This is the first in a week-long series of year-end thoughts on television from the crew here at Awards Daily TV.
There’s too much stuff to watch, folks.
That’s the trouble with making these year end “best of” lists. Either you missed something great, or you simply haven’t gotten to it yet. Between the basic cable networks and the streaming services, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Keeping up with great television has become like reading great books – you are simply never going to get to them all. So, when you get to my list, and you think “where’s __________ !?” [insert title of your choice], just know that this was the best I could do.
With that out of the way, despite lingering COVID, 2021 was a pretty terrific year for TV. As production ramped back up, so did the quality of the offerings.
Before I get into my “official” list, I do want to touch on a handful of shows that didn’t quite make the cut, but are still very worthy of note.
I’m probably the only person I know who is feeling emotional pain over having left Wu-Tang: An American Saga out of my top ten. We need more Wu people, people. The show’s second season not only built upon the first, it bettered it by some distance. There are times when Wu is like The Wire, only with more beats per minute. Two of the most exhilarating scenes from any show I watched this year took place in this bio-series telling the (mostly) true story of the most famous rap group to ever bust out of the Staten Island borough. The first takes place in the club as the band performs ‘Protect Ya Neck’ for the first time before a live audience. The second is when Method Man goes into the recording booth and comes up with the hook to ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ on the spot. Both are electrifying moments of performance and creation. So, why did the show not make my list? Because fifteen shows don’t fit into a top ten list.
The fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale delivered a striking return to form after the decline of seasons two and three. Were it not for the wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy killing of a certain Commander, Handmaid’s would have been much tougher to keep off my list. Unfortunately, after restoring much of the show’s season one glory through great writing and the ridiculously excellent work by the cast (especially Elisabeth Moss, of course), the season decided to peak with a Grindhouse level climax that left me wanting. Even when the quality of the show sagged in seasons two and three, I always felt the show maintained a fealty to the realism of the world it created, but at the most crucial moment of the season, Handmaid’s not only missed the landing, it nearly jumped the, well, you know. To be honest, I almost found it insulting. Still, I’ll be ready for season five and consider that chase scene in the woods to be a misstep in an other wise great season.
While The Handmaid’s Tale waited until the final moment of it’s season to fall short, one of the most talked about program on social media, the South Korean import, Squid Game, came loose a bit earlier. After a number of electrifying episodes that mixed the horror of debt and poverty with horrific violence, the show slipped badly once it introduced an international group of investors mid-game. The dialogue was laughable and the performances even worse. Not only that, but the season’s final episode, after investing so much energy getting you on the side of it’s lead (wonderfully played by Lee Jung-jae), the show’s writers pulled the rug out from under the audience and the actor by having him make at least one indefensible (and unbelievable) choice. It’s a shame, because the show got off to one of the most riveting starts of any program this year.
This year found many programs devoted to recapping the 20-year anniversary of 9/11. No program I saw did that better than Turning Point 9/11. Not only did the docuseries look back at the events that led up to the terrorist attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon, it also took a deep dive into what has happened since. As chilling as the back story to 9/11 is, the mess we(the USA) made of things afterwards is almost as depressing. Turning Point is no liberal screed either. While the Bush White House takes plenty of deserved heat, so to does the Obama administration – in particular for their use of drones. The sad fact is, in our efforts to squash terrorism, we likely created more terrorists by attacking a country that had nothing to with 9/11 (Iraq), and addressing Afghanistan in a ham-fisted way. Turning Point is heavy lifting, but necessary viewing. My guess though, is if you got through it, you won’t come back to it. It’s simply too painful.
Finally, I am now half way through Cinemax’s brilliant post-pandemic ‘apocalypse future’ series Station Eleven. I heartily recommend it, but since a half isn’t a whole, it can’t make the list.
Alright, one last thing before we get cracking: Just remember, at the end of the day, the only list that really matters is your own.
10. Disney+’s The Beatles: Get Back
I came to Peter Jackson’s 3-part documentary on the Beatles as something of a Philistine. While I do like a lot of the Beatles’ music, I find all the “greatest band ever” proclamations a bit over the top. Were the fab four from Liverpool the most loved and influential band ever? Of course. But best? Well, I’m a Stones guy. Still, Jackson’s work here combing through hundreds of hours of recordings (both film and audio) is a great fly on the wall experience. I think there’s a tendency to think the Beatles just woke every day and produced three hit songs like it was easy labor, but Get Back makes it clear how challenging the creative process can be – especially when the band members are at odds, as they were in 1969 when they recorded what would be their final release, Let It Be. I’m sure for members of the massive Beatles cult, this whole series will be catnip. But if, like me, your fanhood is more casual, it’s still well worth seeing. In fact, parts of it are genuinely moving. And for those of you who think Yoko broke up the band, you may come away with a new villain (I’m looking at you, Paul McCartney).
