This first full year of pandemic was brutal. But you know what wasn’t brutal? Television.
So. Much. Goodness.
We are at a place we’ve never been in history: a critical mass of Black television. And it’s glorious and wondrous and long-overdue. There’s still much work to be done. We haven’t hit a saturation point where we can’t possibly keep up with Black television. But we are finally at a place where we can make informed choices. We no longer have to watch everything in order to ensure we get anything. So yea, this list won’t include any of Tyler Perry’s shows or BMF or the very good, but not quite good enough stuff on AllBlk (formerly Urban Movie Channel).
But as always, this will likely be the blackest list you’ll read. There are still far too few Black television critics and far too many White male critics in love with the same 6 or 7 shows.
But before we get to the full list, let’s discuss a few honorable mentions…
Chucky – Batshit crazy and delightfully surprising nearly the whole way through. I could have done with about three or four flashbacks less than what we got though.
David Makes Man – Not since Killer Landry in Friday Night Lights has a show fallen so far from Season 1 to Season 2. I understand what the show was trying to do. But it was not enjoyable or interesting to watch – except when Akili McDowell and Arlen Escarpeta were onscreen. This was McDowell’s show and it should have stayed his show.
Disney+ MCU Shows – Flawed, but eminently watchable, the non-WandaVision shows were mostly undone by an inability to know how many episodes worth of story each one needed. Falcon and the Winter Soldier needed 10, Loki and Hawkeye probably needed at least one or two more episodes each.
Hacks – I didn’t love this as much as critics. But there’s no denying how great Jean Smart is in the lead role.
Never Have I Ever – I appreciate the show’s doubling down on making the Devi unlikeable. Teens are terrible and Never Have I Ever is clear as hell about that.
On My Block – As delightful as ever, but not sure that Season 4 earned its existence. There was something beautiful about the Season 3 finale, which suggested that pre-teen friendships don’t survive into high school. Still – Brett Gray is a star and should get all the roles.
Pose – Shamelessly manipulative and beautifully acted, Pose‘s final season was designed mostly to get Emmy nominations despite not earning a single moment (because the deeply unwise time jumps robbed us of any ability to see how these characters grew during the 10 years or so the show covers) other than Pray Tell’s death.
Stargirl – Boundlessly light and yet found a way to go to the darkest of places in Season Two.
This Is Us – Long in the tooth, but still incredibly good. Mandy Moore and Justin Hartley should have two or three Emmys by now, but the Emmys are deeply stupid so…
With Love – Snuck in at the end of the year and gave us three winning performances from actors we hadn’t seen be this charming before – Rome Flynn, Mark Indelicato & Emeraude Toubia.
Yellowjackets – I will always watch Christina Ricci. Yellowjackets is her best project in years.
Now let’s jump to the full top 20…
Top 20 Shows
20. Power Book II: Ghost / Power Book III: Raising Kanan (tie). No one has talked about the fact that Courtney Kemp is building out a universe around three of the most despised characters on Power: Tariq St. Patrick, Kanan Stark, and Tommy Egan. Ballsy, man. BALLSY. Ghost stacked the cast to compensate for a charisma vacuum at its center, with Woody McClain acting circles around most of the cast. Raising Kanan has the inverse problem: Patina Miller’s Raq is so charismatic and incredibly fascinating to watch that no one else even registers, even Omar Epps. But this is a fun world and one produced with tremendous confidence and style.
19. Saved By The Bell. Probably about 100 times better than it should be and than anyone should have expected or asked for. It’s also a completely odd show in a way that makes it a tonal sister to the original. Yet this still feels like something made in 2021. Season Two fixed every minor problem Season One had and leveled stories up for nearly everyone. Plus – Josie Totah is hilarious and Mario Lopez is somehow playing comedy and pathos and it works!
18. Blood & Water. Somehow manages to treat the central mystery with emotional depth even while dealing more broadly in the type of frivolity that typifies high school dramas. Blood & Water is a delight. It’s cast is tremendous and it makes good use of the South African locales.
