Author’s Note: This is just my opinion. You might have a very different list of top TV shows for 2021. Also because it’s impractical, I don’t have access to every streaming service and have therefore missed out on some candidates. Ted Lasso and Foundation are two that deserve honourable mentions from what I’ve been reading about them.
The MCU has been interesting to watch grow and change over the past 13 years. It began with 2008’s very grounded and self-contained Iron Man. While it did take some queues from its comic book origins, it was modernised and fit to reflect audience expectations. After the runaway success of phase 1 culminated in the first billion-dollar film for the company with 2012’s The Avengers, the company has gradually begun to introduce audiences to its more bizarre and esoteric content, from 2014’s very different Guardians of the Galaxy, through to the Infinity Saga wrapping up a lot of the plot established in the first ten years.
However, it is only with a dedicated audience that the company has truly begun to embrace its own weirdness. 60 years is a long time to write stories, and over that time across thousands of published works, Marvel has gotten pretty experimental. While it was hinted at with WandaVision, Loki is where the company wholeheartedly steers into the more bizarre, far-fetched aspects of its history. In particular, we are introduced to the concept of the multiverse. After we saw the 2012 version of Loki steal the tesseract and disappear, we catch up with him in a non-descript desert location. Agents of a mysterious organisation identifying themselves as the Time Variance Authority (TVA) show up to arrest him.
What follows is Loki’s journey through the unseen underside of the MCU as it has existed. The TVA is dedicated to the preservation of the “sacred timeline” – the single branch of reality that is, according to three shadowy figures called the Time Keepers, the only correct one. The TVA’s primary function is to “prune” (eliminate) undesirable variants, of which this particular Loki is one. However using his penchant for cunning and trickery, Loki manages to talk his way out of being pruned and eventually escapes, running into a female version of himself and teaming up with her as they try to piece together the mystery of the Time Keepers and their own existence.
Successfully introducing a concept as far-fetched as a multiverse is a delicate thing. If Marvel hadn’t spent the time it has priming us with things like talking trees, mirror dimensions, and the nine realms, I don’t think it would have been easy to absorb. Proceedings are anchored by Hiddleston – I don’t see this working with one of the more morally rigid heroes of the MCU – as his ethical flexibility comes in handy when uncovering the mystery behind who is really in charge. He is joined by MCU newcomer Sophia Di Martino as Sylvie, who more than holds her own here and makes the series an entertaining two-hander. Loki has a sprawling, ambitious narrative, but the central performances give weight to proceedings and ensure it doesn’t collapse under its own ambition.
4. Mr Inbetween – Series 3
The “hitman with a heart of gold” story conceit is a well that plenty of writers have dipped into over the years. Famous examples like Leon the Professional or Grosse Pointe Blank have demonstrated the variety of stories on offer. However, there hasn’t really been stories like this told in our own backyard. In 2018, creators Scott Ryan and Nash Edgerton aimed to change all that with their black comedy/crime drama Mr Inbetween.
Ryan – who also writes – stars as Ray Shoesmith. Ray is a typical Aussie bloke, trying to balance his work life with part-time custody of his daughter negotiated with his ex-wife. However, his work life is a little more colourful than most. While he does perform hits, he also collects debts, works security, and takes odd jobs by referral from his boss (a slimy Damon Herriman) who runs a strip club. The three seasons follow him as he tries to balance the more morally questionable actions of his day-to-day with setting a good example for his daughter.
The third season finds Ray at something of a crossroads – the job that has not only put food on the table and beer in the fridge but he has actively enjoyed for a lot of his life is no longer giving him the satisfaction it once did. On top of this, Brittany is growing up, and has questionable taste in both friends and leisure activities. The fragile balance he has managed to maintain thus far in the story is under threat – but if we’ve learned one thing about Ray over the past three years, it’s that he won’t go down without a fight.
Mr Inbetween is a great piece of storytelling. Unlike a lot of Australian content that can try a little too hard to appeal to American audiences and write characters and settings to appeal to that market, Mr Inbetween does the opposite – it embraces the cultural nuances of its setting, and the show is stronger for it. It is a masterwork in subtle, small-scale storytelling – because of our cultural tendency towards downplaying situations and understatement generally, Ray is in many ways the antithesis of the typical cinematic “tough guy”.
In the scenes where he must get violent with someone, he doesn’t threaten them by tying them up and waving a gun in their face – he simply tells them what he’s going to do, and then does it. To Ray it seems like he sees the job like many others do, pulling the trigger being about the same as fixing a pothole or writing an article. It’s this lack of sentimentality and matter-of-fact approach that sets Mr Inbetween apart – and makes it feel uniquely Australian.
Ultimately, Mr Inbetween is a gem of a series, and the third season gives Ray a satisfying conclusion.
Many adults still harbour the notion that cartoons are for kids. While there are many examples especially in recent years that one could point out – Bojack Horseman and Rick & Morty both immediately spring to mind – it is this clever adaptation of Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel that is one of the strongest counterarguments to this idea to date.
The first episode has a very Saturday morning cartoon feel to it. A pair of giant super-powered beings attack the White House, and a team of superheroes are dispatched to defend it. Although their names and some powers are slightly different, they are very similar to the Justice League, with a speedster, a non-powered gadget wielding stealth-based hero, and a powerful alien leading them. However, they’re joined in the fight by another figure who appears to mostly work alone – Omni-man. Their combined strength is no match for the nefarious duo, and they’re apprehended. The team returns to their headquarters, congratulating each other on a job well done. It is here that Omni-man attacks and brutally murders each of them, and the show is turned on its head.
