When the clock struck midnight on 2021, the year looked uncertain for many. But TV remained a constant and a comfort with continued lockdowns around the world, and the prospect of appointment TV, new shows from acclaimed artists, and a return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe gave us pockets of hope in the form of streaming. New and old shows put their best foot forward, giving us quality episodes we’ll be thinking about for a long time.
In no particular order, here are the 10 best TV episodes of 2021 (so far).
1. WandaVision Season 1 episode 4, “We Interrupt This Program“
(L-R): Teyonah Parris as Monica Rambeau and Randall Park as Jimmy Woo in Marvel Studios’ WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Credit: Courtesy of Marvel Studios
WandaVision was our first MCU release in over 18 months, and even then it didn’t go back to classic Marvel storytelling until episode 4. “We Interrupt This Program” put us right back in the world of the Infinity Saga, fresh after the Blip and facing its horrifying consequences. There is nothing quite like that feeling of returning to this story, and it’s monumental to do so with a Black woman in the lead. We reenter the story with Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), snapped back into existence in a world descending into chaos. WandaVision leaves the perils of rebuilding post-Blip society to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, so Monica recovers quickly and investigates the Westview Anomaly with FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park).
With Parris as the de facto action hero lead (yes please), Park and Kat Dennings step in as the MCU’s new comedy dream team while all three of them collect intel about the Anomaly. As enjoyable as WandaVision’s sitcom shenanigans are, nothing hits quite like mysterious acronyms and government agencies and energy spikes that make Darcy’s instruments go whoa. This is the Marvel we knew meeting the Marvel we can know, and the interruption is now the main event. —Proma Khosla, Entertainment Reporter
William Jackson Harper and Thuso Mbedu in Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad.”
Credit: Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon
The finale of The Underground Railroad functioned as more of an epilogue to the rest of the season, with the climax of Cora’s journey arriving in episode 9, “Indiana Winter.” There is a sense of catharsis in this episode as Cora eases into life on Valentine Farm and begins to shed her fears of intimacy and capture, but as in Colson Whitehead’s novel, her peace doesn’t last for long. “Indiana Winter” is the show’s final, damning condemnation of white supremacy as powerful men rain down their final judgement on the existence of Valentine Farm and bring Cora to a harrowing confrontation with Ridgeway, which ends exactly as The Underground Railroad begins — falling in slow motion into darkness. — Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
As far as crime dramas go, Mare of Easttown can twist and turn with the best of them. Throughout the seven-part limited series, Kate Winslet’s steely lead detective weathered countless shocking revelations as she investigated a brutal homicide of a teen girl and two missing persons cases. Of course, no developments were quite as devastating as the explosive series of events captured in episode 5.
Titled “Illusions,” this was the Mare of Easttown episode that not only saw police finally answer one of the show’s most burning whodunnits, but also stunned audiences with the death of a beloved major character. On the off chance you haven’t seen the show yet, I won’t say more. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll remember where you were when you watched this top-tier episode for the rest of your TV-watching days. — Alison Foreman, Entertainment Reporter
4. Master of None: Moments in Love, “Chapter 4“
Alicia (Naomi Ackie) embarks on a solitary journey with IVF in “Master of None: Moments in Love.”
Credit: screenshot / netflix
Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang surprised everyone when they announced a third season of Master of None, nearly four years after a critically acclaimed Season 2 and expectations that there would be no more. Moments in Love may include Denise (Lena Waithe), but its connection to Master of None is barely in the story and entirely in the creative writing and production.
Over five episodes, Moments in Love speaks to us with long takes and heavy silence — never more than “Chapter 4,” when Alicia (Naomi Ackie) decides to pursue in vitro fertilization. Alicia is completely alone for most of the scenes, either physically in her apartment — FaceTiming her mother for the courage to start injections — or in a doctor’s office, receiving a phone call, carrying the incalculable emotional weight of her hopes and choices with each moment. Ackie is transcendent with every beat, the episode as much a showcase for her performance as for Ansari’s writing (he co-wrote the episode with Yang and Waithe). — P.K.
