2021 offered boundless entertainment in the television sphere. Original streaming shows like Squid Game, Only Murders In The Building, and The Mare of Easttown gave audiences talking points throughout the year. Weekly shows fueled fans’ enthusiasm for television as they flocked to Twitter, theorizing about the easter eggs in WandaVision or wondering whether Loki would escape the Time Variance Authority. These shows allowed people to freely express their excitement in a shared fandom-loving space.
However, somewhere within the vast trenches of programming and endless streaming services, countless gems lie buried. Underrated shows wait patiently in the dust until someone unearths them on a random internet deep-dive. These are the overshadowed shows. These are the shows where a small yet loyal fanbase whispers their praises into the void while shows with IP and name recognition trend daily online. Here, we take a shovel and excavate twelve of these valuable, underrated television shows from 2021 for you to treasure.
The Underrated TV Shows Of 2021
1. Cruel Summer
In the underrated American teen drama Cruel Summer, three summers change the lives of two teenage girls involved in serious crimes. The show premiered weekly on Freeform starting in April 2021 but largely flew under most audiences’ radar. Cruel Summer proves worth watching for the immersive drama, but also because it treats its touchy subject matter with sensitivity.
Popular girl Kate goes missing. Nerdy girl Jeanette seems to take over Kate’s life when Kate disappears. But Kate returns after being kidnapped for a year and wants Jeanette to pay for her actions. These summers will alter their futures and make them question their pasts. Startlingly realistic portrayals of grooming, sexual abuse, predatory behavior, and gaslighting are presented with care. Each episode builds tension, pulling viewers into the lives of these well-rounded, intriguing characters.
Cruel Summer also uses a unique storytelling format that deserves praise in terms of experimental cinematography. Taking place over three summers from 1993-1995, different lighting and directing styles delineate each year. A single episode alternates between relevant scenes from all three years. Audiences are given intersecting pieces of the girls’ initial choices, and the future repercussions of those actions, all in the one episode. The acting is brilliant, the characters are compelling, and this underrated TV drama will suck you into binging the whole ten episodes on Hulu.
With the rise of instant entertainment through streaming services, television shows airing weekly don’t receive as much attention as they used to – and one of these is the unfairly underrated CBS sitcom Ghosts. Ghosts adapted the British television sitcom of the same name and aptly premiered during the Halloween season.
The basic premise revolves around a woman and her husband who inherit an opulent country house. The two discuss plans to move from the big city and turn the countryside home into a hotel. When Samantha falls down the stairs and hits her head, she suddenly gains the supernatural ability to see and communicate with the houses’ deceased residents. The Americanised version of Ghosts features ghost characters rooted in U.S. history who resonate with American audiences. From a Native American to a gay Revolutionary War general, to a hardcore Wall Street trader who died with a disturbing lack of pants on, Ghosts spotlights a diverse, hilarious cast of characters.
Amusing dynamics and pop culture references exemplify how the writers demonstrate a keen awareness of history’s ever-evolving social climate. Ghosts shines a light on American history and uses it to its advantage, producing a hilarious and innovative sitcom.
3. Komi Can’t Communicate
Adapted from the manga, Netflix’s underrated original show Komi Can’t Communicate translates well to the screen. Japanimation fans will delight in the abundant anime-style cliches, such as exaggerated emotional displays and heightened character reactions to relatively low-stakes drama at school. But Komi Can’t Communicate deserves a greater viewership due to its accurate portrayal of social anxiety alone.
Komi Can’t Communicate is a coming-of-age tale where every character grapples with identity. Private high school students can be brutal to one another. The anime depicts conflicts that arise in school when mixing an array of eccentric personalities. Protagonist Komi suffers considerably, even in relation to other quirky students, because her social anxiety cripples her from speaking out loud to anyone. Classmate Tadano, who deals with internal pressure and self-confidence himself, reaches out to Komi. Together, they agree to help Komi make 100 friends during the school year.
The first episode of Komi Can’t Communicate is a cinematic masterpiece. Often, the camera cuts to show Komi’s hands balling into fists, or how she viscerally shudders as she struggles to communicate. The animation quality does dip slightly after that first episode, but the show continues to render the plights of social anxiety candidly on screen. Komi Can’t Communicate works tirelessly to establish an equilibrium between conveying both humor and honesty. This underrated gem phenomenally represents those with mental health and anxiety disorders.
4. Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.
Hulu Originals sometimes break out into mainstream discussion, yet the majority go unrecognised. Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. released all ten episodes on Hulu earlier this year. M.O.D.O.K. (the character) is a glossed-over supervillain from the Marvel Comics canon who comics fans probably never thought would cross over to the television medium. Thankfully, comics fans Patton Oswalt and Jordan Blum teamed up to give M.O.D.O.K. a starring role in the hilarious American stop-motion adult animated show.
In the Hulu show, M.O.D.O.K. is given a family for the first time, except his villainy as the head of scientific research company A.I.M. interferes in his ability to spend quality time with his wife, daughter, and son. When his company goes bankrupt, M.O.D.O.K. is fired from his position of power and an ominous tech corporation buys the failing business. M.O.D.O.K. fights to wrest control back amidst a divorce and time-traveling shenanigans.
Patton Oswalt stars as the titular M.O.D.O.K. and excels in his voice-over work. The underrated show is an ode to underrated comic characters. Although M.O.D.O.K. has made cameo appearances on television shows before, being thrust into a starring role elevates the character. Similar to Comedy Central adult animated shows, M.O.D.O.K. pushes the envelope with random gore and mature themes, which limits audience reach somewhat.
Still, this show shines, experimenting with the marvelous stop-motion format, subversive comedy, and superb voice acting from a host of familiar actors. Smaller-scale comic book adaptations like M.O.D.O.K. justifiably deserve a more substantial fanbase. Additionally, Jordan Blum and Patton Oswalt wrote a fabulous prequel comic book miniseries worth reading.
5. Maya And The Three
Kids’ media seldom gets its turn in the spotlight. Despite having famous names attached to them, most children’s television shows don’t receive anywhere near the amount of attention teen or adult shows acquire. But Netflix Original animation Maya And The Three, possibly the most underrated TV show from 2021,offers a sublime show that both children and adults will appreciate.
Based upon Mesoamerican myths and set in a pre-colonial Mesoamerica, Maya And The Three follows a warrior princess entangled in a family war against the gods of the Underworld. On Maya’s fifteenth birthday coronation, a servant from the Underworld arrives. The God of War and his wife demand Maya come to the Underworld as payment for her father’s past sins or else they will destroy the world. Maya embarks on a prophesized mission to save the world from the Gods’ demise by leading three warriors from the adjacent kingdoms to victory.
Indigenous history and folklore combine to tell a fascinating story about a warrior princess hero in the sumptuously animated miniseries. Maya And The Three integrate the hero’s journey within a rich and textured historical fantasy setting. The animation maintains the intricate beauty of a Pixar film throughout its nine-episode run.
Maya And The Three amplifies the usual stakes for a children’s show. Characters die unexpectedly and other characters are forced to cope with consequential betrayal, grief, and sacrifice. Mexican culture gains on-screen representation on an enormously powerful scale with Maya And The Three.
Crime thrillers and detective shows in South Korea appear everywhere in the modern era. The Korean drama or K-drama fan base remains steady, but crime fiction media came out swinging years back and has only seen an uptick in acclaim. Popular in South Korea, the underrated crime thriller Mouse is due for international recognition.
Mouse centers on detectives working to capture a psychopathic serial killer striking fear in South Korea. At the heart of the show lies Go Mu-Chi, a hardened, alcoholic detective obsessed with seeking vengeance on murderers, and Jung Ba-Reum, a young rookie cop whose personal encounter with a serial killer alters his life forever. The multi-faceted tale follows their plans to catch the psychopath killer on the loose. Their encounters with the serial murderer dubbed ‘The Headhunter’, still imprisoned 25 years after his arrest, may provide the men insights into the psychopathic mindset.
Episode lengths in Mouse reach nearly an hour and a half – and there are over 20 episodes in the first season. The episodes carry heavy emotional weight, layering several stories together, flashing backward in time, and connecting threads between seemingly unrelated characters. Mouse procures significant themes beyond the central mystery audiences with details audiences will love to unpack.
In Mouse, advancement in medical technology allows doctors to determine a psychopathic gene in fetuses, and the ethics coupled with deciding whether to eliminate that fetus as a result. Underneath the exceptional main plot, Mouse posits questions about psychology and morality which anyone, anywhere can connect with.
