It’s been another wild year of fear, frustration and grief—but, for a moment, instead of dwelling on the disappointing steps backward we seem to be taking in this pandemic (not to mention reproductive and voting rights!), I wanted to reflect on a few good things that came out of 2021. And, since we appear to be in one of the dark timelines, it shouldn’t be any wonder that a lot of that good comes to us in the form of fictional media.
The television industry has at least started recovering from pandemic-induced hiatuses, cancellations and false starts. Even better, more and more shows are employing women as writers, directors, showrunners and leads than ever before, and more and more networks, channels and streaming services are making a concerted effort to cast inclusively, at least in terms of gender and race (although time will tell whether streamers follow through on their “promise of diversity”).
Below, I highlight 10 shows that came out this year that captured my attention because of their distinctive and dynamic women characters. Most of these shows were created by women and/or employ many women as writers and directors of individual episodes. All of them feature compelling women protagonists or co-leads. And all but two have been renewed for second seasons, giving us something to look forward to in 2022 (the two shows I’ve included that won’t have second seasons are both limited series and were designed with on one season in mind).
Disclaimer: I featured some of these shows in the Summer 2021 print issue of Ms. and a few others are mentioned in an article to be published in the upcoming Winter 2022 issue. However, my write-ups here are unique to this post. Also, there are many shows I couldn’t include on my list, some for space and some because they aren’t exactly new, like The Morning Show (Apple +), even if they were new to me this year. There are also new shows I haven’t had a chance to watch yet, like Harlem (Amazon Prime); shows I desperately wanted to love but didn’t, like The Chair (Netflix); and shows I’m afraid to watch, but probably should, like And Just Like That (HBO Max).
Without further ado (and loosely arranged from comedy to drama), here are ten good things to come out of 2021:
Peacock | Comedy | 8 episodes
Created by Meredith Scardino
It may be because I was a tween when the Spice Girls were at their zenith, or I’m just a sucker for shows with women in their 30s and 40s grappling with the realization that they suddenly became responsible adults when they weren’t looking. Either way, Girls5Eva, a sitcom about the present-day reunion of a one-hit-wonder ‘90s girl group, hit just the right marks for me.
Now in their early forties, the women of Girls5Eva were originally brought together by a studio to fill specific prescribed roles—the diva, the tomboy, the bomb shell, and the “chill” one—but the show does a remarkable job subverting the pigeon-holing of its characters while remaining laugh-out-loud funny. A fun comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, Girls5Eva also boasts a collection of catchy 90s-style pop songs, and a truly fabulous cast, including singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps and Paula Pell.
We Are Lady Parts
Peacock | Comedy | 6 episodes
Created by Nida Manzoor
It may be no coincidence that two of my favorite comedies of the year are ones about women coming together to make music. After all, as one of We Are Lady Parts’ characters, Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), explains, music is “about representation. It’s about being heard.”
Originally broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4, We Are Lady Parts is a smart, earnest and surprising comedy about an all-women Muslim punk band. The main character, Amina (Anjana Vasan), starts the series as an unassuming microbiology Ph.D. student whose eagerness to find a husband ironically leads her to the doorstep of a punk band desperately seeking a lead guitarist. Offering insight into the lives of Muslim young adults quite different from the usual television fare, We Are Lady Parts exceeds the expectations of its premise with a winning combination of punk attitude and playful reverie.
HBO Max | Comedy | 10 episodes
Created by Jen Statsky, Paul W. Downs and Lucia Aniello
Stand-up comedy has come under significant fire in recent years and has long had a reputation as actively hostile to women. The impetus of stand-up to shock and titillate, getting at the visceral emotions behind civilized society, can sometimes lead to brilliant comedy and sometimes to severely offensive missteps. Hacks bravely enters this minefield with a comedy about a famous older comedian, Deborah Vance (played by the brilliant Jean Smart), who’s settled into the latter part of her career performing lucrative but stale sets in Las Vegas and making guest appearances on home shopping shows. Enter Ava (Hannah Einbinder), an upstart Gen Z comedy writer hired to help Deborah connect with a younger demographic. The two women, initially divided by age, class, and their social frames-of-reference, eventually discover they have more in common than they realized—but not always in ways one might predict.
Run the World
STARZ | Comedy | 8 episodes
Created by Rachelle Williams
One of the things I really enjoyed about the comedy Run the World is that its unapologetic celebration of Black womanhood feels both fresh and familiar. It reminds me of shows like Living Single and Girlfriends, but with the self-possessed and purposeful camp of Sex and the City when it was at its best. The major characters, all of whom live in Harlem and form a tightly knit group of best friends, are each intriguing in their own right and living distinctive but interconnected lives: there’s Ella (Andrea Bordeaux), a once successful writer trying to recover from a failed first book; Sondi (Corbin Reid), a graduate student in a problematic relationship with her professor; Renee (Bresha Webb), a brash marketing executive contemplating a divorce; and Whitney (Amber Stevens West), a perfectionist banker trying to plan her wedding. While Run the World spends a lot of time chronicling the women’s sex lives and dating foibles with men, its characters are also politically engaged and conscious to the complexities of the world around them in compelling and sometimes unexpected ways.
