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Best hidden gem shows of 2021 — and where to watch them

A still from The Expanse season 5
(Image credit: Amazon)

If you've got time to finally watch the best shows of 2021 that fell off your radar, we've got nine great options for you. Because for every Squid Game that blew up, there were many other shows that went under the radar. 

Not all of them were perfect, but we've picked out the best of the best under-appreciated shows of the year. These range from Showtime's excellent new series that is too good to miss, to a delightfully awkward Hulu series that just ended at a manageable two seasons. 

So, pop some popcorn, fire up one of the best streaming devices and get ready to watch the stories you'll be telling your friends and family they need to see.

Yellowjackets

So much happens in the very first episode of Yellowjackets, a masterly told drama from Showtime, that you might think it's a clip show for an entire season. The premise presents us with a high school girl's soccer team caught in their own Lord of The Flies-like incident. But mere moments from the show's beginning, Yellowjackets pulls the camera to the future, with society aware of the crash that previously happened, and looking back with some perspective. Nimbly jumping between points on a timeline, Yellowjackets is rooted in the always-reliable question of "how do people act when it's time to survive?" Oh, and Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci and Melanie Lynskey lead the show, which should be enough of an all-star team to get you to hit play. The first episode is free on YouTube right now. — Henry T. Casey

Watch it on Showtime

PEN15

The stars of Pen15

(Image credit: Hulu)

If you think adulting is a nightmare, remember teenagering? The daily cringe of adolescence for like … five or seven years straight?! PEN15 captures it so precisely that it’ll send you hurtling through a portal back to the year you were 13. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle write the series, as well as star as fictionalized younger versions of themselves. While some of the stories reflect the creators’ personal experiences, the painful awkwardness in them is universal. Who among us didn’t crush on someone in middle school — and get flatly rejected? Or feel self-conscious about braces, bad haircuts and uncool clothes? With the second season being its last, PEN15 will always remain a time capsule to those uncertain moments when kids both long for adulthood and quake in fear at growing up. — Kelly Woo

Watch it on Hulu

We Are Lady Parts

Sometimes, I just want to watch something that sparks joy. Strike that – a lot of times. We Are Lady Parts made me smile and laugh perhaps more than any other show this year. And it’s on Peacock! There’s a curveball for you. The British comedy puts the spotlight on an underserved group: Muslim women. And in this case, Muslim women who wanna rock! Amina (Anjana Vasan) is a microbiology student who thinks she just wants to get married and settle down. Then, she lands the role of lead guitarist in an all-female, all-Muslim band and her ambitions begin to change. The only hitch? She has bad stage fright.! We Are Lady Parts is not only sweet, funny and irreverent, it features some legit bops. Warning: The songs may live in your head, rent-free, for quite some time. — Kelly Woo

Watch it on Peacock

Reservation Dogs

A coming-of-age tale about rebellious teens doesn’t break new ground, but Reservation Dogs puts a unique flavor on the well-trod genre by relying on an all-Indigenous cast and crew. The series comes from creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi and stars Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Paulina Alexis. The quartet of teens reside on a reservation in rural Oklahoma and are constantly scheming petty crimes they can pull off to make money and escape to California. The inspiration for their look and vibe comes from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (hence the name). Between the heists and snarky humor, there’s a poignant exploration of what “home” means to the descendants of peoples whose land was stolen from them. — Kelly Woo

Watch it on Hulu

The Other Two 

This wickedly funny dissection of fame and its trapping never found much of an audience on Comedy Central. It was saved by HBO Max, yet another reason why it’s the best streaming service around. Season 2 continued to follow the misadventures of gay wannabe actor Cary (Drew Tarver) and aspiring talent manager Brooke (Helene York), whose younger brother and mother (Molly Shannon) are big stars. Their attempts to ride on the family coattails and further their careers usually flame out in spectacular, cringe-inducing fashion. But it’s not all failures and foibles for the “other two” — sometimes, they manage to succeed and it’s sweet to witness. — Kelly Woo

Watch it on HBO Max

Starstruck

You had me at the premise of: Notting Hill meets Fleabag. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge before her, Rose Matafeo writes and stars in a series of her own making. It’s based on a real encounter she had with her Kiwi friends in London. Jessie is a bit of a mess, juggling two jobs while living with a flatmate in Hackney. On New Year’s Eve, she has a one-night stand — only to discover later that he’s world-famous actor Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel)! They share an electric chemistry, but as in all rom-coms, various obstacles block their path forward. For instance, Jessie is mortified when she leaves his place one morning and the paparazzi write her off as a cleaning lady. But she’s also not ashamed of her sex life and after one hook-up, shimmies down the street. Hands down (and feet kicked up), it was the most delightful thing I’ve seen all year. — Kelly Woo

Watch it on HBO Max

The Expanse

The cast of The Expanse in season 6

(Image credit: Amazon Studios)

Amazon is spending half a billion dollars trying to replicate Game of Thrones with its Lord of the Rings prequel series. Unfortunately, it's overlooking one of the best shows in its stable, a show that's coming to a premature end in a few weeks. The Expanse is a magnificent exercise in world-building, with a couple of dozen strong, memorable characters plotting against each other while a looming external threat plans to wipe out humanity. It's as if Game of Thrones was set in our own solar system a couple of hundred years in the future, with all the political and personal drama that entails. — Paul Wagenseil

Watch it on Amazon Prime Video

Arcane

Arcane may have lived in the Netflix Top 10 TV (English) since it came out (it's attached to the League of Legends games, so it arrived with a built-in audience) but it's still the kind of show that many may need a nudge to check out. Though it currently holds a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, it's subject to that typical "but it only looks like a kids show" attitude that's also regularly attached to Pixar-made feature films. Plus, anything adapting a video game with bright colors and gorgeous animation (both two- and three-dimensional) will also be viewed as at least a little suspicious by some. That said, its story of orphaned sisters Powder and Vi has a strong emotional kick, always finding ways to make you think, “Wow, they really put a lot of care into this." — Henry T. Casey

Watch it on Netflix

Heels

Starz' often-goofy small-town pro wrestling melodrama mixes a little bit of GLOW with a lot of Friday Night Lights. Its central story is about Jack Spade (Stephen Amell), who thinks of himself as an auteur of the medium, spending hours penning his scripts for the in-ring dramatics for Duffy Wrestling League, which he and his brother Ace (Alexander Ludwig) took over after their father Tom committed suicide. But it's all too complicated because Jack and Ace are both wrestlers in the promotion, and pitted opposite each other as the top good guy ("face") and bad guy ("heel," per the title) in DWL. Ace's reckless behavior doesn't mesh well with Jack's controlling personality, and it often makes for chaos in-ring. Because while pro wrestling is predetermined before the match begins, anything can happen on the fly in the ring. — Henry T. Casey

Watch it on Starz

Henry is a senior editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past six-plus years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.