Like Sean and John, I spent a decent amount of last year watching older shows, though I think I was less successful. I started out watching The West Wing before losing interest around the time that Rob Lowe (and slightly before Aaron Sorkin) left the show, while I also tried to slog through watching the later seasons of Friends, which I also gave up on. Those projects kept me a bit from staying on top of new TV, though I feel better about this list than I thought I would. I didn’t even have to marathon a season of a show in the week leading up to making this list, which is often the case. Still, there are some big shows I wish I’d caught up with, the most notable being Succession, Squid Game, and the final season of Insecure. But regardless, here’s what I did watch…
A show that weirdly was very well-received by critics, but I feel like anytime I talked to anyone else about this show, they agreed that it’s “pretty good, but not amazing”. Maybe there’s just something a little off about old-ass comedians like Steve Martin and Martin Short trying to make something that taps into the zeitgeist a bit, with its riffing on the recent phenomena of true crime podcasts. Still, there is a pretty decent chemistry between them and Selena Gomez that propels the show even if it never completely takes flight. Also, even though I pretty much tuned out of true crime podcasts after the first season of Serial, I do appreciate the series’s affection for this very specific pop culture obsession while weaving a mystery itself worthy of the genre.
There isn’t a ton to this series, other than filmed conversations between Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz talking about random topics interspersed with Lebowitz walking around New York City. But it’s still a god damn delight. As someone who hadn’t had a ton of experience with Lebowitz (probably due to her decades-long writer’s block) she’s absolutely the most entertaining kind of crank to listen to. Her witty observations are made even more enjoyable by the infectious laughs that explode out of Marty off-screen. It’s incredibly one-note, but I would’ve gladly watched hours of that one note.
As Sean mentioned, making this story relatable was quite the task when it’s about a successful boomer comedian and a formerly successful zoomer comedy writer who seem equally out of touch with their own talents. Yet Hacks manages to be very observant in this very specific space and despite how prickly these characters are, I found myself becoming more and more attached to them as this first season progressed and left me excited for another one. Let the Jean Smart-aissance continue I say.
All I can say is, this world is fucking so fucked up, and I Think You Should Leave once again skewers it perfectly.
Ok, so this is the one show that I sort of crammed in at the end of the year, but considering there weren’t a ton of episodes, I was still able to somewhat take my time with it. I wasn’t entirely sold on this show about the hijinks of Native delinquents in an unimpressive street-gang in the first few episodes, since it seemed a little too enamored with the sassiness of these characters’ foul-mouthed quips. But as the season went on, the way it focuses more on their individual lives growing up on an Oklahoma Reservation, I found myself more and more charmed by it. It manages to evoke this great balance of depicting the bittersweet relationship between the teens and their elders, while also embodying the irreverent humor present in the best work of producer Taika Watiti.
I’m glad Peter Jackson got to really stretch out with the length of the series, since I remember when it was originally intended to be a theatrical film, which I’m not sure would’ve separated it from the original Let It Be film enough. Instead, what we get is a wonderful fly-on-the-wall look at The Beatles that feels like an invaluable piece of history as the two remaining Beatles get into their twilight years as the same happens to the generation they defined. There’s a lot of great moments (and some frustrating ones) watching these lads pull it together, but the rooftop concert still remains the thrilling high point. With this extended time of seeing them look completely aimless, the fact that they could absolutely rock it when they, to quote Paul “had their backs against the wall”, is still one of the great moments in a career stacked with them.
Having settled into living in Philadelphia the past couple years, I’ve grown accustomed to some of the region’s quirks, which of course made watching Mare of Easttown all the more enjoyable. Months later, I’m still not entirely sure whether Kate Winslet captured the Delaware County accent tastefully or if it just sounded ludicrously over-the-top every time she said the word “home” more like “hay-ome”. Either way, this is a show very much about community, and that informs both its connections to the types of working-class characters that inhabit this exurban Pennsylvania community, while Mare increasingly fails them by becoming the type of anti-hero cop we’re used to seeing on TV. The murder mystery aspect of the show definitely hooked me, as I found myself looking forward to each episode with anticipation. While the final reveal wasn’t mind-blowing, it was still quite satisfying, and that’s all I was really asking for.
A show that made all three of our lists for the second year in a row, so there’s not much new for me to say about it. Nadia and Nandor heading the Vampiric Council is fun, while the whole journey that Colin Robinson goes on at the end of the season is something else. Just a consistently hilarious show that continues to explore what you can do with a decidedly supernatural slant to the hang-out comedy.
The best show of 2021 that I really couldn’t recommend to anyone. Because as great as this TV adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is, it is very much a series about slavery, often in a way that is unrelenting. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at Joel Edgerton the same way again after him seeing play a villain who is very much familiar in regards to the type of slavery-upholding white men that domineer slavery fiction. However, the show still goes out of its way to give plenty of nuance and backstory to the character, even if you can’t ever quite understand him. As rough as the material is, Barry Jenkins reaffirms himself as one of our great visual stylists by giving the series a kind of beauty and whimsy that makes its harrowing aspects even more powerful.
I know this was my favorite show of 2020 as well, but this docuseries that defies explanation continues to be a perfect little slice of absurd humanity. I found myself incredibly excited to watch each new episode, as much like the first season become an essential relic of the pre-pandemic era, this season felt just as essential in its search for John Wilson’s connections with humanity. New York remains fascinatingly bizarre in the series’ vision of it, and I’m not sure I’ll ever visit NYC again without thinking of this show and its ability to capture the weird shit people are doing on every block. I also like the way How To weaves in Wilson’s own past, with him examining both an embarrassing amateur movie he made and his association with a cult in this season. Yes, you could argue that the show’s rhythms do occasionally become a little familiar, but considering how short and consistent this season was, I’m already looking forward to rewatching it.