Only Murders in the Building
Hulu | Comedy, Mystery | 10 episodes
Created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman
A crime comedy with a tremendous supporting cast of quirky characters and rich performances by its offbeat trio of stars— Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin—Only Murders in the Building works so well because of, not despite, its seemingly incongruous casting. Gomez, Short, and Martin play three neighbors living in an upscale, historic Manhattan apartment building. All true crime aficionados themselves, the three unlikely allies connect when a murder in their building leads these amateur sleuths to uncover the truth of their enigmatic neighbor’s death. Together, they launch a true crime podcast and begin to discover their secrets of their neighbors and the mysteries in their own lives.
FX/Hulu | Dramedy | 8 episodes
Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi
Part comedy, part drama, part heist series, Reservation Dogs exceeds expectations in every genre. Shot on location in the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, the series chronicles the lives of four teenagers in a small reservation town who form a gang in order to steal and fence stolen goods so they can save enough money to run away to California. It’s the first television show with an entirely Indigenous writer’s room, a largely Indigenous cast and crew, and many episodes written and directed by Indigenous women (such as Sydney Freeland and Tazbah Rose Chavez). Reservation Dogs also boasts a remarkable ensemble cast, especially teens Elora (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), who, along with the town’s other residents, shed light on both the humor and heartbreak of everyday life on the reservation.
CW | Action Adventure, Drama | 13 episodes
Created by Christina M. Kim
A reboot of a 1980s television show—featuring a white actor playing a half-Chinese man, no less!—the CW’s new Kung Fu thankfully features a majority Chinese American cast, including protagonist Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), a twentysomething hero who protects her San Francisco community. Having essentially run away from home to live in a women-only Shaolin monastery in China training and meditating, Nicky is forced to return when the monastery burns down and her beloved shifu, Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai), is murdered by villain Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman). Kung Fu merges fantasy and realistic drama by having Nicky undertake two adventures at once—one in which she seeks a set of mystical artifacts to uncover the mysteries of the monastery and her own martial powers and the other in which she defends the underdogs in her community from exploitation and abuse.
CBS/Paramount + | Action, Crime Drama | Season 1: 10 episodes, Season 2 in progress
Created by Andrew Marlowe and Terri Miller
Another reboot (of an ‘80s television show and a pair of 2000s action movies), The Equalizer stars the inestimable Queen Latifah as Robyn McCall, an ex-CIA agent who helps those who have “nowhere to turn.” A kick-ass vigilante, Robyn has a strong support system of comrades-in-arms, a compelling relationship with a sympathetic but suspicious detective, and a loving family whom she’s forced to shield from her extracurricular crime-fighting. One of the strengths of the show is how it balances Robyn’s no-holds-barred gallantry with her relationship with teenage daughter, Delilah (Laya DeLeon Hayes), and her aunt (Lorraine Toussaint), who also want her love and protection.
Disney + | Action, Dramedy, Fantasy | Limited Series: 9 episodes
Created by Jac Schaeffer
It’s helpful, but not entirely necessary, to have at least a passing knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe before launching into the Disney+ limited series WandaVision, but the main reason I enjoyed the series has less to do with its part in that pantheon and a lot more to do with its clever pastiche of sitcom history. Referencing classics like I Love Lucy and Bewitched, WandaVision takes viewers on a wild ride that starts in domestic idyll and develops into a fantastical mystery surrounding the fate of its eponymous pair after Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Besides the eponymous Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her husband Vision (Paul Bettany), known from previous MCU films, the show also features an adult Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), a great character we last saw as a child in Captain Marvel (2019) and whom I hope to see far more of in future installments from the franchise.
Mare of Easttown
HBO Max | Crime drama | Limited series: 7 episodes
Created by Brad Ingelsby
I’d be willing to bet most writers will be including Mare of Easttown on their end-of-year best-of lists. A truly brilliant crime drama, the limited series represents what a well-crafted show has the power to achieve in over the course of a few meticulously realized hours. Starring Kate Winslet in an exceptional performance as Detective Mare Sheehan—and with impressive supporting performances by Jean Smart as Mare’s mother and Julianne Nicholson as her best friend, among others—Mare of Easttown takes place in a bleak winter of a working-class Philadelphia suburb where two shocking crimes against young women have rocked the community. Dedicated to her job, but cynical and demoralized, Mare must uncover the truth of these crimes regardless the personal or professional cost.