Part 1: 10–6
When we bid farewell to 2020 some of us no doubt naively hoped that next year could only be better. While that remains for the judge of history in a way we needed television in 2021 as much as we did the previous year. And one of the smaller mercies of the easing of the pandemic was that some of our old favorites were able to return and some new shows helped us ease through a tense time.
Before we go forward, I should emphasize yet again that is based almost entirely on television I saw this year, which is far from a complete list. And as always there were some series I’m never going to get behind no matter how much the masses congregate around them. (This is a Succession free zone, in other words.) I also still haven’t gotten around to some of the series that made this last year enjoyable (I’ll get to Season 2 of Ted Lasso and eventually I’ll lead up to Only Murders in the Building.) In other way, this is not going to be a mainstream list. But if you’re looking for some alternatives going forward, I may be willing to make some fairly valid suggestions. So here we go, and remember in most cases the numbering is arbitrary:
10. The Wonder Years (ABC)
I know that just the concept of this series pissed off millions of people — probably many of whom had never seen the original. They’re just trying to do a ‘woke’ version of the show — ironic considering that the whole point of the 1960s was about a generation becoming ‘woke’ in the first place.
The vision that Lee Daniels and his new group of writers show for The Wonder Years has not only made one of the best new series of 2021, it has completely redefined what a reboot should truly be. It looks at the 1960s from the world that Kevin Arnold only occasionally glanced at while showing simultaneously the true meaning of what the 1960s really were — to African Americans and women in particular — while losing none of the charm and humor that the original series had. If anything, it’s willing to looking at the 1960s as more than an era for great music (though trust me, its there). The acting is spot on, particularly the brilliant work of Dule Hill finally getting a chance to have a role that isn’t regulated to the sidelines. I don’t know if this Wonder Years will last as long as the original did. What I do know is that it more than deserves to.
9. City on a Hill (Showtime)
The police procedural is going through a reckoning right now and its possible that people won’t particularly want to look at a series that looks at corruption among law enforcement any more. I still find this series an outstanding exception to the rule. Starting out with Decourcy Ward and Jackie Rohr determined to destroy each other after the mess of Season 1, the series did something truly remarkable by the middle of the season — it completely flipped our sympathies for both characters. (I never thought that there was an ounce of humanity in Jackie, but a brilliant monologue he delivered halfway through the season showed just how truly broken he was before he even got a badge.) Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge are electric onscreen, whether in their own scenes or most spectacularly when their sharing the screen together. And watching Jackie come to the end of the road he knew was coming and seeing Decourcy cross lines you didn’t think he could (particularly after his wife was shot at by a drug dealer she was defending) featured some of the most stirring drama of 2021. The rest of the cast, especially Jill Hennessy who’s doing some of the best work of her career, is spot on. I was so glad when this series was renewed for a third season. Whenever it comes, I’ll be watching.
8. David E. Kelley: Nine Perfect Strangers (Hulu) & Big Sky (ABC)
Yes it’s the fall of 2021 which means its time for another David E. Kelley/Nicole Kidman collaboration on an adaptation of a best seller. But no one could honestly compare Nine Perfect Strangers with The Undoing and say that Kelley was simply going through the same material as before. For starters, this series — moved from Australia to California — far and away was more fitting than the original. And there were so many changes from the novel — like with The Undoing — that by the end it was barely recognizable from the source material. I didn’t find myself caring that much though, mostly because of the dazzling work from the cast — Kidman was her usual glowing self, but everyone from Michael Shannon to Melissa McCarthy was just as good — and because the variations may have actually gone to a brighter kind of comedy than the screwball insanity at the center of Lianne Moriarty’s original novel. Was the ending too optimistic? Maybe. But in an era where every television series is far too dark, I wasn’t complaining that much.
It’s unclear how much involvement Kelley still had with Big Sky aside from the producing credit, but having read the original novel I can say with justification it’s an even bigger improvement. We’re still in very dark territory as the series moved away (but not entirely) from Ronald and Rick Legarski and followed Cassie and Jenny as they continued to travel down dark paths with some truly disturbing characters. A truly broken ranching family trying to decide who will rule next, and a bunch of teenagers who get involved with a crash that ends up getting them into a world they can escape, this series may be the best model for the post-2020 police procedural. It also has some of the best acting you’ll see on television anywhere. The brand new Hollywood Critics TV Awards was exactly right when they nominated for Best Network Drama and I hope that this year they get a chance to give John Carroll Lynch (who I’m not sure I even recognize as Rick’s hippie twin brother) another Supporting Acting nomination. I don’t know how long ABC will keep it going, but with series like this and The Wonder Years, creatively they’re heading in the right direction again.
7. In Treatment (HBO)
It’s rare that a series is ahead of its time. When In Treatment debuted in 2008 it was the perfect show to be binge-watched but HBO could never figure that out and put it through three separate time slots before finally giving up on it in 2010. Now 11 years they have rebooted it for this era (Technically, they’re calling it Season 4 but the connection between the previous series and this one is so tangential you could be forgiven if you missed it.) What is clear is that we needed it.
Some of the most brilliant acting this year came from the stunning work by Uzo Aduba as Brooke Taylor, an LA psychiatrist who is far more broken than any of the patients she treats. And that’s saying something considering the three patients we saw: Eladio, a caregiver who couldn’t tell what to do with his love, Laila, a teenager forced into therapy by her controlling grandmother who dealt with the horrors facing her generation by never telling the same story twice, and my personal favorite Colin, a tech billionaire coming out of prison who claims that he loves therapy but really just wants to sell everybody.
As the weeks wore on we saw just how badly Brooke was broken by life — the death of her father, a troubled relationship with a man who was bad for her, and a struggle with alcohol that got worse with each new episode. When she finally had the ultimate therapy session — when she had a conversation between herself the person and the doctor — it should’ve seemed like a gimmick, but it really wasn’t.
I thought the series was robbed of the Emmy nominations it so richly deserved by shows that weren’t nearly in the same ballpark as it creatively. (I’m talking to you Handmaid’s Tale!) And it’s unclear at this point whether the show will be brought back for a fifth season. What I know is that In Treatment is the right show for this era, not just in terms of how you choose to watch it, but in the subjects it covers. I would love to go back for more sessions.
6. This is Us (NBC)
In this era we needed the Pearsons more than ever. And in all honesty the series showed the family adjusts to the pandemic and every major issue facing us probably better than every other series that says its trying too without losing any bit of its ability. What other show would have done an episode that focused on the man who was in a way responsible for the video chatting process that got us through the pandemic in a way that was vital to the plot of the series and was just as profoundly moving as anything else that happens to The Big Three?
Everybody dealt with their problems in their own way, and not everybody liked it. When Kevin and Randall finally dealt with the issues that had not just let to their split at the end of Season4 but had in effect been there throughout their entire lives, millions were angry because Randall was speaking for so many black people and that threatened the picture of the show that so many want but that the series has been dismantling season after season. It was immensely powerful. Kate confronted the older man who groomed her and forced her to have an abortion. Randall dealt more and more with issues with his own children. Kevin had his twins and seemed to be destined for a happy ending — then he wasn’t. And in the biggest shock in the final minutes we saw the marriage of Kate and Toby which seemed to be unbreakable seems fated to end badly (though not with Toby’s death).
The final season is coming up fast. We have an idea how it will end for the Pearsons, but not the full picture. (Though I’m pretty sure tears will be involved) The world of television — particularly network television will be a much emptier place when the final episode airs in May. And I really wish the Emmys would take note of it. Not for nothing, but I’d much rather have the people behind the Pearsons celebrating this September than the one behind the Roys.
Be back tomorrow with the final five.