17. Sex Education. I appreciate how this show has morphed into an ensemble that gives its ever-growing cast of teen characters more to do. And in Season Three giving everyone an antagonist – Jemima Kirke’s headmistress Hope – the show also got tighter and more interesting. The show would be higher on the list if it hadn’t fumbled Eric’s cultural awakening a bit.
16. Run the World / Harlem. It’s truly wonderful that we have not one, but two series about 30-something Black women in NY. Though – why no one has set a show about Black professionals in DC is beyond me. Both debut seasons are smart, stylish and emotionally potent. Run the World is slightly raunchier and has the radiantly funny Bresha Webb. Harlem is more inclusive and has the impossibly handsome Tyler Lepley as the male lead. Don’t pick. Watch them both.
15. You. By putting Joe and Love smack dab in the hell that is Suburban America, You leveled up something fierce in its third season. Everything was firing on all cylinders here that I wish Love could stick around for another season. It’s not clear to me what the end game is for Joe. But if the show keeps reinventing itself this well then we’re in good hands.
14. Black Lightning. This show had at least another season left in the tank. But it’s clear that the CW is purging itself of the Arrowverse since it very stupidly passed on a Painkiller spinoff. Luckily for us, the show went out swinging. In its final season, the Pierces lost nearly everything, including Jennifer (played by series MVP China Anne McClain). And it brought out the best in everyone.
13. Elite. Proving that the magic could still be felt despite the loss of most of the original cast, Elite continues to be eminently watchable. At its core, Elite is a show about inequality and injustice and somehow Carlos Montero and Darío Madrona found new ways to tell that story. The newbies inject some great energy into the show. And Itzan Escamilla continues to deepen his portrayal of the central character, Samu, in constantly surprising ways. It’ll be interesting to see if the show remains a worldwide phenomenon without half of its central couple, Omander. But at this rate, I have no doubt that Montero and Madrona can make it work.
11. Kung Fu. I don’t know that I knew what to expect with Kung Fu, but each week I was surprised at how well it balanced world-building and what is, at its core, a drama about what happens in a family when the prodigal daughter returns home. Cast beautifully from top to bottom, it was a delight to see someone as stunning as Eddie Liu get to play love interest and to see legend Tzi Ma get to play so many dimensions of the doting father. But for my money the show’s secret weapon is Shannon Dang who never once plays Althea as vapid despite her interest in more traditionally American girly things. It’s a performance both grand and subtle at the same time.
12. All American. Long in the tooth as a high school show, All American made some shocking narrative choices this season. Splitting up leads Bre-Z and Daniel Ezra for much of season 3 worked wonders because it forced both characters to grow in really interesting and surprising ways. Bre-Z’s chemistry with Cody Christian’s Asher has been a delight and finally putting Ezra’s Spencer and Samantha Logan’s Liv together was powerful. Ezra has done some of the best acting on TV for the show’s entire run. But the scene where he realizes his love for Liv was one of the most amazing wordless bits of acting he’s yet done. The show remains maddeningly underappreciated, but it’s still one of the best shows on TV.
10. Heels. Heels is a show that is deadly serious about the world of independent wrestling without being showy or trivializing how hard it truly is to live and work in this world. Stephen Amell – who had to grow into Oliver Queen – is tremendous from his first frame. He holds the whole show together with a quiet, steely intensity that never fails to remind us just how overwhelmed Jack Spade truly is. It’s a grimy yet deliberate show; one with a keen sense of the interior lives of its characters.
9. Wandavision. The first and best (by a wide margin) of the Disney+ MCU shows. Wandavision is both a sendup of classic American sitcoms and a beautiful, devastating exploration of profound grief. Elizabeth Olsen is a revelation playing about 6 slightly different variations on Wanda. And the return of Kat Dennings and Randall Park was a delight. I know this is brand extension and a prelude to the next phase of MCU films. But Wandavision proved yet again that they can make that into something wonderful in and of itself.
8. Lupin. Anyone who has watched Omar Sy’s film career knew that he had range to spare. Like Denzel Washington and Idris Elba, Sy is a character actor with movie star looks and charisma who can do anything you ask him to. And that’s exactly what Lupin requires. It’s a heist show, a meditation on black invisibility in French society, a revenge fantasy, a family drama, and motherfuckin’ rollercoaster. That this little French show became a worldwide phenomenon is one of the year’s greatest joys.
