Happy New Year’s Eve!
I’m finishing 2021 by looking back at my top 10 choices for the best TV of 2021, which has been a surprisingly difficult mission given the sheer volume of television that has raced at us following the ebb and flow of Covid restrictions.
It’s been a fascinating year and, as always, TV choices subjectively differ among many a reviewer. Here were the TV shows that both affected me the most, and seemed to contain the greatest artistic measure, from 10 through to number 1.
Would love to know your thoughts as to your top 10 choices…
10. TED LASSO (Season 2) (Jason Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, Brendan Hunt & Joe Kelly)
It took me a while to warm up to Ted Lasso but I got there eventually, binging the first two seasons over a matter of weeks. In this context, you see how the first year is marginally better than the second, even if they continue to exist as one of a consistent piece. The second season takes Jason Sudeikis to a more dramatic place as the good natured Ted, fleshing him out from a footballing Mary Poppins who drops in to improve the lives of the characters in Richmond FC, into a rounded survivor of anxiety and panic. Though the season has one or two missteps, mainly thanks to extra episodes which Apple mandated the show add–such as the weird misfire that was the Coach Beard story–it is otherwise a funny treat riven with hope and pathos in equal measure.
I wrote about the feel good effect of shows like this across 2021. We certainly need them.
9. MIDNIGHT MASS (created by Mike Flanagan)
A deeply personal story for Mike Flanagan he spent years trying to make, and that determination and passion very much shows. Midnight Mass takes one or two well worn supernatural concepts and manages to make them feel fresh, front loading a collection of beautifully written (and performed) characters as he provides a true sense of atmosphere for his remote island setting where Christian fervour combines with creeping mystery, and from it he crafts a tale of emotional destruction, repair, repentance and redemption from the ashes.
It maybe could have been six rather than seven episodes but Flanagan paces the story just right, building to a deliberately Gothic, bloody climax which feels incredibly earned. It’s a dark treat.
8. MARE OF EASTTOWN (created by Brad Ingelsby)
One that came out of the gates with a strong critical buzz, hence why I checked it out, because Mare of Easttown wouldn’t necessarily be the kind of show I would be aching for. Yet it works extremely well, thanks to a powerful central performance from Kate Winslet as Mare who drives the piece through, surrounded as she is by a strong supporting cast. The narrative is very solidly neo-noir from the True Detective stable, but there were hints of stranger fare at points, reminiscent of the dark murderous underbelly in shows such as Millennium or even Hannibal, and one episode toward the end concludes with one of the best shock moments in TV all year.
Sharp, dark and yet very human, this has a lot to recommend.
7. LANDSCAPERS (by Ed Sinclair & Will Sharpe)
The story of Susan and Christopher Edwards is so unbelievable you can’t imagine the events actually took place, and by that logic the fantastical nature of how Landscapers is presented makes perfect sense. Ed Sinclair devised the project for his wife Olivia Colman, who puts in a typically oddball performance as Susan, but David Thewlis steals the show as the morally compromised Christopher – the trickier role of the two to play. What marks this mini-series out particularly is the stylistic eccentricity of how the Edwards’ story is framed, borrowing from the cinema they were obsessed with and artistic theatrical touches that feel rather innovative. There is also an absurdist black comedy that helps punctuate the grotesque nature of their dark crimes.
It is, unexpectedly, a rather twisted love story and one thoroughly worth delving into.
6. TIME (by Jimmy McGovern)
Jimmy McGovern has been plying his trade as one of Britain’s writing auteurs now for decades but Time, for me, is one of his greatest achievements. Prison can sometimes be glamorised in fiction but if ever a show is likely to put someone off doing stir, it’s Time. Sean Bean is the gravimetric centre of a tale focusing on one middle-class man seeking redemption for a tragic mistake, while another law-abiding man (played by the equally brilliant Stephen Graham) falls into a morass of lawbreaking when given no other choice. It’s a thrilling and often devastating story brought home particularly by these two mesmeric performers that often leaves you torn to pieces as a viewer.
Not showy television but genuinely great storytelling.
5. IT’S A SIN (by Russell T. Davies)
There is no one like Russell T. Davies out there. No writer who can quite blend the florid, camp and theatrical with powerful, grounded, dramatic truth. It’s a Sin–for years titled ‘Boys’–was a show RTD planned to write as the drama about homosexuality in the 80s, the era he himself came of age, and the rampant horrors of the AIDS panic. What in lesser writers hands would be a relentlessly grim montage of burying your gays, RTD transforms into a vibrant, funny and equally deeply sad tale of real people in Manchester living lives.
It will break you at times but it also provides home amidst the gut wrenching tragedy. It is sublime.
