Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.
Fall TV season? Yes, that’s still a thing. In fact, if you were even casually watching election news coverage you probably saw a promotion for The Wonder Years (Wednesdays, ABC, CTV) about five thousand times. You may know some of the dialogue by heart already. By tradition, the new fall TV season begins the day after the Emmy Awards, and both networks and streaming services refuse to budge from that schedule.
There’s a good reason for the networks – millions of viewers here and in the U.S. treasure the return of fave weekly dramas and comedies, and are in the mood for something new and fresh. More than 1.1 million Canadians watched the drollery of Private Eyes weekly this past summer, putting it behind only the evening news on CTV in the top 10. Global cancelled it, but that’s Canadian TV for you.
The 21 best TV series to stream so far in 2021
In the category of “new and fresh,” don’t get overexcited yet. The fall TV season will, as usual, be teeming with ambitious young lawyers, dedicated doctors and lovable families interacting with wacky neighbours. No service is immune from the predicable. This year though, there’s a ton of sci-fi and spectacles, plus meaty horror. Here are 10 titles that might be major distractions or must-see content.
NBC, CTV starting Sept. 28
What do you do when Disney+ has more money than God and can create spectacular sci-fi series? In the case of NBC, the answer is this, a bizarrely cheesy but enjoyable crock of gee-whiz malarkey. A massive sinkhole opens up in the middle of Los Angeles, swallowing up people and even entire buildings. (But not network TV offices or execs.) Some of the swallowed people enter a primeval alternative world where dangerous critters roam. The series is not entirely dumb; the core emotional draw is a family separated. Dad Gavin (Eoin Macken) and daughter Izzy (Zyra Gorecki) are intact in L.A. while Mom Eve (Natalie Zea) and son Josh (Jack Martin) are in the netherworld. Will they be reunited?
The Problem with Jon Stewart
Streaming on Apple TV+ from Sep. 30
Expectations are high, probably too high, for the former The Daily Show host’s return to TV with a new weekly current affairs series. It is not promising to be very funny, for a start. Each show will tackle one topic, or problem. Stewart will do interviews and ask pointed questions. There will be as much rage and frustration as humour. In one of his few advance interviews he told The Hollywood Reporter what he told Apple TV execs, “It’s probably a terrible pitch for the show – ‘It’s The Daily Show, but less entertaining’ – but also maybe more complete.”
Streaming on Apple TV+ from Sept. 24
More sci-fi but this time based on the classic books, never before adapted, by Isaac Asimov. The idea is that a fiercely ruthless Galactic Empire has ruled over thousands of planets for thousands of years, but one man, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) has foreseen its collapse. He has perfected “psychohistory,” a science that allows him to predict the future. He has to persuade powerful people that the new Dark Age is on the horizon. He’s got a young sidekick/disciple, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), willing to help Seldon’s plan to save civilization, but what are his true intentions? The special effects are breathtaking but as drama this feels more like Game of Thrones than Star Wars.
Streaming on Netflix from Sept. 24
This escapist horror series comes from Mike Flanagan, the creator of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. It’s a slow-burner, methodically building up toward horror. On a secluded island, a mysterious new priest stirs up the population, many of them damaged souls. Then awful events unfold until there’s screaming and terror. Far from being trashy, it has unsettling undertones about grief and despair.
All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video from Oct. 1
The All or Nothing franchise lands in the laps of Leaf Nation, and chronicles the ultimately disastrous, COVID-ridden 2020-21 NHL season. It promises “unparalleled behind-the-scenes access with players, coaches and fans,” and, while the series rarely delivers anything explosive, the curiosity about the inner workings of the team during a very weird season is bound to grab viewer attention.
Streaming on CBC Gem from Oct. 5; airs on CBC Nov. 9
A genuinely original new series (it will also be on HBO Max in the U.S.), Sort Of is sort of bonkers and certainly outright brilliant at times. From creators Bilal Baig (a Toronto queer, trans-feminine playwright) and Fab Filippo (Save Me), it’s funny, soapy, satiric and tender. It’s about Sabi (Baig) who works as a nanny to a very bourgeois, downtown-Toronto family and as a bartender. The youngest in a large Pakistani family, Sabi is mortified that their mom doesn’t yet realize they are now they, and mystified that their sometimes-gay boyfriend sometimes dates beautiful women. Sabi’s best friend, artist 7ven (Amanda Cordner), wants to take Sabi to Berlin, the “queerest place in the galaxy.” But Sabi’s life gets complicated, as that bourgeois family has secrets and, well, everything is in transition. Snappily sardonic, there’s a rare kind of warmth, too, and Bilal Baig has a rare type of charisma.
You: Season 3
Streaming on Netflix from Oct. 15
For the third creepy adventure about Joe (Penn Badgley), that walking, stalking nightmare, the guy has a new life with his new wife, Love (Victoria Pedretti), and their baby. The series has accumulated an enormous audience because each season has turned into a delicious satirical thriller that upends some common manoeuvres in rom-com dramas and this season promises the skewering of “privileged tech entrepreneurs, judgmental mommy bloggers, and Insta-famous biohackers.” Joe is now in Northern California, and from the conclusion of the last season, we know his wife is as deranged as he is. Who will he and she be obsessed with now?
Succession: Season 3
HBO/Crave starting Oct. 17
The Roy family returns at last to undermine each other and destroy everyone around them, if necessary. At the conclusion of the second season, Kendall held a bombshell press conference, setting up the ultimate battle for control of the Roy empire with his father Logan (Brian Cox). Logan was seen smirking. Now, after Logan watched his son call him “a malignant presence, a bully and a liar,” it’s all-out war. In this cold-blooded, often tightly theatrical series about late capitalism and greed, there’s always another twist coming. Look out for Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), who is too-often underestimated by the self-absorbed, self-hating Roy family.
Colin in Black & White
Streaming on Netflix from Oct. 29
The real Colin Kaepernick narrates this autobiographical six-episode drama series that stars Jaden Michael as a teenage Kaepernick before he became an NFL quarterback, and famous activist. Kaepernick co-created the series with Ava DuVernay (When They See Us), and Nick Offerman and Mary-Louise Parker co-star as his adoptive parents. Might be a mere curiosity, but it sure drew a strong cast.
Dexter: New Blood
Streaming on Crave/Showtime starting Nov. 7
Almost everybody hated the series finale of Dexter eight years ago. It seemed a disservice to Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), forensic technician by day and avenging killer by night. His tornado of a sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) was killed off and Dexter slinked away to be a lumberjack in a remote town. Now it’s years later and as Jim Lindsay, Dexter is in the fictional small town of Iron Lake, N.Y., where he owns a hunting and fishing store. He’s dating the local police chief Angela Bishop (Julia Jones). Then children start going missing in town, and the ghost of Debra is influencing him to act.