Friday, December 31, 2021

A Perfect Little Death: The Best of 2021 (part 2)

The countdown continues: my top two dozen shows of 2021, a very good year for television. For #24-#11, click here. Here are my top 10.

But first, my annual disclaimer. As happens every year, there’s an awful lot I didn’t get around to watching in 2021; I wish I had more time. And there were shows that weren’t up my alley, in terms of genre or theme — so I didn’t go near those, or else I sampled one episode and opted out. I watched enough procedurals between 2000 and 2010 to last me a lifetime; it takes a pretty striking whodunnit to get me to tune in. (That said, I will freely admit I started watching — and enjoying — FBI: Most Wanted and FBI: International this past September: the former because of the addition of Alexa Davalos to the cast; the latter because it features, as my husband and I put it, "a schnauzer who solves crime," a premise we wholeheartedly endorse.) I don’t watch most reality shows — especially the singing ones; I make music for a living — I don’t need to be judging vocal talent on my off hours. And on the flip side, there were plenty of popular (and in many cases, acclaimed) shows that I did watch in 2021, but that you'll find missing: Hacks, It's a Sin, The Serpent, Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls, Only Murders in the Building, plus the second seasons of Special, Ted Lasso, A Discovery of Witches and City on a Hill. (I'd hailed the latter three in their debut seasons.) I didn’t dig ‘em — or in some cases, simply didn't care for them enough to include them here — and if you want to hear why, just ask in the comments, and I’ll happily oblige with a tome or two.

And as always, there's a lot about the TV industry — not to mention my own viewing habits — that I’m at a loss to explain. I watched B Positive manage a soft reboot midway through Season 1 and become delightful, then hit a hard reboot at the top of Season 2 and become unrecognizable. I watched Bull’s new showrunners make decisions that seemed reasonable (increase the camaraderie between the core characters, broaden the story arcs so that they yielded longterm repercussions), yet somehow lose the essence of the show — a sad fact reflected in its tumbling ratings. I sat through WandaVision admiring it as an amusing divertissement, then waded through tweets proclaiming it something just shy of the second coming. There were also-rans that I stuck with: Doctor Who, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Vigil — I have no idea why. And I tuned into CSI: Vegas mostly because I could listen to Jorja Fox talk forever. (No one on any Bruckheimer procedural ever had her talent for making forensics sound fascinating; it’s partly that frog in her throat that leaps odd intervals with eerie ease.) I would have loved the new CSI if they hadn’t kept cutting away from Fox to Mandeep Dhillon, whose line readings pretty much amounted to a weekly sleeping draught.

But let’s focus on what I did like in 2021, starting with

10. The White Lotus Season 1 (HBO): Mike White’s latest started off satirizing the self-absorption of the rich and famous, as an ultra-wealthy set of tourists made their way to a Hawaiian resort called The White Lotus. At the top, Connie Britton as Nicole Mossbacher, the CFO of a search engine, and Jake Lacy as Shane Patton, a real estate mogul, seemed the worst of the bunch: neglectful or disdainful of the people who should mean the most to them. They were balanced by two newcomers to the world of privilege — characters, you hoped, might recognize it for what it was and flee: Rachel, Shane’s bride, who spent much of the series figuring out that the man she had just married was an obnoxious bore, and Paula, a tagalong friend of the Mossbacher’s daughter Olivia, who saw her friend’s entitlement and loathed her for it, and even ensnared a young Hawaiian waiter, Kai, in a burglary to stick it to the Mossbachers. But at the end of the day, Rachel decided to stay with Shane, and Paula pledged her fealty to Olivia. The lure of wealth, of prominence, of easy living was too potent. And ironically, the worst of the lot turned out to be the audience favorite: Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya McQuoid, who had come to the island to disperse her mother‘s ashes. Blowsy and unstable, she seemed forever on the verge of tears; when the head of the hotel spa, Belinda, managed to imbue her with a sense of calm, Tanya promised to set her up with a wellness center of her own. Then she snatched that dream away without a second thought. She handed Belinda a wad of cash as compensation, insisting that although Belinda had jumpstarted her life, she didn’t want to enter into another “transactional relationship.“ But in truth, she’d met a man of similar age and means, and that’s exactly what she’d be doing. She couldn’t bring herself to be straight with Belinda; she didn’t have to, because at the end of the day, Belinda was expendable. Natasha Rothwell’s extraordinary presence had allowed the character of Belinda — the sage and soulful Black woman — to momentarily transcend stereotype, but in the series’ final scenes, as she fastened a plastic smile on her face to greet the next group of incoming guests, Belinda was reduced to another of the “interchangeable helpers” that hotel manager Armand had described in the series opener. The people who worked at The White Lotus were invisible to the clientele, except when they needed something from them: the wisdom that Belinda could provide, or the outlet for rage that Armand could provide, or the possibility of escape that Kai could provide. The White Lotus proved as skin deep as the people it was parading, but for a while, it promised something more insightful, posturing that the ultra-wealthy were just as burdened with problems as the rest of us, even if those problems — as presented — were tinged with a comic edge. But its final reel merely amplified what we already knew: white privilege (straight white privilege, to be exact) pretty much negates problems. By the end, it was the African-American spa manager who was screwed over, the gay hotel manager who was killed, and the Hawaiian waiter who was arrested; the guests made out just fine. The White Lotus didn't satirize the rich and famous; it basked in them. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a series so much while fretting about its flaws; there’s no denying that the series — like the resort at which it was set — cast a spell. Despite yourself, you were caught up in the possibility that some of the guests would escape the lure of privilege, but in truth, there wasn’t a well-formed alternative. The show, like the hotel staff, fawned over the wealthy, and with the exception of Belinda and Armand, the folks who weren’t blessed with money were given short shrift. The (mis)treatment of the island natives, in particular, could be seen clearly in the plight of a timid trainee named Lani, who concealed her pregnancy because she didn’t want to lose her job; she went into labor in the middle of episode 1, and was never heard from again. Kai was given a chance to speak to the island’s colonization and to centuries of exploitation, but those topics were reduced to one scene with Paula, in which White seemed to be ticking off boxes, paying lipservice to the indigenous population while setting up the robbery plan that would keep his plot in motion. I’m unconvinced White understood the limitations of his own vision, but in the end, that only served to give the series a deeper, sadder subtext.