SWEET TOOTH (L to R) WILL FORTE as RICHARD and NIXON BINGLEY as GUS (AGE 7) in episode 101 of SWEET TOOTH Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021
Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX
The premiere of Sweet Tooth will undoubtedly rank among the most harrowing —
and most memorable — episodes of television released this year. Our first foray into the fantastic world of Jeff Lemire’s beloved comic book series introduces its main characters through a heart-wrenching origin story. We meet hero Gus (Christian Convery) and his father (Will Forte) living in a secluded cabin against a backdrop of apocalyptic mayhem. That Gus is a deer-human hybrid is just one part of a sprawling mystery Gus, his traveling companion Tommy (Nonso Anozie), and Sweet Tooth audiences begin to suss out through the sprawling journey to come.
It’s an episode of TV better left unspoiled, but one that I can safely say provides the emotional root for the entire first season of this captivating adaptation. Great performances and some particularly well-scripted narration help you dive head-first into this profound show you’re not likely to forget. — A.F.
6. Invincible Season 1 episode 8, “Where I Really Come From“
Credit: Cr: Amazon Prime Video
It says a lot that people who read the comics and knew exactly what was coming were still shocked and emotionally brutalized by the events of Invincible‘s season finale, “Where I Really Come From.” After the first episode shocker moment where Omni Man strolls in and wipes out the Justice League-like Guardians of the Globe, viewers have wondered what the Viltrumite is really up to. Episode 8 finally brought those answers, both for us and for the would-be hero’s half-human/half-Viltrumite son, Mark. What we learned over the course of that devastating hour of TV will shape the course of Invincible‘s story for the rest of its existence. — Adam Rosenberg, Senior Entertainment Reporter
Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) in the “Pose” series finale.
For three seasons, Pose has broken ground for representation of queer and trans people of color on TV while upholding a standard of storytelling that bridged the gap between historical reality and beautiful fantasy. There was almost no doubt that this show would stick its landing, but how well it actually stuck is remarkable. The double-length Pose finale delivered a poignant examination of medical racism regarding the HIV/AIDS crisis, captured the bittersweet relief of finally producing effective antiretroviral therapies, and gave each of its characters a sendoff — sometimes literally — that encapsulated their importance to the world of ballroom. Pose has always been a show unafraid to show America’s ugly history, but the story was always about the beauty of family and the legacies we leave behind. — A.N.
C.W. (F. Murray Abraham) and Rachel (Ashly Burch) in ‘Mythic Quest.’
Credit: apple tv+
The real magic of Mythic Quest lies in the way the show weaponizes perspective and context to make the most seemingly detestable character a lovable and sympathetic figure. Episodes 6 and 7 of Season 2 took us on that journey with C.W. Longbottom, charting the “Mythic Quest” game writer’s path from an unassuming and starry-eyed wannabe sci-fi author to the bitter, heavy-drinking lech who always seems to be operating a few steps out of his element at the game studio. Much like Season 1’s brutal-yet-heartfelt journey through twin relationships in “Dark Quiet Death,” “Backstory” and its follow-up “Peter” in Season 2 will leave you clutching a wad of tissues and wondering how Mythic Quest, this silly show about ridiculous things, manages to be so incredibly, consistently devastating. — A.R.
The opening episode of Infinity Train’s final season is a masterwork in establishing characters and their relationships. It introduces the season’s protagonists, Ryan (Sekai Murashige) and Min-Gi (Johnny Young), exploring their friendship, the creation of their band, and their falling out. The episode’s most moving sequence plays out in split-screen, with Ryan and Min-Gi trying to navigate life without each other. It’s the perfect device to open a season focusing on the rift between these two characters, all cleverly framed within the universe of the Infinity Train. — Belen Edwards, Entertainment Fellow
10. RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Season 2 episode 5, “The Ruruvision Song Contest”
Credit: World of wonder
“The RuRuvision Song Contest” isn’t just one of the best TV episodes of 2021. It’s also one of the best episodes of the entire Drag Race franchise. This was the first episode filmed after production paused for seven months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the contestants’ sheer joy at being able to see each other and compete again lends this entire episode a near-euphoric energy. Aside from the excitement that came with returning to the competition, this episode generated so many iconic moments. There was the entirety of the United Kingdolls’ performance of “UK, Hun?,” A’Whora and Sister Sister’s matching runway looks, and, of course, RuPaul’s bizarre rant about Joe Black wearing an H&M dress. All in all, it’s a perfect episode of reality TV bolstered by a talented and charismatic cast. It’ll have you singing “bing, bang, bong” all day long. — B.E.