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Best TV of 2021

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TV in 2021 was a case of swinging from famine to feast. In the first few months of the year, I caught up on a sizable chunk of my Netflix queue, because new shows weren’t coming down the pipeline due to COVID shutdowns and slowdowns. But in the second half of the year, we saw the promised atomization of the TV market come to pass, as seemingly every entertainment company, TV channel, and even some unrelated companies launched their own flagship shows aimed at luring subscribers to their streaming platforms. Most of these platforms will fail (in fact we should be working hard to make that happen, since a world in which we pay for a dozen streaming services is unacceptable). But in the meantime the result is that the Peak in Peak TV seems farther away than ever, and you can be a voracious TV viewer and still not cover even a fraction of the field.

I take two lessons from the state of the TV medium in 2021. The first is that this was the year that taught us the difference between “expensive” and “good”. So many shows came out the gate this year with stratospheric production values, huge names before and behind the camera, and stunning locations, but still felt as if little or no thought was given to creating coherent, satisfying stories. The Disney+ MCU shows are exhibit A of this phenomenon: five very different shows with unbelievable budgets and star-studded casts, none of which quite managed to stick the landing. But other streamers fell into the same trap. Apple TV+ produced an eight-episode adaptation of The Mosquito Coast that shot in the desert on the US-Mexican border and in picturesque locations in California and Mexico, but apparently no one involved considered that audiences might be put off if the central family didn’t even reach the Mosquito Coast until the season finale. Netflix poured millions upon millions of dollars into comic books adaptations like Sweet Tooth and Jupiter’s Legacy, while seeming to have skimped on the scripts. (To be fair, Jupiter’s Legacy also looked like ass; I really hope there was some serious money-laundering going on because otherwise I just can’t explain it.)

This was also the year in which the quest for the next Game of Thrones delivered a record number of adaptations of beloved science fiction and fantasy properties, almost all of which landed with a dull thud. Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop was derided by fans of the original anime (I thought it was pleasant but wholly inessential) and received a rare first season cancellation from the streamer. Apple’s Foundation crowed about its cerebral subject matter, and then ran away from it as quickly as it could; the season’s only successful storyline ended up being a court intrigue that doesn’t even exist in the novels. FX’s Y: The Last Man scrambled so hard to avoid its source material’s simplistic take on gender roles that it ended up having nothing to say at all. And Amazon’s The Wheel of Time, though enjoyable in its quieter moments, so throughly biffs its big heroic climaxes that it’s impossible to imagine it building up to the epic it is so clearly trying to be. Genre fans might have thought that the new streaming era could finally bring their favorite stories to life, but the lesson here seems to be that even unlimited money pits can’t make up for the absence of smart, thoughtful adaptation choices.

On the other hand, several of my choices for the year’s best shows are adaptations, or works that are clearly in conversation with the literature and the genre around them. In the sea of overpriced, underwritten good-but-not-great shows that I watched this year, there were still quite a few fantastic ones. So let’s cut this overlong preamble short and talk about those.

Best Show of the Year: The Underground Railroad (Amazon)

Back in the summer, I announced that The Underground Railroad was already the best TV show of 2021. “It is basically impossible that a better series will come along this year. It might even be the best television series of 2022 and 2023.” I still hold to that. Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel is a titanic achievement on almost every level: visuals, performance, production design, music, sound. It captures the complicated, quasi- realist plot of Whitehead’s novel, in which heroine Cora (Thuso Mbedu) escapes slavery aboard a literal underground railroad, which deposits her on stations that lie not in space but in time, charting the different forms that the oppression of African Americans—and their attempts to resist it—have taken over the course of centuries. It is a rare work of televised magical realism, gesturing at genres like fantasy and science fiction, but refusing to resolve into any of them, maintaining a tone that is all its own. It lingers on moments of beauty, love, and community for its black characters, even in the midst of the horror they have to endure (and sometimes succumb to). And it manages to improve on the (already excellent) novel in several ways, from its handling of the dogged slave catcher who pursues Cora (Joel Edgerton), which becomes a short thesis on how to humanize villains without losing sight of their culpability, to an ending that manages to square the novel’s obvious discomfort with giving Cora’s journey a definitive ending, to its envisioning of the underground railroad itself, expanding on Whitehead’s ideas to create a liminal space between life and death, waking and dreaming, in which the enslaved and oppressed find not only a path to freedom but space to be themselves and to tell their stories.