9. Debris (NBC): Philip and I decided we weren’t going to binge anything in 2021. I had written something here years ago, wondering if the whole binging experience was prompting viewers to overrate shows. Were series that you could dive into anytime you wanted — series that yielded an adrenal rush and elicited a sense of satisfaction and even power, knowing you could jump right into the next episode immediately after finishing the last — always going to seem more exciting than traditional shows that aired once a week? Was the very fact that you forgot nothing between episodes, so your memory was keener and your responses sharper, apt to make you assess them too highly? So we binged nothing. If a show dropped in its entirety on Netflix, we watched one episode, then waited about a week before moving on to the next. We made sure at any one time we were watching about 20 shows simultaneously, so we could easily flip among them. It was lovely — and great fun — and even illuminating. And that said, I have to take it all back. We binged nothing — except Debris. Debris grabbed hold of us and wouldn’t let go. Its tale of a CIA operative and an MI-6 agent who join forces to investigate extraterrestrial objects that have dropped from space (that are causing disruptions to reality) was superbly cast and beautifully paced, with a wealth of push-the-envelope sci-fi concepts from creator-showrunner J.H. Wyman and his sensational team of writers — and it walked a neat, fine line between its procedural “cases of the week” and its ongoing story-lines and mysteries, of which there were many. It may well be the most sheer fun I had as a viewer in 2021. NBC dropped it into a time slot where two established hit dramas were competing against it, and shelved it after its thirteen-week initial order had aired. At that point, there were all kinds of postmortems from genre fans looking to cast blame. The characters weren’t compelling enough; the longterm mysteries didn’t wrap up quickly enough. Blah blah blah. Sometimes it doesn’t come down to quality, but scheduling. The most obvious answer is the best one: NBC gave it a bitch of a time slot, and no time to catch on. But it was great fun while it lasted, with two charismatic leads: Jonathan Tucker as CIA operative Bryan Beneventi (great name) and Riann Steele as MI-6 agent Finola Jones. (Tucker is undoubtedly one of the stars of the small screen right now, enlivening any show smart enough to cast him. He vitalized the first season of City on a Hill and revitalized the second season of Snowfall, both of which stumbled in the wake of his exit.) In my 10 Best WKRP in Cincinnati Episodes essay, I quoted comedian turned director Dick Martin, who once observed, “With a sitcom, it is ninety-nine percent casting. The rest is the writing.“ Debris proved that axiom doesn’t apply only to sitcoms. It boasts two perfectly cast leads with crackling chemistry; it doesn’t need much more. These two work so well together that in the ninth episode, when events serve to separate them, and Bryan admits (to a Finola in a parallel dimension, who doesn’t know him – you have to see it, and should), “I’m trying to get back to somebody — it’s very important to me,” his voice chokes up with emotion — and you share that emotion. Her belief in a benign and purposeful universe has humanized him; his determination and decisiveness have strengthened her. And they know it. You’re gratified that, after the first few episodes, when their bosses are forcing them to keep secrets, they come clean to each other. Their relationship, their partnership, their friendship — however you want to define it — is, in just a few episodes, more important to them than their jobs. You believe in that partnership, so you invest in it. And as a result, it doesn’t matter much which subplots are more impactful than others, or if certain peripheral story-lines truly come off. The relationship at the heart of the show — between both the actors and their characters — feels genuine and meaningful. And at the end of the day, everything else falls away like — well, like so much debris.

