and consider watching with the lights on. —Steve Foxe
Created by: Chris Carter
Stars: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish, Mitch Pileggi
Original Network: Fox
Pairing Scully-the-skeptic and Mulder-the-believer as they investigated the paranormal, The X-Files at its best is one of TV’s most exceptional programs. Some of its greatness waned in the later years, but the early seasons did more than investigate the implausible—it accomplished it, by taking aliens and conspiracy theories to the mainstream. —Josh Jackson
Created by: Sally Rooney, Alice Birch, Mark O’Rowe
Stars: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal
Original Network: Hulu
Many people are confined to their homes with various family members right now, but Hulu’s new show Normal People is not one to watch with your mom. Trust me on this. Normal People is a journey best taken alone in a dark room. The series, especially in the beginning, is uninhibitedly horny and would certainly make for an awkward group watch. If you’ve read the book, all this hot-and-bothered business probably sounds familiar (author Sally Rooney writes freely and without using conventional punctuation structures, bringing the reader even closer to the action). But it’s also a deeply felt story.
For the uninitiated, Normal People is the tale of two Irish teens, outsider Marianne and cool-kid Connell who, against all the odds (namely, a high school social hierarchy) fall in love and float in and out of each other’s lives into their university years. In the new adaptation starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal (both poised for breakouts), the plot is treated delicately and with great care, allowing for lots of small, quiet moments with these characters as they change, mature, break up, have sex, and make up over the years. At first, they hide their relationship from Connell’s popular friends, a group of random hot Irish people who stalk the halls of a high school that looks inexplicably like an airport terminal. Connell comes across as quite a scumbag early on, but the imperfectness of both his and Marianne’s youthful mistakes are part of what makes Normal People so real and endearing.
In the end, Normal People isn’t just some erotic but sweet story of turbulent young love. It’s a portrait of intimacy itself—and I do mean both kinds, sexual and emotional. There’s an earnestness to it that you won’t find in other TV shows aimed at young adults. But take away all the dynamic storytelling and so-real-it-hurts humanity, and you’re still left with a steamy quarantine binge that’ll leave your heart racing in the best way. But you’ve been warned: Just don’t watch with your friends or loved-ones if you, like Connell, are prone to blushing. —Ellen Johnson
Created by: Hannah Fidell
Stars: Kate Mara, Nick Robinson
Original Network: FX on Hulu
How do you tell a story about a 30-something teacher (Kate Mara) who has a sexual relationship (read: predatory) with her high school student (Nick Robinson) well? One that presents emotional truths without suggesting outright villainy, and yet, never lets her off the hook? One that meanwhile explores the hesitant understanding of trauma by the student himself? Extremely carefully. And that is what Hannah Fidell improbably achieves, with aplomb, in A Teacher.
The 10-episode FX on Hulu series is Fidell’s expansion (and tweaking) of her 2013 indie film of the same name. But the series, with its taught half-hour structure, doesn’t feel like a movie. It leans into its episodic structure in a way that allows it to hit upon the exact story beats it finds most crucial with deadly accuracy. There is no filler here—everything is essential.
It’s admittedly hard to garner enthusiasm for a show that is ultimately about trauma and abuse, but Fidell presents this chronicle (which starts and ends with trigger warnings of grooming, as well as links to resources) in a way that never feels like either an after-school special or a glorification of its content. It is a teacher, a student, a story. If you give it a chance (despite its misleading marketing and misguided weekly episode release), A Teacher will surprise you. It feels like an easy pass, something perhaps not worth engaging in because it is so difficult to handle this subject well (and why, perhaps, should it be handled at all?) It is, however, a stunning character study that understands all of the stakes and implications of the story it is telling. And if you saw Fidell’s 2013 film, this version is very, very different, and goes further in many ways. The story is all the richer for doing so. It is a fascinating consideration, well told. And well worth your time. —Allison Keene
Created by: Bert V. Royal
Stars: Olivia Holt, Chiara Aurelia, Froy Gutierrez, Harley Quinn Smith
Original Network: Freeform
I had to give up taking notes on Cruel Summer, Freeform’s 90s-set teen mystery series, about 2,000 words in. That said, the very density that prompted me to get 2,000 words deep in a meticulous kind of madness before changing course is precisely the thing that’s likely to turn Cruel Summer into the internet’s next big generation-spanning hit. Truly, from its complex, triple-layered timeline to its compellingly intimate POV-flipping narrative structure to its viscerally accurate mid-90s details, Cruel Summer is custom-built to be an object of social media obsession.