7. Superman & Lois. The Arrowverse’s experiment as the TV equivalent of the movie MCU has been about as uneven as the MCU itself, with Black Lightning the only show to be great for its entire run. So it’s been a tremendous surprise to see yet another Superman show find new stories to tell – and to tell them really really well. This is a darker Superman in a way that the movies failed to master. Tyler Hoechlin then is the perfect actor for this role. He’s a different actor than any other actor that’s played this role, which at first was hard to appreciate. But his innate soulfulness and edge is exactly what’s needed for a show that takes Superman seriously as a potential danger. It’ll be interesting to see if Superman & Lois can break the Arrowverse curse and continue to be great in subsequent seasons.
6. Queen Sugar. Due to the pandemic, Queen Sugar was able to air two full seasons in 2021. And six seasons in, it’s still a wondrously beautiful exploration of one Black family’s life and legacy. The show took some surprising risks that paid off massively from incorporating the pandemic into the story to redeeming Davis West to challenging Micah’s (and, by extension, the audience’s) understanding of sexuality and masculinity. At every turn, the show excelled, recognizing that it has one of the finest, most unsung ensembles on television. One never knows what to expect with each season of Queen Sugar. So it’ll be truly fascinating to see what Ava and her team have in store for the final season next year. Either way, the show will end its run as the finest black drama we’ve ever had the privilege of watching.
5. Insecure. Ending its run as the show for Black millennials, Insecure‘s greatest legacy may be its unwavering commitment to telling the most honest story that it could about that time in your life when you are really just still trying to figure it out. That made it, at times, an infuriating show to watch. Issa had terrible taste in men and Molly was the definition of self-destructive. But we loved them because we all know someone like that (or, are that). Lawrence was always endgame. But the beauty of the show in real time was never being quite sure the writers really knew this to be true. The final season was only slightly unwieldy. But the perfect finale encapsulated everything wonderful about the show and sent our favorite Black millennials off into the world more whole than how we found them.
4. Succession. Like Mad Men before it, Succession is really the only groupthink prestige drama to live up to its hype. It’s not easy to make what is really just a savage takedown of everything that is wrong with American economy, politics, and whiteness riveting. But Succession did it again with Season Three. It helps that the cast is so, so good and that the writing can be emotional, hilarious, and satirical all at once.
3. Underground Railroad. Barry Jenkins made – on a technical level – the most accomplished television show of the year. He also made something that resonates on multiple levels. Underground Railroad is historical fiction filtered through a director’s singular vision. At every turn, it’s surprising and fascinating. The most beautiful thing about the source material is that magical realism only makes the actual Underground Railroad seem that much more incredible. And Jenkins gets that.
2. Love Life. Black men’s feelings about, struggles with, and desire for love are underexplored in television and film. So when Love Life decided to focus on a Black male character, Marcus Watkins, in its second season, it was genuinely exciting and new. The show gave us a beautiful exploration of a brother trying to find love and having no real idea how to do it. And in William Jackson Harper Love Life had a leading man who could convincingly play an Every(Black)man in all his complexities. Black men are so rarely given space to be vulnerable onscreen that it was at times overwhelming to see just how much of a mess Marcus Watkins really is. I was never really sure Marcus would figure it out. And, honestly, that was so much the pleasure of watching it all unfold.
1. Swagger. Swagger is a show that is both an indictment of pre-professional basketball’s effect on pre-teen boys and girls and a clear-eyed depiction of our complicity in this system. That tension is at the heart of the series and drives every creative decision. And it makes for a truly unsettling and yet surprisingly heartwarming viewing experience. Every single time I watched an episode I forgot for a minute that our protagonists are barely 14. And then they’d do something so completely teenaged – like get excited over a tweet from Kendrick Lamar – and you’d be snapped right back into your awareness that these kids are barely a year or two into puberty. The cast is dynamite, with at least 6 or 7 young actors who had never really acted before doing dynamic work. Swagger is the best show Apple TV has yet produced and the best television show of 2021.