Just as another quick reminder: this is based almost solely on my opinion, and is not entirely reflexive of the quality of these shows. That obvious plays into it, but at the same time, most of these are here because of my personal “tilt” factor. (Also of the 10, like, 6 are on Netflix).
Interestingly, I do think every single show I’m putting on this list aired a season this calendar year, which is different than the previous lists. Not every show started this year, though I think over half of them did. At any rate, let’s go.
10 Dogs in Space
Even as I write this, I’m still waffling slightly on what show deserves the 10 spot, as there are a few that I could arguably put here. This particular show isn’t exactly revolutionary: it’s not doing anything new for animation or television or trying anything out there (which a few of my “honorable mentions” do). The humor is incredibly hit and miss, though I did enjoy most of the characters.
It does do a few things very right though. The villain for the show is incredibly well developed, and there’s something of a philosophical debate over what we owe other people (it’s framed as what dogs owe their owners). The characters are all incredibly likeable and adorably designed, and I found myself genuinely enjoying the show throughout: it has this good nature feel.
It’s probably one of the few on this list I wouldn’t recommend to everybody, but if you’re into animation and/or have children of the appropriate age, this is one of the better shows that dropped this year in that category.
9 The Lost Pirate Kingdom
This is a bit of an odd choice compared to everything else on this list, but it does do a great job showing my preferences here. This particular show is a documentary, retelling the stories of the golden age of piracy (primarily mentioned in a book that just barely missed the cut for the other list). They have the usual interviews by experts and the like, but they’ve also mixed in some really strong performances by various actors in garb.
Yeah, it sometimes looks a little like a really dedicated Ren Faire troupe putting on a performance, but it adds an extra level of engagement. They use that and the actual history to put together something of a narrative, following these larger than life figures that actually existed.
There’s not really a huge social commentary or anything at work here. It’s very much telling us about this really cool moment in history. It did surprise me to learn how very short the time period we really associate with pirates was (like, twenty years, if that?). This docuseries is pretty well done though, and there’s something to be said for a series that’s willing to tell us both history and entertain us at the same time.
8 Mighty Ducks: Game Changers
I am just of the age where I kinda grew up on the Mighty Ducks movies. I won’t say they’re my favorite films, but I don’t think they were ever trying to be anyone’s favorite films. They were a set of the 90s sports movies that were incredibly prevalent at the time, telling that same old 90s tale. But they had engaging characters, interesting child actors, and there was some sort of magic about them that just hits me. Even to this day I rewatch the films from time to time and have a blu-ray copy of Mighty Ducks 2.
Game Changers takes everything I love about Mighty Ducks and presents it in an actually good show. Yes, seriously, I would go that far: this show is genuinely good. The same overall idea of misfits punching up is very much here, and there’s a kind of cheesy commentary at the heart of this. Alex Morrow (Lauren Graham) takes her son Evan Morrow (Brady Noon) and forms a new team because the current Mighty Ducks have become Mighty Jerks, focused on winning, performance, and essentially becoming a factory for hockey players.
This makes some sense: the previous Mighty Ducks went into the Junior Goodwill games and got huge scholarships to a private school. Mix that with how parents, particularly modern parents, put pressure on their kids to succeed, and the outcome just makes sense.
But this series has several episodes to build its quirky cast of misfits together. Yes, some are stereotypes, but others are just genuinely fun characters. They let the girl who’s into cosplay stay into cosplay (and she’s fun). There’s a fun twist on this kid from Canada who has incredibly expensive hockey gear of his own. It’s all very well done, well acted, and they give it time to grow. It was one of my favorite shows this year, and really embodies what I loved about the series in the first place
Definitely something of a universal recommendation.
It really should not surprise anyone that I’m into anime. I’m also quite into manga, and have been reading this series for a while now (top 10 graphic novel list is likely coming early next year). The story is simply too engaging, too stylish, and too impactful not to be mentioned.
The basic premise follows Legoshi the gray wolf as someone is not just murdered at his school, but outright devoured by another predatory animal. The original author used the animal races as an extended metaphor for racism as we see it today, and it sort of works. There’s a little more actual scientific difference in these animals though: predators are seriously bigger and biologically different than prey animals. Still, there’s a lot of commentary on how people of different backgrounds get along with one another, all built into something of a bildungsroman that follows Legoshi through the usual growing up stuff.
This season has the big reveal, with Legoshi on the trail of the actual devourer, which is presented in just stunning and stylish fashion. The animation makes the story that much more engaging, as they play around with colors and styles to really draw someone in to this amazing story. Everything just plays together perfectly here. The only real drawback for this season was that the romance between Legoshi and Haru the dwarf white rabbit (seriously) takes a back burner, and I’ve often found that to be one of the more fascinating aspects (those watching the show will be even more confused, as it’s very focused on in Season 1).
