By Christian DiMartino
Alright so you may or may not have noticed that I vanished for the last like 10 days. Both of my current segments- “Stallone Saturdays” and “THE Best Picture”- were put on hold. Movies such as Uncharted and Marry Me went un-reviewed. I also deliberately stayed off of the Youtube channel I partake in, So That Was a Movie. To be honest, I just needed time. I was in a place mentally where I felt as if if I hadn’t slowed down or stopped and just focused on me, I was going to collapse. But I’m back, baby, and I’m back with something I’ve been teasing since New Year’s Day: my rankings of the television seasons of 2021.
Look, I’m a movie guy, and for a long time, I sort of stubbornly refused to branch out. Because movies are better and they have bigger stars and blah blah. I actually know people who are still in this mindset, and I get it. You think back to George Clooney and David Duchovny and (to a less successful degree) David Caruso and all of these guys got their start on TV shows, and they each had to “make the jump” to movies because TV was seen as a lesser medium. Budgets weren’t the same, the starpower was lesser too. Personally, I think this all came to a halt (and correct me if it was sooner) with David E. Kelley’s Big Little Lies. Certainly there were miniseries’ that got the starpower, but c’mon, this show has Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz and (in season 2) Meryl Streep. Damn.
I’ll go even further: film studios just aren’t really taking risks. Unless a movie is some form of IP, or if it’s a strong enough name, people just aren’t going to the movies. So a lot of movies are just either being released quietly, or on streaming, or not at all. It breaks my heart, but the movie industry just isn’t the same. The TV business though, on the other hand, is booming. Because like Big Little Lies, these shows ARE pulling in the starpower, they ARE sparking discussions, they ARE getting the budgets. That, and they’re stories that, honestly, just wouldn’t translate to film.
I watched 30 seasons of television from 2021. I watched even more than that, to prepare for the returns of some of these shows I have ranked. I admit that TV really converted me last year. Currently, for 2022, I’m in the middle of Euphoria, Severance, and Pam & Tommy. I could’ve arguably done more than 30. However, I used The Book of Boba Fett as my cutoff point, and I used the week of its final episode to get through shows 28-30. Guys, it’s been hard work. As a non-expert, I’ll just say that I didn’t hate any of these shows. If anything, they either frustrated or underwhelmed, or they felt like a long stretch to the finish line. I’ll also say that some of these rankings might seem a tad askew, and that’s due to recency. Some things might be ranked lower than expected because, well, I haven’t watched such and such since January. The best show of the year though, I’ll say, was one that premiered in April, so in other cases, recency isn’t an issue. My apologies for gabbing for so long… but I guess it isn’t going to stop here. Here are the 30 seasons of 2021 television I viewed, ranked.
30. American Horror Stories- Season 1: As I’ve written before, I am all in on American Horror Story, and whatever weird s**t creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk throw our way. American Horror Stories… from this first season, not so much. It’s not terrible… but it does border on it every so often and it was ultimately one of those long stretches to the finish line I mentioned above. Murphy is such a sharp writer and his wit is present in some of American Horror Stories, but a lot of the time I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing here. Again, I enjoyed perhaps half of the episodes here, but the rest were either DOA, satires that missed their mark, or just… I don’t know, stupid.
29. The Morning Show– Season 2: I have actually reviewed The Morning Show– Season 2 on here already, so I’ll be brief. Similar to my #30 slot, there are good things in The Morning Show but… god, it’s a hot mess. This season felt like the result of someone cooped up in their house during COVID, and they just decided to air out every grievance they had with the world. The acting is good and there are moments, but ultimately by about episode 5 you begin to see the seams. This show has been recognized at a few award shows though so whatever they did must’ve worked for someone… else.
28. Lisey’s Story: Pablo Larrain’s Spencer is among my favorite movies of 2021. Larrain’s Lisey’s Story… not as much praise. It’s weird, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Lee, Joan Allen, Clive Owen, Dane Dehaan, Stephen King (serving as the screenwriter, and this is apparently his most personal novel) and Larrain all got together for an AppleTV+ miniseries… and I don’t know a soul who has watched it. Well, I did, and it’s a mixture of intriguing and “what the hell is going on here?” It’s gorgeously filmed, and even when I didn’t know what was going on, it had my curiosity. Yet the further you get into it, the more you sense that this might just be some Stephen King nonsense. That, and you even question the validity of the acting. I still don’t know what to make of it, so yeah, 28/30.