4. THE BEATLES: GET BACK (developed by Peter Jackson)
Peter Jackson wades through tons of footage, originally shot for the 1970 doc Let It Be, and finds the through line for The Beatles – a band perhaps aware they’re moving into individual worlds at the end of a decade they significantly helped to define, who display the power of what they can do as a collective. With the space of almost 8 hours, Jackson is able to capture the nuances of personality – John’s eccentricity, Paul’s determination, George’s vaccilation and Ringo’s general easy going journeyman – in a vivid way, and coupled with how superbly rendered and sound designed the footage has been assembled, it really is like being transported back to an intimate slice of the 1960s, arguably now our most mythologised decade of the 20th century after the wartime period.
Ultimately, it’s simply a joy listening to these incredible songs, watching the band jam other classics, and cut through the counter-cultural politics and business realities around them to make music that is beyond iconic, music that lives in all of us. Just wonderful.
3. SUCCESSION (Season 3) (created by Jesse Armstrong)
We can now classify Succession as one of the greats, I think, certainly from the HBO stable. The Jesse Armstrong-led series to many peaked at the end of a second season in which the Roy family, as loathsome and mercurial their attempts to stave off obsolesce were, faced an incredible schism, and the third year plays that out beautifully and often unexpectedly. It is often a cruel show, peppered with dialogue and intricate rhythmic witticism to die for, but the third year produces moments of pathos, regret and certainly come the thrilling finale, points of genuine sadness. For all you hate the Roy’s, there is sorrow too.
It’s just majestic drama, and the third year–steady and filled with character escalation as it is–paves the way for what must soon be a cathartic final act in this Shakespearian (even Greek) tragedy.
2. CAN’T GET YOU OUT OF MY HEAD (by Adam Curtis)
Incredibly difficult to even describe, Adam Curtis’ films are daring social science pieces that uncover remarkable facts about the sweep of history and culture, and in Can’t Get You Out of My Head he uses old clips discarded in the BBC archives for sometimes decades to piece together, across six often feature-length episodes, a fascinating and thrilling story tracing the development of our capitalist society through toward an unmistakable conclusion.
You really have to see it for yourselves but, much like most of Curtis’ work, it is revelatory.
1. SQUID GAME (created by Hwang Dong-Hyuk)
A colourful yet deeply melancholy exploration of capitalist exploitation and socialist theory wrapped up in one suspenseful package, what could have simply been a Korean re-tread of The Hunger Games or Battle Royale, with the uncanny nature of The Prisoner, is chiselled into something genuinely unique while building off those forebears and many more ongoing, twisty US dramas; indeed this reminded me of the brilliance of Lost at several points. The key to why Squid Game works so well, despite the inventiveness of the games and the vivid visual stylistics, lies in characterisation. A whole ensemble of superbly drawn characters help bring the thematic ideas to the surface without ever alienating non-Korean audiences.
While it more than leaves the door open for a sequel, in one way this should remain a near perfect series of compelling, tense, clever and deeply rewarding storytelling.
YELLOWJACKETS (Season 1) (created by Ashley Pyle & Bart Nickerson) – this would likely have cracked the top 10 had the whole season aired, based on the first five episodes, because this is a rather stunning blend of Stephen King, Lost, a dash of Twin Peaks, and every high school 90s drama you’ve seen. It’s weird, excellently performed and compellingly written. Too strange to breakout but could become something special in cult circles.
THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER (developed by Malcolm Spellman) – the only Marvel series to approach touching distance of this list for me. The rest were good, but this–the most maligned MCU show this year strangely–is the best. Outside of the action, it is the only series thus far in the new Disney+ era to have something to really say. Hugely underrated.
SEX EDUCATION (Season 3) (created by Laurie Nunn) – though perhaps slightly past its peak, Sex Education is never anything other than a delight. Still pushing boundaries in terms of LGBTQ+ representation, it equally continues to provide wonderful characters, beautifully written, who you just love to spend time with. The most charming series on TV right now.
THE WHEEL OF TIME (Season 1) (adapted by Rafe Judkins) – perhaps a show on a hiding to nothing given the sheer scope and volume of Robert Jordan’s book series, it is nonetheless a real shame that, Rosamund Pike’s series-carrying performance aside, almost everything else about this show is as dull as ditchwater, particularly the rest of the main cast. In the wake of GoT especially, I don’t know what it really adds for anyone who isn’t a fan of the books.
DOCTOR WHO: FLUX (written by Chris Chibnall) – people keep saying this will be Chibnall’s best work on Who but I’m not so sure. One great episode–Village of the Angels–aside, the rest is a complete mess of wonky plotting, a million ideas that struggle to coalesce, and more unnecessary complication for the Doctor’s backstory that we never needed. A slog.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (Season 3) (created by Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement) – probably the biggest disappointment for me, given how great especially the second season of this show was. S3 took a sharp nose dive with weaker writing and splitting some of the best comedic duos apart unwisely across the season. The shelf life of this might be coming to an end, sadly.