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Some of the best TV shows of 2021, you may not have even heard of

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

* 2021 was, of course, the year of "Squid Game"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SQUID GAME")

REAGAN TO: (As character, singing in Korean).

KELLY: ...And also of "Beatlemania" on television...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LET ME DOWN")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Don't let me down.

KELLY: ...And Marvel on Disney Plus.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WANDAVISION")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) WandaVision.

KELLY: Well, NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans has been watching all of it and is here to talk about it. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: So I want to start by hearing what surprised you this year on TV.

DEGGANS: Well, I got to say, the sheer breadth and scope of TV available this year was surprising. I mean, if you couldn't find something you liked on TV this year, you weren't really trying, even considering how things got held back by the pandemic. Still, I felt like I saw a ton of good series but not a lot of great series. And part of it, I wonder, is a hangover effect from the way that the pandemic was disrupting TV production. But part of it is that there's so many shows that many TV outlets have developed series that are very personalized. They have a very personalized appeal. And some of these series might speak to one crowd, but they might not speak to another crowd or to me as a critic.

KELLY: Oh, interesting. Well, let's talk about what spoke to you. Like, how did you pull together your list of best shows for this year? What sort of things were most powerful for you?

DEGGANS: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, I look for shows that combine, like, great execution and really compelling content with something that had, like, a larger resonance in society. So let's look at "Succession," which I consider one of the best dark comedies of the year...

KELLY: Yes.

DEGGANS: ...Even though the Emmys call it a drama.

KELLY: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: But, you know, it's not just this really deft exploration of a really dysfunctional family. It's a commentary on these dynastic families that are so influential in media and politics these days, like the Trumps or the Murdochs. And think about Netflix's super popular show "Squid Game," which was No. 5 on my list of best shows this year. It wasn't just a shocking commentary on inequality. You know, it features this group of economically challenged people playing deadly kid's games to win this big jackpot and amuse a bunch of rich spectators. But the success also shows how Netflix can take this well-crafted show made for audiences in South Korea and introduce it to an international viewership base.

KELLY: Yeah.

DEGGANS: Now, shows like "Squid Game" are embracing the national boundaries in TV programming, and that's an amazing thing to see.

KELLY: It is amazing. But were, like, there any shows on your list that you felt did not get enough attention this past year?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, again, me personally, I loved Apple TV Plus' "Foundation," their version of this classic Isaac Asimov science fiction novel brought to TV. Peacock did this amazing limited series version of the podcast "Dr. Death" with Joshua Jackson as a neurosurgeon who was inexplicably mutilating his patients. But one show that's really on my list of best TV in 2020 that I felt didn't get enough recognition was the "Underground Railroad" on Amazon Prime Video. This is a limited series with "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins. It's inspired by Colson Whitehead's novel, and it's about one enslaved woman's horrific journey to freedom. It was really difficult viewing for people when it first debuted. So I think it hasn't really gotten its due as this amazing, ambitious piece of television.

KELLY: Well, I saw that you gave the Hulu show "Dopesick" rave reviews as well when it came out, and it's the top show on your list for 2021.

DEGGANS: Yeah.

KELLY: Can you talk about, like, why did you think this show was so, so good?

DEGGANS: Well, this is another series that takes a really dramatic story and matches it with important social commentary. It's depicting executives at the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma using invalid science to push doctors into overprescribing the opioid pain reliever Oxycontin to patients, which sparked a huge addiction crisis. Now, Michael Keaton is compelling as this doctor in a small mining town who gets bamboozled into overprescribing the drug. And this series' depiction of these working-class, white, rural towns that were decimated by this epidemic - it's authentic, and it's heart-rending.

KELLY: That is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thank you so much, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.