From 'Squid Game' to 'The Morning Show' here are the winners and losers of 2021 television

·13 min read
The winners and losers of 2021 TV
Squid Game, Tiger King 2, WandaVision and The Morning Show (Photos: Netflix, Disney+ and Apple TV+)

2021 was a very good year to be Netflix. Even as still-young streaming services like Disney+, AppleTV+ and Peacock scored breakout successes amidst the various waves of the coronavirus pandemic, Netflix's familiar "Tudum" intro was heard in the most households worldwide thanks to blockbuster shows like Squid Game and Maid.

But even streaming Goliaths can be knocked flat once in awhile, and Netflix oversaw some high-profile, high-priced flops — most notably Jupiter's Legacy, a $200 million attempt at a superhero franchise — over the course of the year, which allowed plucky Davids like Hulu to score positive headlines for shows like Only Murders in the Building. Here's Yahoo Entertainment's round-up of the all the winners and losers from the 2021 TV season. — by Ethan Alter, Suzy Byrne, Kevin Polowy, Kaitlin Reilly and Raechal Shewfelt

WINNER: Netflix is the worldwide king of streaming...

In a year bookended by Bridgerton and Squid Game, Netflix firmly established itself as the first name in streaming for global households. The South Korea-produced Squid Game shattered records when it logged 1.65 billion hours of viewing during a 28-day period, more than double the 625 million hours that the made-in-the-U.K. Bridgerton racked up at the beginning of 2021. And in between those behemoths, shows like Maid (67 million views) from the U.S., Lupin (70 million views) from France and Money Heist (65 million) from Spain crossed borders to become international hits. It's Netflix's world and we just live in it. — Ethan Alter

LOSER: But Jupiter's Legacy and Tiger King 2 were among the service's costly wipeouts

Leslie Bibb, Josh Duhamel and Sheldon Sampson starred in Netflix's pricey superhero bomb, Jupiter's Legacy (Photo: Steve Wilkie/Netflix)
Leslie Bibb, Josh Duhamel and Sheldon Sampson starred in Netflix's pricey superhero bomb, Jupiter's Legacy. (Photo: Steve Wilkie/Netflix)

After the first Tiger King series became an early pandemic-era hit, it's understandable that Netflix would greenlight a sequel. But by the time Tiger King 2 premiered in November, audiences had clearly moved on as the second season logged only 30 million hours — less than half of the original's viewership. Critics pounced as well, mauling the leftovers as "bargain basement" television. At least another round of Tiger King was a relative financial bargain for Netflix; the same couldn't be said for high-priced bombs like Jupiter's Legacy which reportedly came with a $200 million price tag — and Cowboy Bebop. Those shows tried to launch new tentpole franchises, only to get the axe in near-record time after a single little-watched season. — E.A.

WINNER: Marvel has a (Wanda) vision for its Disney+ TV shows

Olsen as Wanda Maximoff aka the Scarlet Witch in
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff aka the Scarlet Witch in WandaVision. (Photo: Disney+)

The eye-popping box office grosses for Spider-Man: No Way Home proves that the Marvel magic remains mighty on the big screen. But 2021 demonstrated that the Marvel Cinematic Universe fits comfortably on the small screen as well. Marvel Studios successfully debuted five Disney+ series over the course of the year — WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, What If? and Hawkeye — and each one told its own self-contained story while also feeding back into the larger direction of the MCU. Look for that strategy to continue as 2022 shows like Moon Knight and She-Hulk alternate with movies like Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder. — E.A.

LOSER: Every non-Marvel (or Star Wars) series on Disney+

While franchise-adjacent shows like The Mandalorian and WandaVision have helped feed Disney+'s content-hungry subscriber base, it's becoming increasingly clear that the cupboard is a tad bare beyond those big brand names. The streaming service's once-rapid growth slowed dramatically in November, as few of the non-Marvel, non-Star Wars original shows — including The Mysterious Benedict Society and Turner & Hooch, which was canceled after a single season have attracted significant viewership. Analysts have suggested that Disney+ needs to start programming beyond its narrow target audience of kids and franchise fans if it hopes to equal or surpass Netflix in subscriber numbers. — E.A.

WINNER: Succession is the new Sopranos for HBO Max

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 12: Sarah Snook, Arian Moayed, Brian Cox, Jesse Armstrong, Kieran Culkin, J. Smith-Cameron and Alan Ruck attend the HBO's
The cast of Succession at the Season 3 premiere in New York City in October. (Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Did anyone really anticipate that HBO's Succession could really get better for Season 3? Because that’s exactly what’s happened. Now we have to start putting the must-see Sunday night drama — but also kind of a comedy — in the same conversation as The Sopranos, another must-see HBO Sunday night affair that was littered with despicable people we loved. Speaking of The Sopranos, the beloved mob drama got a nice boost in new viewership this year with the arrival of the Warner Bros. prequel film The Many Saints of Newark. The premium network, and its streaming service, also scored a couple other major hits with Mare of Easttown and The White Lotus. Imagine if any of these upcoming Game of Thrones spinoffs are great, too. — Kevin Polowy

