It’s strange, the things that lodge in our minds for all eternity: advertising jingles, earworms of all the worst songs, memorable headlines – over 20 years on, I still vividly recall this genuine tabloid riff on a Johnny Nash song: “Agassi teary now the pain has gone.”
So, while it’s impossible to know what remnants of 2021 will randomly spring to mind in, say, 2040, I’ll wager that the plinky-plonky piano of “Succession” and the tribal rhythms of the “White Lotus” soundtrack will never be far away. (Useless fact: Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s theme music for “White Lotus” was born of a failed collaboration with Kanye West.)
There have been a surprising number of great shows in 2021 – surprising, that is, given the huge obstacles the coronavirus put in the way of creating content over the months. Still, maybe that enforced break actually benefited creators: Instead of rushing to meet looming deadlines, suddenly writers and showrunners had a little breathing space – provided, that is, COVID itself wasn’t restricting their breathing. And thus a new adage was born this year: When life hands you viruses, make things that go viral.
Yet despite the healthy number of excellent new series in this most unhealthy of times, it was a returning show, “Succession,” that confirmed itself as the greatest drama currently in our lives.
“Drama” doesn’t do the show justice, of course. The story of the Roy family and the Waystar 2 – Tom Wambsgans and Cousin Greg – is only ever a heartbeat away from descending into total farce, as the world’s most venal family look to sell each other down the river while surviving the choppiest of white waters. (And yes, this remains the whitest show on television.)
The show’s writers, led by showrunner Jesse Armstrong, never fail to deliver killer line after killer line, all firmly based on a succession of brilliant characters. True, there is a circular pattern to the story arc, with Jeremy Strong’s Kendall Roy very much the Hokey Pokey man of the family empire (in, out, shake him all about). But that’s fine by me – just call it the circle of corporate strife.
Anyone wondering why “Succession” has become such a huge hit now, in its third season, should remember that the show was away from our screens for some two years. This, I think, gave viewers time to catch up and finally accept the monstrous Roys into their lives, perhaps even returning to the show after blanching at the vileness of all concerned.
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After all, these are not easy characters to love or even like at first glance. Cousin Greg inadvertently sums up everyone with his memorable line at the end of season 3: “What am I going to do with a soul anyways? Souls are boring.” For sure, these villains are never boring, never driven by the thought “How can I help you?” but its opposite: “How does this help me?”
There’s also a lot to be a said for a series where, despite all of the amorality on show, the action doesn’t revolve a dead body (even if there has been the odd casualty along the way). In an age where our screens are frequently dominated by shows where it’s murder she/he/they wrote, it’s refreshing that the foul deeds in “Succession” take place in boardrooms, Tuscan villas and Long Island mansions, not dark, dank alleyways or remote woodlands.
I’ve already used the “King Learjet” reference in a previous column, but this really is as if some modern-day Shakespeare were adapting Machiavelli’s “The Prince” to 21st-century Manhattan – with added profanities. The day when the news broke that a fourth season had been commissioned was a particularly happy one in my household.
I don’t know about you but my money’s still on Shiv (the wonderful Sarah Snook) to end up on top in this particular game of thrones. After all, who’d bet against someone whose nickname is literally a pointed blade?
Send in the clones
Never mind new series – mazel tov if you’ve managed to keep up with all the new platforms airing content in 2021. Has the word “plus” ever been in greater demand? (Personally, I blame the airlines and their “Economy Plus” concept of making you pay extra for actual legroom.) Disney+, Paramount+, Apple TV+ … I live in hope that somewhere in France, someone is currently plotting a Plus+ in 2022.
There still aren’t enough hours in the day to watch everything – making my “Send in the Clones” science project even more vital – so we should be grateful to the U.S. networks for not even trying to entertain us anymore. OK, maybe that’s not totally fair: I did have a soft spot for the “Lost” wannabe disaster show “La Brea” on NBC, the remake of Brit sitcom “Ghosts” on CBS and the comedy-drama “The Big Leap” on Fox. But in general, we again needed to look to the U.S. cable networks and streaming platforms for gratification.
