Friday, 31 December 2021

Shows of the Year

 Best new show:


A successful high school soccer team gets stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash - and the story of survival is told in conjunction with the unravelling of a mystery 25 years later. This cast is astounding - not just the older counterparts (would I have ever thought to see Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis and Melanie Lynskey share a screen?), but the young girls discovering what it takes to survive, and veering off into something dangerous, are captivating. There are obvious references here, but all I could think of was last year's The Wilds (which was gorgeous too), and I think the two exist in conversation with each other. 

We Are Lady Parts

Saira, Bisma and Ayesha (and Momtaz, their band manager) are a three-piece Muslim punk band (inspired by riot grrrl with a repertoire that includes "Voldemort Under My Headscarf" and "Honour kill my sister") that is seeking in audience. Amina is a very talented guitarist (more into folk though) and PhD student who is seeking a husband, but accidentally, instead, finds herself as their lead guitarist. This show is EVERYTHING. It's about mutual support, insecurity, anxiety and grief, and it's about the shared joy of creating something together in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I wish this had 10 seasons. 

Only Murders in the Building

Comfort food in 2021 - Steve Martin, Martin Short and a very good Selena Gomez (what a find!) investigate a murder in their New York apartment building, trying to use a podcast to make money and gain fame. It's about the twists of the investigation, the relationship (and secrets) of the three self-made detectives, and at its best, it's a perfect show (in one episode, we follow a hearing impaired man who turns out to be a suspect, and until the last minute, no words are spoken, somehow without feeling too gimmicky). 


Not sure how to sell this except to say that this is so unexpectedly queer, and so very unexpectedly and devastatingly sad, and very beautiful, even though it is important to remember what the production conditions were. 


A whole show! About the wonders of artistic collaboration! Funny, crude, but at its best, emotionally honest about love and mentorship, but also betrayal and facing up to the past. The two leads, Jean Smart (who is also great in Mare of Easttown) and Hannah Einbinder, are outstanding. 


I have an ambiguous relationship with the Marvel film universe, where I feel tender feelings for certain aspects of it, but most of them have been severely disappointed over the years. For one, if you care 100% more about Peggy Carter and Captain America than about the vain tin man, it's hard to feel catered to. WandaVision is ambitious - an experiment, akin to the unconnected shows that Marvel put out alongside its films (the best among them probably the sadly short-lived Cloak and Dagger). It travels the time eras of classic American sitcom while slowly revealing the dark undercurrent beneath it - that like populaces in general, the harmlessness of the shows hides a darker intention beneath it. Elizabeth Olsen is marvellous, and so is Teyonah Parris as Maria Rambeau's daughter Monica (who gets her powers here) - but the break-out star is Kathryn Hahn, predictably great in every era. 


When this came out initially I read some reviews that made me think this wouldn't be for me: I read some Arthur C. Clarke as a child and that's as far as I ever got with "hard science fiction", and since then, I've only really been into The Expanse's approach to it, which is basically class struggle in space. But then I began watching, and could not stop. Foundation spans decades, its vision, centuries, and yet the interplay between societal change (as predicted by mathematical models that honestly, to me, sound more like statistics applied to political science?) and the inherent unpredictability of messy humans worked. The characters are compelling, especially Gaal and Salvor, and whatever Lee Pace does with the different iterations of Brother Day is something else. The cloned empire (it's empire, not emperor, three people who are one person are empire) reminds me a little bit of Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire (I guess it's what Six Direction is trying to achieve, via Mahit's technology?). 

Best one-season shows: 

Exterminate All the Brutes

Raoul Peck's furious documentary isn't just about the violence of colonialism, it investigates how Europe and the United States construct themselves from colonialism, white supremacy and racism, and leave devastation in their wake. 

The Investigation

Like Unbelievable, this should be the benchmark for how shows about investigations of violent crimes against women should be told. We never see any of the violence, but the horror of what happened is palpable in every scene. 

Mare of Easttown

A difficult-to-miss police show in which Kate Winslet convincingly plays a rugged small-town American cop struggling to solve the disappearance of a young woman. Kate Winslet is outstanding, even though the show never hits quite as hard as the first season of Broadchurch (which feels like the obvious reference here) does. 

The Newsreader

New Gold Mountain


American Rust

Squid Game

Best shows:

Feel Good

Feel Good's second season is a complete surprise - both in terms of existing (I didn't realise it was going to have a second season!) and in terms of how it becomes a captivating and sad story about Mae's teenage years, and the complex trauma she is facing after being abused by someone she thought a friend. At the margins, it, like Hacks, investigates how prevalent sexism still is in stand-up, but the moments that hit the hardest are when Mae deals with what is inside her own head, and how it affects the people she loves. 