7. My Name
Since Netflix’s recent licensing deal with South Korean cable company JTBC, South Korean entertainment has started to become more prominent in terms of international audience viewership. Squid Game, The King’s Affection, and Hellbound are all promoted as Netflix Originals, garnering global interest for Netflix subscribers. About a month after Squid Game aired on the streaming service, the South Korean crime thriller My Name followed.
My Name held a spot in the U.S. Top 10 chart momentarily before dropping off far too quickly. While the hype around Squid Game (which is a fantastic show) certainly led the charge for popularizing these new Netflix South Korean shows, the public should not let it overshadow other K-dramas such as the touching, action-packed My Name.
My Name grounds itself in reality. A gangster on South Korea’s most wanted list is murdered right outside his door – where his teenage daughter helplessly hears each gunshot. Enraged, Yoon Jiwoo asks her father’s friend, the head of an organized crime syndicate, to train her so she can enact revenge on her father’s murderer.
My Name introduces high stakes in the first episode, but keeps on ratcheting them up. The plot takes a detour leaving audiences wondering what other surprises await them in the eight-episode season. American viewers will draw comparisons to The Karate Kid (1984) film, with its mentor/mentee characters and the martial arts training scenes. High praise should be extended toward My Name for the cinematography. The excellently choreographed fight scenes literally pack a powerful punch.
An underrated TV show from 2021, My Name centres around a fascinating woman protagonist and highlights some epic martial arts skills.
8. The Mysterious Benedict Society
Disney+ releases a decent amount of content every month without generating buzz around most of its projects if they aren’t Marvel or Star Wars-adjacent. One show you may or may not have noticed was the eclectic and charming children’s mystery show, The Mysterious Benedict Society. Adapted from the children’s books by Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society takes visual cues from director Wes Anderson and his cinematographer partner Robert Yeoman.
The show revolves around a genius named Mr. Benedict who recruits a group of four uber-intelligent children to stop the global crisis dubbed ‘The Emergency’. Subliminal messages with brainwashing and controlling powers have slipped into people’s heads, creating an increasingly alarming panic thrumming through societies. Mr. Benedict pinpoints the broadcasting system source; a secluded private school on an island. Thus, he sends the four children to the Learning Institute for Veritas and Enlightenment (L.I.V.E.) as students to stop the headmaster’s evil plans.
The greatness of this underrated TV show cannot be understated. The Mysterious Benedict Society adopts the charm and whimsy permeating the books and translates those qualities immaculately for television.
The show creates a visual language that speaks volumes about the effort its creators put into the design, costuming, and aesthetics. Rapid-fire dialogue and elevated language feel right at home here, with the dry wit or gag humor hinging on the actors’ deadpan delivery. Tony Hale, who plays Mr. Benedict, finally receives a leading role and nails his delivery. All the actors, but particularly Hale, transform the show with immersive screen presences. The Mysterious Benedict Society evades typical Disney-esque tropes, dismantling usual motifs present in kids’ media and evolving into something truly magnificent.
9. One Of Us Is Lying
Gritty teen dramas soared in popularity in the mid-2010s. YA film adaptation surged and The CW’s television network began pumping out shows like Riverdale. At this point, Riverdale is a punchline, yet it keeps people watching and talking, no matter what ridiculous direction the show takes. The Peacock streaming service adapted yet another YA novel, One Of Us Is Lying, into a television show. Nothing supernatural transpires in One Of Us Is Lying – it manages to keep you enthralled with nothing more than normal teens enmeshed in an irresistibly entertaining murder mystery.
Four teens at Bayview High School become murder suspects. Four students are in detention with Simon, a school snitch who divulges the students’ secrets online, when he drops dead after an allergic reaction. It was only these four in the room when Simon died – and Simon had secrets about every one of them. The Bayview Four had motive, but each one sets out to keep their secrets and prove their innocence.
One Of Us Is Lying relies on familiar edgy teen show tropes to pull viewers into its oftentimes hyperbolic drama. However, the show depicts its characters and scenarios realistically. The authentic problems and self-preservation these teens face help deliver drama organically. One Of Us Is Lying changes the ending from the book, and the sinister change heavily works in its favor. Fans of Karen McManus’ YA novel will be surprised by the plot deviations and enticed by the promise of a second season.