In the one corner, you have Aurelia’s Jeanette Turner, who at any given moment is a sweetly awkward 15, or a recently popular 16, or a universally despised 17, and who may or may not be guilty of compounding another girl’s trauma. In the other corner, you have Holt’s Kate Wallis, who at any given moment is a universally beloved 15, or a freshly traumatized 16, or an acidly angry 17. In between them, you have a gulf of not-knowing—a not-knowing that at any given moment might come from one character’s inherent duplicity, the natural gaps in another’s first-hand knowledge of a situation, or the fundamental unreliability of memory even before intense emotion is involved. There are some truths that are more real for some characters, and less for others; some realities that are more tangible in one moment than they are in the next.
The likelihood that one girl is lying and the other telling the truth hangs over Cruel Summer like a thundercloud, but in giving the audience just one walled-off chunk of each girl’s side of the narrative at a time, the possibility that they’re both telling a story that’s true to them is just as present. In floating the mid-90s media’s take on Jeanette and Kate to the top of its story over and over again, Cruel Summer adds an important third perspective on the nature of reality, and all the ways in which it can be warped in the name of “truth.” —Alexis Gunderson
Created by: Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi
Stars: Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis
Original Network: FX on Hulu
FX has found its niche in telling close-up, intimate stories extremely well, and Reservation Dogs is no exception. It focuses on four friends—Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor)—who accidentally form an unofficial “gang” dubbed the “reservation bandits,” because of their penchant for light crime. Their hope is to get enough money to get to California, an ideal that’s always just out reach.
The lived-in, slightly surrealist comedy is a low-fi exploration of an Indigenous community in Oklahoma, whose leads shuffle around the “rez” among other misfits and sundries, and stumble into a variety of adventures that range from stealing a chip van to dealing with a snarky and overworked healthcare system. FX has touted Reservation Dogs, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, as revolutionary. In many ways it is; it features an all-Indigenous writers room, for one. But the show makes its boldest statement by not feeling like it’s making a statement at all. It’s an easy-going show, foul and funny, specific and accessible. It’s not about the kids being noble heroes or crime-loving villains; they’re just people. But they are also Indigenous people, which does mean something, and is all-too-rare to see on television—especially portrayed in such a wonderfully casual way.
But more than anything, Reservation Dogs is a perfect summer series, one that takes places on languid afternoons and moves at an unhurried pace. The kids make plans, scrounge for food, wander around, get into fights. They don’t talk or act like adults, and they’re not beaten down by cynicism. They have hopes and dreams, a love for family, an un-ironic embrace of community, and make a lot of silly mistakes. To say there is an innocence or even wholesomeness to Reservation Dogs would not be to quite hit the mark on how casually crass the show can be (it is ultimately a comedy for adults); but like its leads, it has a good heart. The friends are trying their best and hold each other close, even as they rib one another for their choices. It’s this balance that the show gets so right; not overly precious nor incredibly vulgar, just truth with an edge. Or as they would say, “Love ya, bitch.” —Allison Keene
Created by: Christopher Storer
Stars: Jeremy Allen White, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Ayo Edebiri
Original Network: FX on Hulu
The Bear puts us on the back of Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), an accomplished chef who cut his teeth in the fine dining world who has returned to Chicago to take over his family’s grungy sandwich shop after his brother’s tragic death. He immediately butts heads with his brother’s best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who detests Carmy’s pretentious attitude, but finds common ground with Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), an accomplished chef in her own right who wants to learn from Carmy. Still, there are a slew of line workers who aren’t interested in wearing matching aprons or following orders from a relative newcomer.
The Bear certainly shares some tonality with stereotypical culinary shows like Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen to Kitchen Confidential, but also subtly pokes fun at the idea that every kitchen has to be an aggressive atmosphere. The frenetic energy is a byproduct of Carmy taking this role too seriously and trying to transform the sandwich shop into something much bigger than it’s ever been destined to be, and the clash of the two worlds is fascinating to watch in real time.