8. Allen v. Farrow (HBO): We probably don’t need another example of what a singularly messed-up society we are, but if we did, this four-part docuseries would suffice nicely. Allen v. Farrow set the record straight on Woody Allen’s sexual molestation of his seven-year-old daughter Dylan in 1992 — and the merciless and mercenary cover-up that ensued: by Allen’s PR team; by a media that coddled celebrity; by a corrupt police department; by a city that counted on Allen’s films as revenue; and by a society always willing to believe a woman is jealous, hysterical or crazy before they’ll believe a man is guilty. Allen v. Farrow made it clear what a monster Woody Allen was and is: that having molested his adopted daughter, he drew on every resource at his disposal to discredit the mother — and to traumatize the child herself. And we let him do it. We let Allen dictate the story — and the media zealously took it all down — and we let him off the hook. He got to keep working, churning out films that yielded reverential reviews and Oscar-winning performances and screenplays. The series makes no effort to both-sides the issue. The documentarian duo of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering gained access to police files, affidavits, sworn testimony, taped conversations and sixty boxes of documentation — all untouched since the ‘90s, all of it pointing in one direction. There were a string of shockers along the way. The Yale New Haven Child Sex Abuse Clinic, charged by the Connecticut police with merely interviewing Dylan, chose instead to grill her not once, not twice, but nine times — until she was so confused and traumatized that they could point to “inconsistencies in her story.” The docuseries displays all of the flaws in their methodology, and then notes that — conveniently and without precedent — all notes from their interviews were destroyed. Their conclusion, however, was trumpeted by Allen as a sign of his innocence, and in fact, the very thesis that they proposed — that somehow Farrow had coached her daughter (despite actual video evidence to the contrary, which we are shown) — helped popularize a theory postulated by a psychiatrist at the time: what he labeled “parental alienation syndrome,” the concept that in a custody case, one parent can brainwash a child against the other. (Although Mia Farrow ultimately obtained sole custody of Dylan, that concept has since become a strategy by which abusive fathers seek to seize custody of their children, and not only has it proven 98% effective over the years in prompting courts to side with the fathers, but in 80% of those cases, the abuse continues.) Allen v. Farrow makes it clear, too, that Allen’s relationship with Farrow’s daughter Soon-Yi was just a fling, until he was able to weaponize it against Farrow by recasting it as a great love affair, in order to claim that the charges Farrow was leveling against him were merely the rabid ramblings of a wronged woman: vindictive and scornful. (That’s precisely how the media, taking their cue from Allen, chose to present it.) The truth of the matter — that three independent government agencies looked into the case, and all three investigators found Dylan Farrow credible, and two of them suggested criminal indictment — is not merely long forgotten, it was barely reported at the time. The media was content to let a child molester frame his own story. Allen v. Farrow is a harrowing account of how a young girl’s life can be destroyed — as well as the career of her mother, a Hollywood star — by one deeply disturbed sociopath. And how American society — so prizing celebrity — is quite willing to look the other way. Allen v. Farrow was too classy an endeavor to ever blame the movie-going public, but at the end of the day, it was impossible not to feel shame for every Woody Allen film you’d gone to see since the scandal broke, certain the rumors must have been false because “he’s Woody Allen.” The only upside to all this is that Allen v. Farrow is such a compelling, meticulously researched documentary that it leaves no room for discussion, and no potential for Allen to stage a “comeback.” (Diane Keaton, one of the few stars left defending him, comes off looking either evil or stupid.) In the end, I was left paraphrasing that famous Moms Mabley quote: you should never say anything bad about the dead, only good. Woody Allen’s career is dead. Good.

7. Hanna Season 3 (Amazon Prime): It lacked the character complexities that distinguished the first two seasons, but if you’re going to button sixteen episodes with a six-episode finale, this all-action all-the-time approach seemed like a smart move. Creator and writer David Farr said he felt, after shooting Season 2, that Mireille Enos had so much more to give, he wanted to find her something juicier to do in Season 3. (“One of the things I felt in Season 2, I felt like she has...an important role, but it’s not taxing her as an actress in the way that she can be, and enjoys being. So in Season 3, I felt an absolute duty [to] put her through hell, and make her explore much more interesting, dark, psychological terrain.”) Farr and I saw something different in Season 2. I labeled Enos’s performance as Marissa Wiegler, a CIA operative who had been responsible for genetically enhancing dozens of young girls via a covert operation (and was only now coming to realize the immorality of her actions), about the best thing I saw on the small screen in 2020. The role might have been fairly straightforward, but Enos didn't need reams of tortured backstory in order to be fascinating. She was startlingly alive and alert for the camera, making us privy to the ways in which Marissa’s upbringing and trust issues and justifiable paranoia ignited her drive and single-mindedness. In Season 3, Farr gave her a backstory — the evil father who always wanted a son — that could have reeked of cliché, but mercifully he didn't linger on it. The focus was still on Marissa’s efforts to bring down the organization that she herself had helped spawn. And happily, Ray Liotta, as Marissa‘s father (who turned out to be the head of the very organization she was fighting), was well cast and essayed the role with restraint. I don’t care to recount the years I’ve spent wincing at over-the-top villainous turns on the small screen; hell, I devoted an entire essay to it back in 2015: actors who, cast in the role of the heavy, couldn’t seem to keep their worst instincts under control, who undermined the tone of the proceedings they were there to enhance. (As I recall, the essay took on everyone from Vincent D'Onofrio in Daredevil to Manu Bennett in Arrow, from John Noble in Sleepy Hollow to Ian McShane in Ray Donovan.) But Liotta, to his credit, fit right into the tone of the show. Although Farr had proclaimed he was looking to add a “really heavyweight villain” to the series, and admired Liotta for bringing “this weight, this menace, this authority to the table,” Liotta didn’t go too big or too broad, and clearly took his acting cues and approach from Enos. He fully convinced as Marissa‘s father. Meanwhile, befitting the shorter episode count, the broader cast of Season 2 was nicely trimmed to a manageable size. (I was pleased that Cherrelle Skeete’s CIA analyst was retained, remained on the side of the angels, and was ultimately unchained from her desk.) Farr’s crosscutting between story-lines kept everyone busy and allowed all the characters to intersect memorably in the closing sequences. It was neat plotting that never felt formulaic. (Once again, Enos served as the bridge between the previous and current seasons; she made it easy to adapt to the new settings, cast members and focus.) I mentioned above that Debris was the only thing Philip and I binged in 2021. Shoot, I lied. I forgot: we blew through Hanna in three days. It was edge-of-your-seat fun, and the perfect capper to a memorable series: one that reinvented and expanded upon the film upon which it was based, forging an uncommon alchemy of sci-fi thriller and coming-of-age story.

