Video killed the radio star. Then Spotify committee musical genocide. In the same fashion, the nuclear growth spurt in streaming platforms means TV is now murdering cinema. The influx of shows that clearly would have been movies before the Great Netflix-ening, complete with A-list stars, has resulted in a glut of long-format goodness. And a few messy questions…
For example, what the hell is Bo Burnham’s Inside? Not, like, his intestines. Is his 90-minute Netflix special a TV show? A movie? A glorified music video? I can’t justify categorizing it on either my top 10 films or TV list, yet it was the piece of entertainment I consumed most this year. My Spotify year-in-review preemptively took out a restraining order on Bo’s behalf against me, having calculated how much I listened to the soundtrack to the movie/show/music video.
The point is, a lot of very, very good stuff happened to our home entertainment systems this year, even if a lot of very, very bad stuff happened to everything else! Beyond Bo, weird things that didn’t make my annual top 10 list but very much could have include In & Of Itself (Hulu), which is the sort of up-its-own-ass, self-indulgent performance art I absolutely cherish at times. TV shows that almost made the cut include the double-dose of buzzy Marvel madness, Wandavision and Loki. The second season of Love Life was as inexplicably enthralling as the first and more satisfying in terms of the diversity and depth of character. This season Succession finally became, for me, the mean-spirited satire so many others had told me it was.
As the honorable mentions show, this top 10 is as good a set of entertainment as I’ve ever compiled. No less than five shows would have been number one in any other year. How thankful we should be, during a time when staying home is the only surefire way to neither kill nor be killed. Here’s what floated my boat while coach surfing in 2021:
10 – Invincible (Amazon Prime)
The most literal adaptation of a comic book in recent memory, this violent animated delight had more than just a violent end. Featuring a bonkers top-tier voice cast, the show is basically “What if Spider-Man had Superman’s powers and some intergalactic daddy problems?” A perfect example of something that works as a cartoon but would be either derivative or gross as live-action, it’s all-too-rare American adult animated fare.
9 – Feel Good (Netflix)
Comedian Mae Martin’s Feel Good is a devastating “semi-autobiographical” romantic dramedy that tackles the challenges of confronting evolving sexuality as well as addiction and sexual assault. You know, all those hilarious subjects… At times, the show is hilarious, with Martin’s Tig Notaro-ish deadpan doing a lot of heavy lifting. But mostly, it just feels authentic in a way that few entries in “relationship fiction” ever do.
8 – The Expanse (Amazon Prime)
I don’t know if this is on the list for the back half of the previous season, which crossed into early 2021, or the first half of its final season, which just began airing. All I know is that, by God, I will put The Expanse on every list I legally can. The first few seasons of punch-drunk sci-fi bled into quality political science-fiction centered around some of the best TV characters to ever inhabit the genre. Long after the show wraps, I’ll remember Drummer, Amos, and the Rocinante herself. If you ever even flirted with Battlestar Galactica, prepare to make out with The Expanse.
7 – Hacks (HBO Max)
Jean Smart simply does not get the respect and admiration she should. She was too good for us on Designing Women, we simply do not deserve her in Hacks. Her aging comedian, Deborah Vance, is paired with a newbie writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), and the result is somehow more than the “Odd Couple with ovaries” premise suggests. Not for nothing, at a time when the generational divide seems more cavernous than ever, watching these women quip their way to a bridge across that gap feels like Bengay on newly arthritic knees.
6 – Foundation (Apple+ TV)
Ugh, I am so in the tank for this glorious, gorgeous, overwrought, messy show. Jumping and skipping across the thousands and thousands of pages in Isaac Asimov’s beloved novels, it isn’t quite as smart as it thinks it is, but that somehow works. Chronicling the death and rebirth of humanity’s future, it has Lee Pace playing a cloned intergalactic emperor, a far cry from the piemaker who stole our hearts in Pushing Daisies. I want to say now, the chances of this clearly quite expensive epic being renewed long enough to complete the story is on par with the odds for joint legislation from AOC and Ted Cruz. We must enjoy as much as we get for as long as we get it.