27. The Mosquito Coast-Season 1: Justin Theroux is one of the hottest people alive, and The Leftovers is perhaps my favorite show, and gosh darnit, I wanted to like The Mosquito Coast more. The first season, based on the novel by Paul Theroux (which also had a film adaptation starring Harrison Ford in the 80’s) is solidly acted and has its moments. It’s just… somewhat of a long, slow burn. The good stuff in this show is good, and none of it is particularly bad, but it also isn’t necessarily memorable, either. It’s also, I’ll say, drastically different than the aforementioned Harrison Ford film. To make matters even more complicated, they don’t even make it to The Mosquito Coast until the end of the season. Which means I’ll probably have to watch season 2. I just hope it’s a better time.
26. Nine Perfect Strangers: Nicole Kidman and David E. Kelley worked wonders on Big Little Lies and The Undoing, but they somewhat missed their mark with Nine Perfect Strangers. Here is a handsomely filmed, (mostly) well acted and occasionally dazzling but ultimately uneven Hulu miniseries that features perhaps Kidman’s worst performance. Do you know how difficult that was for me to type? I would die for Nicole Kidman, but her Russian accent in this show has a hint of her American accent with a hint of her native Australian accent, and like the rest of the show it’s just sort of a mixed bag. There are pleasures in Nine Perfect Strangers (if you’ve seen Kelley at his most prestigious, the guy definitely has style). I liked the performances from Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, and Michael Shannon, and it’s mostly entertaining. I… mostly enjoyed this, but by the time the finale arrived, I was glad to be parting ways with these people. My review is about as uneven as the series.
25. The Book of Boba Fett: I have also written about The Book of Boba Fett, so I’ll keep this short. I finally watched The Mandalorian last year and it was incredible, so the hype for this one was real. And… hmm. I still don’t quite know what to make of it. It begins slowly- it moves at the speed of molasses- but the last three episodes or so are pretty remarkable. There is just one problem: The Book of Boba Fett transforms into The Mandalorian, and Boba Fett himself is benched in his own show. This show feels as if it lacked a clear vision… but what’s good in it is pretty cool.
24. Halston: This Netflix miniseries, about the late fashion designer Halston’s rise and fall from the 60’s to the 80’s, isn’t always an easy sit. It’s essentially spending five hours with a guy who isn’t particularly likable, nor do we have much of a connection with him in 2022. Having said this, Halston ultimately has one thing keeping it afloat at all times, and it’s the fabulous, maybe even career best work from Ewan McGregor. McGregor won an Emmy for this and it was more than deserved. Halston is one of those miniseries that ultimately might’ve worked better as a movie… but McGregor is so remarkable in it that it succeeds.
23. What If?– Season 1: Marvel had a huge year this year, not just on the big screen but on the small. I watched all of the Disney+ shows and What If? was my least favorite. That being said, even if I’m not quite a die-hard, I am on board with just about any Marvel movie (except Eternals, no thanks), so I was on board with all of their shows last year. What If? is obviously made by people who love these characters, their worlds, their lore, etc. It’s an entertaining and fun little show, and a pretty ambitious one, narratively. I guess I just wish that it wasn’t animated? That sounds like a nitpick, but I would’ve been totally gripped by it if it were live action. But surely that would be expensive, and Disney doesn’t have enough money.
22. American Horror Story: Double Feature: AHS: Double Feature finds the series in both the peak of its powers and its reach exceeding its grasp. I loved about 80% of the first part, which revolves around a pill that’ll either unlock your creative genius or turn you into a bald cannibal (but you end up a cannibal regardless). We also get to see Evan Peters as a drag queen named Patty O’ Furniture, gyrating to Heart’s Magic Man. It ultimately didn’t stick the landing with the ending though. The second part is at its best when it has fun with the conspiracy theories and at its worst when it focuses on a group of male and female college graduates who all end up mysteriously pregnant. The great stuff in this season ultimately elevates it above the weaker seasons- all of which I enjoy to a degree.
21. Dopesick: I feel like the jury is kind of out on Dopesick. It’s not necessarily subtle, it’s manipulative, it borders on soap opera at times, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance feels like it belongs in another series… but Stuhlbarg aside, I sort of felt like this was the way this story needed to be told. It is affective, it does pack a wallop. Admitted, I was more invested in the storylines following the addicts than those fighting Big Pharma. But I found the whole thing pretty effective. Particularly because of Michael Keaton as a kind doctor who succumbs to OxyContin, and Kaitlyn Dever, an excellent actress who is certainly going places.
20. Landscapers: Is there anything Olivia Colman can’t do? She is sensational in this year’s The Lost Daughter, and just as great in the four-part HBO miniseries Landscapers. The true crime series, which follows a happily married couple (Colman and David Thewlis) who are obsessed with Gerard Depardieu and old Hollywood westerns… and who may or may not have murdered their parents, is engaging in the way that these people are awkward and mousy. Yet it also works because the filmmakers decided to take bold, interesting leaps with their narrative, making this tale anything but conventional.
19. Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Where were the Avengers to go after the events of Avengers: Endgame? Wandavision got the ball rolling, but Falcon and the Winter Soldier rolled the ball further. I liked this show quite a bit. I admit that the villainous group The Star-Spanglers (not their name, but I find it amusing) felt somewhat underwritten, and while the show is thoroughly good, it takes a minute for it to get off the ground. But once it did, it soared, particularly because of the performance from Wyatt Russell, who blew me away as a normal hero whose lust for power got the better of him.
18. Hawkeye: Ditto this one, which isn’t nearly as serious but it’s maybe just as good. I give this show the slight edge because Hailee Steinfeld is such a treasure. Florence Pugh also delivered upon her promise from Black Widow. Jeremy Renner is also doing fine work, but I felt like the bulk of the show was letting the ladies cook. Regardless, I had fun with Hawkeye, particularly with its third episode. This is also a show that didn’t fully stick its landing, but the rest of it is a pretty good time.
17. Hacks- Season 1: Alright, so maybe this is a little low. I just despised the Hannah Einbinder character, and I couldn’t tell whose side the show was on. Make no mistake, Einbinder is a real find and a terrific actress, but this character is someone who I’d never want to meet in my entire life. What makes the show tick though is the performance from Jean Smart, who more than earned her Emmy here as an aging comedian who not only has a distaste for the current climate of comedy, but also is in touch with how awful the past could be. Despite the Einbinder character, I do anticipate the second season.
16. The Great- Season 2: So I have a general rule when it comes to comedy: for movies, they really shouldn’t run longer than 90 minutes, unless the story and characters are engaging; TV shows shouldn’t run past 35 minutes. I caught up on The Great, mostly because it’s written by Tony Macnamara, who co-wrote The Favourite (and there is a lot of similar DNA here). As good as The Great can be- it’s production values mostly top notch, its acting fabulous, its writing splendid- it often did feel like a long sit, because each episode is an hour a pop. If each episode were half an hour, we’d have a banger. Having said that, by the time I reached the end of both seasons, I was left wondering if The Great was actually… well, great. There’s a lot of competition these days, but Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning should definitely be in the Emmy conversation.
15. Wandavision: When I said that certain shows might be rated lower due to recency, this one came to mind. When doing my original rankings, I had Wandavision even lower, because I hadn’t seen it since its premiere last January. I’ll also say that I was surprised to see it as the Marvel that received awards acclaim. The reason for any negativity might be because I really dug this show until about the last episode. Wandavision is a funny and creative, particularly whenever it’s parodying classic TV. It’s also just a unique entry in the Marvel universe and I admired its risks and leaps as a Marvel property. So I was let down by the finale, which takes the clever groundwork laid out before it and settles for a routine action finale. Upon reflection though, I did remember how much I admired it during the viewing, and how good Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany and Kathryn Hahn were, and so I settled on slot 15.
14. Squid Game- Season 1: Squid Game… what else is there to say? I confess that I just recently caught up with this, and yeah yeah I know it was a phenomenon. Truth be told, I’m kind of surprised it blew up as much as it did. It must be TikTok or whatever the kids are into it, I don’t know. Squid Game‘s premise isn’t THAT original, and if we’re talking recent Korean sensations, I’m still sticking with Parasite. BUT… the presentation in which the show’s familiar ideas are presented is what makes it so intriguing. Squid Game is so visually striking, and the inclusion of kid’s games being deadly makes it stand out. It’s also just really entertaining television, well acted and at times pretty riveting. This originally began as a miniseries, but it became such a hit that it was greenlit for a season 2. Not sure what they’ll do with it, but hopefully they deliver.
13. Curb Your Enthusiasm- Season 11: I’ve been a Curb devotee for over a decade, but I’ll admit that, despite how funny the show can be, I haven’t loved it since about season 8. The reason being that Larry David and his writers had the ability before to take these concepts and give us a beginning, middle, and end each episode, and that’s felt a little absent in the last two. With all of this said, I could never write anything as good as those first 8 seasons… or Seinfeld. Season 11 though felt more like a return to form. There is still a somewhat messiness in terms of story, but when LD gets to cook, the show is sensational, and at 74, the guy has still got it. Not sure how much Curb he has left in him, but if it’s as funny as this season was, I’ll take it.
