The Saboscrivner’s Top Ten TV Shows of 2021

It’s the end of the year as we know it, so here’s another list!  Here are the Top Ten television shows I watched this year, and why.

10. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney+). I almost listed the dire, depressing HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown instead of this six-episode Marvel show, because Mare of Easttown is better in almost every way. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier humanized one of the best villains to appear so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (my dude Zemo), two supposed good guys had major heel turns (one expected, and one as a huge surprise), and they introduced an important new character who will hopefully lead into a new movie or show about one of my favorite Marvel concepts.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, congratulations on not being a nerd.  Oh yeah, and Sam Wilson, one of the two biggest mensches in the MCU, Steve Rogers’ trusted friend and protégé, fulfilled his potential and rose to a well-deserved spot on the superhero A-list.  I cried happy tears.  If you haven’t watched it or haven’t been spoiled yet, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it’s a beautiful, inspiring moment that reminded me why I love superheroes, even when their stories suffer from poor pacing, weird editing, relatively low budgets, and other factors that keep them from reaching their full potential, as this show did.  Mare of Easttown had better performances and told a tighter, twistier tale, but all it did was make me depressed and hungry for hoagies, and that’s already how I feel every day of my life, baby.

9. Wynonna Earp, Season 4 (SyFy). I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this show to most people. It’s a low-budget, campy Canadian Western-fantasy-horror series that owes a great debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so if you think that sounds fun, then run, don’t walk.  And if you think that sounds awful, then run in the opposite direction.  Honestly, my least-favorite parts of this show were always the monsters of the week, and even the “big bads” of the season often disappointed.  That said, I always enjoyed spending time with the main characters as they laughed, cried, drank, banged, fell in love, shot the shit, shot some demons, and drank some more in the cursed town of Purgatory in the Ghost River Triangle.  This was the final season, and the series finale ended the only way it could have – with an adorable lesbian wedding and a little bit of happiness and hope springing from all the bleakness and blood these heroes had faced.

8. Bosch, Season 7 (Amazon Prime). Maybe the best modern detective/cop/neo-noir show, Bosch did an excellent job of telling gritty crime stories set (and filmed!) in beautiful Los Angeles, while balancing it with some good drama and much-needed comic relief to break the tension. You may have dismissed this as a “show for dads,” or “copaganda,” and you wouldn’t be completely wrong, but Bosch was always so much better than it had any right to be.  This was the final season, but we haven’t seen the last of driven, hyper-competent detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch or his smart, tough, capable daughter Maddie.  They will be returning in a brand-new series, but with a somewhat different status quo based on this series finale.  I’ll miss the wonderful supporting cast, featuring many alumni of The Wire.  I never read any of Michael Connelly’s Bosch novels that were adapted into the show, but the entire series had a sprawling, detailed, novelistic feel.  L.A. felt like another main character, and I sure hope the next Bosch series is shot on location as well.

7. AEW Dynamite (TNT). This has been airing for just over two years, and it may be the best televised wrestling show of all time. I ranked it much higher last year, only because I had a lot more going on this year and fell so far behind keeping up with All Elite Wrestling.  But there is also a staggering, overwhelming, intimidating amount of weekly content to watch: the Elevation and Dark shows on YouTube (usually featuring lesser-known wrestlers who often amaze and astonish), and the bigger cable shows that push the stars and advance the story arcs, Dynamite on Wednesdays and Rampage on Fridays.  It’s just too much to watch, so I started reading spoilers and fast-forwarding on the DVR to get to my favorite performers and the more interesting matches.  In 2021, everyone continued to work their asses off to put on a great show, people seem to still be getting along and avoiding behind-the-scenes drama and politics, long-term storytelling that built over months and even years finally paid off (World Champion Adam Page had an incredible story arc), and the return of live crowds (who are much less risk-averse than I) injected even more excitement and enthusiasm into the shows.  Also, a few high-profile hires took screen time away from some of the less-popular wrestlers who are my favorites, but it also finally made me a fan of the great C.M. Punk, who I missed out on completely during his long reign in WWE, when that company turned me away from watching wrestling for 15 years.  I am so glad there’s a real, viable alternative to WWE, especially because AEW also seems like a happy, functional workplace.

