You are no longer tethered to your TV, I’m betting, as the world has reopened and you can actually eat a meal inside a restaurant with friends. You can even smile at people without having to lean exceedingly hard on your crow’s feet.
It’s OK. TV isn’t taking your defection personally, and it is still churning out the goodies for your recreational enjoyment. So far, roughly at its midway point, 2021 has featured a number of outstanding series and miniseries, and I’ve listed some of my favorites below (in no particular order). Undoubtedly, a few of the titles on my list will wind up in my year-end Top 10.
“We Are Lady Parts” (Peacock)
This British comedy, about music as a gateway to salvation, quickly became one of my favorites of the year. I binged with a passion. Set in London, it’s about an all-female punk band whose members are Muslim. None of them fits into a stereotype, as women, as performers, and, most clearly, as Muslims. The show dodges more familiar, EZ-to-read tropes, so that a devout Muslim woman can also be a tattooed wild-child with a jagged haircut who finds all kinds of redemption and freedom in performing curse-filled songs. The story line is built around the shy Amina, who wants to be in the band — if she can stop vomiting from stage fright. But all the characters are fully — and wonderfully — dimensional.
This Swedish miniseries takes the small-town sports motif of the excellent “Friday Night Lights” to a deeper, and much darker, level. Based on the novel by Fredrik Backman, it revolves around the local hockey team, whose star player rapes the teen daughter of the new hockey coach. No one wants to believe it’s true, and the town slides into cruel denial while the coach’s daughter goes through the agony of revictimization. Yes, it’s rough viewing, but with a excellent cast and a script that finds redemption.
“Mare of Easttown” (HBO)
It is a good-enough whodunit, as the solutions to a couple of crimes unfolded after the required twists and turns. But it is an exceptional and finely paced exploration of the downbeat Mare, sitting on a tinderbox of unacknowledged grief and depression. Kate Winslet was pitch perfect — gruff, stoic, driven (except regarding herself) — and so was Jean Smart as her sarcastic, loyal mother. The evocation of a small-town working-class community recalls another strong mystery series, “Broadchurch,” and the Pennsylvania accents inspired a “Saturday Night Live” classic called “Murdur Durdur.”
“Call My Agent!” (Netflix)
The French import is smart fun, and the fourth season, released this year, is no exception. An office dramedy, it goes behind the scenes of the entertainment business to make fun of the vanity and self-regard of famous actors — all of them played by real-life actors as comic versions of themselves. From Juliette Binoche and Jean Dujardin to Isabelle Huppert and, brilliantly, Sigourney Weaver, they all shine along with the regular cast. Swollen egos, it turns out, are the same whether you’re in Paris or Hollywood.
“The Underground Railroad” (Amazon)
It should be illegal to binge this harrowing 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Each episode is packed with emotional heft and best experienced on a weekly-ish schedule. Auteur director Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight” creates a stunningly visual and aural rendering of a story that blends true slavery horrors from our past with some alt-history, including an underground railroad that is literally a railroad built beneath the ground. Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) escape the Georgia plantation where they’re abused by the sadistic owners, and they are chased through a decidedly un-United States by a venomous slave catcher played by Joel Edgerton. Some episodes lag a bit; others are stunning. (Amazon)
“Elizabeth Is Missing” (PBS)
Glenda Jackson stole my face right off my head with her raw performance as Maud, a woman living alone and coping with dementia. She’s so in the moment of her character’s confusion you can forget she’s acting. The rest of this installment of PBS’s “Masterpiece” is powerful, too, as the story line expertly jumps between time frames while Maud tries to solve a mystery. Ultimately, it’s a bracing portrait of the pain of those on the slow journey to disorientation and the helpless grief of those watching them depart.
“Hacks” (HBO Max)
Jean Smart plays a Joan Rivers-like comic named Deborah Vance who has a residency at a casino in Vegas. Deborah is comfortable, which has taken a toll on the freshness of her performances and her material. Her agent hooks her up with a 25-year-old comedy writer who is dryly ironic and in-jokey, and the two begin a mentor relationship that is twisted, tense, and beautiful. Sexism, ageism, and generational distance are among the themes, but what will keep you hooked is Smart, who is genius in the role.
“Dickinson” (Apple TV+)
There’s more pure feeling in this semi-comic and surreal take on the young Emily Dickinson than we tend to find in TV’s biographical series. The show mixes the mores and costumes of the mid-19th century with today’s youth-culture tropes, and the result is oddly moving. Hailee Steinfeld is flawless as Emily, as she deals with the misogyny and gender expectations of her day but sticks to her poetry, which is highlighted most effectively. The second season, delivered this year, was every bit as good as the first.
Yes, it’s silly and punchy. But, you know, comedy is subjective. I laughed out loud many times, and I couldn’t get enough of the comic delivery of Renée Elise Goldsberry, who plays a narcissist to perfection. The show is a parody of show business and the greed machine that creates fads such as the one-hit 2000 girl group Girls5eva, whose surviving members are considering a comeback. The women are also trying to redefine themselves in midlife, and we get to know each one thanks to the strong cast led by Sara Bareilles. The fake pop songs are awful and irresistible at the same time.
The long-awaited third season of this Israeli drama, which arrived six years after season 2 thanks to its recent popularity on Netflix, does not disappoint. About an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, it maintains the high quality of the original production, as the writers drop us back into a world that doesn’t seem to have stopped. Each main character, played with remarkable consistency by the cast, is coping with big challenges, most of all Akiva, the painter in a world of scholars, who is lost in sorrow. He is the beautiful outsider in a world of rules and rituals.
. . . AND EIGHT ALMOSTS
“All Creatures Great and Small” (PBS)
It is shamelessly sentimental, but its innocence and its glimpses of the Yorkshire countryside work on you.
“Rutherford Falls” (Peacock)
It take a few episodes to find itself, but the Ed Helms comedy winds up as a sharp look at Native American culture.
“In Treatment” (HBO)
It’s not as fine as the original with Gabriel Byrne, but it offers some strong performances, not least of all by new lead Uzo Aduba.
“The Kominsky Method” (Netflix)
A short but sharp farewell season from a series that treated aging and friendship with good humor.
“It’s a Sin” (HBO Max)
A humane, if stereotypical, look back at the first years of AIDS among a group of friends in 1980s London.
“Feel Good” (Netflix)
The second and final season of Mae Martin’s comedy about addiction, gender, and recovery is a treat.
“Mythic Quest” (Apple TV+)
The second season is uneven, but nonetheless winning, especially the episodes about F. Murray Abraham’s C.W. Longbottom.
“Made for Love” (HBO Max)
Cristin Milioti charms as a wife whose tech guru husband implants a chip in her brain so he can see what she sees.