In January of this year, we were still watching the end of some of the best dramas of 2021. Then along came mid-season drama and comedy. The CBC’s The Porter (streams CBC Gem) was the big-ticket drama and delivered an eight-episode series teeming with compelling characters – deeply committed to making the trials and tribulations of its characters in 1920′s Montreal part of an entertaining, hectic world fuelled by music, talent and ambition. Less a history lesson than dramatized interpretation of real events, it’s a sizzling, sexy story about people you want to root for and follow.
Son of a Critch (streams CBC Gem) got funnier and more absurdly droll as it developed, with Malcolm McDowell’s presence and gusto adding immensely to the series based on Mark Critch’s memoir about growing up in Newfoundland and Labrador. Some episodes are beautifully, weirdly funny and its the CBC’s biggest hit in a while.
A more magical comedy came in As We See It (streams Amazon Prime Video), an absolute peach of a show. Based on an Israeli series, it’s best called a “dramedy” about three twentysomething roommates who are on the autism spectrum. Uproarious, poignant and pointed originality. Then came the much-binged Inventing Anna (streams Netflix) which dramatizes the bizarre story of Anna Delvey, (Julia Garner), who conned her way upward in New York social circles and spent other people’s money. By turns schlocky, witty and insightful about the shallow rich, it heralded a slew of docudramas about criminals and grifter, some of which appear on the rest of this list.
The Girl from Plainville (streams StackTV) is surprisingly solid and moving, given its torn-from-the-headlines origins. The case was the 2014 death by suicide of 18-year-old Conrad Roy (Colton Ryan). It was notorious because 17-year-old Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning), Roy’s girlfriend, was alleged to have sent him many texts encouraging him to do so. It is more about mental health and misunderstood notions of tragic love than it is lurid.
The Dropout (streams Disney+) has Amanda Seyfried as Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who faked the efficacy of her device that could, she claimed, quickly do blood tests, at any time or place, from a single drop of blood. It’s about the dark, grifter side of Silicon Valley, but more richly focused on the story of a smart, driven and hard-working but utterly delusional young woman who was selling aspiration, not expertise, to the gullible.
Severance (streams Apple TV+) is about work-life balance, but the approach is only occasionally funny, in a wry, sinister way. In fact, the show is drenched in paranoia about what corporate work does to people. Be aware of the perpetual state of anxiety it intends to impart, while admiring the luminously strange beauty of it all. It is a what-if drama. What if you could entirely separate your work life from your home life? This is on-offer at the mysterious Lumon Industries – the employees can have a brain surgery called “severance.” This suits Mark (Adam Scott), because he’s grieving the recent death of his wife, and in the workplace Adam and a few others inhabit, there’s deft but savage satire of corporate life.
Shoresy (streams Crave) is diabolically funny. The spinoff from Letterkenny has the famously foul-mouthed, chirping Shoresy (Jared Keeso), who claims intimacy with the mothers of all his teammates, join a senior Triple A hockey team in Sudbury, Ont. It is bonkers, but a beautiful thing. Full of salty Canadian vernacular, and hockey-centric.
Slow Horses (streams AppleTV+) is a new twist on the traditional Le Carre-style espionage. Based on the novel by Mick Herron, it features one of the great dilapidated spies: Jackson Lamb, a man so burnt out, seedy and cynical he’s a perambulating half-century of jaundiced espionage experience (played with exquisite relish by Gary Oldman). A sublimely droll thriller with comic bite too.
Pachinko (streams Apple TV+) is visually breathtaking and epic in almost every department, but intimate in focus. It’s based on Min Jin Lee’s novel, but not adhering tightly to it. The story weaves and bobs from Korea in 1915, occupied by Japan, over decades to the near-present of 1989 when Solomon Baek (Jin Ha) arrives in Japan from the U.S. to secure a financial deal and a promotion. His determination is inherited from his grandmother Sunja, who we first meet as an intense, tough-as-nails eight-year-old (played with astonishing gravity by Jeon Yu-na), when she’s living with her family on a small fishing island. A masterpiece of unhurried family drama.
Conversations With Friends (streams Amazon prime Video) is an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s first novel by the same Irish and BBC/Hulu team that made Normal People. The series asks the same question as the novel: What do you do with desires and impulses you don’t understand? That’s the situation of Frances (Alison Oliver, in her first TV or film role) a 21-year-old, soon-to-finish university student, who begins an affair with a married man. It is so slow burning that the delicacy of it is exquisite.
We Own This City (streams Crave) is a dirty-cop narrative from David Simon working with long-time collaborator George Pelacanos. It’s an unfussy, powerful dramatization of a true story – how an elite plainclothes unit within the Baltimore Police Department became corrupt. The leader of the group for years was Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal), a guy who went from straight-arrow beat cop to the embodiment of sleaze. As Jenkins, Bernthal is formidably compelling in a very physical, demanding performance.
The Staircase (streams Crave) is a dramatization of the case of Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) who was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home in 200. Her husband, novelist Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) was the suspect from the get-go. Oscar-winning French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade made a classic documentary series about the case but if you think you know the story, think again. It’s a mystery and legal case so bewildering and thorny it continues to fascinate and commands yet another bout of scrutiny.
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