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The top 10 shows of 2021

From the continued brilliance of Succession to the shocking novelty of Squid Game, these were the best shows of 2021 

A still from ‘The White Lotus’
A still from ‘The White Lotus’

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It has been a stunning year for serialised storytelling. Before my self-flagellatingly selected top 10, I will mention three Indian shows that deserve a hand, and eight shows that almost made the 10. Here are the 21 shows of 2021:

Raj & DKs The Family Man (Amazon Prime) redefined action filmmaking in India, director Ajitpal Singh set a new standard for craft and finesse with Tabbar (Sony Liv), and Gullak (Sony Liv) gently grew from a folksy family comedy to an emotionally wrenching one. The goalposts have moved.

Special mentions:

Master Of None: Moments In Love (Netflix) intimately observed an affluent black lesbian couple on a farm. Shot stunningly, this is a better Ingmar Bergman cover than the new Scenes From A Marriage. Mixté (Amazon Prime) is a lovely French series about schoolgirls and schoolboys, enchanting in the way Wonder Years once was. The all-girl Pakistani punk band of We Are Lady Parts is loud, authentic and naive, and deserves much love. The Chair (Netflix) brings us Sandra Oh at her best in a snarky, literate comedy which affectionately mocks academia. WandaVision (Disney+ Hotstar) romps through the history of American sitcoms and delivers the most heartbreaking line of the year, all before a noisy climax. With Omar Sy, Lupin (Netflix) gives us a suave hero so damned charming that plausibility can be ignored. Rose Matafeo’s Starstruck is a scrumptious Notting Hill update, the kind of romantic comedy we wish the movies would make. Girls5Eva has the best puns on TV.

10. What We Do In The Shadows

The vampire’s code, we are told, is merely this: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Lack of boundaries isn’t always grand. Created by Jemaine Clement, this sharp-toothed mockumentary has always piled the laughs on mercilessly — with intricate and vulgar pomp — but in its third season, its immortal protagonists began to feel consequences. Death, birth, escape, ennui. Wooden stakes aren’t the only ones any more. 

I wrote about it here

 (Disney+ Hotstar)

9. Only Murders In The Building 

Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez star in this bouncy riff on Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, playing true-crime podcast fans who suspect neighbours and concoct elaborate motives. With co-creator Martin stepping back to let Short and Gomez shine most sarcastic, the unlikely trio snaps and crackles. There’s a great guest role from Sting — and, in the season finale, a perfect joke about his most romantic song. Self-awareness keeps Only Murders going. “That’ll make a great last line to an episode” really does make a great last line to an episode.

I wrote about it here

(Disney+ Hotstar)

8. Hacks

In this series created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W Downs and Jen Statsky, Jean Smart delivers the performance of the year. She plays Deborah Vance, a once-groundbreaking comedian who cashed in, deciding that laughing at herself was easier than taking on the world. Now forced out of her comfort zone — and her Vegas residency — Vance is confronted, and challenged, by the prospect of baring herself on stage. A brilliantly written series with fantastic female characters, Hacks makes us read between the punchlines.

I wrote about it here

7. The Great

Huzzah! Created by Tony McNamara, The Great is a defiantly inaccurate and anachronistic take on the legend of Catherine The Great. Elle Fanning is spectacular as the idealistic Empress of Russia, and in the second season, somehow she and Nicholas Hoult (playing her hapless yet ruthless husband) turn this tale of skullduggery and palace intrigue into a maddeningly tender romance. We fall for it even when we know we mustn’t. Off with our heads.

6. Curb Your Enthusiasm 

My loudest laugh of the year came when a lady asked Leon whether he liked Little Women. “Love ‘em,” exclaims Leon, passionately launching into a highly specific preference for vertically-challenged lovers. It is a brilliant, rude moment, timed immaculately by the actor JB Smoove, perfectly true to his ever-inappropriate character. In its 11th season, Larry David’s mostly improvised comedy delivers knockout hilarity as well as genuine political provocation—all while dealing with Larry getting older. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.

I wrote about the best episode here

(Disney+ Hotstar)

5. Squid Game 

Can there be such a thing as a universally irresistible show? Yes, it turns out. Written and directed by Hwand Dong-Hyuk, Squid Game conquered the world immediately and unexpectedly, and its attractions are easy to spot: The reality-series narrative hook. The stunning aesthetic. The rich-versus-poor theme. The characters. It’s strange yet familiar, bloodsport punctuated with moments of beauty and heart. After all is played and won, there is an accusation against all of us watching. (Which only makes us watch even more hungrily.)

I wrote about it here


4. Reservation Dogs 

“Sko.” I was flummoxed when I first heard the Indigenous teenage protagonists in Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s comedy say it, but I’m convinced the rest of us have been saying “Let’s go” wrong, that these lovely, laconic youths have skipped syllables with the grace of skipping a pebble over a pond. The first-ever series by Native American writers, directors and actors, Reservation Dogs thrums with originality, introducing us to a new world where myths live in the margins and kids have posters about loving America before it was called America. Sko!

(Disney+ Hotstar)

3. The White Lotus 

Resorts will never feel the same. Mike White’s dramedy about the ubiquity of white privilege snuck up on us this summer. It started out innocently enough —  a pleasant, pretty series about pretty, unpleasant people — and then, as with a hotel bedsheet under a black-light, more troubling truths emerged. Managed by a modern Basil Fawlty and peopled by honeymooners, hypocrites and heavy readers, this unforgettable fictional resort may ensure you and I act more considerate toward masseuses next time. At the very least, we’ll tip better — and check our suitcases before we leave. 

I wrote about it here

(Disney+ Hotstar)

2. Succession

Right between the eyes. Earlier this year, I called the Roy family the Lannisters of the boardroom, and not since the Red Wedding from Game Of Thrones have audiences felt that collective global gasp, that beautiful feeling of being sucker-punched by a show and not seeing it coming. The most thrilling drama on television accomplished it not with swords or dragons, but with an accidentally texted dick-pic. Most of us (wrongly) assumed Jesse Armstrong’s Succession was spinning its wheels in its third season, the characters forever rubber-banding into a sitcom-like status quo, but with characters this well-etched and an ensemble this talented, that only made us obsess about everything: reaction shots, sighs, throwaway lines. And what lines they are. The truth about the sitcom parallel is that Succession may be the only drama you can catch casual reruns of the way you’d rewatch a Seinfeld episode. It’s sickeningly good.

I wrote about it here.

(Disney+ Hotstar)

1. Landscapers

The idea of ‘truth’ takes a beating in this dazzlingly cinematic and inventive true-crime adaptation written by Ed Sinclair and directed by Will Sharpe. Olivia Colman and David Thewlis play a devoted married couple — “I’d eat a croissant out of the bin for you,” she insists — who may have committed a macabre crime, yet remain resolutely, disarmingly polite. Colman and Thewlis provide a masterclass in minimalist performance as they shuffle through this haunting series, with Gary Cooper and Gerard Depardieu lingering absurdly around the edges of their fascinating, fractally recounted story. Visually, there is an exaggerated tilt-shift effect throughout, as if wax were applied to the top and bottom of the lens — almost to a bifocal degree. Memory is a blurry projector. Thank god for the movies.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.


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