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From offbeat comedy to smart drama to uncomplicated thrills, these are the shows you shouldn’t miss from 2021

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The top 10 TV series of 2021 dazzle with quality, originality and heft



Dramas with substance

The White Lotus
Mare of Easttown
The White Lotus (HBO/Crave)

The six-episode series follows annoying, wealthy guests over the course of one week at a luxury resort in Hawaii. There’s the Mossbacher family, headed by a famously successful tech CEO mom (Connie Britton), a solo traveller (Jennifer Coolidge) who dramatically pulls anyone into her coming to terms with her mother’s death, a horribly matched newlywed couple and a ridiculous resort manager who longs to exact revenge on complaining guests. You won’t want to pull your eyes away from The White Lotus, a work of phenomenal acuity about money, class, generation gaps, sex and love.

Mare of Easttown (HBO/Crave)

Mare of Easttown features Kate Winslet as the grandma-detective, Mare Sheehan, in a distressed, opioid-depressed Pennsylvania town, where it seems everyone is involved in the mystery of a missing girl and a murdered girl. As solving the mystery lands on Mare’s strong but tired shoulders, the miniseries unfolds into a story with meaning and integrity.

Beartown
The Undergeround Railroad
Beartown (HBO/Crave)

The Swedish series Beartown (with English subtitles) comes from HBO Europe and will resonate profoundly in Canada. Based on the 2017 novel by Fredrik Backman, it’s about hockey and the sport’s meaning, and about sexual assault and how that affects the survivor, their family, friends and community. It feels like a warm hometown drama yet it becomes harrowing.

The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video)

Based on the prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad is an intense, powerful work, a threnody and a critique of American culture and racial injustice. It strays into magic realism and depicts astonishing, horrifying brutality through the story of one central character, the young woman Cora (Thuso Mbedu) on her literal and spiritual journey to escape slavery.

The Investigation
It's a Sin
The Investigation (HBO/Crave)

In 2017, Swedish journalist Kim Wall disappeared after boarding a submarine constructed by Danish inventor and entrepreneur Peter Madsen, intending to write an article about him. The point of The Investigation is to drain melodrama and sensationalism from a fictional – but steeped in fact – account of the case. It’s a slow-moving, slow-burning six-part drama that is a variant on the Scandi-noir template.

It’s a Sin (Amazon Prime Video)

It’s A Sin has the energy and charm required to grip you with the story of a group of young men who arrived in London in the early 1980s and began living as openly gay. Series creator Russell T. Davies sets out to celebrate with loads of sizzle and fun, before AIDS looms over this community and anger and loss become dominant. To call it a roller coaster is an understatement.


Thrillers, uncomplicated and with actual thrills

Tribal
Bloodlands
Tribal (APTN Lumi)

The under-the-radar and unfussy First Nations police procedural offers no big bombshells, but it’s a gripping, nuanced and twisted cop drama about many morally compromised characters, and a morally compromised community that represents all of us. Tribal is a propulsive crime drama that covers themes of police corruption, missing and murdered women, and the tensions between the Indigenous community and the white establishment.

Bloodlands (Acorn TV)

Bloodlands is a new Irish-noir drama, made by BBC, created by newcomer actor/writer Chris Brandon and produced by Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty, Bodyguard). Set in the wintry and jittery Northern Ireland of today, it’s a fast-paced mystery-thriller steeped in paranoia about the past.

Bad Banks
Bad Banks (CBC Gem)

Bad Banks (in German with English subtitles) is as much about espionage as banking. In this gripping, no-nonsense miniseries, a seemingly sensitive and whip-smart young woman turns amoral rogue banker, working secretly to destroy her colleagues and, perhaps, upend the whole German economy.


Off-the-wall drama with fun and smarts

Invasion
Teenage Bounty Hunters
Invasion (AppleTV+)

This series (from co-creators Simon Kinberg and David Weil) is unlike most in the alien-invasion genre. Invasion is at times an enchanting, moving drama about love’s mysteries, not at all about the gross, fear-inducing spectacle of monstrous invaders. Utterly engrossing, tender, passionate and deeply humane, the drama so far is uninhibitedly about people under pressure but in love.

