What are the best TV box sets to watch in 2021?
Like many a woman before me, I’m a big fan of a TV box-set.
Once upon a time, I used to buy actual DVDs from HMV, or order them from the US to play on a specially purchased DVD player from a shop on Tottenham Court Road. These days, being a box-set fan is a LOT easier. So today I’m sharing what I think are the 40 best box sets to watch on Sky TV, Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime.
Lots of these lists tend to focus on gritty, “serious” TV but I want to know that is NOT what this list is. My list of best box sets in 2021 spans comedy, drama, teen soap shows and comforting telly watches. I’ve listed my personal, low-brow, entirely biased list of the 40 best TV box sets I think you should watch before you’re 40.
I’m splitting this round-up of the best box sets of 2021 into two parts, because I have a proper job to do too, you know. I can’t be sitting round here all day arguing about whether Joey should have chosen Dawson or Pacey (Pacey) or whether Felicity should have chosen Ben or Noel (Noel).
So for today, here are my top box set picks from four genres: teen drama; family drama; guilty pleasures; comedy. Tomorrow: crime, medical, fantasy/sci-fi.
Let me know in the comments if you think I’ve missed anything!
BEST TEEN TV BOX SETS:
Yeah, it’s a teen crime drama, but it’s so much more – it shows that girls can be smart, snarky, solve mysteries and sleep with hot guys. With an amazing performance from Kristen Bell, it’s hardly surprising fans of the show stumped up more than $5m to see it made into a movie. This is one of the very best box sets EVER.
My So-Called Life:
It’s been more than 20 years since My So-Called Life was taken off-air (how old does that make me feel?!) but there’s never been anything to better it. Angela Chase’s story is excruciating and awkward and just beautiful. As you’d expect – this show was the next project for producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, after Thirtysomething was cancelled. And it’s scored by WG Snuffy Walden, which (in my experience) always means a good show. Angela really does embody the plain awkwardness of being 15. My favourite Angela quote: “People always say you should be yourself, like it’s this definite thing… like a toaster, or something.”
An early series devised by JJ Abrams (also scored by Snuffy), Felicity is a classic love triangle teen drama, beautifully shot, very heartfelt. It kicks off with high school nerd Felicity making the snap decision to move to New York to go to college because the boy she’s had a crush on for years (but has never spoken to) tells her that’s where he’s going. Cue four years of, “Should she be with Ben or Noel?” I’m just saying – Noel is still pretty hot, all these years on…
I recently read a post that said this Kevin Williamson show does not age well. Absurd. I’d link to it but I can’t remember who wrote it – if it’s you, say hi in the comments 🙂 It’s fair to say that as a 30-something I might just want to slap Joey Potter and be best friends with slutty Jen, but there’s never a wrong time to watch Pacey Witter. The script is still sharp, all these years on, although the show’s score varies wildly depends on which version watched – since the programme was made before producers thought to secure DVD rights for the music they used.
One Tree Hill:
The early shows in this series suggested it might become a show about the working class boy made good. But actually, it was just a show about well-off, attractive white people making problems out of thin air. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Although the later seasons where they all inexplicably become effortlessly rich and famous are possibly best avoided.
Pretty Little Liars:
So this is the story of four teenage girls who are being bullied by text message – following the mysterious disappearance of their best friend. It’s fast-paced fun that is packed with ridiculously unlikely twists and turns, but it’s a lot more fun than those Swedish crime dramas. And there’s the usual teen drama mixed in – like, it’s a shame about the body under the lawn, but why doesn’t my boyfriend want to go to the dance with me? Genius.
Before Ryan Murphy made Glee, he made Popular, a snarkier, weirder version of the high school experience. It’s about two girls – at opposite ends of the popularity stakes – who become step-sisters and have to coexist. While Dawson’s Creek is all overwrought drama, Popular is all about camp characters, snarky one-liners, outcasts and slightly surreal storylines. Apparently shortly before the show was cancelled the network told Ryan Murphy it was “too gay”. If only it had been made in more enlightened times, it might have lasted a bit longer.
Freaks and Geeks:
Before Judd Apatow starting making deeply crap films, he made this – one of my favourite ever comedy drama shows, the story of a kid moving from the geeks to the freaks in high school. The cast is absolutely amazing, including James Franco, Busy Phillips, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel… and the fact that only 15 episodes were ever shown is just sad. All the best shows die young.