All of the (relatively) new kids on the block each produced excellent series this year. Hulu may have given us the most purely enjoyable show of the year with its Steve Martin-Martin Short-Selena Gomez comedy “Only Murders in the Building.” Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is probably the finest show Amazon Prime has produced to date. Apple TV+ gave us “The Shrink Next Door,” which was definitely the most Jewish mainstream show of the year, and the second season of the still-marvellous “Ted Lasso.” HBO Max announced its presence with the razor-sharp comedy “Hacks” and the just-dropped drama “Station Eleven.”
And, of course, Netflix released one of the worst-sounding titles of many a year. You may have heard of it.
The success of “Squid Game” is in many ways the perfect representation of that old Danish adage that it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. Much like your average Russian submarine, the Korean thriller was completely off the radar until it dropped on Netflix in mid-September, going on to become the biggest show ever on the streaming platform.
According to its own figures, in just 28 days it clocked up a phenomenal 1.65 billion hours of viewing time – which, spookily enough, is the exact amount of time it feels like when you’re watching an episode of “Emily in Paris.”
For me, there is something strangely comforting in the fact that while a number of incredibly high-profile Netflix shows crashed and burned after just one season – “Cowboy Bebop,” “Jupiter’s Legacy,” “Dad, Stop Embarrassing Me” – this disturbing dystopian drama/cynical violence-fest (delete according to preference; I’ll go with the former) conquered all before it, reportedly making $900 million for Netflix in the process. Expect lots of inferior imitators and tracksuit-clad characters for years to come.
Talking of high-profile Netflix shows canceled after just one season, what to make of Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff’s thriller “Hit & Run”? The Tel Aviv-New York-set series was one of the 10 most-streamed shows in America in August, albeit for only one week, and was dropped despite its storyline clearly hankering after a recommission and with the series garnering generally favorable reviews.
I happened to really enjoy it, but I’m also a sucker for 1970s thrillers and Raz’s fury-filled shtick. Talking of which, I recently patented the term “Hummussolini” to describe all angry, balding, pudgy Israelis.
Still, I can imagine some people tiring of a plot featuring more crazy turns than a Waze gone rogue, but I loved the interplay between Raz’s Doron Kavillio, sorry, Segev Azulay, and his buddy Ron (Gal Toren). And any series that warns of the maniacs speeding along Tel Aviv’s roads is only to be encouraged.
The fate of “Hit & Run” was the big story in an odd year for Israeli television – one that didn’t produce any huge international hits or buying frenzies, but turned out a steady stream of good shows.
Netflix bought and screened the thriller “Blackspace,” but the world didn’t appear ready for a story revolving around a high school shooting (funny that). The Apple TV+ acquisition “Losing Alice” fared better, proving to be a fascinating local take on the femme fatale genre – a femme Meytal, if you will. It was buoyed by excellent performances from Ayelet Zurer and Lihi Kornowski (who will also be seen in David Cronenberg’s upcoming “Crimes of the Future”), and the splendidly cinematic vision of writer-director Sigal Avin.
I enjoyed the Yes drama “Embezzlement” (“Me’ila” in Hebrew), about a banking scandal, but the biggest Israeli show of the year was undoubtedly “Line in the Sand” (“Hashotrim” in Hebrew), which took a familiar theme – cops and the underworld – but set it in an unusual location: the northern coastal city of Nahariya, far from the Tel Aviv elites. Both shows were based on true stories from the aughts, which is an interesting new development in Israeli television.
A second season of “Line in the Sand” has already been green-lighted, and it’s crying out for a U.S. remake à la “Your Honor” (whose U.S. remake, starring Bryan Cranston, has been commissioned for a second season on Showtime).
Talking of remakes: A British version of “Fauda” is reportedly set to go into production in 2022 – which, if nothing else, will provide competition for season 4 of the original, which is now shooting and will apparently involve a plot featuring Hezbollah. Which is a shame, because I was really hoping Doron would be forced to go undercover as a lecturer at UCLA and infiltrate a group of BDS supporters writing mean things about Israel on Twitter.
11 must-watch shows from 2021
1. ‘The White Lotus’ (HBO)
A memorable mix of white privilege, black comedy and cautionary tale about why you should never leave your luggage unattended.
2. ‘Dopesick’ (Hulu)
Why aren’t more people talking about this powerful show dramatizing the OxyContin and Sacklers scandal, featuring brilliant performances from Michael Keaton, Kaitlyn Dever and many others?
