My top 2021 TV scene has a writer getting a ride from a blackjack dealer in a Rolls Royce. As the writer, Ava — cancelled for a tweet and coerced to work for a weird old comedian, while her enemies make Marvel movies — begins to rant about emotional abuse, the dealer, Kiki, cuts her off. A Selena Gomez song is playing and Kiki has to sing to the chorus whenever it comes along. She does. Then she gives Ava perspective, with a killer metaphor about glitter and quality, and plays the song again.
“This is a playlist? Then why did I have to stop talking?” “Honey,” explains Kiki, “When you’re on shuffle, any song can play at any moment and it is through that randomness that you can totally receive meaning.” And so they sing along.
Welcome to Hacks. Created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W Downs and Jen Statsky, the show is about Ava (Hannah Einbinder) struggling to comprehend or keep up with standup veteran Deborah Vance, played by the great Jean Smart in a magnificent role that truly does her justice. As a comedian who might have changed the world but had to settle for laughing at herself, Smart delivers the best performance on TV this year — by miles. You’ve loved her on Frasier, on Fargo, on Watchmen and on Mare Of Easttown, but this is where Smart burns brightest. It’s a privilege to watch her.
The dialogues dance, and the asides — like the aside within the aside in the scene above — are a thing of beauty. Acerbic, nonchalantly knowledgable and rich with observations on life and comedy (which may not be different things) Hacks is an HBO Max show, which means it is not telecast on any Indian streaming networks.
It shares this with Starstruck, a BBC comedy created by and starring New Zealand comic Rose Matafeo, an uproarious — and relentlessly sarcastic — Notting Hill update about an awkward girl annoyed by her tryst with a movie star. Jessie is exasperated by Tom Kapoor’s fame, forever upending starry-eyed expectations. Plus, how cool is the idea of a billboard-conquering hero named Tom Kapoor?
Another BBC win, Staged is a lockdown series built around video-call conversations between actors (and Good Omens co-stars) Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Attempting to rehearse a play, they talk each other off metaphorical ledges during a period of all too relatable instability. The oneupmanship is grand, and the show is unafraid to swerve in surprisingly touching directions. Season 2 knocked me out.
The fiestiest punches this year have been thrown by We Are Lady Parts, a Channel 4 series by Nida Manzoor about an all-girl Muslim punk rock band. Not many shows top both Fierce and Feel-Good lists, but these ragtag Londoners turn it up to eleven. They rebel, they blush, they laugh together, and when it comes to breaking ground in terms of representation, these young ladies blow the bloody doors off.
A daft accompaniment can be found in the Peacock series Girls5Eva, a Tina Fey produced sitcom about a girl-group who enjoyed a couple of hits decades ago and have now reunited to recapture their glory day. The show slyly shines a light on lyrics we unthinkingly sang along with not that long ago. The jokes come at quickfire 30 Rock pace, and Hamilton heroine Renée Elise Goldsberry sparkles as a diva with a piano as invisible as her modesty.
My top fiction series last year was Hulu’s The Great, a spectacular reimagining of the life of Catherine The Great, somehow balancing punk irreverence with symphonic finesse. Also on Hulu are Brockmire, a fascinating comedy about a baseball commentator and the love of sport, and High Fidelity, a series so in love with music that it surpasses the novel and movie adaptation that came before it.
None of these shows stream in India.
When Game Of Thrones first came to Hotstar years ago, we in India were finally invited to the water-cooler conversation. To watch the show du jour alongside the rest of the world, to gasp and conspire and speculate in unison. Breaking Bad on Netflix gave us the adventures of Walt and Jesse in realtime, and, since then, thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar, we have felt looped in.
Now, a significant pop-cultural chasm is opening up.
With individual players and producers pulling up their own chairs at the streaming banquet, it is hard for audiences — especially those farther away — to keep up. HBO shows stream on Disney+ Hotstar in India, which is a sensational deal, but HBO Max is yet to launch in India, leaving us out in the cold when it comes to current exclusives like The Flight Attendant and Search Party.
I was chilled by the very last frame of the trailer of HBO’s Succession, returning for a much anticipated third season after a year off. The best TV show in its first and second year, the dark morality saga about the hideous family members owning a media conglomerate will indeed return this fall, but the purple HBO Max logo dings at the end. What if… what if we are kept away from Succession?
Gasp. No Succession. No Atlanta. No Harley Quinn. The very best of television may be passing us by, and this feels unacceptable because we are now used to being a part of the cultural conversation, of drinking from the same well of memes, of dropping the same references.
We have to find ways around. It is not illegal to use a VPN service, and neither is it wrong to pay for an international streaming service using a VPN. That is the right way to seek out stories outside our libraries that we want to watch.
The water-cooler must stay the same. TV culture now is about immediacy, leaving little point in catching up later. May these networks come to India, or may our existing platforms bid to acquire these shows. What can we, hungry viewers eager to remain a part of the conversation, do? Without more direct ways forward, we might be forced to hunt for Hacks.
Streaming tip of the week:
Based on books by Treynton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society (Disney+ Hotstar) is a rollicking all-ages adventure, with Tony Hale playing the frequently fainting leader of a secret society. Solid family fun.