Perhaps lockdown had something to do with us reevaluating what qualifies as “good television.” Yes, series are back in a big way, a testament to our growing appetites for long, uninterrupted blocks of storytelling that live beyond the standard two-hour movie length, expanding the frontiers of character and narrative — all (perhaps problematically) delivered to the comforts of our sofas and home screens, where other bingeable appetites may be too easily fed.
Here’s what looked good to these (admittedly myopic) eyes this past year.
The Beatles: Get Back
With three successive episodes totaling nearly eight hours, Peter Jackson’s expanded documentary on Disney Plus follows the struggles and arc of The Fab Four in 1969, as they try to come up with an album’s worth of songs in two weeks and play a live concert.
Set largely in recording studios, John, Paul, George and Ringo manage to fight, smoke, laugh, dance, goof around, eat toast, drink beer and wine, and play the same new, unpolished songs over and over and over again — trying to turn base material into gold, as it were. More fascinating than any reality series, ‘cause it ain’t scripted (though it is scrupulously edited by Peter Jackson), and hey, did we mention? It’s The Beatles!
We could sit still for another 12 hours of unused footage, if Jackson ever releases a Director’s Cut or Season 2.
The White Lotus
A deep dive into white privilege amid engineered paradise, Mike White’s HBO series was a Black Mirror version of Fantasy Island, with island resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) slowly losing it as his demanding guests expose all kinds of gaps and glitches — socioeconomic, generational, sexual — in a system set up for surreal levels of pampering.
Watch out for that “tropical kabuki mask” slipping the next time you take a private resort vacay.
Ever wondered where Elon Musk’s space dreams might eventually push mankind? Looking for a sci-fi successor to Battlestar Galactica, crossed with the world-building imagination of Game of Thrones? The final (sixth) season of The Expanse wraps up this elaborate, mapped-out sci-fi series, in which Earth-born James Holden (Steven Strait) and shipmates Naomi (Dominique Tipper), Amos (Wes Chatham) and pilot Alex (Cas Anvar) hurtle into the future of the human race.
Shuttling between sparring world leaders (Shohreh Aghdashloo as UN Undersecretary Avasarala), rebels (Chad Coleman as Fred Johnson), villains (Keon Alexander as Marco Inaros) and heroes (Cara Gee as Drummer), it’s an ambitious epic set against a cold war of assured mutual destruction in early space colonizing days.
The Netflix show based on online interactive gaming won over this non-gamer strictly on its own merits: it’s a richly textured, three-part tale of two sisters torn apart by class and economic strife, with terrific art nouveau/ steampunk aesthetics, well-drawn characters (even within very common tropes), great smashups of music and visuals, and compelling, visceral fight scenes.
Ultimately, it feels like a layered commentary on our Silicon Valley-run digital economy and how it divides the haves from the have-nots. But it’s much cooler and creative than that description.
WandaVision (or Loki, or Hawkeye)
Yes, all these Disney Plus Marvel reboots are surprisingly fun and watchable, and sometimes way more interesting than the Avengers film franchise that spawned them. By keeping episode lengths manageable (under an hour), they manage to pack in loads of action and humor while keeping characters on a more intimate level that befits the small screen.
WandaVision is probably the most successful rethink, placing married Avengers couple Wanda and Vision in a progression of TV decades, from Ozzie and Harriet 1950s laugh track, to ‘90s meta-humor and beyond. Loki sends Tom Hiddleston to the Time Variance Authority, where Owen Wilson is tasked to stop the trickster from messing with the universal timeline.
Again, it benefits from humor and downscale chemistry between its leads. Same with Hawkeye, which has Jeremy Renner’s locked-down arrow-slinger mentoring overconfident Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) to solve a murder and save the city. (Bonus points for return of Florence Pugh as Yelena.)
In all three, some type of superhero therapy is the key to healing — and each is good enough as a Marvel placeholder until movies come back to big screens.
Season 3 starts slow, but the post-pandemic return of HBO’s media mogul family drama manages to take everything we know about the power relations between siblings Kendall, Shiv, Roman, Connor and patriarchal Logan Roy and stick it all in a crazy Osterizer — before blowing the whole thing to kingdom come. Who needs a soul, anyway?
What We Do in the Shadows
A show about modern-day vampires stuck in a Big Brother-style spooky house in Staten Island could quickly run out of juice, but Season 3 of the Taika Waititi-Jemaine Clement mockumentary series finds new veins to tap — the Atlantic City trip is the season’s hilarious highlight (“Ring-a-ding-ding!”) — as familiar Guillermo grows restless, energy vampire Colin Robinson has an unexpected birthday surprise, Nandor takes an interesting turn into midlife vampire crisis and Lazlo finds he might have some hidden parental skills.
Scenes from a Marriage
Based on a ‘70s Ingmar Bergman TV series, this HBO redo casts Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in a two-hander that flips the script — with the wife having an affair and straying, and the husband constantly wringing his hands. Sexually frank and emotionally effective, it revisits five events in the couple’s crumbling marriage for a clinical dissection. Bonus points for breaking the fourth wall.
It would be tempting to skip over the Netflix series that’s already got so many eyeballs already, but a good premise helps keep viewers hooked in this dystopian South Korea-set tale of no-luckers who sign their lives away to play lethal kid games — a lockdown environment where chirpy robots machine gun slackers and a round of marbles is a life-or-death affair.
The theme of society’s have-nots trapped by the whims of the haves is not new — see Parasite — but the momentum builds and you just can’t tear your eyes away…
Something cheerful and chipper to lead some wayward souls away from the abyss during the pandemic, Ted Lasso was better in Season 1 (I mean, how many Ned Flanders-ready phrases can UK football coach Jason Sudeikis come up with and still keep us in our seats?), but it’s still a gift to people who were wondering where hope can still come from in these dark days.