3. ‘Mare of Easttown’ (HBO)
This gripping, surprisingly moving Kate Winslet murder-mystery show did the impossible and made Pennsylvania buzzy.
4. ‘Only Murders in the Building’ (Hulu)
Ten episodes of sheer bliss, topped off by genius touches like the casting of Jane Lynch as Steve Martin’s stunt double.
5. ‘The Underground Railroad’ (Amazon Prime)
This searing slave drama by Barry Jenkins provided some of the most unforgettable imagery of the year and a nightmarish vision of the antebellum South.
6. ‘Yellowjackets’ (Showtime)
A creepy, atmospheric thriller in which the modern-day drama is just as compelling as its plane-crash-survivors’ tale set in the mid-1990s.
7. ‘Losing Alice’ (Apple TV+)
Along with ‘Tehran,’ one of two Israeli hits on the Apple platform – but at least this one lets you forget your everyday fears of nuclear Armageddon.
8. ‘The Newsreader’ (Australia)
This smart, involving Aussie TV drama whose setting is a 1980s TV news show is perfect for those missing much-loved British series “The Hour.”
9. ‘The Chair’ (Netflix)
The show that finally made me appreciate the comic talents of Sandra Oh – and love Jay Duplass even more.
10. ‘It’s a Sin’ (Channel 4)
Russell T. Davies’ drama set during the AIDS pandemic in 1980s Britain is so much more fun than it had any right to be. It is also totally heartbreaking.
11. ‘Hit & Run’ (Netflix)
I probably should have put Netflix rivals ‘Squid Game’ or ‘Maid’ here, but local loyalties clinched it for Lior Raz’s latest attempt to be the Israeli Jason Statham.
12 shows to look out for in 2022
1. ‘Suspicion’ (Apple TV+)
Uma Thurman stars in this remake of the Israeli thriller ‘False Flag.’ (February)
2. ‘Pam & Tommy’ (Hulu)
Sex tape scandal? Nick Offerman and Seth Rogen? The director of ‘I, Tonya’? Sign me up. (February)
3. ‘Inventing Anna’ (Netflix)
Julia Garner stars in Shonda “Grey’s Anatomy” Rhimes’ adaption of the crazy story about “Fake Heiress” Anna Delvey. (February)
4. ‘Conversations with Friends’ (Hulu)
Following its success with “Normal People,” Hulu turns its attention to Sally Rooney’s debut novel, set in the same world of Irish millennials. (TBC)
5. ‘Slow Horses’ (Apple TV+)
I love the Mick Herron novels this series is based on, so hope Gary Oldman is up to the challenge of bringing corpulent spymaster Jackson Lamb to life. (TBC)
6. ‘Pistol’ (FX)
The story of the Sex Pistols, as told through the eyes of guitarist Steve Jones. If you want to feel old, the cast includes the daughter of Jude Law. (TBC)
7. ‘The Missing’ (Peacock)
David E. Kelley adapts Israeli author Dror Mishani’s thriller “The Missing File,” relocating the action from Holon to New York. “Unorthodox” star Jeff Wilbusch stars as detective Avraham Avraham. (TBC)
8. ‘DMZ’ (HBO Max)
Rosario Dawson stars in Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the graphic novel set sometime in the near-future (20 minutes?) when Manhattan becomes a demilitarized zone during a U.S. civil war. (TBC)
9. ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ (Showtime)
This new adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Naomie Harris, and vows to be more uplifting than the 1976 Nicolas Roeg film. (TBC)
10. ‘The White House Plumbers’ (HBO)
On the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, HBO recounts the often-farcical events that led to Richard Nixon’s downfall. Not to be confused with another retelling of the scandal, “Gaslit,” starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn. (TBC)
11. ‘Fleishman is in Trouble’ (FX)
Jesse Eisenberg and Lizzy Caplan are set to star in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s adaptation of her hit 2019 novel, about a newly divorced, 40something schlub. (TBC)
12. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (Amazon Prime)
Along with HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon,” most eyes will be on this adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic. The challenge will be convincing the world we need another trip to Middle-earth after Peter Jackson’s award-winning trilogy. (September)