BEST BOX SETS FOR FAMILY DRAMA
The creator of this family ensemble, Jason Katims, started out life as a writer on My So-Called Life, but this is a warmer, glossier take on family life, helped by a ridiculously strong cast including Peter Kraus, Dax Shepherd and Lauren Graham. It’s a warm, heartfelt drama, which can on occasion veer towards cheesy, but that’s no bad thing.
Gilmore Girls is (imho) one of the very best TV shows ever made. But it’s not just me – Time Magazine listed it as one of the best TV shows ever, too. This is the story of single Mom Lorelei and teen daughter Rory who are ridiculously book-smart, witty and pretty living in a quirky Connecticut town. It’s warm and charming and the script is every bit as wordy as West Wing – only funny, and with amazing pop culture references scattered throughout. Unmissable.
Oh, this show is a soapy, over-dramatic bundle of fun and absolutely one of the best box sets to watch in 2020. Telling the story of an ageing country music diva and the young pretender, it has melodrama by the bucket-load, plus an amazing soundtrack. I recently showed Season 1 to a straight, guy friend and he cried seven times during one episode. In my experience, straight guys can’t handle this show. It’s strictly for chicks.
The Good Wife:
So you’re married to a politician and he gets involved in a sex scandal (tsk). What do you do? Well, if you’re Julianna Marguiles, you go back to work as a lawyer and proceed to tackle everything from the school run to racism and equality. Beautifully scripted and acted, it’s smart, grown-up telly. Love it.
Friday Night Lights:
Hands down, one of my favourite box sets from US TV. Friday Night Lights It’s about a small town in Texas, and their high school football coach, and his family. But it’s more than that – this series is another Jason Katims project (he’s head writer), and it shows – it’s equal parts dramatic, warm-hearted, and is one of those shows that makes you want to be a better person. For a bit, anyway. And there’s another quality score from Snuffy.
BEST GUILTY PLEASURE BOX SETS
Filmed on the very same set as Gilmore Girls, but this time we’re in Alabama, not Connecticut. Beyond that, the two shows have a lot in common – imaginary small town with quirky cast of characters, and a stubborn refusal to accept any level of realism whatsoever. This show was created by the team behind The OC, so don’t expect anything too heavy – it’s a light-hearted, fish out of water comedy drama featuring Rachel Bilson as a NY doctor transplanted to Alabama. A great offering from Sky Box Sets.
This show professes to tell the story of a political fixer and a morally bankrupt President and his administration. Despite the lead character describing herself as a “gladiator” there are no good guys – virtually everyone winds up lying, cheating, killing or otherwise doing Bad Stuff to Other People. Still, I defy you not to love Olivia Pope, the tough lawyer who is consistently undone by her on-again, one-again affair with the (married) President. It’s written by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) so you should expect lots of sex and drama – and almost zero mention of actual politics.Available via Sky Box Sets.
Season 1 and 3 are the where this show really hits its stride – the tale of a young woman who vows revenge on the rich society types who framed her father for murder. It’s one of the most camp shows I can remember watching, with endless cliff-hangers and more on-screen bitches than have been seen since Dynasty days.
BEST COMEDY BOX SETS
If the notion of a gay man introducing his adopted daughter to the extended family by holding her aloft to the Lion King soundtrack doesn’t make you laugh, you’re not a Modern Family person. Otherwise, you’ll love it. It’s full of quips and quotable lines. My favourite?
Haley: You’re like that guy from the movie who wishes he was never born.
Alex: It’s a Wonderful Life
Haley: You say that, but do you mean it?
I adore Larry David’s sit-com and it’s one of the best box sets for smart, grown-up comedy. You know that fleeting thought you sometimes have of, “Oh, I wish I didn’t have to sit through the nativity again?” that you stifle, because you’re a nice person, and you just want everyone to be happy? Larry David doesn’t bother filtering. He announces he’s bored, and he leaves. He’s a one man social disaster, who spends his entire life inadvertently offending people.
This smart comedy about a college study group is packed with in-jokes, meta references and parody moments. It’s silly and funny, especially if you skip season 4, when the network unwisely got rid of the show’s creator (he was back on board for season 5).
Okay, it’s not the coolest sit-com out there but this ever-so-slightly medically themed show is reliably funny. Plus, if you don’t love JD and Turk’s brown bear bromance, I think you might be dead to me.
OTHER BEST BOX SET RECOMMENDATIONS:
- Check out part 2 of my All-Time Best Box Sets of 2020 (crime, medical and sci-fi)
- How about the Best Box Sets on Sky TV?
- 40 More Box Sets to Watch Before you Die (part 1)
- 40 More Box Sets to watch before you die (part 2)