6. What We Do in the Shadows Season 3 (FX, BBC Two): I’m not sure What We Do in the Shadows bears much resemblance now to the show that premiered in 2019, and I’m not sure I care. The first season had a flaky, fluky charm; it was a fresh blend of high-concept set-pieces and unstressed character beats. I had trouble with Season 2, and on reflection, it’s because the show was undergoing a transformation. I didn’t know what to make of Season 2 half the time; from the early moments of Season 3, I know exactly what to make of it — and loved it. Oh sure, Season 3 had a few more expletives than I needed, and a whole lot more potty talk than I’d have liked, but it yielded so many genuine belly laughs along the way, I’m disinclined to care. Tonally, the show is broader and bawdier than it once was, but the great accomplishment of Season 3 is that it got not only wackier, but warmer. There were devastatingly funny set-pieces scattered throughout the season — farcical plots that involved outrageous characters invading ordinary settings, in the best tradition of the show (the hunt for the escaped Sire, the world’s most ancient vampire, in a department store in Queens was a particular delight) — but there were also genuine bonds formed: between Laszlo and his next-door neighbor Sean; between Laszlo and energy vampire Colin Robinson. And although the whole Vampiric Council idea that dominated the season felt at first like something that might move the show too far from its roots — that fish-out-of-water premise ("vampires on Staten Island") that’s so crucial to its success — what the Vampiric Council really did was rev up the rivalry between Nandor and Nadja. Natasia Demetriou was shriller than she’s ever been — in my ideal universe she'd have taken it down a half a notch — but she was so gloriously unhinged, I’ll happily let it go. And Kayvan Novak continues to be a revelation. Although I know well his roots in award-winning sketch comedy, I’m still dazzled by how much he can bring to the table. His impersonation of his colleagues in the second episode was genius. And Nandor’s season-long search for companionship and meaning rang true. Amidst all the mayhem that the writers kept infusing into the show, Novak managed to ground the season in something sweet and almost wistful. Sometime in late summer, I saw a Twitter thread proclaiming 2021 a “banner year for TV comedy.“ Folks were marveling at Hacks, Only Murders in the Building and the second season of Ted Lasso. The joke is, I didn’t care for any of those, but still I’ll go on record as labeling 2021 a banner year for comedy; hell, half of my top six shows were comedies. (And I’m hoping a promising newcomer, CBS’s Ghosts, will end up on my best-of list next year. ) I love to laugh, but don’t laugh often enough at the small screen. And I desperately needed some good laughs in 2021. What We Do in the Shadows was one of the three or four shows that, week after week, never let me down.

