Roeper’s favorite TV series of 2021: No. 1 show was 52 years in the making
Small-screen thrills came from one cheating president, two mismatched comedians, four diverse college girls and four lads from Liverpool.
If you sometimes get the feeling it would be impossible to watch all the original series on broadcast TV, cable and streaming services, you would be correct.
The numbers are staggering. According to Variety, there were 1,923 series on various platforms in 2021, shattering the record of 1,628 set in 2019. This is why I can’t really say my Top 10 list represents the “best” series of 2021; as much as I tried to soak up as many offerings as possible, by sheer force of the clock and the calendar I couldn’t see everything. So, let’s just call this my 10 favorite new TV series of 2021, and by “series” I mean everything from a limited run of a dramatic show to the first season of a series that will continue on — or a documentary of more than one episode.
We start with a couple of unofficial mayors and a president in peril.
If you’ve had your Pinot Noir glassful of all those ritzy, richie-rich melodramas such as “Big Little Lies” and “The Affair” and “The Undoing,” Kate Winslet’s world-weary former high school basketball star and police detective can give you a tour of Easttown, a small, working-class town in Pennsylvania where they have just as many sensational crimes, dirty deeds and passionate affairs as their wealthier counterparts on either coast.
Five years after Sarah Paulson’s Emmy-winning turn as prosecutor Marcia Clark in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” Paulson turns in an even more impressive performance as self-designated and cringe-inducing whistleblower Linda Tripp, whose betrayal of Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein, doing superb work) ignites the impeachment case against then-President Clinton (a nearly unrecognizable Clive Owen). Juicy, juicy stuff.
Jeremy Renner’s Mike McCluskey is like a spiritual cousin to Winslet’s Mare Sheehan in that neither is the actual mayor of their respective hardscrabble communities, but both bear the weight of the world on their shoulders as they navigate the often-blurred lines between law enforcement and breaking the rules for the greater good. This is a gritty, rough-hewn, authentic slice of blue-collar Michigan life from co-creator Taylor Sheridan of “Yellowstone” fame.
The 2018 feature film “Blindspotting” was a work of blazing creativity, and this Starz original comedy/drama/musical series is a worthy follow-up as it picks up the story of Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), six months after Miles (Rafael Casal), her longtime boyfriend and the father of her son, has been handed a harsh prison sentence. Filled with eye-popping visuals, strong performances and unique storytelling devices, “Blindspotting” is bold and original television.
Yes, there’s quite a bit of sex in this raw, raunchy, funny and frank HBO Max original series, but this is really about the LIVES of college girls, i.e., Bela (Amrit Kaur), Whitney (Alyah Chanelle), Leighton (Renee Rapp) and Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), the obligatory Four Diverse Strangers who instantly become entangled in each other’s lives in their freshmen year at a top-tier, private school in Vermont. “The Sex Lives of College Girls” features some of the best acting and writing in any series this year. It takes about 10 minutes of the pilot episode for us to feel invested in these young women, and we’re rooting for them to figure things out — but of course we know they’ll NEVER figure everything out, because, well, we remember what idiots we were (or should I say I was) as 18-year-old freshmen.
And now for something completely darker.
Writer-director Mike Flanagan delivered a deeply disturbing, grotesquely twisted, spiritually bent Netflix original limited series about the increasingly strange and perhaps even supernatural goings-on at a remote outpost called Crockett Island. Hamish Linklater is a standout as Father Paul, a charismatic and handsome young priest who looks like he stepped out of “The Exorcist,” and is either going to be a saintly hero or the devil in disguise — or some of both.
My favorite TV duo of 2021: Jean Smart as Deborah Vance, a decidedly Joan Rivers-like comedian who has enjoyed a long and successful residence in Las Vegas, and Hannah Einbinder Ava, a charming but sometimes insufferably smug millennial comic who is hired to blow the dust free from Deborah’s old routines and infuse them with some hipster edge. This potentially hokey premise is mined for pure comedic gold, thanks to the crisp and layered writing and the magnificent chemistry between the iconic old pro Jean Smart and relative newcomer Hannah Einbinder.
Showrunners Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson (“Narcos”) have pulled off one the most impressive feats of the TV year, nimbly toggling back and forth between 1996 and present day to tell the story of a group of teenage soccer players who are stranded when their plane crash-lands in a remote, mysterious place where strange things start happening. Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sophie Nelisse, Sophie Thatcher and Sammi Hanratty are outstanding as the teen girls — and Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis and Tawny Cypress are equally brilliant as the adult versions of these characters.
In addition to the aforementioned “Mayor of Kingstown” and the feature film “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (No. 6 on my list of the best movies of the year), Taylor Sheridan was the driving force behind this “Yellowstone” prequel. This is a raw, rough, rowdy ride with strong work by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as James and Margaret Dutton, who both experienced unspeakable horrors in the Civil War and some 20 years later are embarking on another perilous journey as they accompany Sam Elliott’s Shea Brennan and a wagon train of European immigrants on a months-long trek from Texas to the great Northwest. The best TV Western in 30 years.
One of the great things about Peter Jackson’s magnificent, four-part, nearly eight-hour documentary series about the Beatles and the making of “Let it Be” was that it inspired passionate discourse from generations of fans on Twitter and other social media platforms. Was this a self-indulgent, slow-paced, digitized vanity project, or an instant classic of a rock documentary pulling back the curtain to show us the greatest band of all time in all its messy, complicated, exhilarating, magical glory?
Answer: You bet.