Shows like The Bear—with its fully formed tone, presentation, and performance—don’t come around often. It’s a chef’s kiss of a show, and definitely worth the binge —Radhika Menon
Created by: Pendleton Ward
Stars: Jeremy Shada, John DiMaggio, Hynden Walch, Niki Yang, Tom Kenny
Original Network: Cartoon Network
There is a world where the Adventure Time creative team is content with rehashing its brand of surreal, candy-infused tomfoolery ad nauseam. Luckily, this is not the world we live in. Indeed, Pendleton Ward and Co. have spent the latter half of this magnificent and groundbreaking series’ run not only stretching the bounds of the show’s weirdass sandbox, but actively working to push the characters forward. More than anything, Adventure Time realizes that to avoid change is to become tired and stagnant. Thus, rather than adhering to the typical “floating timeline” structure of most animated programs, the show has allowed its characters (be it a human child, a stretchy dog, a peppermint butler, or a bubblegum princess) to grow and develop, often in ways that are more heartbreaking and dramatically potent than anything a prestige cable drama could throw out. Never was this sensibility more apparent than in Stakes, the eight-part miniseries that went a long way towards exploring the backstory of vampire Marceline, one of Adventure Time’s most beloved, mysterious and tragic characters. Throughout its run, Adventure Time remains the strange, yet endlessly innovative little gem that fans know and love. —Mark Rozeman and Allison Keene
Created by: Shawn Ryan
Stars:Michael Chiklis, Michael Jace, Walton Goggins, CCH Pounder, Benito Martinez, Forrest Whitaker, Glenn Close
Original Network: FX
Shawn Ryan’s cop drama masterpiece premiered on FX a few months before David Simon’s cop drama masterpiece The Wire premiered on HBO. Years later, if you ask anybody which cop drama masterpiece they believe to be the Greatest Of All Time™, they’ll probably say The Wire. That’s fine. The Wire’s laurels are well-earned, but give a little more consideration to The Shield, too, huh? In many ways, The Shield is The Wire’s equal. In some, it is superior; a vivid, graphic entertainment that’s no less profound than Simon’s musings on Baltimorean crime and punishment. The Shield is grimdark stuff from back before grimdark became de rigeur in our pop cultural diet; there are no straight-up good guys or bad guys here, just good guys who occasionally do bad things and bad guys who occasionally do good things. The series is fueled by enough doom to make the Bard himself crack a wry smile, and it’s loaded with dubious morality. We were caught in the thrall of Vic Mackey’s reckless, self-serving corruption long before Game of Thrones made character survivability a guessing game, and Breaking Bad made us root for ethically suspect protagonists. Most of all, though, The Shield put a spotlight on law enforcement malfeasance without irrevocably blurring the line between social critique and theatricalized excitement. —Andy Crump
Created by: Danny Strong
Stars: Michael Keaton, Kaitlyn Dever, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Poulter, John Hoogenakker, Rosario Dawson
Original Network: Hulu
Dopesick is not messing around. It can be heavy-handed, but its aim is true. Over eight episodes, the series—based on Beth Macy’s non-fiction book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America—chronicles the rise of America’s devastating opioid epidemic through the astronomically successful sale of OxyContin. Jumping around between 1986 and 2005, the fictionalized Dopesick follows members of the Sackler family, federal regulatory agencies, and sales reps complicit in the spread of OxyContin alongside the investigators and district attorneys who have worked to stop them. Meanwhile, patients suffer gravely throughout.
Adapted by Danny Strong and directed by Barry Levinson, Dopesick is certainly not a light watch. Drenched in blues and grays and with a stoic narrative tone, the series is full of terrible, damning factoids. It’s difficult to watch, frankly, because in 2021 we know both how this all ends up and still continues on, so the tension of seeing a good doctor, who deeply cares about his patients, be taken in by the lies about the drug’s safety is agonizing.
