December 20, 2021
While 2021 was most definitely better than 2020 was for a great many people, the world remains a little weird, as the COVID crisis has waxed and waned repeatedly over the last 20 months. Thank goodness we live in the streaming age.
There have been some spectacular TV shows we've been able to watch over the last year, with so much variety that there is just as good a chance you've watched every show we discuss below as none of them. At PhillyVoice we have never been shy about giving recommendations, which is why a bunch of writers on our team have volunteered their personal Top 5 lists of shows below.
If we can help you discover one piece of entertainment you didn't know about, consider this a success.
5. The Great (Hulu)
4. The Good Fight (Paramount+)
3. Billions (Showtime)
2. Hacks (HBO)
1. Succession (HBO)
Honorable mention: Loki, Mandalorian, Ted Lasso, Mythic Quest, The Morning Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Made for Love
I sometimes get accused of being resistant to new things and I guess my list supports that. Aside from Hacks, four of my five top shows are ones that returned for another season in 2021, but to me that sort of adds to the appeal of a television show. With deeper worlds to expand on, season 2 of 'The Great' was just as spectacular and hilarious as the first; The Good Fight continued to redefine what a legal drama can be in its fifth campaign; Billions (in my opinion) has never ever been better; and Succession, well, was epic in every sense of the word. Hacks was the smartest and funniest comedy of the year and anyone who hasn't heard of it should give the easy to watch show about an aging standup comedian and her young new Gen Z writer — in Las Vegas — a chance.
5. I Think You Should Leave (Netflix)
4. WandaVision (Disney+)
3. Mare of Easttown (HBO)
2. For All Mankind (Apple TV+)
1. Dave (Hulu/FXX)
Honorable mention: What We Do in the Shadows, White Lotus, Loki, Made for Love, Ted Lasso, Foundation, Only Murders in the Building, Hacks, Sweet Tooth
This was an incredibly hard list for me to put together — and I'm sure I left things off — because if you ask me the same question next week, my Top 5 may look entirely different. Not only are these shows all very different in tone and theme, but I consumed them all differently, some from week-to-week, some on a multi-day binge, and others all in one sitting. And if look at my first five honorable mentions, any of those could be moved into my Top 5 and I wouldn't really be upset.
But my No. 1 show of the year is Dave, and not just because show creator and star Lil' Dicky (AKA Dave Burd) is from Philly. The second season of Dave got off to a bit of a slow start, but as it went on they once again leaned into the things that made Season 1 so memorable (like his relationship with Ally and especially GaTa's mental health issues). And the final episode, specifically the final scene with GaTa, did something that no other show this year made me do: cry like a baby. That's right, after finishing the season finale of Dave, a raunchy comedy, I walked into my wife's office where she was working with tears streaming down my face and said, "I think you need to watch this finale." It punched me in the mouth in a way I wasn't expecting. And sometimes you need that.
5. Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
4. The White Lotus (HBO Max)
3. Loki (Disney+)
2. Mare of Easttown (HBO Max)
1. Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Honorable mention: WandaVision, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Morning Show
Consider my top two choices 1a and 1b. Counting down the days, hours and minutes to a TV show's newest episode is a tell-tale sign you love it, and that's how I felt with both "Mare of Easttown" and "Ted Lasso" this year. The storytelling, character development and ability to accurately capture life for so many in the Philly region had me into "Mare" from the start. And whether it was a happy or sad moment in "Ted Lasso," it was impossible not to find myself smiling or crying after an episode. "Loki" gave us Marvel nerds a great intro course into the multiverse that will dominate the MCU's fourth phase, "The White Lotus" gave us a hysterical look over the summer at how terrible people can be on vacation and "Only Murders in the Building" put a solid comedic spin on the true crime genre.
I didn't watch enough TV over the last year to have a top 5, but I'll comment on some things I did watch. Mare of Easttown was very good, but with all the local publicity it received, if you haven't already watched it you're probably not going to finally fire it up on my recommendation. I loved the first season of Ted Lasso last year. Season 2, this year? Meh.
The one thing I saw this year that was excellent was "My Octopus Teacher," which was released in 2020, so I'm not sure if that counts, but whatever. It's about a diver who meets a female octopus, and forms a friendship with her over time. My description of it kind of sounds like an animated Disney movie. It's not. It's a documentary that follows the octopus' everyday life, including her survival while navigating shark-infested waters. We see through a human's interaction with an animal in her own habitat how fragile life can be, and the experience leads to the diver's heightened appreciation for his own family.
With apologies to some shows I want to watch and haven’t gotten around to (Foundation, For All Mankind, White Lotus, and Wheel of Time specifically), here's why I picked my five….
There were a lot of complaints in the middle of the season about the pacing and direction of the show, but those sort of missed the point for me. This show’s success hinges less on the overarching plot and more on how the characters/actors bounce off of one another, and S3 showed a ton of interesting development and growth on those fronts.
Oh, and that slow burn plot paid off in a major way in the end, with a gut punch finale that more than redeemed the way they went about it.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a foreign language show embraced wholeheartedly the way Squid Game was, and it has undeniable appeal. It hits a wide spectrum of themes and emotions, using hyper violence, a bright color palette, and small, intimate moments to tell a story about desperate people crushed by capitalism.
The marbles episode will stick with me longer than probably any other episode on TV this year.
Wandavision was the most daring Marvel show of the year, but it was one I appreciated for its attempt more than I actually enjoyed watching it. Loki, on the other hand, was both bold and consistently entertaining, and the exact sort of product I’d like to see from the Disney+ Marvel shows.
I Think You Should Leave
It would be hard to argue a show having a bigger impact on my life this year than the second season of ITYSL, mostly because it is responsible for a metric ton of memes/still images that get used in everyday conversation. I think the first season remains superior, and some sketches in season two felt like watered-down versions of bits we had already seen, but I still laughed my head off at a lot of moments.
Most shows and movies about or related to video games are hilariously bad, so I might be giving bonus points here just because MQ avoided that trap. But I think this show made real strides in its second season, revealing depth in previously shallow characters while building on the witty writing and good performances from Rob McElhenney and company. This group should be obligated to do at least one flashback episode a season.
Honorable mention: Brand New Cherry Flavor, Mare of Easttown, Ted Lasso