The Top Ten TV for 2021
Part 2: 5–1
Before I conclude my list while awards won don’t usually have an influence on my selection I won’t deny there was a major awards group that has been a factor. It’s one I spent an immense amount of time raving about from June to August but I’m going to mention it again.
The Hollywood Critics Association first ever Television awards was one of the greatest selections of nominees and winners I’ve seen for any major group of awards in nearly twenty years of seriously following them, especially for their first attempt. I’ve rarely been prouder to be a critic than when I saw how they defined their nominations, who they nominated and what ended up winning. Cheers guys, and I hope this year you get to broadcast your awards show in person and on some cable channel.
Back to it.
5. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (NBC)
There have been a lot of series that came to a premature end this past year but none really gave me such a punch in the gut as NBC’s horrendous decision to end this superb series after its second season. Yes, I’m aware that the audience for it was very low by the standards of NBC but on a network that is increasingly becoming the sole possession of Dick Wolf, you’d think they’d want something as original as this.
And that’s what Zoey’s was among other things. Funny, moving, profound, silly, romantic, frightening and above all fun. This may have been the most brilliant original show I’ve seen since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend debuted in 2015. The same sense of joy was there with a little more realism. The cast was everything you could wish for (even with the absence of Peter Gallagher and Lauren Graham) and it made your heart feel joy and ache at the same time. It was even willing to deal with issues you wouldn’t expect from this kind of show: racism within the workplace, sexism with the tech workplace, dealing with grief at all its levels, trying to find love in the midst of a chaotic life and that your soulmate may not be the right person for you yet. All with a song in its heart So I’m honestly not sure what hurt more: the fact that NBC decided to keep The Blacklist on the air another season instead of Zoey even though the former had run out of creativity well before the latter premiered last year or that the Emmy voters, in their wisdom, decided that Emily in Paris was more worthy of a Best Comedy nomination that this series which has a level of imagination that the latter doesn’t even pretend to have. Either way, I was gutted when NBC decided to cancel it this June.
In a way, I received closure and happiness from two separate events this summer. The first, as I mentioned above, was that the HCA in their infinite wisdom chose to give it the most nominations of any comedy series on any platform — six — and that August give both its prizes for actresses to the incomparable Jane Levy and Mary Steenburgen for their remarkable work. I was annoyed that the series inexplicably lost Best Network Comedy to Young Rock, but the HCA gave it a special prize as a fan favorite which was a worthy consolation. And while no streaming service was willing to pick it up for an additional season, fans did get closure of a sort when Roku agreed to make Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas which aired this December (and has already been nominated for Best TV Movie by the Critic’s Choice Awards). Shows cut down in their prime rarely get a chance for closure for any of us. And like the series messages of joy, there’s something Extraordinary about that.
4. Wandavision (Disney+)
I realize that some people may have expected, if I was going to include another Limited Series here, that it would be Mare of Easttown the other major drama that everybody was talking about this spring. And I won’t deny that it was brilliant at every level — the great acting, the deepness of the writing, the grief that followed everyone and the twist that came at the end. But I’ll be honest: I expect all those things to come from an HBO limited series as a matter of course. I don’t expect them to come from a service whose biggest hit, The Mandalorian; I would have no use for even if I loved Star Wars. I certainly wouldn’t expect all of the elements I mentioned above being equally pertinent to a series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an industry that I have more or less gone out of my way to avoid unless I’m channel chasing. And unless the discussion of award nominations had started back when the series debuted I still wouldn’t have given Wandavision the time of day. That said I’m so glad now to be proven wrong.
Set aside whatever preconceptions you may have about Marvel. The thematic concept of Wandavision throughout the first half of the series at least dealt with two very vital issues: our love of television comedy and how that gets us through some of the toughest times of our lives. On a purely technical level the series was exceptional — it reminded me so much of how X-Files wunderkind Darin Morgan used the medium to wildly poke fun at a staid genre. Just watching Wanda and Vision trying to make their way from sitcoms starting in the era of the 1950s and moving up to the present day was entertaining enough in its own right and had it just been on that level, I would have found it impressive enough.
But at the core of the series was how Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olsen demonstrated a depth she never got to in The Avengers) dealt with a loss that absolutely shattered her emotional and forced her to create an entire alternate reality. Some might argue the methods that she did would far too extreme. I just finished Landscapers a brilliant HBO true crime project which dealt with the story of a woman show broken by life she retreated into cinema to deal with her traumas. She also may have done something truly horrendous. Why will the latter be judged as art and the latter popcorn? Because Wanda’s soul mate wasn’t human?
Technically this series was a triumph on every possible level (I’m not saying Kathryn Hahn was robbed of an Emmy because I love Julianne Nicholson, but I didn’t mind when the HCA gave her the Supporting Actress prize) And it made me feel levels of pain and anguish that I rarely feel on television, certainly not from a comic book franchise. Maybe people were dissatisfied by how it ended. I’ve already gone into detail in a previous article how little that matters with me.
I was rather happy when the HCA — given choices that included Mare and The Queen’s Gambit chose Wandavision as Best Limited Series. This was a show that demonstrated the power of television and a love for the medium. In a world where the past is becoming increasingly disposable, for nothing else this series is remarkable. I’m not saying I’d subscribe to Disney+ to get another season, but I wouldn’t mind another one.
3. Hacks (HBO Max)
When I saw the Pilot for this series on HBO in May I thought it would be a waste of time. I kept watching it after I got the service. By the time I reached the end I realize that this comedy was one of the true masterpieces of the year.