It’s why, for all its faults and lulls, I wanted to keep watching. Every reveal is damning and essential. I wanted to quote all of it: the lies, the greed, the manipulations, the horror. No one who supported the Purdue Pharma side comes out looking good—particularly the FDA. Even those with good intentions were bamboozled, but there is no room for absolution here. When it comes to OxyContin, Dopesickis clear: there is only pain and reckoning. —Allison Keene
Created by: Tina Fey
Stars: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander
Original Network: NBC
The spiritual successor to Arrested Development, 30 Rock succeeded where its competition failed by largely ignoring the actual process of creating a TV show and instead focusing on the life of one individual in charge of the process, played by show creator Tina Fey. 30 Rock never loses track of its focus, and creates a surprisingly deep character for its circus to spin around. But Fey’s not the only one who makes the series so outstanding. Consistently spot-on performances by Tracy Morgan—whether frequenting strip clubs or a werewolf bar mitzvah—and Alec Baldwin’s evil plans for microwave-television programming create a perfect level of chaos for the show’s writers to unravel every week. 30 Rock doesn’t have complex themes or a deep message, but that stuff would get in the way of its goal: having one of the most consistently funny shows ever on TV. Suffice to say, it succeeded. —Sean Gandert
Spy x Family
Written by: Tatsuya Endo
Original Network: TV Tokyo
Spy x Family is an action-comedy that has quickly taken the anime world by storm, largely thanks to the adorable antics of one Anya Forger. We follow Loid Forger, an undercover agent in the Cold War-esque city of Berlint, who is forced to form a “fake” family and infiltrate an enemy country’s political circles to avert war. He ends up adopting Anya, an orphan with telekinetic mind-reading abilities, and—at least on paper—marrying Yor, an assassin working for a rival government. While its premise may sound similar to self-serious prestige TV like The Americans, Spy x Family is a (mostly) light-hearted spoof of the nuclear family that is deeply hilarious, often cool, and sometimes touching.
So far, Wit Studio and Cloverworks have gone above and beyond to bring this adaptation to life, and the first season is full of well-delivered gags that I still find myself randomly chuckling over months later. While Loid is technically the protagonist, Anya is the star of the show, as she oscillates between being a little goblin and a precious bean attempting to help her dad with his mission of avoiding a war. And in addition to the many goofs, it convincingly portrays a found family who find solace in each other. Thankfully, the second season once again demonstrates the series’ ability to operate as both a tense spy-thriller and family comedy. As long as its production doesn’t run into issues (something which is unfortunately quite common given the state of labor in the anime industry), it will continue to be must-watch television. —Elijah Gonzalez
Friday Night Lights
Created by: Peter Berg
Stars: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Scott Porter, Zach Gilford, Taylor Kitsch, Gaius Charles, Jesse Plemons, Aimee Teegarden, Minka Kelly, Adrianne Palicki, Derek Phillips, Stacey Oristano, Michael B. Jordan, Jurnee Smollett, Matt Lauria, Madison Burge
Original Network: NBC
Who ever thought football, a sport infamous for its meatheads and brute force, could be the cornerstone of one of television’s most delicate, affecting dramas? Heart-rending, infuriating, and rife with shattering setbacks and grand triumphs—Friday Night Lights is all of these, and in those ways it resembles the game around which the tiny town of Dillon, Texas, revolves. “Tender” and “nuanced” aren’t words usually applicable to the gridiron, but they fit the bill here, too. Full of heart but hardly saccharine, shot beautifully but hyper-realistically, and featuring a talented cast among which the teenagers and parents are—blessedly—clearly defined, the show manages to convince episode after episode that, yes, football somehow really is life. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. —Rachael Maddux
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Created by: Joss Whedon
Stars: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter, David Boreanaz, Seth Green, Marc Blucas, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Amber Benson, James Marsters, Anthony Stewart Head
Original Networks: The WB, UPN
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had it all: Romance, drama, tragedy, suspense. The show took the teen-soap formula and elevated it to an art. It was a unique combination of tragic romance, apocalyptic fantasy and the clincher: emotional realism. It also featured the most serious and realistic depiction of human loss ever witnessed on the small screen (in “The Body” dealing with the death of Buffy’s mom by natural causes). Humor? The writers understood the campy sheen that must accompany any show named Buffy. They also knew how to use snappy dialogue and uncomfortable situations to full effect. Complex characters? You’d be hard pressed to find another program that had the same range and consistency of character development. Everyone matured (or devolved) at his or her own realistic rate. As some feminist writers have argued, TV had never before seen the complexity of relationships among women that you saw with the likes of Buffy, Willow, Joyce, and Dawn. Plot? The writers employed elaborate multi-episode, multi-season story arcs. People and events of the past always had a way of popping back up, the way they do in real life. Philosophy? Series creator Joss Whedon was all about the meta, the ideas and story behind the story. He succeeded, creating a WB/UPN show that bears closer resemblance to the works of Dostoevsky and Kafka than 90210 or Dawson’s Creek. —Tim Regan-Porter
