Here are, in alphabetical order, the 10 greatest shows of the first half of 2021 — a mix of scripted programs and docuseries, plenty of imports from across the Atlantic and, sorry, two very compelling reasons to try out a Peacock subscription.
‘Call My Agent’ (Netflix)
Showbiz satires seldom boast so much heart. Affectionately crafted characters distinguish this Paris-set dramedy with a delectable premise: a look into the inner workings of a glamorous but perpetually chaotic talent agency with clients such as Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert and Jean Dujardin (who play themselves). Debuting in January on Netflix a few months after its run in its native France, the fourth season — the show’s last for a while, though a fifth chapter as well as a movie are in the works — features guest turns by Sigourney Weaver and Charlotte Gainsbourg (also playing themselves) and is the emotionally richest this wry, warm, winking series has ever been.
Midlife crises don’t get funnier than on “Girls5eva,” about the now 40-something members (played by Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Paula Pell and breakout star Renée Elise Goldsberry) of a one-hit-wonder girl group from the turn of the millennium getting back together for a second chance at fame. Creator Meredith Scardino freely borrows executive producer Tina Fey’s breakneck comic pacing and lacerating feminist critiques, especially when it comes to the damage wrought on women in the spotlight. No disrespect to Bo Burnham, but 2021’s funniest joke songs are on “Girls5eva,” including the stellar “New York Lonely Boy,” an ode to the precocious only children of Manhattan’s older parents (sample lyric: “The Strand is his Disneyland”).
‘Hacks’ (HBO Max)
It’s hard to think of a more universally acclaimed performance so far this year than Jean Smart’s on “Hacks,” in which the 69-year-old TV veteran, who’s enjoyed a career renaissance of late, finally gets the starring role she deserves. Smart is nothing short of beguiling as Deborah Vance, a workaholic Vegas comic and onetime stand-up pioneer whose material could now use an upgrade. Paired with a down-and-out Gen Z joke writer (Hannah Einbinder) who’s no less spiky and opinionated, Deborah is forced to contend with comedy’s changing landscape. If the setup feels a bit forced, Smart is anything but, her Deborah a force of nature: pure liquid fury that could erupt at any second, turn into stone or simmer until it creates something utterly new.
‘High on the Hog’ (Netflix)
Food is history and history is food on this incredibly informative, gorgeously shot and wholly essential travelogue hosted by writer Stephen Satterfield, who highlights African American contributions to the culinary story of America. Based on the book by Jessica B. Harris (who joins Satterfield in Benin to trace back a primary origin of African American cuisine in the four-part docuseries’ first installment), the series follows its amiable host as he journeys from South Carolina to Texas and from Monticello to Los Angeles to learn how Black Americans found survival, community, resistance, innovation and sometimes literal freedom in and through food. A particular high point is the profile of James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, who may have brought mac and cheese to America and whose extraordinary talents allowed him to negotiate for his liberation, but who could not find peace while so many of his loved ones remained in chains.
‘It’s A Sin’ (HBO Max)
Few shows are as ferociously tragic and surprisingly joyful as Russell T. Davies’s five-part miniseries about the AIDS epidemic in 1980s London. Davies’s celebration of the brief lives his characters managed to have — and the urban freedom they got to enjoy once they found their tribe after teenage years trapped in closets — make “It’s a Sin” a masterwork of tonal control, a heartbreaking chronicle of institutional homophobia and a well-rounded portrait of a lost generation. And yet it’s the characters you’ll remember most: Neil Patrick Harris’s altruistic harbinger, Callum Scott Howells’s shy Savile Row apprentice and Olly Alexander’s promising young actor, too jejune to grasp the urgency of a plague until it’s too late.
‘The Lady and the Dale’ (HBO)
If you like your docuseries to keep you guessing, you can’t get much twistier than “The Lady and the Dale,” about Elizabeth Carmichael, a con woman selling a three-wheeled, fuel-sipping car made of a supposed bulletproof plastic during the 1970s oil crisis, who also happened to be a trans pioneer. (Oh, and Tucker Carlson is tangentially related to this version of her story.) Striking and inventive animation further enliven this four-part documentary that’s part-biography of a singular, family-oriented scammer; part-car history; part-trans tale; part-media critique; and all riveting.
‘Oprah With Harry and Meghan’ (CBS)
It was the special that launched a thousand headlines. Few families are covered as exhaustively as the House of Windsor, but this trio of mononyms delivered a truly revelatory, once-in-a-generation interview whose repercussions we’ll likely feel for years to come. Oprah Winfrey reminded us of her journalistic talents with her unflinching questions and (instantly meme’d) everywoman reactions, while Harry and Meghan, following Princess Diana’s footsteps, gave an international audience more than a peek behind the Buckingham Palace gates with answers that blurred the line between personal disclosure and mental health advocacy. It was a monocultural event — and spellbinding TV.
‘Philly D.A.’ (PBS/Topic)
“Philly D.A.” has been compared endlessly to “The Wire,” and rightly so. An eight-part portrait of Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney who was elected the head prosecutor of one of America’s most incarcerated cities in 2017 on a campaign of racial equity, the docuseries is a nuanced and sobering account of what it takes to create change — and the limitations of what one man can achieve, especially when he’s surrounded by people who share his outrage and sense of urgency but may ultimately enable his self-segregation from potential allies. The show incorporates a wide variety of perspectives from those affected by Krasner’s ambitious agenda, from suspects and prisoners released through his reforms to the police officers and their reps lashing out against a district attorney that views them with contempt. Krasner even confounds many of his employees, like the prosecutors under him suddenly bereft of institutional knowledge after a staff purge. Too many TV docs feel bloated, but “Philly D.A.” judiciously uses its wide canvas to tell as full and multifaceted a story as it can about an effort to find justice within our ailing court system that’s too radical for some and not radical enough for many.
‘Physical’ (Apple TV Plus)
The Summer of Love is just a dream some of us had in “Physical,” a 1981-set twisted female liberation tale, which finds self-loathing housewife Sheila (a sensational Rose Byrne) weary of her narcissistic professor husband (Rory Scovel), a former antiwar activist, and ready to cozy up to The Man. In Sheila’s case, that means embracing bootstrapping entrepreneurship, but also the newfangled activity of aerobics, in which Sheila can find a way to channel her obsession with dieting and weight into something close to (but maybe not entirely) self-care. A complicated look at female ambition and fixation and set in an indelible era (when the long-tailed ’60s have truly come to an end, especially in a quickly developing San Diego), the antiheroic dark comedy finds yet another fresh iteration in this sharply observant, sometimes deliberately queasy series.
‘We Are Lady Parts’ (Peacock)
Easily the biggest crowd-pleaser on this list, the belated-coming-of-age comedy “We Are Lady Parts” is also a triumph of representation — and a compelling illustration of how quickly online discourse about representation can get distorted. The London-set British import tells a classic story: Girl meets boy; boy leads girl to an all-female, all-Muslim punk band; girl realizes that the band is what she was searching for her entire life and didn’t know it. Anjana Vasan carries the lighter side of the show, while Sarah Kameela Impey, playing the uncompromising frontwoman, ably shoulders its weightier story lines. Hopeful and winsome, it’s a deceptively simple show, but one that’s leading a conversation about how and under what conditions outsiders are able to speak for themselves.