Invincible focuses primarily on Mark, who is the son of Omni-man and a human woman, Debbie Grayson. Because he is half-alien, he develops the same powers as his father. A lot of the series deals with two plots: Mark’s discovery and use of his powers, and the government department responsible for regulating these beings investigating the deaths of the Guardians. Omni-man teaches Mark about his powers and how to use them, while the government slowly pieces together the fact that Omni-man may not be the benevolent protector of man he has presented himself as. These two stories come to a head as Mark is forced to choose between his loyalty to his father and his humanity.
Deconstructing the mythology around all-powerful beings is hardly new. Superman – or near enough the concept of the all-powerful Godlike creature he’s based on – is a particular target, with everything from Brightburn to The Boys dealing with the “but what if Superman was bad?” question. What sets Invincible apart is the personal nature of the stakes. While the threat is usually from a being like that turning on us as a species, Invincible examines what it would be like if a being like that was raised human but ultimately forced to choose. Would their humanity win out? Or would they be swayed by loyalty to their other, more powerful side?
Add to that a stellar voice cast – J.K. Simmons is the perfect choice for Omni-man, and Steven Yuen puts in a great turn as the conflicted Mark – and you have a recipe for a great series. The first season just got more interesting as it aired, so the holidays is a perfect time to get caught up before this great animated series launches its second season next year.
2. Jack Irish – Series 3
Guy Pearce’s stylish, endearing turn as lawyer-turned-private detective Jack Irish has had a long run – from 2009’s Bad Debts through two more movies and three TV series, fans have spent a fair bit of time in this world, getting to know Jack, his colourful employer Jack Strang, Jack’s right-hand man Cam, and Jack’s mate on the force, Barry Tregear. However all good things must come to an end, and the third series of Jack Irish sends the character off in style while bringing some of the lingering questions stretching all the way back to that first outing full circle and providing satisfying answers.
For those who remember it, the Jack Irish story starts with a tragedy – as his wife is brutally murdered in front of him by a man who then turns the gun on himself, we pick up with the once-successful lawyer adrift as a jack of all trades – occasional debt collector, apprentice cabinet-maker, punter and finder of those who don’t want to be found. We follow him as he uncovers the particulars of different cases, involving everything from run-of-the-mill drug dealers to far-flung international conspiracies.
The third series delves further into the shared past of Jack and Barry, as some of Barry’s less than moral acts as a young officer are brought to light as part of one of Jack’s investigations. Jack uncovers – or stumbles onto, depending on who you ask – a wide-ranging cover-up involving international student suicides, experimental drugs, and a long-buried investigation into just what happened that fateful day that first introduced us to Jack’s world.
Reconciling 12 years of storytelling and tying up the loose ends inherent to the gumshoe detective, neo-noir style of Jack Irish is not an easy thing to pull off, but the game talent both behind and in front of the camera are more than up to the task. Shane Jacobson – who to this point has mostly been a figure of fun – showcases his dramatic talents as Barry’s life starts to unravel around him. Roy Billing’s Strang is trying to establish a retirement plan for himself, and Aaron Pedersen’s Cam begins to question his next step in light of this.
But Jack makes the show what it is, and the part that fits Pearce like a glove has never been better than in this victory lap of a season. His performance is worth the watch alone – sardonic and charming as ever, but with an edge, as a big mid-season revelation leaves him questioning his life choices, and ultimately forces a change which results in a cathartic moment for the character – as he has been defined by tragedy for so long, this season provides the opportunity for him to finally let go, and ponder a future beyond his own grief.
1. Squid Game
True “water-cooler moments” in television are few and far between in the modern age. The way we consume content is largely responsible for this – instead of a week-by-week model, where the stories were fed to audiences piecemeal, Netflix and other streaming services have paved the way for binging. As a result, touchstones have become less relevant as tailored content becomes the new reality.
However occasionally a show breaks through the noise to make its mark on us as a society, and Squid Game is that show. Trying to explain why is obviously speculative – perhaps it was the pandemic, perhaps the novelty of a Korean-made show broke up the monotony of American content that streaming services are flooded with, or perhaps it was the timely critique of late-stage capitalism – whatever the reason, Squid Game captured the public consciousness.
Squid Game centres on Seong Gi-Hun. A divorced Dad in serious debt to loan sharks who lives with his mother – whom he relies on to support him – Gi-Hun is pretty far from the archetypal protagonist. After a mysterious man approaches him at a train station and plays a simple childhood game with him, he is given a business card and told if he wants an opportunity to wipe his debt, to be at a certain place at a certain time. He goes along, and after being gassed, wakes up in a strange place, the number “456” imprinted on a tracksuit that matches everyone else in the space. As the rest of the people wake up, they are marched out to the first game, Red Light Green Light, and the games begin…
I think what makes Squid Game such an effective piece of television is the moral compromises it forces its characters into. While it is undeniably gory and violent, it is not without purpose, as it uses the people to explore the question: how far would you go to live comfortably forever? It forces these characters to scrap, fight and scrabble over one another to reach the goal of financial solvency. As it pits these unfortunate souls against one another, a policeman learns of the existence of the shadowy organisation that is in charge and goes undercover to try and learn the purpose.
Parts are very difficult to watch. The sixth episode, where the remaining participants are split into pairs and made to play marbles, is one of the most emotionally devastating hours of television I’ve seen in the last ten years. Conversely, not all of it knocks it out of the park – the last episode is a bit of a letdown, as the answers to some of the central mystery come to light, it falls a bit flat in my opinion.
But as a cultural moment in television, nothing rivalled Squid Game this year. From the thousands of memes made to the countless Halloween costumes, it’s clear it captured the imagination of many – and its ambition and storytelling make it stand out as the best series of the year.
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