Part 1: 10–6
At this point, saying just how horrible this year has been would just be superfluous. It seems we’ve all spent 2020 locked in our rooms, watching everything fall apart. Television helped keep us going throughout this dreadful, even though not even the series we watched could escape the outside world events, first based on what shows were made, how we viewed the world of television, and how some series ending up getting made at all.
In my own bubble of this year, I turned to streaming services more than ever, looking often for escapism. Sometimes I found it, sometimes reflections of the real world brought their own level of greatness. With hopes that the next year will bring some return to normality, here are my choices for 2021
10. Kidding (Showtime)
In a year with so much darkness, you took joy wherever you could find it. And this brilliant merger of Jim Carrey and Michael Gondry gave us a mesh of surrealism and energy that so many of the other series this year lacked. As we followed Jeff through his journey, we literally went into new world — a musical romp under anesthesia where Jeff made his greatest revelation; a look at the TV show where his world changed; a look back at nostalgia therapy, where he dealt with the woman who had probably damaged him forever — Kidding took more risks than almost any other show this year. It was probably too complicated for a mass audience, which is why it was cancelled after just two seasons. But I’m grateful for the journey — and for finally meeting in a world of antiheroes, a man so good he couldn’t say the obscenities Showtime allowed him to. We need Jeff Pickles now more than ever. We need shows like this as well.
9. David E. Kelley: The Undoing (HBO) and Big Sky (ABC)
David E. Kelley was one of the great showrunners in a time before the world knew the term, and this year he adapted two very different novels which created very different worlds to look at the darkness of humanity.
The bigger and more likely more favored one was The Undoing. Featuring three of the greatest actors in history — Nicole Kidman as Grace, a successful New York therapist who leads an apparently happy life until her world is shattered by a horrific crime; Hugh Grant as her husband Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist who becomes the main suspect and reveals just how big the mask he is wearing is, and Donald Sutherland a as Grace’s father, a man determined to protect his daughter even though he’s never trusted her husband. This feature some truly astonishing performances, superb direction and writing, and some daring twists. The only reason I don’t rank it higher on this list is because I read the book it was based on, and unlike Big Little Lies, I believe Kelley did a disservice to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great experience, but I think it would’ve been more interesting had Kelley agreed to stick to the script.
Big Sky is a different kind of thriller, but its one of the best experiences I’ve had on network TV all year. The study of two of the most different kinds of monsters we’ve met on TV in a while — Ronald the truck driver and State Trooper Rick Legarski (John Carroll Lynch deserves award consideration for his work here) whose human trafficking ring is put in jeopardy when Ronald kidnaps the girlfriend and sister of the son of Jenny Hoyt. When she and her partner (already feuding over an affair one was having with Jenny’s husband) it becomes more thrilling than any procedural you’ve seen. With one of the biggest shocks of the year at the end of the pilot, this has become one of the most captivating shows of the new season. I don’t if it’ll be a limited series or a second season can come, but this demonstrates that Kelley, more than a decade removed from his last network series, has lost none of his touch for it.
8.Dead to Me (Netflix)
I came late to this comedy, but after basically binging the first season, I’ve become enraptured by one of the darkest — and yes, funniest — series on any platform. As Jen and Judy found themselves trying to clean up after Jen’s murder of Steve, the already complicated lives of these two already struggling people, became one of the most joyful experiences I’ve seen. It helps that the leads are played by two of the greatest actresses in television — Christina Applegate as Jen, still reeling from the death of her husband, and Linda Cardellini as Judy, a woman who can’t keep her mouth shut about some of the things she does and who makes the worst possible criminal — and the best possible friend. Helped by the fact that both were playing against type, it featured some truly inspired performances by James Marsden, Valerie Mahaffey and Jere Burns bringing excellent support. I’m actually sad that this show is going to come to an end after just one more season — but considering how brilliant creator Liz Feldman has been to this point, I have complete faith in her abilities.
7. This is Us (NBC)
I admit this series has fallen a little in my eyes the last year or so, but even four and a bit seasons in, it never ceases to amaze me how well the writers have been able to mine gold from these characters. From the bad week the Big Three all had that forced them to face some of their darkest problems to Randall finally facing that he needs psychiatric help — and then engaging in a bitter argument with Kevin over Rebecca’s dementia, which led to them breaking contact, this has been nearly as hard a year for the Pearsons as it has been for the rest of the world. But even in its fifth season, the writers have proven that there are still great things to mine out of this family — the 5th Season premiere featured some of the best work Ron Cephas Jones and Milo Ventimiglia have yet done, along with the revelation that Randall’s mother is still alive. Perhaps in a year with so much darkness, it may be hard to deal with the Pearsons tears. But this year, more than ever, they’ve shown they can deal with it too.
6. Ramy (Hulu)
I came even later to this show than I did Dead to Me, but after just a few episodes of the first season, I realized that Golden Globe lead/showrunner Ramy Youseff received as Best Actor in a Comedy was anything but a fluke, and that Ramy isn’t just one of the best comedies in awhile; it’s one of the best shows period.
Following a twentyish Muslim in New Jersey, Ramy spent most of the first season trying to be a good Muslim even though he doesn’t really seem to believe in the morality of it. In the first season, I thought that despite Ramy’s faith, this was a story that could appeal more universal to any race or religion. The second season, if anything, has become even more daring. Not only is Ramy trying to pursue a relationship with a sheik (Mahershala Ali in yet another brilliant television performance), he is moving on to the point where he is trying to begin a romantic process with the sheik’s daughter. But the show has moved beyond the scope of Ramy following all of the family, and their problems. From his mother desperately tracking down someone who gave her a bad review on Uber so she can become a citizen, to his father finally dealing with the fact that he has lost his job and yet somehow trying to live for his dreams, to his sister (an even less faithful Muslim than him) dealing with what she believes is the evil eye, we see how they try to find their place in a world that doesn’t want them. Youseff the writer and director has become just as talented as he is an actor, which was already impressive. How long it will be until we get a third season remains to be seen, but this clearly has the potential to be a masterpiece.