5. The Other Two Season 2 (HBO Max): In The Other Two, which debuted on Comedy Central before making its way to HBO Max, the lives of millennial siblings Brooke and Cary Dubek are upended when their 13-year-old brother Chase becomes an overnight, Bieber-like internet sensation. Creators Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider send up this age of instant celebrity and also effectively dramatize two lead characters (expertly played by Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver) who manage to be both exasperating and endearing. The first season achieved a steady stream of laughs that climaxed in a gut punch of a penultimate episode. Once the show was renewed for a second season, the obvious question was: can the showrunners sustain the levity, wit and sense of surprise? Are there enough pop-culture targets left, and given the promotion of mama bear Molly Shannon, deservedly, to series regular, will the two leads continue to receive the attention they deserve? There was no cause for concern. Season 2 proved as riotously entertaining as Season 1. Brooke, a failed dancer turned assistant, reinvents herself as manager to both Chase and their mother Pat (who has parlayed her son's notoriety into her own talk show); Cary, a struggling actor, continues his hunt for the right man and the right role. There’s hardly an episode that doesn’t fix a satirical target, and sometimes two, but the characters never get submerged to the satire. The focus is always on Brooke and Cary’s awkward attempts at self fulfillment — and in their fleeting moments of self-awareness, the growth that comes with it. They seem like true siblings; they’re both so committed to being successful, and both so unable to grasp when they’re achieving it. And no wonder, of course, as the show reminds us how the definition of “success“ has changed in the last decade. Nowadays, success has nothing to do with hard work or talent. It’s about Instagram likes and Twitter trends. It’s about how many people will go online at midnight to see what color you’ve dyed your hair. Kelly and Schneider are merciless at mocking the rabid fervor of fandom, but they save some of their best barbs for the stars themselves, who encourage their supporters’ worst delusions. (When members of the studio audience want to know if they can meet her mother after the show, Brooke’s go-to response is “No, but she loves you, and she’s just like you.”) These are the same celebrities who consent to humiliating promotions to maintain their popularity, who manufacture fraudulent backstories to prove they’re right for a potential role, who align themselves with cults masquerading as churches, and who struggle to maintain relevance by tweeting about fabricated social injustices. The Other Two is a merry skewering of all aspects of show business: an industry where you haven’t arrived until you’ve been sued, where controversy is only good if the right A-list celebrities and protest organizations get behind you, and where agents are incapable of honesty or sincerity. Offhand, I can think of no sitcom right now so adept at not merely timing and nailing a joke, but repeating it for maximum effect. The old writing principle “The Rule of Three” insisted that jokes land best when they’re repeated twice. On The Other Two, jokes resurface seven or eight times. Or twelve. Good gags will recur throughout an episode, and even when you know to be on the lookout for them, the punchline takes you by surprise. Kelly and Schneider manage yet another variation that catches you off guard, and the rat-tat-tat repetition — with subtle, effective permutations — actually makes the gag stronger with each reappearance. (I offer a fuller review of The Other Two here.)

4. Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO): Its tone both epic and acidic, its format at once sprawling yet dense, Raoul Peck’s latest uses every tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal to chart nothing less than 1000 years of colonial exploitation and genocide. With eerie, unerring ease, Peck combines reenactments of actual events, images from historical archives, documentary footage, watercolor-style animation and even home movies — all of them illustrating the long arm of “whiteness” and white supremacy. And not merely white supremacy, but more specifically a presumption of white supremacy, one dating back to the Crusades — the white Christian European supposition of superiority that became an argument for the conquest of Asia — and continuing well into the modern era. (Hitler, we’re reminded, used the Americans’ elimination of the “Redskins” as his model.) Peck weaves connecting fibers throughout history into a meditation on human suffering. At times the kaleidoscope effect is almost dizzying, as you’re guided from clips from films as disparate as On the Town and Apocalypse Now to an illustrated treatise on the history of weaponry — in particular how the west maintained its dominance by creating weapons designed for “killing at a distance”; from Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum’s newspaper editorials advocating for the slaughter of Native Americans to an accounting of King Leopold’s colonization of the Congo, which included the mutilation and murder of men, women, and children, all to enforce his rubber production quotas. A passage about the Irish being seen as “apes” might segue into a scripted vignette featuring actor Josh Hartnett (who plays — quite splendidly, throughout — a sort of universal white-man colonist), then to a series of maps charting export trade through the centuries, and finally to a sequence about Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide” in 1943: not merely with the Final Solution in mind, but with an awareness of how many mass murders had preceded it. (Lemkin defined slavery — its obliteration of the individual and their ties to their ancestors’ way of life – as “cultural genocide.” Genocide was made a prerequisite for the establishment and expansion of America; it was the 19th-century notion that the annihilation of “inferior” races was part of the natural course of history that gave Europeans the ideological cover to exterminate the natives of the continents they were colonizing.) Peck challenges you to follow his thought processes, to absorb and appreciate the full picture he’s been permitted to see, and he’s quick to note the contributions of those who helped him get at the truth; his lodestars are Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes (an accounting of Europe’s genocidal colonization of Africa, its title drawn from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (the first U.S. history told from the perspective of its indigenous population) and Haitian-born academic Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past (an analysis of power and suppression throughout history). Peck sets himself the task of nothing less than exposing 1000 years of white supremacy, and tells the story more subjectively than one would imagine, narrating it and weaving in his own childhood in Haiti (his family fled during the Duvalier regime) — because as he puts it, “Neutrality is not an option.” The results are at once docuseries and illustrated lecture, a confluence that shouldn’t have worked but does. Peck’s approach reminds us that we’ve all benefited or suffered at the hands of colonial oppression. “It’s not knowledge we lack,” he insists throughout the four episodes; we’ve always known what was happening, as it was happening. But history has long been written and spun by the victors. Exterminate All the Brutes is a daring and dazzling quest to set the record straight.

