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Meredith MacNeill as Detective Sam Wazowski in Pretty Hard Cases.Ben Mark Holzberg /CBC

There’s a lot of TV made in Canada these days and many Canadian actors are busy, busy, busy. That doesn’t mean they all get recognition or that there is true acknowledgment of great work.

These are very strange times in Canadian TV, for all the busyness. Not much is written about it in real critical terms, and the industry’s way of honouring work is just wonky. A look back at the nominees and winners in the acting categories for the 2021 Canadian Screen Awards is dismaying: Most of the nominations were for shows already ended (Kim’s Convenience, Schitt’s Creek, Cardinal) or for the now-disowned Trickster.

So, this column today amounts to a short list of notable performances I’ve seen, noted and admired. Heaven knows I haven’t seen everything made here, but this is a year-end list of great Canadian TV performances in 2021. As you will see, most are by women.

The 21 best TV series to stream so far in 2021

Firstly, Meredith MacNeill in Pretty Hard Cases (CBC, CBC Gem). We all knew MacNeill’s skills in comedy from Baroness von Sketch Show but her work in this wonderfully indescribable cop show was superlative and nuanced. Her character is a boss, a mother and, while sometimes confused, a very good cop. The moment in the opening episode when she says (to her new partner, the Black cop Kelly Duff, played by Adrienne C. Moore), “I’m aware of my privilege and I’m an ally!” was one of the highlights of the whole year.

Katie Douglas as Abby in Ginny & Georgia.SOPHIE GIRAUD/NETFLIX/Netflix

Speaking of Pretty Hard Cases, there was excellent work from Katie Douglas on that show as a duplicitous and wily teenager. And Douglas was again brilliant in the Netflix series Ginny & Georgia, which teemed with good Canadian actors. The underrated series also featured wonderful work by Sara Waisglass and Sabrina Grdevich. I hope they’re all back for the upcoming second season.

Sofia Banzhaf basically carried the enchanting satire The Communist’s Daughter (CBC Gem), a series that has now won so many digital awards at festivals that it won the “Web Series World Cup” and merited a feature in The Hollywood Reporter. As teenager Dunyasha McDougald, Banzhaf plays the daughter of two happily married communists, as she tries to fit in at a new high school during the Reagan-era 1980s. Her gusto is just admirable. There’s also a fine turn by Nadine Bhabha (from Letterkenny) as Jasmine, who tries to guide hopeless Dunyasha toward being cool.

The Communist’s Daughter has now won so many digital awards at festivals that it won the 'Web Series World Cup' and merited a feature in The Hollywood Reporter.Courtesy of CBC Gem

Next up, Bilal Baig and Supinder Wraich in Sort Of (CBC, CBC Gem). While Baig has rightly got accolades for their work as the wry, dryly funny and charismatic Sabi, Wraich is just glowingly good as the sister, Aqsa, who has to manoeuvre between Sabi and their mother; she’s the sleeper star of this outrageously good and original series.

Pascale Bussières stands out in Way Over Me (Crave). The series is highly unusual: a Quebec-made drama constructed like a cop series but actually about social workers who specialize in mental illness. As Dr. Justine Mathieu, Bussières has the toughest role, as the mental-health specialist who cannot diagnose her own feelings about a man brought to her for assessment and possible treatment. This is a truly conflicted figure, drenched in melancholy, and you cannot take your eyes off Bussières.

Pascale Bussières in Way Over Me.Yan Turcotte/Crave

Florence Longpré and Mélissa Bédard are compelling in Can You Hear Me? (M’entends-tu?, streams Netflix). As Ada (Longpré) and Fabiola (Bédard), these two actors are the epitome of working-class Montreal. They barely have a nickel, and thrive on sex, drugs and petty crime. Ada is the scene-stealing role and Longpré inhabits it with enormous force. But Bédard has the more demanding role as a woman doing what she can to survive emotionally, especially in her relationships with terribly unsuitable men.

Last year around this time, I noted the terrific work of Brian Markinson and Jessica Matten, as the mismatched cops on Tribal (APTN) and, in the second season, they are even better. Both their characters have evolved and that evolution is a tricky job for the actors. They’re doing it with aplomb on another underrated but must-see Canadian drama.

Finally, the ubiquity of Tony Nappo (in Pretty Hard Cases, Strays, Frankie Drake Mysteries) is very welcome. Nobody does the crusty-but-lovable guy better, and he brings so much more.

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