I’ll admit that what kept me watching in the early stages was the magnificent presence of Jean Smart as Deborah Vance a comedy legend who’s built an empire without really changing her act in at least twenty years. Watching her beat up on just about everybody including her own daughter was always enjoyable no matter how monstrous it was. But what made the series work for me was the slow but steady growth of Ava throughout the series. She really seemed completely useless in the Pilot and didn’t seem to really have much of a purpose other than to be pathetic in the first few episodes. But the longer we watched her the more you realized that there was far more to her than meets the eye and that she wasn’t the Gen Z cliché she seemed so proud of being in the first few episodes. There was darkness that she wasn’t willing to face (we got in the glimpses of her home life throughout the season) and she showed real growth that probably shocked even her because of her relationship with Debra. One of the nicer pleasures of this was watching the two of them realize they were equals in a way and that Ava in her way was there because of women like Vance. When Hannah Einbinder managed to tie Hannah Waddingham for Best Supporting Actress in a Streaming Comedy Series at the HCA, it actually seemed just about right. Einbinder lost to Waddingham at the Emmys, but something tells me that she has a lot more in her future.
But of course the series rose and set on Jean Smart, who deservedly took both an Emmy and a standing ovation when she received it this year. It also deserved the writing and directing prizes it got from them as well — with respect to Ted Lasso which is genius, it’s a lot harder to write about doing comedy than to just write comedy. I didn’t honestly think they could pull it off in the first episode but I was impressed at just how well the series managed to do it the longer I watched it.
While Wandavision didn’t quite convince me to get Disney+, Hacks made me glad I’d shelled out for HBO Max and combined with The Flight Attendant I’ll admit there’s certainly some very interesting and original programming here. Does it justify putting it on another service instead of the main one? Probably not. But if the series are this good, I’ll watch them anyway.
2. Pose (FX)
There is not a single attribute I share with any of the characters in Pose save that we live in New York. But I felt more anguish and pain with them watching them trying to live their lives — in a world that considered them disposable and shrugged off if they existed — then with almost any other series on this list. That is the realness that Ryan Murphy and his extraordinary group of writers and actors showed when they gave us a picture of New York that Carrie Bradshaw wouldn’t be caught in, then or now.
I was upset to learn that this exceptional series was coming to a close after only three seasons but grateful that the writers were ending it on their own terms. And they didn’t disappoint. It was agonizing watching Pray Tell go through the final stages of AIDS, first dealing withdrawing into alcoholism to numb the pain, and then making a journey to his Southern hometown where we saw far too clearly the horrors that he had escaped — and that were still denying him on his deathbed. In the series finale, it genuinely seemed like that he might somehow survive this horror — and in true fashion, he gave his life for someone else. I don’t think there was a more painful death all season that Pray Tell’s and certainly not a better commemoration of his loss. I was overjoyed when the extraordinary Billy Porter took an HCA Best Actor Award and I really hope the Critics Choice do the same when they meet. There was no better male acting performance in 2021.
This doesn’t mean that the series didn’t also have great moments for the rest of the cast. On the contrary seeing all of the people we’ve followed the last three seasons manage to find love, success, and a place in the world brought a more than welcome joy in an often grim TV landscape. They have not been related by blood but the House of Evangelista was a better family than some of the ones we saw in TV. When we got a clear look at Electra’s backstory in ‘The Trunk’ we saw the pain she had to live through and why she has been caring in her own way. I was quietly happy when she became wealthy and pleased when the mobsters she worked with said she would have made a great boss. Everybody in the cast was at least as good as or better than Porter throughout the season, especially Dominique Jackson and the history making MJ Rodriguez. (Thrilled she got an HCA prize too.)
Pose never lied when it showed how tough the world was for those who walked the ballrooms. But it also showed love and happiness in practically every form. The final images of Blanca yet again taking on a new family as the ghost of Pray Tell walked by one of the most wonderful things I saw all year. But the category was always Love and that’s what I have for this show.
1, Cruel Summer (Freeform)
My hands were sore from clapping when I watched the lion’s share of the HCA. But when this show managed to triumph for Best Cable Drama, there is a very good chance that my feet left the floor. I expect to take quite a few brickbats for choosing a series from Freeform as better than Succession but I could careless. Because this spring this was the series I couldn’t wait for the next episode of. Not Mare of Easttown, not Wandavision. This was the series I couldn’t wait to find out the answers for. And the answers were worth every bit.
Set in the summers of 1993, 1994 and 1995 the show follows the parallel lives of Jeanette Turner (the phenomenal Chiara Aurelia) a teenage girl who starts out as a wallflower and Kate Wallis (the equally astonishing Olivia Holt) the queen of her small Texas town. The series deals with how their lives changed around a central event — the disappearance of Kate in 1993, her reappearance in 1994 and how her stunning accusation destroyed Jeanette’s life by 1995.
First off, all the technical aspects of the series were spot on and the make up and hairstyles signifying each year, perfect. Then there was the story of how Kate seemed to have the perfect life, that Jeanette wanted it and somehow manage to get it when Kate disappeared. There were all the friendships, relationships — sexual and familial — that suffered as a result of everything. And at the center of it was the complicated relationship between Kate and Martin Harris, the man whose abduction of her triggered all this — but who had been doing far more work beforehand to make it more complicated.
There is an excellent chance that you have never heard of this show, much less seen it. So I will not reveal any more details of the plot. I will say that the acting and writing were among the greatest I’ve seen on television in years and put so many shows –teenage aimed and Peak TV alike — to utter shame by the realism in the writing and the relationships. I was over the moon when I learned this series was coming back for a second season and I can’t wait to see how they do it.
To the rest of you, go to Hulu and start watching it. Within five minutes at the most you will be utterly unable to look away. Forget that it was created by Freeform (although seriously after The Bold Type and Everything’s Going to Be Okay, we can’t pretend this is a network just for young adults) And if someone asks you if it’s a guilty pleasure tell them simply it’s a pleasure. You won’t be lying.
I’ll be back later this week with my Jury Prize.