There has never been a television series quite like The Underground Railroad, which makes the muted response it has received from critics, audiences, and even its own distributor all the more galling. Amazon released the entire season—a difficult work whose episodes are self-contained mini-movies—in a single bloc, implicitly suggesting that here was a work less worthy of prolonged consideration than The Boys or Invincible—and indeed, the critical conversation surrounding it disappeared almost as soon as it began. Awards bodies overlooked it in favor of slick entertainments like The Queen’s Gambit or expensive copaganda like Mare of Easttown. It’s easy enough to imagine why audiences might be intimidated by The Underground Railroad, which not only has a difficult subject matter, but does very little to ease audiences into its magical realist mode. It was the task of critics to champion the show and bring audiences to it, and only a small number rose to the occasion. So as well as being a magnificent artistic achievement, The Underground Railroad is also a necessary lesson in how far the television medium still has to go. Even in the era of Peak TV, it seems, the establishment can fail to recognize an important but difficult work, leaving it up to the rest of us to find and herald it.

(On a personal note, after I posted some thoughts on the show on my blog, I was contacted by Jenkins to invite me to participate in the For Your Consideration package for the show, contributing some thoughts on one of the show’s episodes. I received my contributor’s copy a few weeks ago, and it is a gorgeous object, only fitting for a show that was so meticulously designed on every level. It was wonderful to be a very tiny part of this show’s journey.)

Rest of the Best:

Dickinson (Apple TV+)

I’m not sure why Apple decided to release both the penultimate and final season of its witty, irreverent take on the youth of early modernist poet Emily Dickinson in a single calendar year. As with Amazon’s treatment of The Underground Railroad, there’s a whiff of disrespect there—this is a show that deserves time to be processed, to percolate in its audience’s minds. The two seasons, however, end up being very different from one another. The first finds Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) grappling with the question of fame, with the double-edged sword of making herself a public figure by putting her poems before an audience. While the second advances the timeline to the Civil War, and asks what value poetry has at a time of profound social strife. Both seasons maintain the show’s anachronistic attitude—Emily and her friends speak in modern slang, drop internet buzzwords and references to memes, and have wild dance parties—and frequent forays into fantasy that made Dickinson an utterly unique delight, and which breathe life into our calcified notions of what the actual Dickinson was like, while also making the show’s story universal. Emily is every young artist trying to find her way, balancing mundane demands and the life of the mind, longing for human connection while insisting on space to do her work. It’s a show that revolutionizes our ideas about how to write about art, artists, and women.

It’s a Sin (Channel 4/HBO Max)

If I find myself less than thrilled at the news that Russell T. Davies will be returning to oversee Doctor Who after the current Doctor’s run ends, it’s because of works like It’s a Sin. Davies’s post-Who career has been a nonstop stream of wholly original, deeply felt, impeccably realized works that no one else would have even tried to make, and it’s more than a little depressing imagining him putting that energy back into a franchise whose boundaries are now so well-established. In the meantime, however, we have It’s a Sin, a show that is at once effortlessly watchable and utterly heartbreaking. A tragi-comedy about the early days of the AIDS crisis, it follows a group of London housemates as they slowly become aware of the threat to them and their community. It’s a terribly sad story, of course, from the boy whose single sexual encounter dooms him to a horrible death, to the woman who cuts her dying son off from his friends as a way of staving off the realization that he’s chosen another family over her. But It’s a Sin is also full of joy, and the attitude it takes towards its characters is not only forgiving of their refusal to accept the reality of the virus, but defiant in its insistence that the things they didn’t want to give up—sexual freedom and the expression of their true identity—were beautiful and valuable, despite of all the suffering that came from it.

