It’s been a compelling year for television. Too many English-language shows flirted with greatness—Atlanta, Irma Vep, Better Call Saul, Andor, Euphoria, The Staircase, The Dropout—to list adequately. Yet instead of a Top 21 or Top 22, I went more hardcore: these 5 shows took giant risks, experimented with form, gave us characters to love and loathe, and showed off genuine audacity—even when serving up fast food. These are the shows we will remember and the ones we will learn from.
5. What We Do in the Shadows (Disney+ Hotstar)
Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch and Thomas Mars sit at a vampire nightclub, clamouring for bloody entertainment. The vampires obligingly—and spectacularly—rip off Coppola’s head, leaving a blood-splattered Jarmusch particularly awestruck. Not knowing that the Lost In Translation director has actually been slaughtered, Jarmusch marvels at the hyperrealistic production values. “I could never afford a gag like this,” Jarmusch, the director of Only Lovers Left Alive, gushes, “That’s amazing.”
Created by Jemaine Clement, this fourth-wall breaking vampire comedy is one of television’s tastiest shows, with glorious production design: vampire-lore depicted in the style of Renaissance-era paintings and vintage woodcuts. In this fourth season, the visual effects were amplified and it looked, as Jarmusch said, amazing. Demons, djinns, fairies and valkyries jostled for attention in this imaginative, fearless series that is as bawdy as it is witty.
This was also the year the series—and its immortal protagonists—started feeling achingly human. (Or maybe we just didn’t notice when we got bitten.)
4. The Bear (Disney+ Hotstar)
Beef is sliced. Orders are barked. Cousins are stabbed. A kitchen can be alarmingly fast-paced and The Bear, created and directed by Christopher Storer, is a stirring reminder to take a breath between courses. In a superstar-making turn, Jeremy Allen White plays Carmy, a high-end chef forced to slum it in an undistinguished Italian beef sandwich shop in Chicago. As he tries to impose a French Brigade system on an unwilling staff, we get to know Carmy and his sweaty, impassioned colleagues and cheer for them as they find meaning and motivation in meat and sauce.
More than an underdog story or a workplace drama, The Bear is an excellent show about managing people. The writing is good, the cast even better, but the relentless pace of this wonderfully (and showily) directed show really sets it apart. When The Bear does pause, it stares longingly at food. One character can’t get over colours he discovers in gourmet cookbooks. The Bear is all appetite. Much like a great sandwich, this is a work of art.
3. The Rehearsal (Disney+ Hotstar)
The “easiest” way for me to describe comedian Nathan Fielder’s breakout hit, Nathan For You, while evangelising it to friends, was to call it “Borat with a Business Degree”. His new hit is even harder to sum up: Fielder—the most gratingly earnest of hosts—enables people to “rehearse” a challenging situation in their lives.
This leads to an outrageously over-budgeted and meticulous recreation of the real world: For a man intending to confess something difficult to a fellow quizzer at a bar, not only is there a painstaking recreation of the bar on a set, but an actor doppelgänger of the friend is hired (who meets the friend to find out more about her), and answers to the quiz are obtained—and incepted—so that Fielder’s subject is not distracted by the questions.
There’s nothing else like it. Yet this—a prank show that tries misguidedly to “help” rather than startle—is merely episode 1. As The Rehearsal goes on, recreating scenarios and characters with an obsessiveness reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, the show becomes about parenthood and priorities, religion and role-play. he line between scripted and unscripted entertainment is blurred continually, Fielder satirising both television and its audience while he displays abject cluelessness—entirely, and impressively, without irony.
The Rehearsal is ultimately a critique of the outsider gaze, where Fielder casts himself as the man who knows too little. He’s the whitest saviour.
2. Bad Sisters (Apple TV+)
Lord bless sisters who talk a lot. The Garvey girls are five outspoken and distinctive Irish siblings who watch out for each other without mincing their cusswords. They argue, they support, they judge, they point fingers, they stand by each other. This is a sisterhood, and when one man crosses their path—wronging one wrongs them all—he faces their unpredictable Irish ire.
The cast is great, even—or perhaps particularly?—the man, played by Claes Bang, a villain who sports an ungentlemanly erection even in his coffin. We know he gets his comeuppance but What killed him? Who did it mattered less with each episode because everyone—every sister, and every one of us hooked to this delicious dark comedy—wanted him dead.
1. Severance (Apple TV+)
Imagine going to an office and leaving an office, and not knowing what happens in between. It feels similar to, yet diametrically opposed to, being blackout drunk—because this is a period where you, it appears, did a job and were paid for it. Given the fluorescent tubelit aesthetic of this phenomenal show, dare we call it whiteout drunk?
Severance, created by Dan Erickson and directed mostly by Ben Stiller, is a savage satire about work-life balance, a mystery that asks discomfiting questions, a fascinating take on the disconnectedness of the modern workplace. It feels like Black Mirror by way of Stanley Kubrick, and as we walk down the labyrinthine hallways, every answer yields further questions. (And sometimes goats.)
Severance may well be about those of us who go through the motions without asking questions. Ask, ask, ask. It’s the questions that can turn us from a sprocket in the machine to a spanner in the works.
Streaming Tip Of The Week
Finished The White Lotus and in the mood for more Aubrey Plaza? The actress delivers one of her most nuanced performances in John Patton ford’s dark thriller Emily The Criminal (Bookmyshow Stream).
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.