For All Mankind

This was a tense season that focused more on the politics of a re-written space race, in which the USSR and the US vie for moon resources and come close to a non-cold war after the Reagan regime decides to send armed troops, and things predictably get out of control in a horrifying way. I'd like to believe that For All Mankind has its own alternative history version of The Americans written into its fabrics, and some of the events at the end of the season hint that this might be the case. Otherwise, there's the outstanding Ellen Waverly, the loneliest woman on the moon, who returns to make a choice between love and happiness and her dream of landing on Mars. One of my favourite things about this show is how it subtly investigates how the progress in the space race may impact technology, and bring forward things earlier, but maybe we also got some traces here of the same creator who mirrored Bush's "war on terror" via Laura Roslin and Admiral Adama (the show's version of Reagan is certainly a trip). Vale Astronauts Stevens.

Motherland Fort Salem

The politics of the this show are still all over the place, but for something that often feels like it was written partly by LSD (or, fittingly, mushrooms), Motherland continues its great character work into a second season, a second season that deepens the feeling that there is a whole lot of grey here and not a lot of black and white. 


This Polish crime show set in a small city began in the 1980s, during Soviet rule, and then followed up with a second season set in the 1990s, revealing the dark second world war secrets that still reverberate through the town. It's a triumph of Netflix' new strategy of creating shows in countries that would normally not reach a wider audience. Moody, dark, but then lightened by unexpected humour. Plus, the second season features an investigator that will be hard to forget, and to measure other police detectives against. 


This second season of Dickinson is all about the cost of fame, and the question of its value - who does Emily write for? Her beloved Sue crumbles under the pressure of her sole readership, but the main she defers these beautiful poems to is not reliable, and has interests of his own. Emily is haunted by fame, or by being forgotten by history (since she does not have the luxury of knowing who she will be, centuries later). Meanwhile, the world she lives in is teetering towards a great war, something that she barely engages in. Surprisingly, one of the most heartfelt storylines this season is about her brother Austin's attempts to find meaning in a loveless marriage, with a partner who does not trust him to know her feelings, or to regard his. Dickinson is just always, somehow, a little more than what you'd expect. 

Line of Duty

Line of Duty has consistently been about the impossibility of a corrupt organisation investigating itself. It has shown, over six seasons now, that the moral and ethical aspirations of its three main characters - Steve, Kate and Hastings - fail in the face of a deeply undermined and incredibly powerful police force with a long history of connections to organised crime. The world Line of Duty shows is one where everyone, regardless of who they are, is susceptible to be blackmailed into immorality. After the genius seasonal appearances of Tandiwe Newton and Stephen Graham, the sixth season has Kelly MacDonald as a police detective in the crosshairs of AC-12, and she gives an understated performance that escalates over time (also, we are constantly on the cusp of something with her attempts to connect with Kate). 



Kontrol/Kontrola TRUST ME ON THIS. 

Life is Strange: True Colors. 

Sophie Thatcher this year, not just in Yellowjackets, but also in When the Streetlights Go On, a ten-parter consisting of less than 10 minute long episodes about a small-town murder set in 1995 (along with Cruel Summer, a lot of things appear to cycle back to the 90s this year, and thrive on the pop culture). The thing about Yellowjackets isn't just that its young main cast so perfectly mirrors the older counterparts, its that it is conceivable, from their sheer amount of talent, that they could eventually become equally as iconic as Juliette Lewis (and Christina Ricci, and Melanie Lynskey - and Jasmine Savoy Brown is just as great as a young version of Tawny Cypress' Taissa). Sophie Thatcher is a stand-out in both, like maybe she's already there. 

Jordan Hull's performance in the disaster that was the second season of The L Word: Generation Q.

One of Us is Lying: This is everything I wanted from what it proclaimed to be. Great, self-contained eight episodes of sheer entertainment, and a breakthrough performance from Jessica McLeod as Janae. What if Pretty Little Liars but without the long, sad, slow descent into badness? Although wasting Ali Liebert on a bit part is a bit of a crime, but forgiven for the rest of it. 

Olivia Colman in Landscapers, which is an artistic masterpiece in and of itself, experimental and a new take on an increasingly more popular (and tired) genre - her performance is utterly emotionally devastating, Naomi's mum's done it again. 

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