Succession returned this year knowing it’s TV’s reigning powerhouse, and it delivered. The season picked up directly after jaded addict Kendall (Jeremy Strong) went to war publicly against his father, media titan Logan (Brian Cox). The season had plenty of high points, but its biggest triumph was landing its ending with a one-two punch of endlessly surprising episodes. Matthew Macfayden’s Tom spent the season worried about jail time and his loveless marriage before making a last-minute power move that broke the internet. Kieran Culkin is also a season standout as Roman, a walking, talking mash-up of insecurities and sexual anxieties whose inappropriate behavior–and avoidant attachment issues–start to become untenable late in the season.
The show’s season finale reminds us that, for all the errant conversation about whether these wealthy, evil characters are worthy of sustained attention, this is also a show about the decades-long aftermath of abuse. Succession seems to have barely scratched the surface of the Roy family’s childhoods, as one of its best tricks is always having an ace or four up its sleeve for later. But the episode’s final confrontation masterfully reduces the adult Roy children to little more than kids, asking their dad to love them and shattering when he refuses. In a testament to the profoundly cynical show’s ability to warp our expectations, there’s some solace in the fact that the Roy kids end up back together, united in their pain.
Hacks is a ruthless comedy with a well-hidden heart. Late in the season, comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) meets with a couple of execs who pitch her on their new show. “That’s what the show’s about, just some shitty woman?” Ava asks when it’s clear the execs aren’t digging very deep. It’s a brilliant reference to the elevator pitch one might share for Hacks, a show that, on its surface, is about a washed-up comedian named Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) who chafes against the introduction of Ava’s younger voice into her work.
Unlike the show Ava’s being pitched, though, Hacks is remarkable. Early tête-à-têtes give way to an uneasy truce, and eventually, the two brash women find common ground in an unexpected way. Smart has received well-deserved praise for her layered performance, but Einbinder deserves ample credit for meeting her where she’s at every time. Together, they’re far and away the two most watchable scene partners of 2021.
3. Reservation Dogs
Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s FX series is a television first, a series that foregrounds Indigenous Americans in its cast, writer’s room, and crew. The result is a groundbreaking, highly entertaining series with an admirably strong point-of-view. The show follows a group of four Native American teens living in Oklahoma. Elora (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Cheese (Lane Factor) have all been through some bad stuff, including the recent death of their friend Daniel (Dalton Cramer). The group has mastered the art of putting on a brave face, and when the series starts, they’re diving into a life of minor crime in hopes of making enough money to move to California.
Reservation Dogs utilizes magical realism and dark, offbeat humor in a way that calls to mind other excellent shows from recent years, like Atlanta and Ramy. Yet the series is distinctly its own, led by a talented young cast and writing that’s funny, moving, and surprising. Indigenous people have long since been underrepresented in visual media, and Reservation Dogs effortlessly demonstrates the power of being able to tell one’s own story. Whether Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) is telling us about the time he punched out a dozen guys in a bar, or Officer Big (Zahn McClarnon) is relaying his haunting childhood encounter with the Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), Reservation Dogs is perpetually reminding us that the stories we tell matter. The stories we’re told matter, too, and Reservation Dogs is a damn good one.
2. The Beatles: Get Back
We should have known The Beatles were always a love story. The word was right there in dozens of their songs, after all. Peter Jackson’s massive, miraculous archival undertaking pieces together and polishes up sixty hours of film from the making of the band’s last album. The result is an eight-hour hang-out series that’s brimming with creativity, angst, and, yes, a whole lot of love. For fifty years, we’ve been told that the band’s break-up was acrimonious, ending with John Lennon and Paul McCartney writing in isolation and Yoko Ono, somehow, ruining everything. Yet here we see the band, still just young men, laughing and playing and doing joke covers of their own songs. Here we see John and Paul smiling easily as they fall into perfect musical sync with one another. Here we see Yoko, a quiet presence who brings more comfort than unease.
Aside from giving The Beatles’ history a warmer rewrite, Get Back will also easily convert new fans. The only thing easier than adoring The Beatles is rolling your eyes at them, as is some peoples’ natural response to the most popular thing in the world. Yet Jackson makes it all but impossible not to fall in love with the band–or, at least, with their unparalleled musical talent. The docuseries is stealthy in its purpose, ambling along through the early stages of the songwriting process until something hits. Then suddenly, you’re witnessing the creation of some of the coolest songs ever made. By the time The Beatles make it up to the Apple Corps Building rooftop for an impromptu concert that will turn out to be their last, the camera is all but vibrating with the energy of what they’ve built together. In the end, it’s hard to say goodbye, but Get Back is also an enduring document–one that’s built to be returned to again and again.
1. Bo Burnham’s Inside
I’m not sure when I realized Bo Burnham’s Inside was the most singular thing I would see in 2021. Maybe it was when Burnham dueted an educational children’s song with a sock puppet that couldn’t seem to stop singing about genocide and late capitalism. Perhaps it was when he perfectly captured the twisted and unstoppable pace of technology in “Welcome To The Internet,” donning dark shades and letting out a chilling, devilish laugh. Indeed, by the time Burnham strummed a guitar while singing idly about “the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all,” describing both the apocalypse and a panic attack in “That Funny Feeling,” it was clear.
Burnham helmed Inside by himself, and though the version of him we see on screen is often at a loss, his precise artistic vision comes through in the special’s masterfully executed music, editing, costuming, and cinematography. Inside might be remembered as a time capsule for the COVID era, but its profound ideas about humanity are expansive. They’re much more than its four walls–or the title of “comedy special–can hold. “You say the whole world’s ending, honey it already did,” Burnham sings, and God, it feels good to hear someone say it out loud finally.
Related Topics: 2021 Rewind