6. Snowpiercer, Season 2 (TNT). You can feel some of the nerve-wracking, edge-of-your-seat tension and drama many people loved and missed in Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones on this sci-fi series, about the survivors of an apocalyptic freeze hurtling around a dead, frozen Earth aboard a life-sustaining train (which is starting to break down). The constant class conflicts of the first season were mostly resolved, but Season 2 raised the stakes by introducing a formidable antagonist for the exhausted heroes, threatening their uneasy alliance and the safety of everyone on board.  Spoiler alert: he’s played by Sean Bean, and he’s a sadistic, pompous jerk with an amazing wardrobe who has backup plans for his backup plans and corrupts everyone he meets.  Daveed Diggs and my teenage crush Jennifer Connelly continued to anchor the show with their charisma, and Bean’s villain shook up the power dynamic on Snowpiercer just as the other two were finally having their “We’re not so different, you and I” detente.

5. Black Monday, Season 3 (Showtime). The only show from this list to also make my Top Twenty TV Shows of the Decade list, this may have been the final season of the clever comedy about Wall Street weirdos who caused the biggest stock market crash in history, then got into even more complicated capers, shady business dealings, political and religious scandals, backstabbing betrayals, jazz, cocaine, sex, and their dysfunctional love-hate relationships with each other. Oh, and there was a serial killer storyline too.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be happy if the show continues a little longer because everyone involved is so funny and smart, but if it doesn’t, Black Monday ended on a perfect note, without ever faltering, slowing down, or wearing out its welcome.

4. Waffles + Mochi, Season 1 (Netflix). This is a food show. It’s also a children’s show, starring two adorable puppets who left their homeland, “The Land of Frozen Food,” to learn about fresh, delicious foods by working in a magical, fantastical supermarket.  Celebrities like Chef Jose Andres and Michelle Obama (Waffles and Mochi’s boss at the supermarket) appear to teach lessons as our heroes travel the world in a flying, talking shopping cart, learning about different foods and cultures.  It is charming, educational, good-natured, and hilarious.  Your kids will love it, and if you are child-free by choice like my wife and I, you may surprise yourself by loving it too.  I think we cried when the too-short season ended, but we were delighted when a surprise holiday special, Waffles + Mochi’s Holiday Feast, appeared on Netflix as a Thanksgiving treat.  Even better, the show never judges “healthy” versus “unhealthy” foods, or those who prefer one over the other.  But you will come away with a newfound appreciation for sancocho, pani puri, and savory Finnish pancakes made with reindeer blood.  Seriously.

3. Ted Lasso, Season 2 (Apple TV+). With the possible exception of my #2 entry, this was the show I looked forward to the most from week to week, and its positivity and optimism (two things I usually hate) kept me going from August to October, during a particularly stressful semester at work. As fun, funny, and affirming as this season was, I felt like it was a slight step down from the brilliant first season due to less focus on the genial good guy Coach Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) in favor of building up the rest of the cast, and plots that meandered a bit.  I think it lingered a little too long on the relationship between Roy Kent and Keeley – we get it, they’re adorable together, they soften each other’s rough edges, and they will eventually work all their problems out!  We also saw a major character’s slow heel turn, while Ted was distracted by his own panic attacks, PTSD, and eventual willingness to seek therapy and talk about his problems.  In a year that will leave many of us with some PTSD, I love that this show helped normalize being open and honest about mental illness, and that it showed seeking help is always a strength, never a weakness.  This is such a good show – heartwarming but never cloying, good-natured but never inspirational, and consistently funny.  I also appreciate any stories that feature kind, patient, supportive bosses (both Ted as the coach and Rebecca as the team owner, after her Ted-inspired face turn last season), because we all desperately need good bosses in our lives, and sometimes we have to settle for fictional ones.  (I am lucky to have good bosses right now, but I appreciate them so much more because I’ve had bad ones too!)