3. Snowfall Season 4 (FX, BBC Two): Snowfall fell from my "best of" list in 2018 to my "runners up" list in 2019. Here it is way up at #3. Season 4 was FX’s most watched series of 2021, and deservedly so. There wasn’t a misstep; you got the feeling that showrunner Dave Andron — like his lead character, drug kingpin Franklin Saint — had no time for missteps. I had some hesitations as Season 4 began, particularly when it introduced Suzy Nakamura as a reporter hell-bent on cracking L.A.’s crack epidemic. I’m always wary when crime dramas throw in a "reporter seeking out the story" angle, particularly when it’s a woman in a period piece; there’s such a temptation for the show to leave her undefined, to let her devolve into one of those dogged Lois Lane types. But I shouldn’t have worried. Nakamura’s character, Irene Abe, was given good motivation and a decent backstory — she fit right in. (It didn’t hurt that she was based on real-life reporter Gary Webb, who wrote about the CIA’s involvement in the crack cocaine epidemic and died in what some believe was a staged suicide.) Abe wasn’t merely one more obstacle for Franklin and CIA operative Teddy McDonald to overcome. Her investigation forced us to relive key incidents from the previous three seasons: Franklin‘s shooting of his best friend Kevin; his murder of his former father figure Andre. Through the course of four seasons, it had become easy to shake off the violence that Snowfall routinely depicted. In Season 2, when Franklin had murdered Kevin, the moment had felt transformative: a furioso fast-forwarding of both the arc of the series and the evolution of Franklin's character. (Just a year earlier, he had been a kid hawking dime bags; now he had grown so ruthless that he was willing to take out his best friend to protect his interests.) By Season 4, Franklin had no compunction about gunning down any perceived threat to his plans. In the season’s second episode, he tries to defuse the rivalry between two gangs by setting up one side; when his plans go awry, a bloody shootout results. An episode later, Teddy's partner Gustavo finds his brother and his family slaughtered, and he and Teddy retaliate by murdering those responsible. As the show revved up — season by season — in brutality and intensity, how could Andron insure that we not grow inured to the violence? (As Andron is no doubt aware, social media continues to swoon over Franklin Saint. Most of that has to do, of course, with Damson Idris’s natural charm and charisma, and the Emmy-worthy performances he turns out; nonetheless, it’s startling to see a subset of fandom view a drug kingpin as a "good guy" and cheer for the demise of the people — even the decent and noble people — who want to bring him down.) Season 4 found Andron hammering away at the crimes that Franklin had committed — working feverishly to keep his viewers' affection for the character in check — and reporter Irene Abe proved crucial to that plan. As did Franklin‘s mother and father, Cissy and Alton; they were the ones who could see most clearly — and remind us most persuasively — how cold-blooded he had become. The dominant story in Season 4 was Franklin straying from the promises that he had made his parents: to clean his money, invest it wisely, and leave the streets behind. Cissy couldn’t seem to curb her son's hunger, and the only way Alton saw to keep the family safe was to go public with their story. When Alton ultimately gave Abe the exclusive she'd been pressuring him for, and an incensed Franklin threatened him, Alton retaliated, “What, you’re going to shoot me — like you did Andre?” The reminder of his own ruthlessness so infuriated Franklin that he pistol whipped his father; as Franklin saw it, the man who had abandoned his family, who had killed his own cousin, was now selling out his son and branding him a murderer. Their scene — like so much of Season 4 — felt like the culmination of years of backstory. Season 4 had a vigor unmatched by any other series I saw in 2021, and its final image, of Franklin casting off the pretense of weakness that he had been brandishing as a weapon, was indelible. As he had done countless times in Season 4, Idris took your breath away.