WINNER: The HBO Max folks aren't Hacks when it comes to great comedies

HBO Max isn't resting HBO Prime's laurels in terms of its comedy programming. The streaming service struck comic gold with Hacks, the Jean Smart-led series that became a favorite with audiences and awards organizations alike. Other Max originals that have audiences in stitches include the much-improved second season of Love Life, starring William Jackson Harper; the first season of Mindy Kaling's Sex Lives of College Girls; and the return of the riotous spoof of celebrity culture, The Other Two, which the streamer nabbed from Comedy Central. HBO Max also boasted the biggest comedy event of the year in the form of the long-awaited Friends reunion, which inspired tears of laughter and nostalgic longing. — E.A.

LOSER: Apple TV+ is losing the prestige drama wars

Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston headline The Morning Show, which suffered creatively in Season 2 (Photo: Apple TV+)
Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston headline The Morning Show, which suffered creatively in Season 2. (Photo: Apple TV+)

What if you spent heavily on pricey prestige dramas starring the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Lee Pace ... and nobody watched? That's the position Apple TV+ finds itself in two years — and less than 20 million subscribers — into its existence. While Season 1 of Apple's marquee drama, The Morning Show, attracted attention for its star-powered cast, led by Aniston and Witherspoon, the recently-concluded (and much-ridiculed) Season 2 saw a steep drop-off in quality and buzz. Apple also spent a lot of money on Foundation, a lavish adaptation of Isaac Asimov's sci-fi novels that scored a second season pick-up despite the fact that almost no one talks about it — the same silence that's greeted other new dramas like The Mosquito Coast and Invasion. Fortunately, Apple has had more luck with breakout comedies thanks to Dickinson and especially Ted Lasso, although that series had its own growing pains. — E.A.

WINNER and LOSER: Ted Lasso wins all the Emmys, even as Season 2 divides fans

Nick Mohammed and Jason Sudeikis in the divisive Season 2 of Ted Lasso (Photo: Apple TV+)
Nick Mohammed and Jason Sudeikis in Ted Lasso's divisive Season 2. (Photo: Apple TV+)

By most accounts, it was another knockout year for the soccer/friendship favorite as Ted Lasso absolutely dominated the Emmys, sweeping the comedy categories and topping it off with one of the best backstage moments in recent awards history. But even as Lasso was owning the awards front, its second season was simultaneously dividing fans. While the the show still offered plenty of the sublime, feel-good charms it became famous for, Season 2 also took some bold swings — like that too-sweet Christmas episode and the very fast, very dark character arc spin for (past) fan favorite Nate (Nick Mohammed) — that had folks second guessing. But hey leave it to Lasso to make itself an underdog again going into Season 3. — K.P.

WINNER: Girls5Eva finally gave Peacock a buzzy series

The Tina Fey-produced comedy about a washed-up girl group from the ‘90s getting back together for another shot at fame generated what we once called — back in the days of actual offices — water-cooler conversation. It was a significant development for NBCUniversal's struggling streamer, which launched in 2020, and had until then been known solely known for reboots, including new versions of ‘80s and ‘90s favorites like Saved by the Bell and Punky Brewster. Peacock scored again when true crime series Dr. Death, based on a hit podcast and starring Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater, was warmly received by critics upon its premiere in July. — Raechal Shewfelt

WINNER: The docuseries is the new reality TV

In 2021, you needed the endurance of an Olympian to sit through yet another screaming match between Housewives or failed coupling on The Bachelor — unless hate-watching TV sparks joy for you. This year — as we, again, spent more time at home amid the very real reality of COVID — people wanted more in their storytelling and docuseries delivered. The New York Times Presents kicked the #FreeBritney movement into gear with its Framing Britney Spears, which laid out how the pop star had been mistreated in her conservatorship, the media and by those closest to her. (Looking at you, JT.) Its bookend, Controlling Britney Spears, played a part in ousting her father as conservator. Spears wasn't the only beneficiary of the Hulu series's reexamination of pop culture history. Its Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson looked at the sexist and racist treatment of the "Control" singer after her infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. Allen v. Farrow was another must-watch series, from HBO, looking at the allegation of sexual abuse against Woody Allen. New interviews from Allen's accuser, adopted daughter Dylan Farrow and archival video provided by ex Mia Farrow took people into the ex family's home in a way we had never seen. The Beatles: Get Back — Peter Jackson's Disney+ docuseries — while long, deserves all its praise. It clears up the apparent fables about the band's alleged squabbles — and shone a light on the racist press coverage of Yoko Ono. HBO's Tiger Woods doc, Tiger, also retold a familiar story in a way we hadn't heard. After all, his mistress Rachel Uchitel had been literally silenced by an NDA — and has faced legal repercussions for breaking it. Other noteworthy docuseries are Exterminating the Brutes (HBO) and LulaRich (Amazon Prime Video), and good viewing material if you happen to have a few days off for the holidays. — Suzy Byrne