Still, this is far and away the best anime I watched this year, and continues to be a show that excites me.
6 Q Force
Another not surprise: I like adult animation. I can’t say for certain if it started when a partner convinced me to watch South Park, but that’s likely the origin point. I’ve seen several series, and I’m up to date on Archer. I mention this partly because Q Force gets compared with Archer a lot, as it’s another show that centers around secret agents that aren’t exactly normal.
Oh, in case it wasn’t abundantly obvious: it’s very queer.
It’s, like, in the name.
The show follows a group of essentially outcast members of the bigger intelligence agencies that are mostly brushed aside due to their various LGBTIA+ natures. Most of the characters presented do kinda fall into stereotypes: the gay leader is sassy, the lesbian mechanic knows all sorts of practical stuff, and the drag queen is absolutely fabulous and flamboyant. They also brought in several old guard queer performers like Wanda Sykes and Sean Hayes, both of whom sound a little too old for their characters.
I did not expect to like this show, let alone to love it and put it this high on my list. I’d heard bad things, and it leans hard on some older stuff. But it has this genuinely good heart. It’s an adult oriented animation show that doesn’t feel particularly spiteful or resentful of its characters or its audience. It’s here to entertain you, but it’s also here to make a few subtle and several not so subtle comments about the queer culture.
See, while the characters are busy shouting cliches, they’re also utilizing their queer identities to succeed at tasks that the crew of “awesome” spies in Archer fail at doing (I never saw the humor in a group that constantly messes things up). Dressing in drag is presented like a superpower, and having practical knowledge of obscure trivia comes in handy. This is a bunch of queers drawing on the stereotypes, owning them, and twisting them to their own benefit and power. Character differences are honored, and that includes stuff that has nothing to do with the expressed gender/sexual identity: one character is super into this weird supernatural soap opera, and her knowledge of it solves a case (and there’s an adorable scene where her leader reluctantly takes photos of her with props even in the middle of a mission).
Everyone is just genuine, nice, and they’re this wholesome feeling, which you should not be applying to a show that looks like this. I loved it, and it left me with a good feeling afterward, though it’s all but guaranteed not to get a second season.
5 The Owl House
Oh wow, what a shock, Fate likes the newest critically and fan acclaimed animated series that also features a queer romance at the heart of its story (that we actually get to see). I actually debated putting this on the list, because we only got the first half of the second season in this particular year.
But it’s just so good.
Let’s put aside the expertly crafted and beautiful romance that essentially roped the “Draco Malfoy” rival character into a long term, believable, and adorable romance with our “Harry Potter” esque lead, thus fulfilling a lot of our fantasies and using that archetype in a meaningful manner. Just focusing on the plot and world building of this show would be enough.
It tells the story of a girl, Luz, who’s berated for being very out there. They have to exaggerate her “outness” because of the current time period, and even someone like me has to admit she initially goes overboard. But she’s a perfect fit when she finds herself in the Boiling Isles, a magical realm sort of next to Earth that sometimes takes stuff from Earth and so forth.
In this season, Luz’s mentor, Edalyn Clawthorne, has lost her impressive magical powers due to a curse and now must learn the alternate form of magic her student had previously picked up. So we get some fun scenes there, while at the same time, the group is dealing with an evil emperor who’s trying to gather enough magical energy to enter Earth and do weird stuff. Oh, and King, the adorable possibly demon, gets more of a fleshed out and expanded upon backstory. (Most of the characters due, save for maybe Luz’s two token friends).
The magic here feels both dangerous and wonderful; the world feels fleshed out and slightly creepy but also legitimately cool. They keep taking the story in fun, interesting new ways, currently teasing us with this idea that Luz might have to give up magic and do the right thing to return to her worried mother (which I’ve mixed feelings about). Everything is just about perfectly done here, buuuuut the whole half a season thing kinda drops it (and there’s at least two shows further up here that are just flat out better).
Fun fact: I’ve watched all the Disney Plus Marvel shows except Hawkeye, and this is the only one that made the list! (Including What If?, the animated show).
It’s not that I didn’t find the Marvel shows enjoyable or well put together. It’s just that Falcon and The Winter Soldier and Loki leaned way too much into the whole idea of an interconnected universe and felt like they struggled under the weight of telling their own story. I likely never would’ve been too into Falcon et al, because it leans into the spy stuff that I’m just not a huge fan of in general. I was excited for Loki, but I think the hype burned me on it, and it just felt like it was essentially a season long setup for the multiverse. What If had some brilliant episodes, but felt incessantly dark and morbid, with episodes that kept reveling in their ability to kill and murder these characters we love.