2. American Rust (Showtime): Wow, the critics savaged this one. Mare of Easttown had come along a few months earlier and established itself as a critical darling — and then American Rust showed up with a whiff of its setting and premise, and the critics seemed duty-bound to drag it through the mud. They had anointed Mare of Easttown: all pretenders to the throne must be beaten back — and brutally. The pacing was too slow, they insisted; the characters too dislikable, the dialogue too trite. None of that was true. American Rust was a stellar series that built beautifully across nine weeks, immersing us in the tenor of a town facing economic decline and battered by a sort of societal malaise. Yes, it took its time getting going; how lovely that showrunner Dan Futterman so trusted the characters (and his own adaptation of Philipp Meyer’s 2009 novel) that he was willing to let us get to know them before overwhelming us with the burden of plot. By the third week, I was so engrossed that I found myself looking forward to 7 PM on Sundays, and even though I was taping it, I was insistent on watching it live. It was the rare series that seemed to be genuinely unfolding rather than packaged as entertainment; the viewing experience became an event. (Once the series concluded, I felt a hole in my weekly schedule.) Set in a town in Western Pennsylvania not too far from the West Virginia line, sometime prior to the 2016 Presidential Election, American Rust concerned itself with a group of people who had been made to feel undeserving: of success, of happiness, of an honest living and a living wage. Life had ground them into the dirt, but through the course of nine episodes, they rose again: some with renewed bravery, or loyalty, or a greater sense of self — and others without compassion or compunction. How far will people go, it asked — specifically to look out for those they love? In a world where folks have so little, they choose to project all of their hopes onto one person — a lover, a son, a best friend, an old girlfriend — and American Rust asks: what sacrifices will they make to hold onto that? What horrible decisions will they double down on? What deals will they broker with the devil? These were big questions thrust upon ordinary people, and the dialogue — far from being trite — captured the poetic cadences of everyday speech. No one indulged in flowery prose; perhaps the critics were looking for the kind of dialogue these characters weren’t capable of. They were plain-spoken, but their lines reeked of disillusion; they engaged in a sort of plaintive shorthand, one forged from a shared discontent. No motives were simple in American Rust. Good people seemed just a step away from doing something foolish or foul. Awful people showed unforeseen potential for redemption. The character complexity — which you often get in a good novel, but which so rarely makes its way to the small screen, even in the best of adaptations — was gratifying. There was no scene in 2021 I found better played — or more unnerving — than one in the penultimate episode of American Rust. Maura Tierney’s Grace Poe, a seamstress who’s sustained work-related injuries to her hands, has been striving to unionize the plant where she works. But the union vote didn’t go the way she wanted — plus her son is sitting in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Tired of playing by the rules, she’s torched her trailer for the insurance money. She’s been keeping company with Jeff Daniels’ Del Harris, the local police chief; now she finds herself at Del’s cabin, and as he pours her a cup of coffee, she’s quick to ask, “Is there anything we can do?” He thinks she’s talking about the fire, but she corrects him: “About Billy. My son is gonna spend the rest of his life in that prison, and he’s not gonna make it. You should’ve seen him — he looked like an abused animal.” And still Del’s not biting (“What you need is a good night’s sleep”), so she apologizes: “Sorry: my mind is ... all over the place” — the “all over the place” permitting her to double back to her objective later. They confirm that she’ll be moving in, and he looks so gratified to have someone sharing his sad life with him. She promises him, “I am gonna take such good care of you,” and he recites, almost on cue, “I’m gonna take good care of you too, Grace.” And then she doubles down, as if forging not just a bond, but a contract: “Because this is what this is now, right?” — and again, he parrots, “This is what this is now. Yes.” (“This is what this is now“ — I still marvel at the elegiac shorthand.) She lays her hands on her shoulders: “I am all yours, Del. You have me completely. And we are gonna go above and beyond for each other. Because I would do anything for you.” And now, where it’s all been leading: “Would you do anything for me?” He responds in the affirmative, and she brings their heads together. And in that moment of intimacy, he’s moved to say more than he should, because all he wants is to please and impress her; he reveals that he’s located the man who falsely identified her son. She doesn’t waste a beat: “Then you know what has to be done. I want to hear you say it. Say it, Del.” “I know,” he dutifully echoes, but she’s not satisfied yet: “You know what?” And he complies: “I know what has to be done.” And they pull each other close. This is the kind of meaty stuff that only two pros like Maura Tierney and Jeff Daniels can pull off. She cares for him, but she knows he cares for her more, and she’s willing to use that to get what she wants. And he knows that he cares for her more, and he’s willing to be used. And so when she doubles down on the subject of her son, and the crime that needs to be committed to get him set free, he acquiesces. These two have been our heroes: our moral compasses. And now they’ve forged a devil’s pact — one born out of love, loneliness, anger, fear and futility. Would you advocate murder to save your son, and would you commit that murder to satisfy the woman you love? American Rust is a masterful and disturbing series. Ignore the critics, and don’t miss it.