9. Showtime’s The Kings
The Kings is a great example of how a truly creative filmmaker can upset the expectations of the viewer. One might think a 4-part series on four boxers (Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Duran) in the same weight class during their ’80s heyday would be a straightforward account of their fights in the ring and perhaps their personal struggle outside of it. And sure, all of that is here. What is so unexpected is how series director Mat Whitecross weaves Reagan-era politics, the vicious cycle of poverty among minorities, and other world events into the film’s fabric. In doing so, Whitecross illuminates the stories of four very different men who battled each other in the ring, defined an era within their sport, and were often used as props by their governments. One of my favorite compliments to give a series or a film is that it’s better than it needed to be. Had Whitecross told The Kings in a purely linear fashion, sticking only to the athletes and their accomplishments, he would have no doubt created a rock-solid sports docuseries. But by stretching the series into a more kaleidoscopic vision, he has expanded the medium of a what a sports documentary can be.
8. HBO’s The White Lotus
There was no more awkward, cringe-inducing experience on television this year than The White Lotus. And just to be clear, I mean that as a compliment. Mike White’s take on a group of resort vacationers and the staff who come running to address their every need is an odd mix of comedy, drama, and tragedy. Seldom, if ever, have I seen a show that so greatly illuminates the gap between those who ‘summer’ and those who serve those who ‘summer.’ In a cast full of standouts, Jennifer Coolidge’s boozy, gone-to-seed lady of wealth (who cruelly leaves a hotel worker hanging on the possibility of setting up her own salon) is first among equals. Whether she is hilariously toasting her mother’s ashes on a boat, or crushing the dreams of a would-be business partner, Coolidge never steps wrong in a role that could have been cartoonish had it been played by almost anyone else. Much of that credit goes to White as well. The White Lotus is his vision, and his biting, satirical aim at the careless indifference of the privileged is as true as a master archer’s arrow.
7. HBO’s Succession
You may have heard some grumblings (or even had some yourself) over Succession‘s third season. Sure, the show does repeat itself some, and this season does fall short of the previous two. Still, if this is a slump of some sort, may we all be so lucky to have such glorious swoons. This drama drenched in acidic humor is still nothing like anything else on television. In fact, in the age of Fox News and Donald Trump, it’s entirely possible that no show on television better depicts how wealth, fame, and infamy intertwine. While it may be hard to find a true rooting interest in a family of corporatists who have either abandoned their souls or are in the midst of doing so, Succession is still often wildly entertaining. Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong continue to deliver with aplomb in what will likely be career defining roles for both. Further down the cast, you have the bizarre bromance between Tom and cousin Greg that offers the most consistent comic relief, as well as one of the more comedically toxic takes on male power dynamics. There have been suggestions that Succession may only run for one more season, and I think that makes sense – this show doesn’t have the sort of oxygen that can extend out over a protracted length. Succession is a tight fist of a show, and I think it would be smart if Adam McKay and his team have a clear ending in mind. Because if McKay can stick the landing, he will have a stem-to-stern all-time great show.
6. HBO’s Hacks
Few people on earth hate Las Vegas (too much racket, too many people, too much everything) more than I do, so I had to be all but dragged to watch this show about a slightly over-the-hill comedian squeezing out the sparks of her fame in a residency at a Vegas nightclub. Let all future draggings of me be so successful. Jean Smart’s aging comic who calls in a young writer (the revelatory Hannah Einbinder) to give her jokes some modern zip is a portrait in how people use comedy to hide pain. Smart’s Deborah Vance has all the trappings of wealth: a huge home, sculptures and baubles worth as much as a small island nation, and a group of loyal servants that she probably doesn’t deserve. Even so, as the show’s excellent first season progresses we see signs of Deborah’s possible redemption. In the case of both Smart and Einbinder, they are playing people who often struggle to get out of their own way. The difference is that Smart’s character can afford her mistakes and mistreatments of others, whereas Einbinder’s can’t. It should also be said that Jean Smart’s late career peak is truly something to behold. The 70-year-old Smart’s last three series are Watchmen, Mare of Easttown, and now Hacks – all in the last two years. What a legendary run for someone who was already considered a legend in the field of television.
5. HBO’s Scenes From A Marriage
I was hooked on writer/director Hagai Levi’s version of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage before I even saw a second of it. Two of my very favorite actors in an American version of Bergman’s story which asks the question (as my Awards Daily colleague Joey Moser so brilliantly put in his review of the show) “How does marriage survive marriage?” To my everlasting appreciation, I was not disappointed. From the first moments of episode one where Chastain (as herself) walks onto set, sits in a chair, someone calls action, and Chastain immediately goes into character, Scenes From A Marriage is transfixing. Of course, it’s no easy lift watching two actors unload take after take of emotional (and in one case, physical) violence on each other, but in the hands of Chastain and her A Most Violent Year co-star, Oscar Isaac, every moment is painfully riveting. I’ve read a number of criticisms about how the characters (particularly Chastain’s) are not “likable” – a charge I find maddening. Characters on TV, film, or the stage need to be interesting, not friendly. In the sure hands of Levi, Chastain, and Isaac, these two broken lovers are more than just interesting, they are unforgettable.