Reservation Dogs (FX)

From its plot description—four teenagers on a Native American reservation commit petty crimes in order to save enough money to run away to California—one might mistake Reservation Dogs for a gritty crime drama, or a depressing social realist tract. But while crime and social realism are both present here, so are comedy, and fantasy, and a lot of hip-hop bluster. The result is a magical realist dramedy in a similar vein to Atlanta, and like that show it uses its teenage characters as a viewpoint onto the complicated, multigenerational community that has shaped them, and which they are trying to escape. From mundane teenage rites of passage like taking a driving test, to more distinctive experiences like poaching on land that was bought long ago by white game hunters, to flights of fancy like the main character’s visions of his spirit guide, a warrior who is upset at having been crushed by his horse before he could get to do some damage at Little Big Horn, Reservation Dogs‘s heroes are constantly confronted by the tangled, messy history that has shaped their lives. With an irreverent tone and frequent forays into absurdism, the show nevertheless asks whether its heroes want to continue to be part of this damaged, and yet nurturing, community.

Station Eleven (HBO Max)

I’m cheating a little with this choice, because there are still three more episodes to go. But judging by what I’ve seen so far, this miniseries’s place is secure. An adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, Station Eleven takes an utterly unique approach to the post-apocalypse tale (though having said that, its scenes of a hyper-deadly flu ripping through civilization might hit a little close for some viewers). Its focus in not on the survival of the fittest or on a descent into animalistic fights over resources, but on the way that art gives people the tools and the language to process their loss and figure out how to move on. The main spine of the story follows a traveling theater troupe in the post-pandemic world, but the story reaches back to the days before the disease and immediately after its outbreak to show us how people cling to art to give their life meaning—and how sometimes, that can lead to monomaniacal, destructive philosophies. The time-jumping structure might leave some viewers feeling a little alienated, but to me it captures the strangeness and opaqueness of the novel, the sort of story where there isn’t an easy triumph, but there is the promise of a way forward.

Squid Game (Netflix)

Two months after it took the world by storm, it might be easy to be a little dismissive of this Korean miniseries. Like all massive successes, it can come to seem inevitable, and maybe even too obvious, in retrospect. But this is to ignore just how well Squid Game works on every level: its Swiss clock storytelling, its instantly winning characters (who are then complicated in ways that make it harder and harder to root for them), its distinctive visuals, and yes, its operatic, endlessly imaginative violence. As also tends to happen to huge successes, Squid Game has found itself being flattened into an anti-capitalist screed, a description that is accurate but massively reductive, erasing both the details that make this story uniquely Korean, and the twist that this version of the story offers on similar takes on its premise—the idea that as cruel as it is to bet your life, and even kill others, playing children’s games, it is still a fairer and more comprehensible system than the one outside the game arena, where the rules and pitfalls of the capitalist system are constantly shifting to keep the rich and poor where they are. It may not be a particularly subtle or complicated moral, but it’s a true one, and coupled with the show’s imaginative, exceptional execution, it makes Squid Game’s success entirely justified.

We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)

A tiny show that packs a huge punch, We Are Lady Parts introduces us to mousy, nerdy Amina (Anjana Vasan), a good Muslim girl who is diligently pursuing a PhD and a husband, but who secretly dreams of being a rock guitarist. Enter Saira (Sarah Kameelah Impey), the lead singer in the titular all-girl, all-Muslim punk band, who are looking for a lead guitarist. We Are Lady Parts is funny (sample song titles include “Voldemort Under My Headscarf”) and whip-smart about the challenges, contradictions, and frustrations of life as a devout but also rebellious modern British-Mulsim woman. But the thing that most impressed me about it was how it managed, in only six episodes, to fully sketch out not only the band members but a whole host of characters around them, from Amina’s seemingly-perfect, controlling, but also secretly anxiety-ridden best friend, to the band’s too-cool-for-school, burqa-clad manager. Each one is given space to shine and to articulate their own unique relationship with their culture, with the wider (and often uncomprehending) culture around them, and with music. It’s a perfectly-formed comedy that seems to have come out of nowhere, and I can’t wait for more episodes.

Honorable Mentions:

Brand New Cherry Flavor (Netflix) – LA horror noir with gorgeous visuals, great music, and—somewhat unusually for mainstream TV horror—a willingness to get freaky and weird. The story doesn’t entirely hang together, but that’s made up for by a fully committed (and extremely stacked) cast who happily build a whole mythology around the simple premise of a young director who is willing to do whatever it takes to get her movie back from the producer who stole it from her.