12. Loki– Season 1: Of Marvel’s shows last year, Loki was the most enjoyable for me. Obviously its production values were first rate, and the performances from Tom Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, and Sophia DiMartino (ONE OF US! ONE OF US!) were strong. Yet what stood out to me most was just how creative this show was. It has these huge ideas that set the tone for the upcoming Marvel slate, and even more surprising is that the show builds up to a major finale that is ultimately an hour-long conversation. A lot of the Wandavision success is evident here, but for me this one works a little better.
11. Only Murders in the Building- Season 1: It blows my mind to think that Steve Martin and Martin Short are as funny as they are, and have been for decades… and they’re still in top form. Only Murders in the Building finds the two of them having a ball, and we’re having a ball with them. They are joined by Selena Gomez, who weirdly works wonderfully with them as they join forces to solve a murder in their New York apartment building. The show is just good old fashioned fun, but it’s also sharply funny, and I’ll be happy to spend more time with these characters in season 2.
10. You- Season 3: Alright girls, we’re in the final stretch. You is another show I caught up with this year, and its comparisons to Dexter are certainly undeniable. You feels like a sort of teenage Dexter, but also there’s nothing tweeny about it, because when this show gets gruesome, it does go all the way. Kind of like the number 11 slot, I don’t know what there really is to say besides, well, it’s really entertaining. Soap opera-ish, sure, but it’s so much dark fun that you don’t care. It’s also a testament to Penn Badgley’s performance that you not only cannot stop watching Joe and his ongoing murder streak, but you also weirdly root for him (apparently Badgley is anti-Joe, but I mean if you’ve seen the show, it’s hard to not be pro-Joe). Victoria Pedretti is also a dynamo as his wife, who is just as nutty, but arguably nuttier. I look forward to Joe’s upcoming adventures, and despite Badgley’s insistence to not root for him… I’m probably gonna keep rooting for him.
9. It’s a Sin: I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of the HBO Max miniseries It’s a Sin until about a month ago. Seeing as it cracked the top 10 though, I’m obviously glad that it appeared on my radar. This is an excellent show: funny when it wanted to be, heartbreaking when it needed to be, and no matter what emotion it was juggling, it was always honest and authentic. Set in London in the mid-80’s, the show is a rather unsettling look at AIDS, the way people reacted and dealt with it, and the treatment of homosexuals. In general though, It’s a Sin works because of the performances and the character development. If your heart isn’t broken by the end of it, I will question you as a human being. The final moments of It’s a Sin are as moving as anything I’ve seen.
8. Yellowjackets– Season 1: Hell yeah. I got full stock in Showtime’s Yellowjackets and I cannot wait for more of it. The first season, which revolves around a high school girls’ soccer team whose plane crashes in the woods, is intriguing. It’s creepy, it’s unsettling, it’s funny but it’s fascinating and I cannot wait for my questions to be answered. As if the soundtrack didn’t sell it (the best use of The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play” I can think of), what ultimately sells Yellowjackets is the performances. Not just from the teenagers, but from their adult counterparts, played by Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress, Juliette Lewis, and Christina Ricci. All of which knock this out of the park.
7. The White Lotus- Season 1: HBO, knowing that Mike White writes quickly, reached out to him during the pandemic and asked him to cook up something. Following the Big Little Lies formula of “someone’s dead,” White started there, and hatched up The White Lotus. This show is at times horribly uncomfortable, and there is an episode that gave me literal anxiety… but it is also absolutely hilarious in the ways that it elicits the cringe. Centered on a group of people at a Hawaiian resort- most of which have no shame in boasting their white privilege- The White Lotus is a fabulously acted, gorgeously filmed, and sharply written ball that will hopefully be recognized come Emmy season. Murray Bartlett is the standout for me, but there is no denying the powerhouse delivered by Jennifer Coolidge… or Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Alexandra Daddario, Jake Lacy, Sydney Sweeney, and the rest of the gang (the score also should be a frontrunner). I believe this series was a one-draft kind of deal, and in ways you can feel it… but also knowing that information makes it all the more enjoyable. A second season was greenlit, and will star Michael Imperioli. I’m so in.
6. Invincible- Season 1: A show like Invincible wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea… but lordy, was this show great. Gruesome as hell- absolutely disgusting at times- but great. Invincible is one that I haven’t seen in nearly a year, but the greatness of it is still very much on my mind. Featuring an incredible voice cast that I’m not even going to begin to list off (seriously, head to IMDb, it’ll blow you away), Invincible pulls you in from the first episode and doesn’t let you go, even as your stomach is churning. What I love about something like this is that I have no prior knowledge of this comic or any of these characters and it still managed to grip me in the way that it did. It’s funny, its characters are fascinating, and even with multiple storylines, there is still an emotional center to it that is undeniably effective. This one was also greenlit for more seasons (yes, seasons plural), and again, I can’t wait.