LOSER: Saturday Night Live has a big Biden problem

Former Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis) meets current Joe Biden (James Austin Johnson) on Saturday Night Live (Photo: NBC/Twitter)
Former Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis) meets current Joe Biden (James Austin Johnson) on Saturday Night Live. (Photo: NBC/Twitter)

President Joe Biden has been in public office before SNL's 1975 debut, but the late-night staple still hasn’t found someone to perfectly spoof him. While many have taken on the role over the years — among them Kevin Nealon, Woody Harrelson, Jason Sudeikis, Alex Moffat and Jim Carrey — the absence of a go-to Biden became painfully obvious after he was sworn in as the country’s commander-in-chief in January. When SNL returned in September, new featured player James Austin Johnson took over the role to decidedly mixed reviews. Audiences are steadily trickling out of Studio 8H, too: The 47th season premiere saw an overall 41 percent drop in viewers from the season premiere episode in 2020. — R.S.

WINNER: Fans brought Manifest back from the TV graveyard

They liked it, they really liked it! After NBC put Manifest on their no-fly list for a fourth season, old and new fans went on a big-time Netflix binge, making the series a regular presence in the streaming service's "most watched" list. In August, Netflix announced that the show would soar to a conclusion with 20 all-new episodes. Here's hoping the show comes to a satisfying, crowd-pleasing end that's more like Newhart and less like Lost. — E.A.

LOSER: Remake this! On second thought, don't.

Cobra Kai has shown that TV audiences are down for reboots of franchises that include original cast members. Remakes, on the other hand, are a harder sell. Just ask the makers of Amazon Prime Video's I Know What You Did Last Summer and CBS's Clarice, both of which tried to revive familiar names with new faces and were met with collective shrugs. Even initially successful remakes like The CW's Walker have seen declining ratings. Season 2 of the Jared Padalecki-led revival of the Chuck Norris show debuted to less than a million viewers — a substantial decline from its series premiere in January. — E.A.

WINNER: Only Murders in the Building slayed on Hulu

Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin in the Hulu hit, Only Murders in the Building (Photo: Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin in the Hulu hit, Only Murders in the Building (Photo: Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection)

We weren’t the only ones delighted by this oddly amusing murder mystery, which debuted in August. Hulu reported that the freshman show, in which Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short star as neighbors investigating a death that hit entirely too close to home for them, was “the most-watched comedy ever on Hulu, by a good measure.” And the streamer cranked out several other buzzy, critically acclaimed shows, including the final season of Pen15, Reservation Dogs and Season 2 of The Great. — R.S.

LOSER: No one's watching awards shows

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 25: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout photo provided by A.M.P.A.S., Regina King speaks onstage during the 93rd Annual Academy Awards at Union Station on April 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images)
Regina King speaks onstage during the 93rd Annual Academy Awards at Union Station on April 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo by Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images)

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that award show ratings continue to drop, as they’ve already been decreasing for years. But they absolutely plummeted in 2021: The Golden Globes plunged 60 percent from 18.3 million viewers in 2020 to 6.9 million in 2021; the Oscars dropped 51 percent, from 18.6 million to 9.2 million viewers (but at least all those people were spared the trainwreck ending where Chadwick Boseman didn't win the posthumous Academy Award that the producers so irresponsibly bet on); while the Grammys slipped 53 percent, from 18.7 million to 8.8 million viewers. Only the Emmys fared decently, increasing from 6.9 million to 7.4 million viewers. Can award shows recover? Possibly, but there’s strong evidence that award shows will never be the ratings behemoths they once were. — K.P.

WINNER: Cruel Summer is the new Riverdale

Freeform was once known as the home of Pretty Little Liars; in 2021 it's known as the home of Cruel Summer. Told across three separate timelines in the ‘90s, the series crafts a tight mystery that fans tuned in all summer long to figure out. The Cruel Summer premiere became Freeform's most watched premiere ever thanks to the show's target teen audience tuning in on Hulu and other on-demand platforms following the show’s initial airing. And it did that without any IP to back it up. Unlike The CW’s flagship series Riverdale — which initially raised eyebrows thanks to its edged-up take on Archie Comics characters — and HBO Max’s highly anticipated reboot of Gossip Girl, Cruel Summer relied on word-of-mouth to get viewers invested. A Season 2 is currently on its way. — Kaitlin Reilly

WINNER: Dwayne Johnson rocked network television with Young Rock

Dwayne Johnson flexed his TV muscles in 2021, executive producing and starring in the NBC sitcom, Young Rock, based on his own rags-to-riches life story. The Feb. 16 series premiere was the best launch for a network television comedy since 2019, and the family-friendly show got the greenlight for both a Christmas episode and a second season. Johnson also got into the streaming game, executive producing the Disney+ documentary series, Behind the Attraction. — E.A.