Teenage Bounty Hunters (Netflix)

Teenage Bounty Hunters is a little miracle of wit and acidic snark, with a healthy dose of satire aimed at rich, white evangelicals that never goes too far in the direction of outright sneering. Woven into this action-filled milieu is a hilarious portrait of the lives of the teenage twin heroines at school and home.

Pretty Hard Cases
Summertime
Pretty Hard Cases (CBC Gem)

Pretty Hard Cases is way more than a wacky cop show. A fascinating hybrid of cop show, comedy and socially aware big-city drama, it makes a lot of cop-show content seem irritatingly out of touch.

Summertime (Netflix)

Summertime, set in an Italian coastal town (it’s in Italian with English subtitles), is about that summer where the lives of a small group of young people are changed forever. It’s all a bit dopey and soapy but the texture of sun, sand and softness on the Adriatic coast is so real you can taste it and feel it.

Lupin
Flack
Lupin (Netflix)

Lupin is a wonderfully intricate and propulsive five-episode series (in French with English subtitles). Inspired by the “gentleman thief” character Arsène Lupin, Assane Diop (played by Omar Sy) pulls off a spectacular heist as revenge against a rich white family that caused his father’s death.

Flack (Amazon Prime Video)

Flack is about the public-relations professionals at an upmarket (read: expensive) firm in London. It is delightfully cynical, but sometimes bittersweet, funny and occasionally outright brilliant. Especially about the often loathsome clients these characters are paid to babysit, promote and protect.

Behind Her Eyes
Sky Rojo
Behind Her Eyes (Netflix)

The miniseries Behind Her Eyes is beautifully made, tonally distinct and exceptionally well-acted. It is gripping and slightly sinister from almost the start and fuelled by an off-kilter erotic charge that only begins to make sense in the context of its strange ending.

Sky Rojo (Netflix)

Sky Rojo (in Spanish with English subtitles) is all lurid neon, fast-paced action and filled with suggestions of sex and violence. It is not, however, as superficial as that brief description hints. For all its colour, car chases and Tarantino-esque whiffs of sadism, the eight-episode series is a vivid, thundering denunciation of the sexual exploitation of women.


Documentaries that tell strange stories of our recent past

Four Hours at the Capitol
Pharma Bro
Four Hours at The Capitol (HBO/Crave)

Four Hours at the Capitol is a disturbing, graphic, meticulous, on-the-ground account of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building. It draws from hundreds of hours of footage from the rioters’ cameras and interviews with police, politicians and members of the right-wing groups Proud Boys and Cowboys for Trump, who were present and involved.

Pharma Bro (Amazon Prime Video)

Pharma Bro is about Martin Shkreli, who became a figure of pharma-greed when he was the head of Turing Pharmaceuticals, and raised the price of the drug Daraprim – used to treat toxoplasmosis and other infections in AIDS patients and others with compromised immune system. Filmmaker Brent Hodge set himself the task of trying to reveal and understand the villain aspect of this subject, as Shkreli became evermore notorious and hated and revelled in it all.

Born Bad
The Lady and the Dale
Born Bad (CBC Gem)

The Ontario Training Schools system – a network of 13 provincially operated detention facilities to house “troubled“ children – was, in essence, a jail system for kids. This vital, must-see disturbing documentary series tells the stories of survivors, representative of thousands of children who were incarcerated in these institutions between the 1930s and the early 1980s. Born Bad does something rare: It tells the truth about the lives of the working poor in Canada.

The Lady and the Dale (HBO/Crave)

The Lady and the Dale is full of colourful storytelling. The Dale was a three-wheeled, two-seater automobile launched in 1973 and promoted as slick, safe and cheap to run. It was presented as the creation of a business whiz named Elizabeth Carmichael, who was in fact known to authorities as Jerry Dean Michael, a con artist long sought on multiple fraud charges. Taking the name Liz Carmichael wasn’t part of the fraud though because she was a transgender woman at a time when nobody understood that concept.

Fake Famous
How it Feels to be Free
Fake Famous (HBO/Crave)

Fake Famous, made by first-timer Nick Bilton, a former tech journalist, amounts to an experiment. But, really, it’s a dare. Can Bilton and a small team find three unknowns and make them very famous through Instagram? Can he make them seem like big-shot influencers who get paid to peddle products and get lots of free stuff?

