As we close out 2021, it's time for lists and for taking stock of the best, worst and breakthroughs in filmed entertainment. Cinemas reopened in a staggered way and gradually audiences pulled themselves out of their couches, switched off their smart TVs, closed their streaming apps to reconnect with the big screen experience.
2021 is the year when big and small screen entertainment (namely web series) began to nudge each other to negotiate harmonious sharing of eyeballs. Qualitatively, entertainment made a quantum leap with smarter writing and more authentic and immersive performances, primarily on OTT services. But, as always, there were also some misfires.
Much is written about the best of Indian shows and films. So for my last column of this year, here’s my pick (based on what I have been able to watch in these 12 months) of 12 of the best international shows of 2021. The genres range from murder mysteries to feel good comedies, dramas and satire, listed in alphabetical order.
Call My Agent Season 4 (Netflix)
The six-part fourth season of the French sitcom (also called Dix pour cent) was almost its last. But what happiness when the makers announced that the gang of Parisian talent agents who run ASK agency were going to return for a fifth season. Fans of the show haven’t had their fill of Andrea Martel, Mathias Barneville, Gabriel Sarda, Arlette Azémar, Camille Valentini, Noémie Leclerc and Hervé André-Jezak and the stream of A-list cameos the show smartly pulls off.
Dopesick (Disney+ Hotstar)
Michael Keaton headlines this drama based on the book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America. Keaton plays Samuel Finnix, a doctor who practices in a mining town. The non-linear storytelling format includes an investigation into the company making Oxycontin, medical court hearings and back stories of patients who struggled with opioid addiction. Through the pharma companies, doctors and medical representatives, the show spotlights devastation caused by addiction, greed and profiteering.
A young mother fleeing an abusive relationship starts working as a maid to support herself and her three-year-old daughter. But for Alex (Margaret Qualley) the money is never enough to make ends meet. What makes Maid so compelling is that you feel Alex’s poverty, the challenges that keep mounting and you feel like reaching out to stop her before she makes the next mistake. Qualley’s heart-felt performance, backed by real-and-screen mother Andie MacDowell as a flighty hippie, and Maid make you grateful for life’s gifts.
Mare of Easttown (Disney+ Hotstar)
A murder investigation becomes more than a case for detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet). Her world and life become messily linked. Winslet immerses herself into the character and her surroundings, making Mare of Easttown an emotional and compelling whodunnit.
Never Have I Ever Season 2 (Netflix)
Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) returned with her teenage angst, short temper, boy crushes, smothering relatives, et al. Though the show revolves around Devi’s growing pains, portrayed charmingly by Ramakrishnan, it was Poorna Jagannathan’s performance as her conflicted mother Dr Nalini Vishwakumar that gave the season its emotional heft.
Only Murders in Building (Disney+ Hotstar)
Three neighbours—a one-hit actor (Steve Martin), an over-the-hill theatre director (Martin Short) and a young artist (Selena Gomez)—become an unlikely team of amateur detectives who come together to solve a murder in their building. Obsessed with true crime podcasts, they start one of their own. Even as the truth gets uncovered layer-by-layer, like any good mystery, what keeps this show engaging is the masterful comic timing of its veteran actors Martin and Short.
Sex Education 3 (Netflix)
If the earlier seasons of this British high school comedy focused on teenager Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), his sex therapist mother Jean (Gillian Anderson), his school crush Maeve (Emma Mackey) and the other classmates, the third season gave each character’s particular situation centre-stage. At the same time the school has a new headmistress. The writers of the show cleverly and humorously celebrate individuality and nonconformity.
Squid Game (Netflix)
Hundreds of desperate men and women get tempted by riches to join a deadly game with the possibility of no return. 2021’s mega hit from South Korea is a statement on inequality, opportunism and choices. But beyond the messaging, the high quality production design, haunting music and shock value left viewers stunned in disbelief and riveted in equal measure.
Succession Season 3 (Disney+ Hotstar)
One of the best written shows out there, season 3 began with the Roy family standing at the precipice of more unadulterated drama. Jeremy Strong’s incredible performance as Kendall Roy kept the series crackling even when the episodes seem to be marking time with Kieran Culkin continuing to rock as Roman Roy. This might not be the best season, but one is invested enough in the Roy family’s toxic trickeries to make allowance to a pandemic-hit production.
Ted Lasso Season 2 (Apple TV+)
An American football coach, hired by an English football (soccer) club, must try to get the team out of relegation. He enlists the help of a sports psychologist while also battling his own demons. While this could have fallen into the trap of the standard tropes about the differences between Americans and the British, the show tap dances along charmingly thanks to the eternally optimistic and likeable coach Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis). An equally jolly supporting cast makes ‘Ted Lasso’ just the buttery sweet distraction you need after a rough day.
The Morning Show Season 2 (Apple TV+)
Having made a major expose on live TV, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) is now in exile in her country estate while Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) continues to host ‘The Morning Show’ with a co-host Eric Nomani (Hasan Minhaj). A book on the sexual harassment scandal that rocked the TV network is about to release, causing great concern to all. This season focused on individual emotions in the aftermath of the scandal, with stellar performances by Billy Crudup as network CEO Cory Ellison and Aniston as the exposed erstwhile TV star.
The White Lotus (Disney+ Hotstar)
The exclusive resort on an island in Hawaii is the setting for creator Mike White’s social satire about the rich white guests and the hotel staff beholden to fulfil their every request, with a smile that often covers up their own discomfort. Murray Barlett nailed it as Armond, the resort manager who starts spiralling and Jennifer Coolidge was in top form as Tanya, the single woman travelling with her insecurities. The success of the first season prompted the show to be renewed with a different White Lotus resort, a new set of guests and more black comedy coming up.
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