1. Back to Life Series 2 (BBC Three, Showtime): At the top of Series 1, Miranda “Miri” Matteson — after 18 years in prison — had moved back in with her parents in Hythe, Kent. She had been sent away for the accidental death of her friend Lara, and she’d done her time, but she’d been branded a murderer, and although she kept insisting “it wasn’t like that” — and indeed, it wasn’t like that — that was the term that stuck. That’s why she awakened to find “psycho bitch” painted on her parents’ fence. That’s why a box of feces was delivered to her home, and a brick sailed through the window of her first place of employment. “It was a long time ago, and I’m ready to move on,” Miri announced, but charting a path forward wasn’t so easy. Obstacles — and unpleasant reminders — hounded her. The tone of comedies has become so edgy over the last few years — especially the female-led ones, like This Way Up and Fleabag, which are propelled by an aggressive energy — that when something less antagonistic comes along, it’s sometimes overlooked. Back to Life wasn’t overlooked — on the contrary, the reviews were rapturous — but still, I’m not sure it’s reached as wide an audience as it deserves. It’s an original: a painfully compassionate comedy about redemption and forgiveness — rambunctious but never strident, as ingratiating and impressive as its heroine. The first series debuted on BBC One in 2019, and was sublime; the second series — which aired this past year on BBC Three and Showtime — is even better. It shows the consequences of all the revelations that came to light a season earlier. Miri is played by Daisy Haggard, who created Back to Life and co-wrote it with Laura Solon, and hers is an astonishingly rich and affecting performance. No expression seems to sit well — or very long — on Miri’s face. Her face is awash with so many emotions: not just the ones she’s feeling, but the ones she thinks she should be feeling. It would be nice to be able to experience one sentiment at a time; Miri doesn’t have that luxury. She’s too busy replaying the past, navigating the present and hoping for a future. As Haggard conceives her, Miri’s caught between the exuberance and urges of a teenager and the baggage and responsibilities of an adult. She’s a muddle of mixed emotions. In one bravura scene in Series 2, she arrives at a restaurant — for her first date with her next-door neighbor Billy (her first date ever, in fact) — only to discover that she has blood on her hands. (She witnessed a murder an hour before her big date; her evening hasn’t gone according to plan.) When Billy notices, she panics — he long ago confessed he’s squeamish about the sight of blood, and she’s not about to let a death dampen her first date, besides — and comes up with the worst possible explanation, that it’s “period blood.” She then frantically improvises a rationale for how it’s gotten on her neck and in her hair. On paper, it’s hysterical; as Haggard plays it, fighting back tears and so terrified she can barely form the words, it’s hilarious yet also deeply upsetting. Haggard pours so much emotion onto the screen, you’re not always certain you’re capable of catching it all. But you’re sure as hell going to try. The tone of the series — buoyant and irreverent, bustling and unbowed — seems grounded in Haggard’s conception of her character. She spent 18 years as a happy girl, then 18 years in prison. Her life divides into neat stages. Now she’s back at home, a grown woman, but still longing to experience everything she was denied the first time around. She’s held on to the positivity and naïveté so typical of youth, but she’s also retained that adolescent ability to see through the pretenses of adult behavior. She has her head on straight. She’s an absolute mess (she turns up for that first date riding a scooter, because her best friend’s daughter wouldn’t let her borrow her bicycle), but she talks sense. Lara’s grieving father returns to town hell-bent on revenge, and although Miri should be properly terrified — and is — she’s also pissed off and practical: “Just stop it. Drop it. You used to make a mean lasagna. Be that guy. Be lasagna guy. Not this supervillain ….. You can do better than this.” Series 2 captures the chaos of ordinary life — where events rain down on you, and it’s impossible to know where to turn your attention, or how best to harness your energies. So you keep moving, blindly and with resolve. There’s something enchanted about this seaside town — the fourth episode of Series 2 is even narrated like a fairy-tale — but that aspect of the setting is beautifully unstressed. Miri is very much living in the real world; she’s just living in a real world that looks after its own — that serves up the odd new friend when we need them most, or help from an unexpected source when we’re in deepest despair. Awful events occasionally have neat resolutions: not because the world is easy, but because sometimes we’re all due a break. Every so often the universe senses our suffering and responds with a wink. And once in a great while, it sends us a prince — granted, one who’s scared of blood and giraffes, with a mother from hell — whose clear-headed compassion lets him see us for what we are: “a good egg who’s had some bad breaks.” In an early episode in Series 1, the first man to hire Miri upon her release from prison admitted with surprise, after getting to know her, “Apart from [the murder], you’re just a normal person, really.” “I am a normal person,” she insisted, with weary defiance. Although Miri may well have been a normal girl, fate ensured that her world would never be normal again. She would have to call upon resources she never knew she had, ones that would transform her into something special. Series 2 makes it clear us that this new Miri is never going to have a normal life. But she might just have something magical. (I offer a fuller review of Back to Life here.)


Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out my write-ups of 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, plus three similarly-styled posts: The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching, Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss and my latest, inspired by the death of my puppy Czerny, The 10 Most Comforting TV Episodes About Death. Or if you enjoy detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Voyager Season 4, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I serve up my 10 Best Mary Tyler Moore Show Episodes, 10 Best Designing Women episodes and 10 Best Kate & Allie episodes; delve into Rhoda Season 3, Newhart Season 7, Maude Season 2, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

4 comments:

  1. Wow - I've seen NONE of these, though I know a few. Debris definitely sounds my sort of thing and the fact there's only 13 makes it much more likely I'll watch it (I'm trying to invest less in shows that go on and on and on). American Rust sounds good too and I have to track that down as well. Thanks for the recommendations and here's to more blogging in 2022!

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    1. Thanks, Terry. As I have said to you many times, your encouragement and your example are among the things that have kept me blogging these many years, even when I’ve been tempted to stop. So I thank you so much for that! ‘Debris’ was absolutely the show I had in mind when I responded to your comment in my last essay, and mentioned that something in my top 10 would be right up your alley. I think you would enjoy it, and yes, perhaps the fact that it’s just 13 episodes make it even more appealing. It is, sadly, devilishly hard to find right now. Only a streaming network called FUBO offers it over here, for a whopping subscription rate of $65 a month. But I can’t imagine it won’t turn up somewhere less pricey, or at least on DVD…

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  2. I'm feeling as if I have missed out, as I have not seen any of the shows you noted. Partly because I keep forgetting when non-Doctor Who and Masterpiece programs are scheduled (i.e., Debris, which looked interesting and I completely missed every week), but mostly because we don't have the premium services. I would like to see Back to Life, though -- I do enjoy some Daisy Haggard.

    Also agree with you about not binging a series. Maybe I am just old, but I do enjoy parsing out the episodes over a series of weeks. Especially if it's a series I enjoy -- why rush to the end?

    As always, your essays are the best. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. I will now say two contradictory statements. First, it’s fun to see you agree about the joy of *not* binging, but just savoring something week by week. And second, and conversely, I would see if you can get a 10-day free trial of Showtime, and check out Back to Life. You can breeze through it very quickly, and I do think you’d enjoy it. And if you have time within that free trial period, American Rust (also on Showtime) is obviously worthwhile as well. (I hate that so much quality TV is on premium channels right now.)

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