Created by: Mitch Hurwitz
Stars: Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, David Cross, Michael Cera, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Alia Shawkat, Ron Howard
Original Networks: FOX, Netflix
Mitch Hurwitz’ sitcom about a “wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together” packed a whole lot of awesome into three short seasons. How much awesome? Well, there was the chicken dance, for starters. And Franklin’s “It’s Not Easy Being White.” There was Ron Howard’s spot-on narration, and Tobias Funke’s Blue Man ambitions. There was Mrs. Featherbottom and Charlize Theron as Rita, Michael Bluth’s mentally challenged love interest. Not since Seinfeld has a comic storyline been so perfectly constructed, with every loose thread tying so perfectly into the next act. Arrested Development took self-referencing postmodernism to an absurdist extreme, jumping shark after shark, but that was the point. They even brought on the original shark-jumper—Henry Winkler—as the family lawyer. And when he was replaced, naturally, it was by Scott Baio. Each of the Bluth family members was among the best characters on television, and Jason Bateman played a brilliant straight man to them all. The series’ return to Netflix for fourth and fifth seasons has not been nearly as auspicious, so ending your watch with that original run may, in fact, be best. —Josh Jackson
Created by: Dahvi Waller
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Ari Graynor, Margo Martindale, John Slattery, Tracey Ullman
Original Network: Hulu/FX
Equality is at the heart of Mrs. America. The series, which starts in 1971 and runs through 1979, examines the national debate taking place over the Equal Rights Amendment, meant to put women on the same legal footing as men. For some housewives across America, though, the amendment was concerning because it was ushered in by second-wave feminists who (they believed) threatened to dismantle traditional family values. And at the head of that anti-ERA movement was Illinois housewife and mother of six, Phyllis Schlafley (an elegant Cate Blanchett).
Phyllis is the nexus of everything happening in Mrs. America, but each episode also spends time with one or two other important women on the opposite side of the movement, from Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) to Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) to the first black woman to run for President, Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). Where the limited series, created by Dahvi Waller, really excels (and manages to eschew the issues of other series dealing with similar topics) is that it’s not overly reverential to these real-life characters. It also, crucially, doesn’t treat them as caricatures—there is a deep, recognizable, and very true humanity to each of these women that is immediately authentic, as they move in and out of each other’s lives.
Mrs. America is juggling a lot, but it never feels like too much. Like the ever-present (worthless) question of “can a woman have it all?” Mrs. America does have it all, and more. It illuminates an essential part of the women’s liberation movement and the real women behind it (and against it) in ways that are engrossing, enlightening, and sometimes enraging. —Allison Keene
Created by: Quinta Brunson
Stars: Quinta Brunson, Tyler James Williams, Janelle James, Lisa Ann Walter, Chris Perfetti, Sheryl Lee Ralph, William Stanford Davis
Original Network: ABC
Sometimes there’s that magical moment when you realize you are watching something truly exceptional. From the moment I watched the pilot of ABC’s Abbott Elementary, I knew the show was much more than typical network sitcom drudgery (lame punchline, tinny laugh track, repeat). There was a grounded sweetness to the show. It was neither saccharine nor sardonic. We were introduced to the teachers of Philadelphia public school: the earnest Janine (series creator Quinta Brunson), veteran teachers Melissa (Lisa Ann Water) and Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph), as well as reluctant substitute Gregory (Tyler James Williams), the socially inept Jacob (Chris Perfetti), and the self-centered and clueless principal Ava (Janelle James). As a group, they immediately clicked; their combined comedic beats were perfect. The pilot was hilarious but also moving, all while shedding light on the underfunded public school system without being patronizing or exploitative, and the rest of the first season continued in kind.
And ever since, the show has remained everything you would want and expect it to be. Warm, hilarious, relatable… and damn if it doesn’t sometimes make me cry. —Amy Amatangelo
Created by: Elizabeth Meriwether
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Naveen Andrews
Original Network: Hulu
The Dropout is the latest installment in the girlboss scammer true crime sub-genre. The limited series is based on the ABC News podcast of the same name that investigated the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, following Holmes from her acceptance to Stanford University to her corporate downfall.
Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) is very quickly defined as someone who wants to be one of the greats. Her ambition is intertwined with her awkwardness, something that she is so self aware of that she is constantly trying to create an outward personality to get her what she wants. Further, her attempts at self-reinvention go from endearing to unsettling, which is not only a testament to Seyfried’s talent but to the directing and editing teams behind the camera. The gradual deepening of Elizabeth’s voice and her over-practiced corporate reassurances paint an fascinating portrait of a woman perpetually on the edge.
In the end, The Dropout does an excellent job of depicting a train that deserved to get derailed. Holmes is painted as a textbook example of why simply having an idea is not a good justification for dropping out of a prestigious institution of higher education, and Hulu’s portrayal of her girlbossing too close to the sun is captivating through and through. In the age of the scammer show, The Dropout is certainly worth being played. —Kathryn Porter
Created by: Graham Yost
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel, Natalie Zea
Original Network: FX
Look, we’ll keep it simple: Award-worthy guest stars (Margo Martindale, Mykelti Williamson, and Neal McDonough) were the rule, not the exception on this Kentucky-based gem. Combine that with the best ensemble on television (anchored by Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins and Joelle Carter), firecracker writing from showrunner Graham Yost and a dependable stable of wordsmiths, and the feature-film quality direction and cinematography of Francis Kenny, Michael Dinner, and others, and what do you get? An instant classic that improbably translates Elmore Leonard’s twisted humor, Western deconstruction, and damaged psyches into hourlong gems episode after episode. —Jack McKinney
Freaks and Geeks
Created by: Paul Feig
Stars: Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Busy Philipps
Original Network: NBC
We’ve had more than a decade to come to terms with Freaks and Geeks’ untimely cancellation, and while the axe’s blow still smarts, in some ways the series’ scant 18 episodes have proved an ideal offering. Like a musty old yearbook, the short run preserved one gloriously specific time in the lives of McKinley High’s do-gooders and reprobates, and now we remember the trials and tribulations of Lindsay and Sam Weir, Daniel Desario, Bill Haverchuck and the whole gang like those of so many long-lost high-school friends of our own. Despite the intervening years (and starring roles in raunchier Judd Apatow fare), we remember the characters precisely as they were then, in 1980—sweetly fraught, awkward, hilarious and unsullied by the harsh realities of post-graduate life (or trite plot-lines, forced love triangles or sweeps-week shenanigans). —Rachael Maddux
Created by: Tony McNamara
Stars: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dhawan, Charity Wakefield, Gwilym Lee, Adam Godley
Original Network: Hulu
For those who adored The Favourite, writer Tony McNamara’s “occasionally true story” focuses on the rise of Catherine the future great, when she is just “a 20-year-old who’s been in Russia six months, and who—with the aid of a drunken general, an angry maid, and a nervous bureaucrat#8212;is going up against the violent regime that is Peter’s empire,” (as one character succinctly states). The series has a crisp, fast-moving script and sumptuous costuming that looks like a traditional historical drama but feels refreshingly modern in its approach. Bathed in a Marie Antoinette meets Death of Stalin aesthetic (and never going Full Dickinson), the series’ acid, winning humor understands the familiar absurdity of an age filled with the constant juxtaposition of wealth and brutality. Emotionally affecting as a complicated dance of horror and hope, Catherine’s outright victories may be few and far between, but the journey is thrilling.
The Great begins in the mid-18th century, with Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) arrival at the Russian court as a naive German bride for Peter (Nicholas Hoult) the not-so-great and in fact very-much-awful. A script this cleverly bombastic requires very specific handling to balance its humor and drama, and both Hoult and Fanning are luminous as the ill-matched new couple. But though Catherine has a distaste (quite rightfully) for Peter, she does have a heart for her new country. “I want a strong, vibrant Russia alive with ideas, humane and progressive, where people live with dignity and purpose,” she says dreamily. “Russia?” the Emperor’s advisor Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) says in a questioning tone. “It needs to be believable.” Catherine’s maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox)—a former noble lady stripped of her position—adds, “Just tell them … no one will rape and kill you and your children, and you’ll have some bread. That would be sufficient.”
