In this post I waffle about some of the best TV dramas or documentaries I’ve seen this year. Every show is available on either Netflix, Disney+ or AppleTV+ and highly recommended. Other streaming services are available 🙂
The top five TV dramas I saw in 2021 are:
- The Beatles: Get Back
- The Queen’s Gambit
- Fargo – Season 4
The Beatles: Get Back is an amazing three-part fly-on-the-wall documentary on Disney+ with a total run-time of over 7 hours. It features digitally restored in-studio film footage and audio from January 1969 recorded for the 1970 movie Let It Be. As such it contains the first plays, practices and demos of songs from the Abbey Road and Let It Be albums.
Director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) has done a brilliant job of picking the best shots from the weeks of recordings and telling the story of the ups and downs of the sessions that culminated in The Beatles’ famous rooftop performance. Here we see George Harrison’s unhappiness with how the creative process is panning out, we see just how close and ever-present Yoko Ono is in the studio, how keen Paul is to keep things going and have something unique and useful at the end of it all, and last but not least Ringo’s optimistic outlook through it all. It’s an amazingly revealing documentary for any Beatles fan or music lover and also shows how it was the addition of improvisational keyboardist Billy Preston that finally got things moving along in the right direction down that long and winding road.
Foundation simply put is like the sci-fi equivalent of Game of Thrones on AppleTV+. Based on Asimov’s award winning sci-fi novels, which I read half of and thought were hugely over-rated, it is visually stunning and ambitiously sweeping in its approach to the space sage of a failing galactic empire. The show makers have taken the key points from the novels and crafted something of their own which elevates the source material to new heights for a modern TV viewer. Seen on my big OLED Sony TV it is a soaring feast for the eyes and compares very well (perhaps in some scenes even surpasses) Villeneuve’s Dune in that department.
Sure, some of the acting is more TV than Hollywood, but the story is captivating and it’s certainly the best sci-fi show I’ve seen on TV for years. Not since the reboot of Battlestar Galactica have I been so immersed in a show that wasn’t related to Star Wars or the MCU, and it has a really good diverse cast of actors who, with the exception of Jared Harris, were unfamiliar faces and helped to suspend reality.
The Queen’s Gambit really needs no introduction as I think it turned out to be one of the most popularly received shows on Netflix this year, maybe behind Squid Game which I haven’t watched yet. The seven episodes tell the fictional story of orphan girl Beth Harmon who learns the game of chess in 1960s USA. She turns from introvert to chess master over the course of the story leaving her male opposition, including Russian grandmasters, lying bruised in her wake.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance is captivating. Co-creator Scott Frank wrote on the excellent Logan and co-creator Allan Scott has had a long career in film and TV, but I’d consider this a career highlight for him. It is important to note that the source material is actually from a novel by Walter Tevis who wrote the classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hustler and The Color of Money, and on reflection I can see some similarities to the latter two pool-based stories.
Fargo – Season 4 is an 11-episode story of the Italian mafia going to war with an African American crime syndicate in 1950s Kansas City, based, as ever, on real events. There’s only a very tenuous connection to previous seasons of the show, but that’s fine. It was broadcast last year in the UK, but we saved it up on Sky while we finished off watching some other shows. I had some initial reservations over Chris Rock as a serious actor but they were largely dispelled over the course of the season. No such doubts rested on longtime Wes Anderson collaborator Jason Shwartzman and Jessie Buckley (Beast) who I love to watch in anything they do.
As usual for Fargo, the cinematography is Hollywood level and there is a seam of dark comedy within the drama. Some of this is provided by a larger than life performance from Salvatore Esposito as the bullish Sicilian brother of the diminutive mobster boss (Shwartzman) who prefers to employ brawn over brain in the conflict with the rival outfit.
Wandavision is a nine episode limited series on Disney+ set in the MCU and portraying what happened to Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) after the death of Vision (Paul Bettany) in Avengers: Infinity War. For me it is the most unique stand-out show from among all the other recent Marvel offerings on Disney and that includes Loki which despite the awesome cast and effects was way too slow.
I can’t really write much more about the show without risking some big ol’ spoilers and will just say that for any MCU fan it is a must-see show. It’s funny, dramatic and touching in turns and has a sinister undertow to each episode as Wanda and the viewer figures out what’s really going on.
Honourable mentions also go to the second season of The Morning Show on Apple TV+ (the link here is for Season 1), the fifth and final season of Money Heist on Netflix (the link here is for Season 4), and the surprisingly good third season of Daredevil.
Daredevil Season 3 is the shining light among season after season of Netflix Marvel mediocrity. I binged watched it and found that something exciting happened in every episode. The performances were great – especially from Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Vincent D’Onofrio as the menacingly idiosyncratic Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin. The script and story stood up very well to Disney’s recent Marvel shows. It has a grittiness and realism lacking in most of those shows and is more akin to the darker DC stuff I really love.