5 – Midnight Mass (Netflix)
Alright folks, now we’re in this shit. While watching Mike Flanagan’s latest series, I thought “This is going to be the best show I watch this year.” It’s not even in the top 3? Midnight Mass attempts to reconcile the differences between faiths in a way that moves beyond “tolerance.” It directly speculates on what happens when we die and sets forth a secularly compelling description of God. Most importantly, it sorta casually argues that those who blindly follow religious devotion into actions that harm others are no less guilty than those who knowingly use religion to do bad things. Meaningful, difficult, ugly repentance is the only way out. Oh, and there’s lots of blood and carnage and various scary sundries, if such things bump your goose. It is a patient, wordy, atmospheric horror parable. It’s the sort of thing an enlightened Stephen King would write if he wasn’t obsessed with gross things happening to children and alcoholic writers. It may not be overly scary in the expected sense, but the implications are as chilling as any “boo” that has ever been booed.
4 – Pen15 (Hulu)
Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine may have made the most realistic-yet-funny coming-of-age entertainment of all time. Do you realize how many people have tried to do that? I’m pretty sure “reminiscing about awkwardly growing up” represents something like 90% of the Western narrative canon. Konkle and Erskine’s inspired decision to play themselves as late-middle-schoolers is a hilarious gimmick. But the depth of this show cuts so far beyond that. A comedic meditation on divorce and parental apologia, an authentic (but responsible) acknowledgment of adolescent sexuality, and a sporadic somberness that isn’t self-indulgent make this a flawless, perfectly executed short-run show.
3 – Ted Lasso (Apple+ TV)
I wrote a whole big thing about my mustachioed savior earlier this year. If you’re not onboard with the premise of Jason Sudekis as an aw-shucks-ing Midwesterner coaching an English Premier League soccer team, none of the amorous gushing that follows is likely to sway you. However, if you can see your way to at least trying the show, you’re going to find a powerful blend of optimism and hope that isn’t reliant on false premises. That is to say, we live in an awful, stressful, mean-spirited shithole right now. Seeing through that to something better isn’t about ignoring the reality in front of us. It’s about being willing to do the emotional work necessary to become a better person and reap the rewards of a potential future that’s worth all the pain. It’s also pretty GD funny, and Roy Kent is my everything.
2 – Reservation Dogs (Hulu)
Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi have done something truly remarkable with this honest look at Native American youth. Silly until it is stone-cold serious, grounded in tiny tangible truths until it goes hallucinatory, this is somewhere between Atlanta and, well, Pen15. You’d have to go pretty far down on the list of travesties visited upon this land’s indigenous residents before you get to “not allowed sufficient space to be funny.” Still, the show is a hell of a reminder about the comedy and art that the world has been deprived of due to our collective unwillingness to acknowledge this still-vibrant, still-casually-oppressed community. It also has inarguably the best young cast from top to bottom on television and a phenomenal soundtrack. Again, any other year, this is the best TV by a flawed country mile.
1 – Station Eleven (HBO Max)
When I first read Emily St. John Mandel’s book, I was going through inarguably the lowest point of my life. Now, HBO delivers an adaptation of it at arguably one of the lowest points in collective humanity. Why you gotta hurt like this, Station Eleven? I fully realize that not everyone is in a place to watch an emotionally dense look at the aftermath of an extinction-level pandemic. However, if you’re so inclined, please know that this isn’t fixated on our shared shittiness and selfishness, like so much dystopian fiction. In fact, it’s entirely about the opposite. It’s about how to find meaning again in a world that has lost it. It’s about why and how we can and should rebuild connections to one another, how they are the only things that make life worth surviving. It’s about what we will leave behind but equally about what we must build up. Poignant without posturing, poetic with targeted purpose, the show guts me with every hour that passes. I gladly offer myself up for carving every time. Just as the novel found me when I needed it, so too is my soul thankful for the mirror and window that is this very, very special show.