2. Hawkeye (Disney+). This was my most-awaited show of the year, based on one of my favorite comic book heroes: Clint “Hawkeye” Barton, a regular guy who stands alongside gods and giants, saving the world “with just a stick and a string.” This series was directly inspired by one of the finest comics of the past decade, the Hawkeye series by writer Matt Fraction and artists David Aja and Annie Wu.  The influences were strong, but of course any Marvel Studios project is going to take some liberties with the source material, “remixing” 80+ years of comics to make them fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  As a result, the Hawkeye of a few Avengers movies and this series wasn’t Matt Fraction’s dysfunctional himbo man-child, but a world-weary assassin who is more than ready to hang up his bow and arrows to be a full-time family man.  Similar to the comics, Clint’s new protégé, archery prodigy Kate Bishop, makes him a better man, but MCU Clint is much more mature, with his life much more together, so he doesn’t need Kate as much as Kate needs him.  Kate is a damn delight, by the way.  Hailee Steinfeld was a perfect casting choice, and I hope we see much more of her, because she was so much fun.  Also fun and delightful was Yelena Belova, the new Black Widow, played by Florence Pugh, returning after her memorable first appearance in the Black Widow movie earlier this year.  The best scene in the show was Kate and Yelena just talking, and I hope the Marvel Studios powers that be keep them together in future shows and movies, building on their crazy chemistry and growing friendship.  They are already so much more entertaining than Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson as the original Hawkeye and Black Widow!  Other terrific new characters included Deaf, Native American martial artist Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox, an actual Deaf, Native American actress!), foppish (and possibly sinister) playboy Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton from Better Call Saul), and one of the best live-action Marvel villains ever, who I was overjoyed to see back, unexpectedly.  I’ll be okay if Clint Barton finally retires from archery and avenging, but I want to spend a lot more time with all the other characters from Hawkeye.

1. Blindspotting, Season 1 (Starz). The biggest and most pleasant surprise on this list, which my wife and I didn’t watch until the final few days of 2021. Most people have probably never heard of it (because who subscribes to Starz?), but the show is a wonderful spinoff of one of my favorite movies of 2018, also called Blindspotting.  The writer-stars of the original movie, the multitalented Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, are the writer-showrunners of the series, and Casal reappears as his character from the movie, Miles, who is arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in the first episode.  The main character of the show is Ashley, Miles’ loyal, resourceful girlfriend, played by the amazing Jasmine Cephas Jones (best known for playing Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in the original cast of Hamilton, alongside Daveed Diggs).  Cephas Jones is such a talent!  This show should be a star-making vehicle for her.  Her Ashley does everything she can to keep the family together with Miles incarcerated, including moving herself and their precocious son in with Miles’ ex-hippie revolutionary mom in their old Oakland neighborhood.  The show is so warm, funny, and charming, with such a strong sense of place and a world that feels “lived in,” populated by real characters who have spent their lives in this community, together.  It has terrific dialogue and some truly heartwarming moments of joy.  It’s hilarious, but it’s not a straight-up comedy by any standard.  Like the movie, Blindspotting can also be heartbreaking, touching on issues of race, but especially taking a stand against the unfair prison-industrial complex, the complicit criminal justice system, the pointless “war on drugs,” and the collateral damage they inflict on innocent families.  Oh yeah, Ashley and other characters also deliver gorgeous spoken word poetry segments as asides to the audience, with lyrics that sound as much like Shakespeare as they do East Bay hip hop.  Every episode also features dreamlike interpretive dance sequences that are beautiful enough to bring you to tears.  Even a dummy like me can tell exactly what each dance sequence represents, and how they propel the plot forward.  I’m not going to keep my Starz subscription any longer than I have to, but this show was renewed for a well-deserved second season, and you bet I’ll resubscribe for it!

Here’s a helpful hint for you steadfast Saboscrivnerinos: Amazon Prime is currently running a sale until January 4th where you can subscribe to Starz for 99 cents a month for the first two months, before the price goes back up to the $10/month range.  If you read this in time, I strongly encourage you get the subscription, at least for a month.  You’ll probably binge-watch the eight half-hour episodes of Blindspotting in a few nights, as we did, and then you can cancel.  That’s the best dollar you’ll spend this week!

For anyone who made it this far, here are my lists from previous years:

Top Twenty TV Shows of the Decade (2011-2021)
Top Twenty TV Shows of 2020
Top Twenty TV Shows of 2019
Top Ten Movies of 2019
Top Ten TV Shows of 2018
Top Ten Movies of 2018

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