Thursday 16 December 2021

My Top 5 TV Shows of 2021

Another year, another crop of terrific television to tear into. As the year comes to a close, here's a look at the TV and streaming shows that kept me captivated in 2021. 

Honourable mentions: Midnight Mass (Netflix), Scenes From A Marriage (HBO), A Teacher (FX on Hulu), Squid Game (Netflix), Invincible season one (Prime Video), Mythic Quest season two (Apple TV+), The Morning Show season two (Apple TV+), Industry season one (HBO/BBC).

5) WandaVision season one (Disney+)

Marvel opened the floodgates on interconnected television this year; we've had solo shows for the likes of Loki, Hawkeye, Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But none were as bold or as conceptually interesting as WandaVision, which thrust Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany's Vision to the forefront.

A hybrid of small screen format with big screen ambition and detailing, WandaVision starts with a string of odd, off-kilter 20-minute episodes that act as visually and tonally accurate homages to old network TV sitcoms. 

Why, you ask? Well, it's not clear why at first – but over the nine-episode run, WandaVision jettisons the whimsy and weirdness in favour of something more nuanced and emotional. There was quite a lot for Olsen to sink her teeth into as an actress; and if it weren't for the final episode, which does what all Marvel things do and defaults to a VFX-laden punch-up, I suspect it would be even higher on this list. 

4) Formula One: Drive To Survive season three (Netflix)

Now into its third season, Netflix's Formula One docuseries Drive To Survive continues to offer an accessible entry point for newcomers and casual fans of Grand Prix motor racing. By continuing to refine its approach, the high-octane show goes from strength to strength across these 10 episodes, which delve into detail on one of Formula One's unconventional 2020 season.

Even for someone who knows the sport inside and out, I always enjoy the tight editing that condenses and simplifies the action, the clever framing that heightens the drama and fans the flames of rivalry, and the exclusive interviews and behind-the-scenes footage that shows an edgier, more authentic side to the sport than you might get on the live broadcasts. 

Highlights in season three include Pierre Gasly's redemption arc that culminates in that stirring win at Monza, Daniel Ricciardo's dramatic defection from Renault to McLaren, Ferrari's fall from grace and Alex Albon's struggles in the Red Bull pressure cooker. But it's episode nine, 'Man on Fire', that stands out – a fantastic hour of television that contrasts the elation of Sergio Perez's maiden win with the despair of Alex Albon's firing and Romain Grosjean's death-defying fireball crash in Bahrain. Formula One is a sport of extreme moments and staggering contrasts, and Drive to Survive captures that essence perfectly here.

3) Ted Lasso season two (Apple TV+)

Apple's flagship program, Ted Lasso's second season sees the show continue to be as charming and whimsical as ever. After notching up a big loss at the end of his first year in the hot seat, season two sees Coach Lasso (Jason Sudeikis as the personification of Foghorn Leghorn meets Friday Night Lights) battles his own demons while navigating his squad of soccer players back into the Premiership. 

It may not have been as watertight and as propulsive as its perfect first season, but that's mostly attributable to growing pains, as the show expands its scope to include more of the supporting cast (what was up with that Coach Beard episode, huh?). But when it clicks, there's really nothing else like it on TV today – warm, wholesome and bristling with all the good vibes, it's the antidote to uncertain and often upsetting times. 

Even if you don't know or care a lick about football, Ted Lasso has something for you. It's a sincere show that places character and theme at its core, rather than plot. Some of the episodes are silly and throwaway, but that's okay, because underneath the story, are some great messages about serious stuff, like fatherhood, marriage and 'found family'.

2) Succession season three (HBO)

The best returning show of 2021, Succession's third season was able to deliver drama and intrigue aplenty while treading water and remaining almost motionless, which is not something that can be said for a lot of TV shows. 

After the explosive season two finale, Succession was primed for a showdown between billionaire Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his eldest son Kendall (Jeremy Strong). But the power struggle petered out, and the show slowly but surely returned to its status quo, with Logan on top, Kendall on a leash and the rest of the Roy siblings and sycophants sniping at each other.

If that sounds unsatisfying, then you don't know Succession. At the end of the day, the show is about the cyclical nature of familial abuse and manipulation – and the impossibility of breaking out that cycle. Kendall, Roman, Shiv and Connor: yeah, they're all terrible people, but they're like a pack of wild dogs who yap at each other, because they're too scared of the alpha. Now that they're all outside the pack, after the bombshell season three finale, what comes next is anyone's guess.

1) The White Lotus season one (HBO)

Darkly comic, sharp as a tack, populated with a cast of entitled, detestable rich white people; The White Lotus shares a lot of DNA with Succession in its critique and satirisation of privilege. And while the latter plays out in Manhattan penthouses and boardrooms, through power suits and power plays, The White Lotus (written and directed by Mike White) is set in the serene and sumptuous surrounds of an exclusive Hawaiian resort. 

With a cast that boasts the likes of Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandra Daddario, Jake Lacy and Steve Zahn, this wry murder mystery is both loaded with humour but deadly serious at the same time. 

Over the course of its six sumptuous episodes (the production design, cinematography and score are great), The White Lotus explores the nuances and absurdities of its characters – from needy idiots and entitled teens to neglected spouses and pampered monsters. There's sex, lies, theft, epiphanies, intrigue and indulgence aplenty, as what starts out as an idyllic island getaway divulges into the ultimate trouble in paradise scenario. 

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