How it Feels To Be Free (CBC Gem)

How it Feels to be Free covers the careers of Abbey Lincoln, Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier. It’s a scorcher, a fabulous journey to that place where art and activism meet in the stories of these Black women artists. It was years in the making and you can see why – there is a ton of amazing archival footage of impassioned performances and movie scenes and scathing political speeches.

Murder among the Mormons
Murder Among the Mormons (Netflix)

Murder Among the Mormons hooks you from the get-go. In the early 1980s, Mark Hofmann claimed to have discovered a cache of documents and letters that would change the core belief system of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In the small world where such documents are collected, and in a church where history is vital to belief, he was a sensational figure. Then one October morning in 1985 there were two explosions in Salt Lake City and the community was both rocked and terrified.


Reality TV with real substance

Write Around the World
Blown Away
Write Around The World (CBC Gem)

Escaping to beautiful and fascinating places is alluring this time of year. In Write Around The World, actor Richard E. Grant travels to the places that have inspired literature, setting out to experience the authors’ and their characters’ worlds. Inspired by the culture, cities and landscapes of southern France, southern Italy and southern Spain, he uses the work of writers such as Elena Ferrante and or Carlo Levi as guides.

Blown Away (Netflix)

Blown Away is one of the most peculiar and obscure but praised series on Netflix. A Canadian production, it’s an artisanal-glassblowing competition. You can make almost any activity into a competitive reality show, but glassblowing artistry is not the first thing that comes to mind. And yet it works, and has received much international attention.


Laughs, offbeat and off-kilter

Sort Of
Stath Lets Flats
Sort Of (CBC Gem)

Sort Of is a warm, deeply funny sarcastic comedy about Sabi (Bilal Baig) whose life gets pulled in several directions. Sabi’s Pakistani mom doesn’t yet realize Sabi is now “they,” and Sabi’s bestfriend wants them to go to Berlin, the “queerest place in the galaxy,” together. But Sabi’s commitment to their job as a nanny to a very bourgeois, downtown-Toronto family intensifies when a life-threatening accident occurs and that family’s secrets unfold.

Stath Lets Flats (CBC Gem)

This absurdist comedy series follows a chap named Stath (Jamie Demetriou from Fleabag), a needy, embarrassingly confused young man who works for his dad’s firm, and is hopeless at renting apartments in London. A good deal of the deeply neurotic comedy arises from customers standing in embarrassed silence while he soldiers on, talking nonsense. Stath Lets Flats is a little masterpiece of British weirdness.

Ginny and Georgia
Norsemen
Ginny & Georgia (Netflix)

Ginny & Georgia is dazzling entertainment, one layer of it Degrassi dipped in acid, another layer mom-and-daughter conflict comedy, plus painful coming-of-age story all wrapped in a mystery. Another angle to absorb is the fact it features a vast army of very good Canadian actors.

Norsemen (Netflix)

Norsemen is an outrageous spoof of Vikings and other series – let’s throw in Game of Thrones – celebrating the derring-do of warriors and pillagers. Set in the village of Norheim in the year 790, the comedy tilts toward Monty Python in the sheer absurdity of solemnizing these bloodthirsty, primitive people.

The Communist's Daughter
Us
The Communist’s Daughter (CBC Gem)

The Communist’s Daughter is a very droll farce that really has no point apart from fun, frolics, jokes about the 1980s, and the ineffable struggle of a teenage girl who wants to fit in but is held back by her communist parents. It doesn’t make a blind bit of sense but that’s fine. It’s deranged enough to detain you for a splendid escape.

Us (CBC Gem)

Us is based on the novel by David Nicholls. The four-part series is a true gem; warm, humane and rooted in a very relatable kind of middle-class existence. A couple on the verge of a breakup are about to embark on a trip around Europe with their teenage son before he goes off to university. The drama is so lugubrious that its charms are very bittersweet, and it takes a wee while to grasp the true fun of it.

Hacks
Hacks (HBO/Crave)

A 25-year-old up-and-coming comic and writer in Los Angeles, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), has made a viral inappropriate joke on social media and nobody will hire her, so her agent sets her up to write new material with veteran Las Vegas comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), who is many decades older. Created by three writers from Broad City, Hacks is about two comedians who are mere hacks unless they help each other to stand and gaze at the gap between real life and the triumphs and terrors of showbusiness.