This show, however, this show is amazing.
On the one hand, there’s that kinda fun playing around with sitcoms and the like. As a scholar of film and television, that’s probably what hooked me the most. I loved the send ups and the obvious love and care the show puts into reconstructing the various eras of television sit-com. I loved how they used that as an extended metaphor for Wanda’s spiraling state of being and her own control over the situation. It’s all lovingly crafted, beautifully done, and just amazing.
The story also genuinely grips you, and it primarily focuses on its central character. Most of this is about a woman dealing with her grief, and Wanda’s been a secondary character for most of the MCU’s existence. They keep the focus on how she expresses her grief tight, and it’s incredibly well done and articulated here. Yes, there’s some other stuff, but unlike the other shows, they don’t let that get in the way of the story they’re telling here.
They started with this one, and they put their best foot forward.
This is another of those that kinda just made the list, as it came out late last year (technically based on about how I’m cutting these off, it would have made it). And if you caught me at a different time, I may switch it with either of the two previous entries on the list (things are a bit fluid there).
But this show is nearly perfect. The animation has this soft, gentle feel that expresses a sensation of childlike wonder that grips and engages the audience. The characters are brilliantly acted, particularly the lead, Hilda. The music feels like and ethereal: I absolutely love the theme song (and the animation to it is spectacular).
The story tells about Hilda, a blue haired girl who moves from an openly magical countryside (there are elves that are invisible unless you fill out the correct paperwork and trolls just kinda around), to the less openly magical city (where the elves are located in parks, the trolls are outside the walls, and there are magical creatures that live in the in between spaces of our homes). It has that whole natural fairy tale vibe about it.
But this season actually added some true threats. There’s someone that’s doubting magic and wanting to control it, which honestly kinda makes sense given some of what Hilda has gone through. On top of that, the trolls keep getting closer to the walls of Trollburg, and there’s a looming threat that they could get in and cause trouble. On top of that, Hilda’s having issues with her mother.
That last is kinda what stops this season from being perfect. While the conflict between Hilda and her mother does feel kind of realistic: Hilda rebels against being in the city, doing school instead of magic, and enjoying her time in the scouts instead of earning badges, it also feels a bit forced. Every time we see Johanna (Mum), she’s supportive of Hilda. She even goes on several adventures with her daughter, showing a willingness to engage that’s very unlike most adults in these sort of projects. So why is Hilda hiding things from her? Why is she rebelling?
Basically because the plot says so, though there’s at least some hint at further reasons.
Still, this season introduced amazing characters, like the librarian witches and the troll hunters. It’s incredibly well done, whimsical, magical ,and drops hints toward some of my favorite themes in existence, like this idea that we need magic and wonder in our lives at some level. It also has a movie coming up in just a few weeks that I cannot wait to watch.
Also spoilers, as the top two aren’t likely to surprise anyone who’s up on this sort of thing.
I have been anticipating this for way, way too long. The moment they dropped a teaser on something set in the League of Legends universe, I was on board. I remember because they showed next to nothing, just hints, for the longest time. It also came out around the same time as hints for the Resident Evil animated series (which likely would land on a worst list if I made one), so my hype just kept building.
Then the actual trailers came, and i nearly lost my mind. It looked incredibly stylish, and it starred at least one character I recognized. I could finally get to see some of what the League of Legends lore is about and why people are into this.
The show probably could have leaned on that. Likely could have just drawn fans in by telling the story and having killer animation (the animation is so good I squirm just thinking about it; there’s a fight in the latter half of the series that is my absolute favorite animated fight of all time. It is stunningly well done, beautifully animated, with amazing stakes, a great ripple effect on the plot, and just, ugh, so great). It probably could have leaned on its pop success with hip Imagine Dragons songs (the band shows up at one point in a nearly cringeworthy almost music video moment).
Instead, it tells a gripping epic story that rivals the stuff we loved about early Game of Thrones.
Yes, I’m comparing this animated series to that. There’s a difference though:
This is better.
There’s two levels here, as we watch a pair of sisters from the Undercity of Zaun attempting to raise above their station. Vi and Powder have been orphaned from an earlier uprising by the lower city against the upper, vying for equal rites and resources (class struggle). They now live with Vander, a renown rebel leader and sort of gang tough who’s got that whole wise beyond his years thing going. The two are joined by a downright dickensian group of child thieves. They follow a tip, get in over their heads, and maybe ignite the spark that starts a war?
