The year-end list of top TV is at once subjective and mysterious. Arguments can abound about the exact placement of this or that series on a top-10 list. But what about television that mattered as a communal experience; the live event or news coverage that had massive impact?
It all matters, actually. This year began with COVID-comfort-TV being dominant. The viewer’s tastes can vary but some series had a near-magnetic pull as distraction: Netflix’s romantic Virgin River, anyone? The ponderous true-crime diversion The Serpent on Netflix? Neither one top-10 in excellence, but meaningful as diversions. And, as the year unfolded, live TV from around the world emerged as its own novelty.
Euro 2020 soccer in 11 host cities was a strange sight, fans packed into some of those venues. Next, the Summer Olympics happened in Tokyo with barely a soul in venues, but climaxed with the Canadian women’s soccer team winning gold in an early-morning triumph, and a massive TV audience. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle told tales to Oprah and the whole world was abuzz. With so many platforms and so many series and events, TV is incredibly inclusive now. Here are the 10 shows that mattered in quality, originality and heft.
1. The White Lotus (HBO/Crave)
An unforgiving satire, with emotional weight, the six-part series about the wealthy guests and staff at an exclusive resort, had an unforgettably tart, near-Swiftian flavour. But with so much nuance it reminded us how truly unnerving great TV storytelling can be.
2. Squid Game (Netflix)
Heralded in advance as massively popular in some countries, and gory, the series actually emerged as a scathing parable of capitalist exploitation. Intriguing, entertaining, unique, grimly funny and dark. Call it what you will, it was the most-watched Netflix series ever for a reason: it resonated.
3. Ted Lasso Season 2 (Apple TV+)
Could a COVID-comfort series about kindness and optimism do it again? Yes. The surface positivity remained but this incomparable show, about an American guiding an English soccer team, has an intricacy in its purpose, a valuable lesson; life’s a game to play with good cheer, soccer is life and happiness is playing together as a unit.
4. Succession Season 3 (HBO/Crave)
Even before the third season concludes, Succession is dazzling in its salute to dialogue with flamingly colourful and obtuse insults, passive-aggressive snubs, taunts and slanders. It’s so livid you might actually think this family-feuding drama set inside a massive media company was real. The rivalries, treasons and unwise alliances would be banal if it weren’t for the glory found in extravagantly baroque colloquy.
5. Invasion (Apple TV+)
In a crowded arena of sci-fi and fantasy this fall, all spectacle and terror, what stood out was the sublime sensitivity here. It seemed unimaginable that a new series about an alien invasion could be truly humane, but Invasion is that. Utterly engrossing, tender, passionate and uninhibitedly about real people under pressure but in love, in some way. The fragility of love is the theme in an often-moving drama about love’s mysteries, and not at all about monstrous invaders.
6. Mare of Easttown (HBO/Crave)
Kate Winslet plays a small-town detective in Pennsylvania. An acting challenge, yes, and one Winslet met with triumphant skill. The investigating of a local murder, while Mare’s life disintegrates, becomes a portrait of a town, a community collapsing in economic and social despair.
7. Sort Of (CBC, CBC Gem)
It turns out we make seemingly small-scale TV in Canada that has huge impact. Now garnering awed reviews while streaming on HBO Max, this little show about a gender-fluid Toronto millennial of Pakistani heritage, is the epitome zeitgeist-catching TV. In just eight short episodes it’s a masterpiece of funny, tender and humane comedy. Creators Bilal Baig (also its star) and Fab Filippo made something truly exceptional.
8. Hacks (HBO/Crave)
A splendidly dark, biting comedy, Hacks looked simple enough as a premise, but there’s a ferocity to it that has venom, and yet there’s a warmth too. The uneasy alliance between aging, old-school comic Deborah (Jean Smart) and angry, younger comic Ava (Hannah Einbinder) is so rich in meaning about age, experience and entitlement, it has jaw-dropping wit and insight.
9. Pretty Hard Cases (CBC, CBC Gem)
Entertaining, odd and a fascinating hybrid of cop show, comedy and socially aware big-city drama, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen and so right-on anomalous, it makes a lot of cop-show content seem irritatingly out of touch. Meredith MacNeill (Baroness Von Sketch Show) and Adrienne C. Moore (Orange Is The New Black) are magnificent in lead roles
10. Lupin (Netflix)
Like Ted Lasso, an emanation of our time and a magnificent concoction anchored in the sheer charm of “gentleman thief” Assane Diop (Omar Sy), a Frenchman of Senegalese background who pulls off a spectacular heist that leads into a big, thrilling caper, merely part of his revenge against a rich white family that caused his father’s death. A perfectly judged flight of fancy for our COVID-19 times.
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