4. Amazon’s The Underground Railroad
Has there ever been a less bingeable show than Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad? I didn’t so much watch episode one as barely survive it. Jenkins’ adaptation of the multi-award winning novel by Colson Whitehead that takes an alternative historical view (with a touch of sci-fi) of America’s original sin of slavery is at times almost unendurable. The hanging and burning of ‘Big Anthony’ in episode one goes on for what feels like an eternity, and just when you think it’s about to end, Jenkins masterfully changes the POV of the lynching from the spectator’s perspective to that of Big Anthony’s. It’s excruciating. But then, shouldn’t it be? From there, the show takes us down a winding path of pain and suffering, while also shining light on the dull sickness of white supremacy (most notably through Joel Edgerton’s slave catcher). There were times when I felt that Jenkins’ lush, dream-like imagery wasn’t a perfect match for the show’s content, but over time it won me over. The show’s vision exposes both what one might call “the beauty of America” and the nightmarish hellscape it can be for those not born of pale pallor. Whatever struggles I may have had with the show as they related to tone and watchability, there was not a single second that I did not know I was viewing landmark television.
3. HBO’s Mare of Easttown
As a person who grew up in a small, dingy Midwestern town where everyone knew everyone (sometimes for better, often for worse), it wasn’t hard for me to relate to the characters of Easttown, PA. While the small-town murder mystery depicted in the story is plenty effective, it’s the studies of character that lingered with me most. Kate Winslet’s hard-nosed copper on the case of a young murdered girl is one of her greatest acting achievements, and that’s no small feat. Nursing a less-than-secret tragedy (for there are few kept secrets in small towns), Winslet’s Mare is an officer who is more talented than she knows, but also more hurt than she is willing to accept. For Mare, the death of this young girl brings even more pain when her best friend (played by the glorious Julianne Nicholson) becomes embroiled in the case and their bond begins to break. There may have been no better single scene of exhaustion, heartache, and misery this year than when Nicholson crumples to her kitchen floor in front of Winslet near the end of the final episode. There may have also been no more hopeful, or hard-won, happy(ish) ending of any series as when Mare ascends to her attic to face down her ghosts.
2. Netflix’s Maid
For all the world, Maid should have been a depressing-ass show. An unwed mother living in a trailer escapes an abusive boyfriend in the middle of the night and works as housecleaner for a company with one of the most hard-bitten bosses in recent TV history, and also endures the many humiliations of the welfare and child custody systems. Sounds like a good time, right? Actually, kinda yeah. That’s not to say that the show isn’t full of trauma, but thanks to the industriousness of its title character, Alex (played in a breakout performance by Margaret Qualley), Maid is also hopeful, though-provoking, and surprisingly funny. Every character (including Alex) has merits and demerits. Even the abusive boyfriend has reasons for being a heel, and at times, you can see the person he’d like to be, but just can’t. Even better (or maybe even best) is Anika Noni Rose’s Regina – an incredibly wealthy and accomplished woman who first looks down on Alex, but once she reveals her own pain to her housecleaner, finds not just an uneasy truce with her maid, but an unusual friendship. Maid is the kind of show where you think you know what you are going to get, but, once invested, you find there is so much more to it than you could have possibly expected. Every scene in each of its ten episodes reveals layers of character, and just when you think you have someone pegged, you find out they are more complicated than they appear. I guess in that way, Maid is a lot like life.
1. PBS’s Muhammad Ali
It must have seemed like a foolhardy task, even for a documentarian as esteemed as Ken Burns. How does one cover the cradle to grave life of Muhammad Ali and not just end up repeating a bunch of facts everyone has heard before? Ali led one of the most public and well-documented lives in the history of our country, if not the world. So, how would Burns (working with daughter Sarah as his co-director) find a fresh take on this most notable of human beings? In full disclosure, while I was excited about the series (I consider myself something of a Ali-ologist), I was unsure that Burns could transcend the medium on this particular subject. Like many, I have long admired Burns’ work. His facility for assembly of facts, images, and sound knows few (if any) equal. I never had any doubt that the series would be well made. What I was not prepared for was its dynamism. Aside from finding new angles on familiar themes (Ali in the Olympics, the big fights, the battle with the US government over Vietnam), Burns is working with a new level of brio here. At no point does he let his meticulous nature get in the way of the show’s movement and energy. During the finale of episode one (which is positively electric), Burns drops a needle on Beyonce’s ‘Freedom’, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t nearly levitate out of my seat. The final two episodes of the series are more painful and elegiac (as one might expect when covering Ali’s sad end to his boxing career and subsequent battle with Parkinson’s), but never once does this series lag or feel rote. That’s a hell of an accomplishment when telling a story that many of us think we already know. And to be clear, Burns’ Muhammad Ali is no simplistic, inspirational tale. Sure, there’s plenty of reasons to be moved by the life of this one-of-a-kind American, but Burns never descends into hagiography. Ali’s poor treatment of his spouses and his racially charged rhetoric against his fellow African-American opponents (especially Joe Frazier) is on full display here. In going so deep, Burns has created the definitive document of one of the most fascinating people in the history of history. What’s amazing is that, with all the additional nuances and details Burns has uncovered in the telling of this series, one can see an endless wellspring of possibilities still available to those who might want to take their own stab at detailing the life and times of Ali. That being said, we now know where the bar is. Ken Burns has set it, and it’s fucking high.