This was a big year for TV. We got “Squid Game” and “WandaVision,” “Mare of Eastown” and “Only Murders in the Building” — all excellent shows that are making many 2021 year-end lists. But, for me, a show that goes from enjoyable to favorite needs a combination of being original, clever and surprising. Here are five shows that achieved that:
A romantic comedy that parodies musicals from the 1940s and ‘50s — it’s so niche I can’t believe it actually exists. Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong star as a couple that gets lost in an old-fashioned village where people randomly break into song. Though it’s a parody, “Schmigadoon” treats musical theater with reverence and respect, honoring shows like “Carousel” and “Oklahoma” while also highlighting and poking fun at their outdated ideas. Because the show was released in July, when theaters were still shuttered, any kind of musical would have been welcome. But “Schmigadoon!” went above and beyond, providing Broadway-level song and dance numbers thanks to a cast that also includes favorites Kristin Chenoweth, Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose and Alan Cumming.
Where to watch: All six episodes are streaming on Apple TV+.
When this show first came out in 2019, it was considered cringe-comedy — so uncomfortable it was almost unbearable to watch. That’s because “Pen15″ is set in middle school in the year 2000, and it embraces all the terrible things about that time of life. The show is written by real-life friends Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who also star in it, playing middle school versions of themselves alongside a cast of actual kids. The first season captured the messy side of middle school: the fracturing friendships, what it’s like when your parents fight all the time, smoking your first cigarette. The second season, released in two parts over 2021, transcended comedy. It explored deeper issues about identity and what friendship actually means through fantasy elements (“Vendy Wiccany”) and new perspectives (“Yuki”) that were so breathtakingly beautiful, it was almost unbearable to watch.
Where to watch: Both seasons, plus an animated special, are available to stream on Hulu.
“We Are Lady Parts”
I went into this six-episode comedy expecting a formulaic, NBC-style sitcom about a group of Muslim women trying to form a punk band. That’s what “We Are Lady Parts,” created by Nida Manzoor, is basically about. But rather than just seeing the story from one perspective, you see what music and independence means to five different London women, each with varying degrees of faith and observance. It follows Amina, a budding scientist who feels pressure — though not from her parents — to get married. Thanks to her guitar-playing skills, Amina is recruited to join the Lady Parts band despite having crippling stage fright. With the guidance of her bandmates, Amina — and viewers — discover that there’s no one way to be Muslim. All this is done in a way that’s not preachy or cloying. Instead it’s funny and irreverent, exemplified by the title of one of the band’s songs: “Ain’t No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me.”
Where to watch: All episodes are streaming on Peacock.
“The Beatles: Get Back”
Does this three-part documentary about The Beatles working on the “Let It Be” album count as a TV show? Whatever it is, I went into Peter Jackson’s series thinking I’d just have it on in the background over Thanksgiving weekend. I mean, I like the Beatles, my parents were both super fans and the music was the soundtrack of my childhood. But I didn’t think I adored The Beatles, though it turns out I must because I gave “Get Back” my complete, undivided attention (even pausing it when people tried talking to me). Along with getting to spend eight seemingly intimate hours with John, Paul, George and Ringo, we got to witness (in beautifully restored film) The Beatles’ creative process, the band dynamics and the bond that connected the musicians even through difficult times. Yes, there’s a lot of time spent just watching the band figure out songs, but look at everything else going on: the fabulous outfits, the toast and tea tray, the music equipment. I watched the entire thing in 24 hours and am now in the midst of my own Beatlemania, 60 years later.
Where to watch: Disney+
“The White Lotus”
Sometimes there are shows so odd that it takes a while to know whether or not you like them, which is the case with Mike White’s “The White Lotus.” The six-episode comedy-drama is about different people vacationing at a very exclusive hotel resort in Hawaii. Everything is beautiful and perfect, but is it really? The music and the set design on “The White Lotus” have an undercurrent of unease, and as the week progresses, the show becomes a harsh commentary on class, privilege and the working class. Led by a stellar cast that includes Connie Britton as a Gwyneth Paltrow-like lifestyle empress and Jennifer Coolidge as a distraught heiress mourning her mother, this show takes some time to settle in. But once it does, the characters (and that insane finale) will occupy a place in your brain much longer than you might have imagined.
Where to watch: HBO Max