Or is that the experimental research being done by Jayce Talis, the man they steal from? He’s pushing what magic and technology can do when combined together, and this idea of advancing technology and what we use it for and how easy it can be turned into war and violence becomes a central theme. He’s researched, reprimanded by some and praised by others, and we watch his trials and tribulations in the upper city.
It’s all high drama, but told through engaging, believable characters in a realistic way. I actually had to leave out several major players, including both Jayce’s and Vi’s love interests (spoilers, at least one of those relationships is queer). There’s a complex story here that also serves as a prologue and origin story for several major players in the game world that we see beyond. It’s the first property that treats the game stories with the reference and depth it deserves, telling this incredibly stylish and well done story that should engage any and all audiences, though this is obviously aimed at an adult audience.
If you’re into high drama fantasy, stylish shows, or even just cool stuff with magic, you need to check this out. It’s a nearly perfect show and has moments that just transcend.
Amphibia: animation fans will probably gasp and riot over my putting Dogs in Space above this (let alone some of the others). It’s considered the other big animation tent pole show now, considering how many we lost in 2020. But the show is incredibly uneven. Too many episodes are “funny” slice of life bits that feel very written to a child audience, almost insultingly so. Too often the plot gets derailed, and things are almost random. It’s still very well done, but not top 10 material.
Masters of the Universe: Revelation: when I first put this together, I almost thought about including this one, and on a different day, it may take the 10 spot. It’s gorgeously animated, tells this incredibly gripping high drama story, and has the gall to make me upset about a character named “Fisto.” Two things though: I’m currently watching it (I have two episodes left at the time of writing this), and it seems to hate its own characters: people are callously murdered or warped on the episodes they appear.
Trolls: Trollstopia: another show I’m wrapping now. The Trolls animated series kinda does this weird, own thing. Sometimes the episodes are just so out there and the writers seem to know exactly what they’re doing: there’s an entire episode where main character Poppy goes on literal speed dates to find the perfect pet. Othertimes, it seems like your standard talking to kids program (note: nearly every time Guy Diamond is a focal character, or, worse… Tiny Diamond). I’m also left wondering if it’s not queer baiting a little? Like, this shows seems terrified of romance for some reason, but drops constant hints and asides and seems to use friendship as some weird, poly-amorous code? Still well done, but too inconsistent.
Inside Job: this show was very well done, and it’s kinda interesting to see something more adult from the creators of Gravity Falls. I liked the two main leads, but otherwise this show kinda devolves into some issues with a lot of adult animation. Characters feel just a bit too out there, the show is just a bit too meanspirited. It is laying down some cool possibilities moving forward though, and I could see a further season making a future list.
Helluva Boss: I’m not sure this counts? It’s on YouTube, which isn’t a point against it, but it’s an odd platform. The season technically started in 2020, give or take, and we’ve only gotten a few episodes in 2021. I absolutely love this strange, queer, murder musical animated spectacle. They seem to be doing cool things with the story and characters, and it does not hurt that several are attractive (something I liked about Q Force too, btw). But my confusion on whether I’d count this leaves it just off (it would likely be right around 5/6 if it did).
1 Squid Game
C’mon, you’re not surprised, not even a little. I told you the top picks wouldn’t be surprises. If something’s good, I’m gonna say it’s good ,even if it is popular.
I did resist watching this show for a while for that very reason. There’s something in me that says if something’s popular it’s not worth engaging in. Probably comes from being nerdy and growing up before that was more socially acceptable. So I came into this a few months after its true height.
But man, is this show incredible.
Yes, it has some majorly important things to say about society, how we handle wealth and privilege, how we’ve become decadent and corrupt. That’s all here, and it’s mentioned just enough to be important but not enough to get in the way of telling an incredibly gripping tale.
I wasn’t even sure in the beginning. The first episode starts incredibly slowly, and the main character, Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae), doesn’t come off as very likeable. It’s hard for me to feel too bad for a character that seems to be in the bad situation he’s in through his own choices. I was almost left leaving this to people who like grim stories about bad people.
But the narrative develops brilliantly, particularly by the time we get to the actual games themselves. Characters are introduced slowly, and several of them are brilliantly constructed, feeling realistic even as they offer commentaries about modern Korean society and our own more global society (there’s an immigrant who’s mistreated, a refugee who has issues, and even some comments on the elderly).
It’s also not something that should be spoiled. I will say this: if you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch it. Chances are you’ll dig it. I’d also recommend watching the original Korean performance with subtitles. The dub is… awkward at best, and damages the portrayal of several characters (I actively switched back and forth for a few episodes to test). Get over the need to read the letters and just watch this incredible show.