Television, the catch-all name for the stuff that gets delivered on a flattish device of the same title, had a lot to reckon with in 2021.
There was the ongoing confusion engendered by the slo-mo collapses of traditional cable and even-more-traditional networks and by the ever-expanding number of streaming services.
There was the pandemic that began in March 2020, making it a massive challenge simply to make TV shows in time for 2021. Because Netflix abhors a vacuum — and television producers abhor having to sell a vacation home — TV found a way, churning out scores of new series for release this year.
But mostly, in 2021, politics was there influencing, infecting and, in the best moments, enhancing the stories that occupied the small screen.
The year that is about to, thankfully, pass followed on the heels of the first nine months of a pandemic which all too often was used as a political weapon: Reject science to own the libs!
The year came after an intense second half of 2020 in which a mass social protest movement demanded America and its institutions account for their inequities, especially the ones based on race. The movement has continued in 2021, although in power corridors more than in the streets.
The year has seen, too, a reexamination of employment, with millions of workers suddenly refusing to accept Stalinesque bosses, soul-numbing labor or a de minimis minimum wage. Is it any wonder that unionization is resurgent?
And then there was the fight over critical race theory, QAnon, voting rights and oh, yeah, there was the insurrection …
So how did TV grapple with these new political realities? Cautiously. Aggressively. Obliquely. Sometimes bizarrely. But at least, by and large, it dealt with them. Where the old network formula — Norman Lear notwithstanding — was to mostly pretend topical issues were as relevant to their creations as hovercraft to “Matlock,” the new TV reality sees creators jumping on and incorporating hot-button issues.
Some of this, granted, could be written off as a cynical attention stratagem: Look at newsy lil me, not the other six shows debuting this week! But a lot of it seems to stem from a genuine desire to engage, to bring the tools of visual storytelling to the big questions of our time. Much of the year’s best, or at least most interesting, TV was also its most pointed. (Warning: Spoilers will follow.)
The World is Stacked Against You
“Squid Game,” the Netflix import that posited an indebted, marginally working class so desperate for betterment that it signs up for what turns out to be a win-or-be-killed series of children’s games, was the buzz show of the year, an intercontinental sensation in a manner usually reserved for big, broad, comic-book movies.
It was a universal hit, even though the show was made in South Korea and is better understood by reading the subtitles rather than watching the dubbed-into-English version. And even though it was shockingly dark, often to the point where the explicit barbarism overshadows the meaning. But there was meaning behind the carnage: What, “Squid Game” asked, is the point of existence in a society that doesn’t afford you even the barest of necessities? And what is modern capitalism but a zero-sum struggle for the prize? You didn’t have to love “Squid Game” unreservedly to admire its dramatization of the kind of society where people scramble to pay for lifesaving operations via GoFundMe.
Meanwhile, HBO’s “White Lotus” and “Succession” and Hulu’s “Dopesick” made similar points to “Squid Game,” but amid the tiki-drink luxury of a Hawaiian resort, the Freudian discomfort of a feuding media family and the pill-peddling zeal of the real-life Sackler family, respectively.
The human damage done by the moneyed guests at the White Lotus beach hotel — a setting chosen because it fit the constrictions of pandemic-year filmmaking — would be war crimes if committed in fatigues rather than resort wear. And what creator Mike White captures so well is the offhandedness of it: These pampered folk — one of whom literally demands to see the manager — expect that things will work out for them, and they do, while their vacation amusement includes toying with the hopes and dreams of people whose bank accounts lack cushioning.
“Succession” got a little more explicit about the politics of the Roy family’s cable network in this third season, drawing the Fox News parallels more clearly. The family and its TV channel opted to support a presidential candidate who is, at minimum, Nazi-adjacent, and there are several references to the network’s newly enhanced philosophy of feeding red meat to the far right.
But it was at the same time great family drama, as the series followed its typical pattern. What seemed flaccid at the season’s outset turned layered, complex and captivating by the conclusion. Oh, and did the Roys face consequences at congressional hearings over the sexist — and deadly — mismanagement of their company’s cruise line? Of course not. Friends in high places can calm the most turbulent seas.
Speaking of high-placed friends, we have yet to know the final real-world tally the Sacklers will pay for Purdue Pharma, OxyContin and their part in the nation’s opioid crisis. But Hulu’s “Dopesick,” based on Beth Macy’s book of the same title, worked valiantly, and often effectively, to make viewers see that, no matter how many museum wings the family may have funded, the philanthropy was diverting attention from the pain of, again, the little people.