The way the series charts Catherine’s quiet but brave attempts to take power by growing a voice at court and discovering new things about herself is a really beautiful journey, punctuated by completely absurd events. It’s strange and wonderful and a fantastically funny ride. But it will also leave you pondering the nature of sacrifice and real change, and the courage it takes to overthrow a despot. Huzzah. —Allison Keene
Created by: Donald Glover
Stars: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz
Original Network: FX
Atlanta has always been about Atlanta and not about it at all. Though it has traces of an anarchic streak, the FX series’ first season reads mainly as a laconic slice of life, rendering the experiences of Earn (series creator Donald Glover), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and Van (Zazie Beetz) in all their hilarious particulars. Its second (or robbin’) season, by contrast, comes as close to understanding the uncanny as any series on television: As directed by Glover, Amy Seimetz, and Hiro Murai, the germ of Darius’ “Florida Man” parable—an “alt-right Johnny Appleseed” forcing his chaotic, angry, and even violent fantasies on an innocent populace—bears its strange fruit across 11 arresting, often unsettling episodes, woven from the same materials as fairy tales, folklore, fables, and myths. The show’s third season, after an extra-long pandemic hiatus, wanders over to Europe and splits its stories between the surreal journeys of its four leads and more one-off, Georgia-based fables on race. It works for some, less for others, but by Season 4, after documenting struggle in its early seasons, the show becomes preoccupied with the esoteric, ephemeral nature of success. It mostly runs off vibes, filled with ennui, as its characters exist adrift in their own lives. There’s a weariness that permeates it, a sort of paddling endlessly against the waves of a systemically broken society. Whether it’s saying something, or nothing, or doesn’t want to be seen as saying anything (or not saying anything) is anyone’s guess. But in its languid final chapter, the series doesn’t seem bothered in answering that or really any other question. —Matt Brennan and Allison Keene
Pam & Tommy
Created by: Robert Siegel
Stars: Lily James, Sebastian Stan, Seth Rogen, Nick Offerman, Taylor Schilling
Original Network: Hulu
Much like its subject matter, Hulu’s Pam & Tommy is a series that, on the surface, feels like it’s going to be a joke. Happily, it’s not—the series not only contains surprising emotional depth but feels like an important piece of the much-needed reckoning our pop culture is currently undergoing when it comes to the misogynistic way we treated female celebrities in the 1990s. Featuring a pair of uncannily accurate physical transformations and layered performances from stars Lily James and Sebastian Stan, Pam & Tommy is a series that manages to harness the utter ridiculousness of its premise for good. –Lacy Milas Baugher
Only Murders in the Building
Created by: Steve Martin,John Hoffman
Stars: Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez
Original Network: Hulu
This endearing comedic murder mystery stars Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez as a trio of true-crime obsessives who charmingly try to crack a case in their shared apartment building. The neighbors make an unlikely gang: Charles-Haden Savage (Martin) is a washed-up actor who used to star as a TV detective, and the overconfidence he has in his residual investigative skills thinly masks a deeply insecure man; Oliver Putnam (Short) contrasts Charles as a flamboyant former theater director with a big personality and even bigger debts; Mabel (a well-cast Gomez) is a stylish and quietly mysterious young woman who has more of a connection to the case than she initially lets on. But when they find out they share a suspicion that a tragic suicide in their building was actually a homicide, they decide to try their hand at uncovering the truth—and start a podcast to follow their investigation.
The series—and the podcast within—depend on our central trio being engaging, and the combination of personalities works out well; the cast is wonderfully dynamic, earning laughs while slowly revealing morsels of their secretly lonely lives to each other. Though our heroes like to complicate things, Only Murders in the Building itself keeps things simple; it’s a dazzlingly funny and entertaining series that’s clearly made with a lot of heart. —Kristen Reid
Created by: Eugene Levy, Daniel Levy
Stars: Eugene Levy, Daniel Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy, Emily Hampshire, Noah Reid, Jenn Robertson, Chris Elliott
Original Network: Pop TV
