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Amid the comfort TV that served as a pandemic distraction and the live sports and news events that were a communal viewing experience, these 10 shows mattered

Squid GameYOUNGKYU PARK/AFP/Getty Images

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.

The 21 best series to stream fo far in 2021

1. The White Lotus (HBO/Crave)

From left, Murray Bartlett, Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, unidentified person, and Lukas Gage in 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.

HBO’s hilariously sardonic The White Lotus is one of the year’s best new shows

2. Squid Game (Netflix)

In Netflix's Squid Game a mysterious invitation to join a high stakes game is sent to people at risk who are in dire need of money.YOUNGKYU PARK/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.

Global sensation Squid Game is a parable of capitalist exploitation

3. Ted Lasso Season 2 (Apple TV+)

Jason Sudeikis in season two of Ted Lasso.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.

In defence of Ted Lasso: The backlash is undeserved

Ted Lasso is ushering in a welcome breeze of goodness and innocence

4. Succession Season 3 (HBO/Crave)

Brian Cox as Logan Roy in Succession season three.Macall Polay/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.

Let’s loathe the rich: Succession is back and blistering

Succession is now cheese, but pungent cheese

5. Invasion (Apple TV+)

Shamier Anderson in Invasion, streaming on Apple TV+.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.

Invasion: Highly recommended for sensitivity, not gross spectacle

6. Mare of Easttown (HBO/Crave)

Angourie Rice, left, and Kate Winslet in HBO's Mare of Easttown.HBO

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.

Kate Winslet is superb in Mare of Easttown, one of the year’s great dramas

7. Sort Of (CBC, CBC Gem)

Amanda Cordner, left, (as 7ven) & Bilal Baig (as Sabi) in CBC's Sort Of.Keri Anderson/Courtesy of CBC

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)

Hannah Einbinder, left, and Jean Smart in HBO Max's Hacks.HBO

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.

Hacks: A tart, tight comedy with layer upon layer of meaning

9. Pretty Hard Cases (CBC, CBC Gem)

Meredith MacNeill as Samantha, right, and Adrienne C. Moore as Kelly in CBC's Pretty Hard Cases.CBC

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

Pretty Hard Cases: There’s never been a cop show like this

10. Lupin (Netflix)

Lupin, season two.Emmanuel Guimier/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.

French actor Omar Sy brings star power to Netflix’s international hit Lupin

Good news: The charming Lupin returns as dazzling as ever

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