Love Life (HBO Max) – I never watched the first season of this anthology show about modern love, but the ecstatic reviews for the second season convinced me to give it a look. William Jackson Harper plays a divorced New Yorker looking for new love, and more importantly, for a way to make himself ready for it when it comes along. As well as being a sweet, well-realized love story, this is also one of the year’s more elegant incorporations of real life events, like the pandemic and the George Floyd protests, into a premise that didn’t necessarily need to acknowledge them, but is all the richer for it.

Midnight Mass (Netflix) – Mike Flanagan delivers his richest, most successful horror miniseries yet with this tale of vampires and religion that refuses a lot of the obvious storytelling avenues of that premise. At its core, Midnight Mass is about how religion is both a destructive, morally consuming force, and a source of courage and compassion. If the ending veers a little too far in the direction of consolation (and if there are, in the end, one too many monologues), the premise and characters are complex enough to make this a worthwhile experience.

Show With the Biggest Lift Going Into its Second Season: Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)

Ted Lasso was the biggest TV hit of 2020, and as noted above, big hits tend to be flattened into the simplest version of themselves. So going into the show’s second season, a lot of people seem to have convinced themselves that this was “a show about kindness”, with no other ingredient required for success. This was to ignore the huge storytelling challenge that Lasso faced in this season—having succeeded in winning over every skeptical and hostile person in his vicinity, what difficulty could Ted face that would deliver the same catharsis and vicarious sense of accomplishment? Though the second season falls short of the first—mostly because it lacks the kind of sleek, streamlined plotting that made the first season a near-instant success—it is very clearly aware of this pitfall, and instead of trying to meet it with an artificial crisis, it steers into it by trying to take Ted, and several other characters around him, apart. What the second season reveals is that far from being a show about kindness, what Ted Lasso is actually about is masculinity, and how different people navigate it, negotiate with it, and—as in the season’s best and most horrifying storyline, in which formerly bullied nerd Nate curdles into a vicious bully in his own right—are consumed by its demands. There are serious missteps in the season—Rebecca dating a 22-year-old employee comes at the top of that list—but what the second season of Ted Lasso proves is that whatever pundits may think this show is, the people who created it know better.

Show Tragically Weighed Down by Extraneous Factors That Is Still Really Worth Watching: The Nevers (HBO)

How many strikes did The Nevers have against it? It has a tedious-sounding premise—Victorian X-Women! Its production was stalled by the pandemic, so the first season is really a half-season. It was supposed to be comeback vehicle for Joss Whedon before a critical mass of stories about his toxic on-set behavior gave it a bad odor among precisely those people who might have been its core audience. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, by the time those stories broke Whedon had already left the show citing “creative differences”, so the whole thing had the whiff of failure about it. And yet The Nevers is utterly delightful, full of instantly winning characters, chiefly Laura Donnelly as the sardonic, no-nonsense Mrs. True, who determinedly leads her troupe of superpowered women against the authorities who hate and fear them. Its grasp on the superhero genre is impeccable—there’s a fight scene halfway through the season that fulfills the cinematic potential of superpowers better than the whole decade’s worth of movies and TV shows. And as it turns out, it’s not even a story about Victorian X-Women, but something much weirder and more interesting. The season finale opens up the show’s world in a truly exciting way (it also features a casting coup that made me shriek with delight), and sets it up to be genuinely fascinating science fiction rather than yet another superhero story. With so much stacked against it, I don’t know if The Nevers will get the chance to tell us that story, but I consider it my duty to get as many people as possible to watch it nevertheless.