The narcissistic matriarch of her spoiled clan, stripped of their fortune and plopped down in the rural burg of Schitt’s Creek, former soap star Moira Rose—as played by Catherine O’Hara, dressed by costume designer Debra Hanson, and written by Schitt’s Creek co-creator Dan Levy and his team—was, for the series’ first two seasons, the main reason to tune in: She’s high camp catnip (“What is your favorite season?” “Awards.”) with a wig collection that qualifies as the best drama on television. And then something happened. Her husband, Johnny (Eugene Levy), once the owner of a successful chain of video stores, rediscovered his purpose running a motel. Moira won a seat on the town council. Their son, David (Dan Levy), opened a store and met the love of his life. Their daughter, Alexis (Annie Murphy), finally finished high school (it’s a long story) and decided to enroll in community college. In Seasons 3, 4, and 5, the Roses put down roots, and as they have, the people of Schitt’s Creek—once treated primarily as rubes, innocently getting in the way of the family’s plans to flee back to their former lives—have learned to wrangle them, in some cases by developing sharper edges of their own. Though it hasn’t lost its absurdist inflection, what began as a fish-out-of-water comedy about a bunch of snobs reduced to eating mozzarella sticks at the Café Tropical has become a gentler, warmer, more complicated tale of what happens when the fish sprout legs, and one of the best comedies on television: Call it the sweetening of Schitt’s Creek. —Matt Brennan
Created by: Joseph Weisberg
Stars: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Holly Taylor
Original Network: FX
Over the course its six-season run, The Americans completed a remarkable evolution, beginning and ending as a blisteringly suspenseful spy drama. Of course, by the time Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ masterwork reaches its devastating conclusion, with deep-cover KGB agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (the magnificent Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) surveying what they’ve lost, and gained, in the process, The Americans is about so much more than safe houses and dead drops. It is at once a parable of family, faith, and nation; a pitch-dark examination of the Cold War’s moral calculus; a coming-of-age tale (twice over); a wrenching depiction of friendships formed and betrayed; and an indelible portrait of an American marriage. FX’s pet project was worth every ounce of patience it demanded: We may well remember it as the last great drama of the Golden Age of Television. —Matt Brennan
Created by: David Angell, Peter Casey, David Lee
Stars: Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Jane Leeves, John Mahoney, Peri Gilpin, Moose
Original Network: NBC
Many classic sitcoms are paeans to blue-collar family life, but Frasier was the odd show that made cultural elites and eggheads somehow seem like lovable characters to a mass audience. Both Frasier and his brother Niles can be infuriatingly snobbish, but audiences soon found that when their petty jealousies were directed at each other, they could also be hilarious. The show quickly became an off-hand representation of the idea of “smart comedy” on TV, but it was also still a sitcom full of relationship humor. Viewers waited a hell of a long time in particular for the long-teased relationship between Niles and Daphne to finally come to fruition (seven full seasons). Frasier, on the other hand, is never really lucky in love, but he was always better as a semi-depressed single, turning his probing mind on himself. —Jim Vorel
Pride and Prejudice
Created by: Simon Langton
Stars: Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, Susannah Harker,Julia Sawalha
Original Networks: BBC, A&E
Horse riders make their way through a 16mm-colored countryside, Colin Firth makes his way into a lake, and Austen makes her way onto TV in what remains the definitive adaptation of Austen’s work for the screen (the breathtaking opening three minutes of Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaptation aside). The music bounces from scene to scene with curlicue youthfulness. The acting prods the lines around it with sly good cheer. Through it all, the spirit of the adaptation by Andrew Davies can be found in his describing it so: “Let’s have Elizabeth on a hillside seeing these two tasty blokes galloping along, and something about them makes her skip down the hill.” And, for the implicit back and forth that inspires (let alone what follows), we follow, too. —Evan Fleischer
Created by: Hajime Yatate
Original Network: TV Tokyo
Every debate over whether or not Cowboy Bebop—Shinichir? Watanabe’s science-fiction masterpiece—is the pinnacle of anime is a semantic one. It is, full stop. Its particular blend of cyberpunk intrigue, Western atmosphere, martial arts action, and noir cool in seinen form is unmatched and widely appealing. Its existential and traumatic themes are universally relatable. Its characters are complex and flawed, yet still ooze cool. The future it presents is ethnically diverse and eerily prescient. Its English dub, boasting some of America’s greatest full-time voiceover talents, somehow equals the subtitled Japanese-language original. Its 26-episode run was near-perfect, and episodes that might have been filler in another series are tight, taut, and serve the show’s thesis even as they do not distract from its overarching plot, which is compelling but not overbearing. It’s accessible to new hands and still rewards old-timers with every repeated watch. Yoko Kanno’s magnificent, jazz-heavy soundtrack and score stand on their own. Its opening credits are immaculate. It’s an original property, not an adaptation. It feels like a magnum opus produced at the pinnacle of a long career despite being, almost unbelievably, Watanabe’s first series as a director. It is a masterwork that should justly rank among the best works of television of all time, let alone anime. We eagerly await a rival. We’re not holding our breath. —John Maher
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