10. Pacific Rim: The Black
Director Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi monster film Pacific Rim (2013) received massive praise and attained box office success. Kaiju and Jaeger robots from the film franchise returned in 2021 with the Japanese-American animation, Pacific Rim: The Black. Set 15 years after del Toro’s film, the show provides an intimate look at a sibling duo in Australia challenged by a Kaiju uprising once again.
Teenage siblings Hayley and Travis wait in an Australian desert community for their parents to return from Kaiju combat. Years later, the parents have yet to return and Travis cannot force his younger sister to accept their harsh reality. When Hayley unearths and powers up an old Mk III training Jaeger, the mech attracts a Category IV kaiju. The Copperhead kills everyone in the commune, so Hayley and Travis travel alone in the jaeger to find shelter in Sydney.
Pacific Rim: The Black adds a whole new side to the exquisite Pacific Rim universe. The animation melds gorgeous 2-D aesthetics with 3-D, producing visual effects not normally observed on television. A melancholy tone pervades the show, with quiet moments embracing character development. The underrated TV show introduces new, harrowing monsters and brings the spectacle to epic battle scenes, entertaining any kaiju fan.
11. Reservation Dogs
FX/Hulu’s Reservation Dogs reigns as the most underrated American TV show from 2021 by far. Reservation Dogs, written by Indigenous writers Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi, and Bobby Wilson and directed by Indigenous directors Sterlin Harjo and Sydney Freeland stars a group of incredibly talented Native American actors. Four teens navigate life, commit crime, and dream of moving from their Oklahoma reservation in a funny yet heartbreaking comedy.
Rural Oklahoma hosts a large Native American population. One on of the reservations, Elora, Bear, Cheese, and Willie Jack feel trapped in their small-town lives. They steal chip trucks and engage in shady criminal activity to raise money for their ultimate goal: escape the rez and prosper across the country in California. Another teenage group declares the Rez Dogs their enemies, steering the teens into additional conflicts. Haunted by the death of their friend Daniel, the Rez Dogs want to leave before the reservation kills them or their spirits too.
Reservation Dogs achieves an entirely new dimension in the comedy/drama sphere. When a show can induce laughter one moment, enlighten your mindset in another scene, and shatter your emotions all in one episode, you know you’re watching something special. Reservation Dogs keeps the tone lowkey as the teens meander around their daily lives. The central cast displays love for another, convincing audiences of their tight-knit relationships amidst the hardships they endure. Adults and children show respect toward one another’s differing beliefs, ultimately teaching each other how to adapt and how to honor their heritage simultaneously.
Nothing comparable to Reservation Dogs premiered on TV in 2021: watch one of the best modern television shows ever created and you won’t regret a single moment.
12. Resident Alien
Syfy shows have a reputation: they get canceled prematurely and never receive a chance to reach their full potential. Luckily, the Syfy show Resident Alien was renewed for a second season. Fans can only hope the humorous American sci-fi comedy based on the Dark Horse comic book can outlast the Syfy cancellation curse.
An alien spacecraft crash lands in a rural Colorado town after lightning strikes, botching the pilots’ mission to decimate humanity. The alien shifts into human form by assuming the identity of the doctor he murdered in his crash landing. Revamped, ‘Harry’ is challenged with learning human social cues and leaning into the role of the doctor whose identity he stole. Stranded on Earth, Harry attempts to blend into society. Unfortunately, a child who can see Harry’s true alien form thwarts his efforts to mask himself.
Comic book adaptations beyond Marvel and DC experienced a breakthrough year in 2021 with popular shows based on indie comics such as Sweet Tooth and Invincible. But Resident Alien acquired limited recognition, due to the fact the show aired on the Syfy cable channel, as opposed to a streaming service. With the first season over, audiences can watch it all now with a Peacock Premium Plus subscription, a Paramount+ subscription, or for free through the Syfy website.
Resident Alien mashes Law & Order with X-Files in a farcical amalgamation. About two episodes in, the show finds a more evenhanded groove in its approach to relating human stories through a wacky, comedy/sci-fi mashup. Audiences desperately yearning for glee need to participate in the fun Resident Alien supplies.
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