Best TV of 2021

15 Dec

Sometimes we just turn on the TV to have some ambient noise in the background while cooking or cleaning, and we don’t want shows that require attention to the dialogue. Just sound. But in the evening, after I’ve showered, I like to sit and watch something of quality, something beyond just reruns of old sitcoms. Below is a selection of the shows that blew me away this year:

Schitt’s Creek– The series may have ended in 2020, but I spent my summer evenings with the Rose family in their charming, little town. I’ll admit- I rarely found the show funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, anyway. Catherine O’Hara as Moira was hilarious, though- a divine mix of over-the-top physical comedy (those wigs!) and that ridiculous accennnnt. But mostly I enjoyed the show because of the lovely, little world that Dan Levy created- a small town where the local yokels accept the kooky Roses, and where the Roses in turn feel totally at home. Stevie the sassy front desk receptionist at the motel, Twyla the bubbly waitress at the cafe, and of course Patrick, who, along with David, was half of one of the most endearing couples on TV. I was sorry when my time with these characters ended. But I’ll watch anything Dan Levy does now.

Love Life– Both seasons of this HBO Max show were unexpectedly deep, going beyond the typical rom-com clichés to show every aspect of two young people’s maturation as they move from their 20’s into their 30’s. Season 1 focused on Darby, played by Anna Kendrick and shows how certain male figures move in and out of her life, with a visit into her high school days in the middle of the season to gain further insight into her insecurities. Season 2 followed Marcus Watkins, brought to life by William Jackson Harper, and we similarly see his flirtation with a friend/lover throughout the years as he dates other women and eventually settles down with said best friend (a phenomenal Jessica Williams). For showing the beauty and heartbreak of navigating big city life in one’s 20’s, Love Life was outstanding.

Hacks– Another standout show on HBO Max, this one starred a woman over a certain age partnering with a much younger woman, brought in to punch up the veteran’s stale standup act. It’s a great premise that Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder bring to life with great chemistry- though it’s not always smooth sailing. The fireworks between these two very different funny women drive the story, and the writing is top notch. There’s a scene in an antique store in the middle of the Nevada desert that is hilarious- high stakes and high camp. The next season promises to be just as delicious.

Squid Game– What can I say about Squid Game that hasn’t already been said? I wrote previously about how much I adored “Parasite”, and it seems that Korean filmmakers are able to tell brutal stories about inequality and the desperation of the have-nots in a way that storytellers from the U.S. and other countries cannot. Squid Game is brutal not just in its violence- and it’s very violent- but also in its worldview, that some people would rather risk death than live their dreary, debt-filled lives one more day. And yet the show was very entertaining, expertly paced, and very, very good.

The Underground Railroad– I would watch Barry Jenkins direct a Geico commercial- I love his style so much, and this series was the perfect marriage of material and maker. Each episode aligned with a chapter of Colson Whitehead’s book, so we see a chilling distillation of different horrors of African-American history (a town where medical experiments reminiscent of Tuskegee and the early days of gynecology lurk beneath the surface; an all-white town that has expelled blacks; and a community of free blacks that coexists uneasily with local whites). And all along the way, a moving score by Nicholas Britell and luminous cinematography by James Laxton take us on this journey further and further north. William Jackson Harper also stands out as a young man, Royal, who falls in love with Cora, the lead played by Thuso Mbedu. Ten hours of a moving story told by Barry Jenkins, this era’s Terrence Malick- what a delight.

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