America the Unequal
Money is one system in the great American imbalance. Race is another. And no show in 2021 was as eloquent, as haunting and as beautiful on the nation’s original sin as Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad,” a series it would not be wholly incorrect to label CRT TV. Colson Whitehead’s slavery-era fantasy novel comes to vivid life in director Barry Jenkins’ telling. The subterranean train is real, and the stations where it stops offer tantalizing glimpses of a USA that could be in support of African Americans rather than set in opposition to them. When Jenkins has his characters, mid-scene, look straight into the camera, it’s as if they are staring down the republic’s founding tenet of white supremacy.
If it’s fears of an impending theocracy that haunted your 2021 dreamscape, season four of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” on Hulu, was there to give you not comfort but validation. The show has long moved past the storylines of Margaret Atwood’s great dystopian novel, and this year, it regained some narrative thrust and logic, reminding us even as the Supreme Court seems poised to agree with those who want abortion to be illegal, that it can happen here. If you had drifted away from the show during seasons two and three, now is the time to catch up and prepare for a time when, like the handmaids, we all may be saying, “under his eye.”
Escape is Possible!
Comedy is where we typically turn for escapism, a la “Ted Lasso” — which was ultimately fine in its 2021 sophomore season, although nowhere near its season one peaks. But several shows this season brought not just laughs but wisdom and understanding of marginalized communities.
“We Are Lady Parts” on Peacock showcased Muslim culture in London via the surprising vehicle of an all-female Muslim punk band. “South Side,” perhaps the most realistically Chicago series yet made, gave HBO Max viewers in its second season the lives of two rent-to-own store coworkers negotiating economic challenges in their predominantly Black Englewood neighborhood. And “Reservation Dogs” (FX on Hulu) depicted, with realism of both the dictionary and magical Gabriel García Márquez varieties, four Indigenous teens desperate to escape their Oklahoma reservation surroundings.
“Wandavision,” on Disney+, took viewers on a gleeful, journey through TV genres past as it reminded us that things have gotten a lot more complicated since Ozzie and Harriet (and that Marvel Universe entertainments can aim higher than high school). “Hacks,” on HBO, starring the glorious Jean Smart as a one-time standup superstar-turned-fading Vegas stalwart, said: Uh, no, what seemed simple back then was sometimes just white male privilege running rampant.
Oh, Right — There’s Still a Pandemic
But in terms of addressing the pachyderm in the room — the pandemic that promised to go away but keeps mutating — two series best hit the mark.
“Staged,” on Hulu, brought us a second season of British thespians Michael Sheen and David Tennant, as versions of themselves, barely holding their mental health together via an erudite, contentious, oh-so-actorly and ultimately loving Zoom friendship.
2021’s second season looked like a stumble at first, as the show-within-a-show they made during the first pandemic year got picked up for American TV. But soon enough its exploration of the leads’ anxieties over being tossed aside for more famous actors became our anxieties, and the show turned into, once again, a perfect pandemic-evening tonic. Extending Zoom calls for want of something else to do, wondering if we still matter in the three-dimensional world, moaning about whether this will ever end — this is what the last two years have often felt like. “Staged” reflected that anomie and dread back to us — but concentrated and carbonated and full of belly laughs at our species’ absurd predicament.
“The Morning Show” on Apple TV+ is by no measure a great television series. Its intense focus on the doings at a network morning TV show makes it feel like a relic from an era when Katie Couric was a colossus astride the media, the way Jennifer Aniston’s character is supposed to be here. In an era of sophisticated adult TV drama, it’s also a little too close to soap opera.
But its cast, also including Steve Carell as Aniston’s former co-anchor disgraced by #MeToo allegations, is outstanding. And the show gets at something human in Aniston’s efforts to understand and maybe forgive her former TV-show husband and close friend.
In 2021’s second season, it’s also fairly unnerving in playing back for us the first moments of Covid-19, when some people took it seriously, some scoffed and then everyone watched, aghast, as public spaces emptied out and hospital ICUs filled up.
Better explorations of pandemic existence will surely come along — HBO’s post-apocalyptic “Station Eleven,” a paean to art’s endurance that debuted in mid-December, is already looking like one — but “The Morning Show” has a certain documentary fealty to those early weeks of dread that makes it worth wading through the soap bubbles.
Television wasn’t the absolute lifeline for people that it was during the lockdown of 2020. Heck, this year a second season of “The Tiger King,” everybody’s early pandemic must-watch, drew barely a nod from the broader culture.
But still in 2021, as vaccinations came, then the Delta variant and the booster and now Omicron, TV was there for us, a window onto a challenged, and challenging, world. You didn’t need to be Joe Exotic coping with cancer in prison to understand that stuff has gotten real.