5. Ted Lasso- Season 2: For whatever reason, there was a decent amount of negativity surrounding Ted Lasso season 2. The first was an indisputable hit, but the second had its disputes. I guess all I have to say is, I don’t really get it? Mind you, there are two episodes in this season that don’t really drive the plot along… but need we forget that most sitcoms, once upon a time, didn’t really have a plot they were building towards? It was mostly just the characters and the scenarios they found themselves in in a half an hour period. So yeah, I was pretty much all in on Ted Lasso season 2 because for every light episode, there was something darker lurking underneath the surface. Whereas season 1 was a delightful trifle, season 2 dug deeper and all of its emotional elements were really effective. It takes these characters, both male and female, and allows them to channel their pain… which is something that you don’t really see with men, let alone on a comedy series. It’s also a great showcase for this cast, all of which bring their A-game this season. There was even a moment in it that got a tear out of me. I don’t know, I thought it was great, and I admired the ambition.
4. Midnight Mass: I’d heard Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass described as “the best story Stephen King never wrote.” And uh, yeah, basically. Shamefully, I haven’t watched any of Flanagan’s other series… but after Midnight Mass, it’s definitely going to happen. Apparently a passion project of his for years, Flanagan’s series is as creepy as anything I’ve seen in a long time. The show is a total bummer and it’s completely bleak, but amidst the despair is a story that chilled me to the bone. Perhaps it’s something of a slow burn for some, but it’s a pretty brilliant burn that burns bright. I’ve had the itch to revisit it already, and it’s only been a few months. I don’t really know what else to say without giving it away, but if you love horror, Flanagan more than delivers.
3. Station Eleven: Perhaps watching a show about a futuristic pandemic might not be everyone’s cup of tea at the moment… but when it’s done as well as Station Eleven was, I could care less. This HBO Max miniseries reminded me a lot of The Leftovers, and just the simple reminder was enough to make me swoon over it. Station Eleven is so ambitious and daring; its ideas large, its plot developments often genuinely surprising. It also manages to do things narratively that felt really original, and originality is hard to come by these days. Yet there is also an unexpected sweetness to it, where you know that the showrunners had such an affection for these characters. Juggling all of this couldn’t have been easy, but it’s all done here with such elegance. I’ll also just say that if you haven’t formed an opinion on either MacKenzie Davis or Himesh Patel, this show will seal the deal. They’re marvelous.
2. Succession– Season 3: Succession is another one that I had to catch up with last year, particularly after it dominated the Emmys in 2020. A wise move on my part. Succession has got to be one of the best shows around; a masterclass of writing, directing, and acting. On paper, it sounds totally boring. In execution, it’s anything but. Succession is funny and shocking, and each of its characters are complex, albeit loathsome, but in a tricky way, we can never take our eyes off of them. Perhaps even trickier is that, despite how horrible these people can be… you can still manage to find empathy within them, and that is no small feat. The third season is the best so far, and it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, and (my favorite) Matthew MacFadyen all joined the Emmy race this year. I envision another Emmy sweep.
- Mare of Easttown: This one was, hands down, the best though. Or maybe it was my favorite. Nah, it’s both. I can’t remember the last time I found something THIS compelling. Like pretty much any show that cracked the top 5, Mare of Easttown is as masterful as they come. For one thing, it’s incredible just how juicy and rich every single episode of this show is. But making things even more impressive is the fact that there is so much to mystery at the root of this show, and yet through the mystery we’re given a pretty fascinating yet devastating character study of a woman who is great at her job, but totally off the rails in her personal life. Kate Winslet is a goddess- one of our best- and I gotta say, she outdoes herself here in the titular role. There are so many layers to this character: she can be stone cold, but loving, solid as a rock but completely fragile. Winslet never misses a beat. Even when we fear for whatever mistakes she might make, we’re with her every step of the way. Joining her in the greatness is Julianne Nicholson, Evan Peters, and Jean Smart, all of which are in top form (Winslet, Nicholson and Peters all nabbed Emmys for this). Mare of Easttown is a gripping, grim yarn that reminds me in ways of films like Mystic River or Prisoners, but is also its own thoroughly original creation; a creation so specific that you’d think the story was ripped from the headlines. It also features the most shocking, devastating death I have seen this side of Game of Thrones (everyone in the room with me screamed in unison). I could yack on about this all day. I loved this show to bits, and it’s the kind of phenomenal entertainment that I often just think about randomly, because I just couldn’t get enough of it. Mare of Easttown is as good as any movie I’ve ever seen, and for me that’s about as high of praise as you can get.
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