Show That Spends a Season Discovering That the Thing it Thought it Was About is Not the Thing it Should Be About: Rutherford Falls (Peacock)

The Good Place creator Michael Schur had an idea for a ripped-from-the-headlines show, about the favorite son of a small New England town (Ed Helms, who also co-created the show with Schur), who has dedicated his life to preserving his family’s history (which is also the town’s history) only to learn, when the statue of his ancestor is scheduled to be torn down, that that history wasn’t nearly as congenial as he was taught. Schur and Helms decided to incorporate a subplot about a local Native American tribe, chiefly the character of Helms’s best friend (Jana Schmieding), who has been working for years to get a Native heritage center built in the local casino. To which end they brought on Sierra Teller Ornelas as co-showrunner. And then Ornelas proceeded to steal the show, with not only a single Native character but an entire community of them, with different attitudes towards their past, towards the white town that has been built on their land, and towards the project of documenting and storifying history. Which immediately becomes a more compelling, more complex story than Helms’s—in particular, Michael Greyeyes as the casino owner almost immediately becomes the show’s most interesting character, a devoted capitalist who insists that he should be able to use the same tools that disenfranchised his people to win back some prosperity for them. The more this storyline develops, the more Helms’s character feels beside the point, until it seems obvious that he should be the show’s villain, not its co-lead. (Or maybe comic relief—one of the season’s best scenes comes when Helms is invited to participate in a Colonial theme park run by the reservation, and loudly complains that his costume and props are anachronistic, mixing periods and regions with no rhyme or reason, only to be informed that the park runners are just looking for a general vibe.) One hopes that the second season of Rutherford Falls figures out how to pivot to this more interesting, more original story.

Show That Desperately Needs to Kill Off its Best Character: The Great (Hulu)

Nicholas Hoult is giving a career-best performance in The Great. As the recently-deposed Peter the Great, left alive in this version of history by Elle Fanning’s Catherine (in reality Peter was “mysteriously” killed a few days after abdicating in favor of his wife) he turns on a dime from childish narcissism to savvy political instincts, from utter psychopathy to a surprising soulfulness, from deriding his wife to being hopelessly besotted by her. It’s easy to see why the creators of The Great, a Favourite-like, comedic, ahistorical take on the history it’s depicting, chose to keep Hoult, and his smoldering chemistry with Fanning, in their story. But this is a decision that warps the entire show around it, turning it from a political comedy, in which Catherine finds her enlightenment ideals and dreams of creating the world’s first truly progressive nation crashing against the reality of Russian tradition and the established power structure, into a romance, between a smart woman and the man who made her life miserable when he had power over her, but whom she finds herself enjoying now that she has power over him. Which is fun to watch, to be certain, but even in a show that trumpets its irreverence towards history in its title screen, this ends up feeling like false advertising. The show becomes less and less about Catherine with each passing episode, and even worse, keeping Peter around leaves its story in a holding pattern: Catherine can never trust him (or his conniving followers), and she can’t bring herself to kill him. And yet killing Peter is The Great‘s only way forward. One hopes the next season has enough sense to do it.

Show That is a Tremendous Amount of Fun So Long as You Don’t Think About it Too Much: Yellowjackets (Showtime)

In the mid-90s, a plane carrying a Midwestern girls’ football team on their way to the national championship crashes in the Canadian wilderness. The survivors are stranded for nearly two years. Twenty-five years later, now grown women haunted by what they experienced and did to survive, they begin to receive ominous messages threatening to reveal their darkest secrets. Sounds like a gangbusters premise, right? Well, the producers of Yellowjackets thought it needed to be goosed up, because before long they reveal a whole host of additional complications. One of the castaways is a psychopath. Another is clairvoyant. In the forest where the plane has crashed, a mysterious symbol has been carved into the trees. And some force seems to be at work, preventing the girls from getting away. It’s all a lot more Lost than Lord of the Flies. Which, on the one hand, means you can stop asking pesky questions (would a commercial flight in North America really disappear so thoroughly as to be undiscoverable for two years? would wolves really attack five teenage girls sitting around a camp fire? do the producers of this show not know that women’s periods do not actually sync up?), but on the other hand, makes the whole thing rather ridiculous. The payoff, however, is one of the most propulsively watchable new shows to come along in years, with a cast stacked with both promising newcomers and, in the present-day scenes, some of the most interesting fortyish actresses in the business, and a plot that foregrounds female relationships and issues in all their messiness (the aforementioned periods) and complexity. Yellowjackets‘s producers apparently have a five-year plan for the show, which I suspect will prove to be far too ambitious, but in the meantime, there isn’t another show on TV that is so much fun.

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