With TV options more plentiful than ever, 2021 brought hundreds of new shows to the table. As people adapted to the new normals of the pandemic — ones that change daily — great TV was never more necessary.
Here are five new shows the A&E staff found exceptional this year.
Mare of Easttown
The closest thing to appointment viewing since “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s suspenseful “Mare of Easttown” delivered popcorn thrills and cliffhangers but shined as a devastating and somber character study. Kate Winslet stars as detective Mare Sheehan who investigates a teen’s murder in the fictional suburb of Easttown as she battles her personal demons.
What made this show one of the best of 2021 was its ability to keep the audience on the edge of their seats after each episode — every subverted expectation had viewers forming a new murderer theory week after week.
Winslet has never been better than she was as a disgruntled and grieving Mare, but the rest of the ensemble cast matches her every step of the way. Julianne Nicholson’s heartbreaking performance in the finale is worth watching the whole show for.
The show may not be the glimmer of hope viewers need right now, but those looking for a prestigious and gritty TV show should look no further than “Mare of Easttown.”
“Mare of Easttown,” rated TV-MA, is streaming on HBO Max.
Everyone loves a diva. And Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) is one of TV’s best as HBIC (head b— in charge) of the Las Vegas comedy scene.
“Hacks” is Smart’s vehicle and she drives it with sharp precision. Partnering Deborah with Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbender), a Gen Z comedy writer who’s rebuilding her career after being “canceled” over a careless tweet, the show could have veered into stereotypes and a trite portrayal of progressives and modern America.
Instead, the show pairs realism with sharp, dark humor and brings life to both Deborah and Ava through each woman’s idiosyncrasies. Between the careful costuming and the set design that shines a light into Vegas’ charming, tacky and gaudy interiors, the show is a pleasure to watch.
The series is a treasure trove of zingers, but none compare to this sage advice from Ms. Deborah herself: “If Kelly Ripa’s day is already over and yours hasn’t even started, you’re in trouble.”
“Hacks,” rated TV-MA, is streaming on HBO Max
No, this show doesn’t have breathtaking, sweeping landscapes that would make anyone cry. No, there aren’t complex characters, storylines or themes weaving together for some dramatic finale. And no, it didn’t last more than a week of passable interest after its release nor will it be a cult classic.
“The Chair” doesn’t need to be anything more than what it is, though: a muted, realistic and devastating tale of higher education’s oh-so-sweet but oh-so-hollow “focus on diversity.”
In a concise season of six episodes, Pembroke’s English department tackles the usual suspects of racism, sexism and ageism along with refreshing takes on cancel culture and pedagogical politics.
There’s no need for extravagant set pieces or dream-worthy scores when it comes to this simply-directed, horrifyingly mundane show.
Sandra Oh’s role as Ji-Yoon, the university’s first woman of color to reign control of the crumbling department, is enough to keep viewers invested, but it’s Holland Taylor’s cupcake-on-the-outside, sledgehammer-on-the-inside Joan Hambling that steals the show as though it was rightfully hers all along.
“The Chair,” rated TV-MA, is available on Netflix.
It should be surprising that one of the year’s most touching, emotional and thoughtful releases of the year was a gothic horror piece, but for fans of Mike Flanagan’s other work, it makes sense.
“Midnight Mass” feels like the culmination of his career so far — a deeply personal and engaging exploration of philosophical questions that could’ve bored audiences to sleep, but didn’t due to Flanagan’s delicate, practiced writing and filmmaking skills.
“Midnight Mass” plays up its dark setting and visuals as a backdrop for exploring complex ideas like abuse of power, the importance of faith and life after death.
Most of the show’s deepest insights are expressed in the form of monologues that should feel out of place, but fit comfortably in the show’s introspective tone.
Although the entire cast gave powerful performances, Hamish Linklater’s Father Paul stands out from the rest. Paul’s conflicted journey of reconciling his deeply held religious convictions with a dark and previously unknown side of himself grabs the audience’s attention, and Linklater’s (“Fantastic Four,” “The Big Short”) portrayal is virtuosic.
“Midnight Mass” is available on Netflix.
The Beatles Get Back
Peter Jackson’s latest trilogy isn’t about magical rings or armies of dwarves but four lads from Liverpool.
“The Beatles: Get Back” reveals the decades-old footage of the band creating their penultimate album, “Let It Be.” Having only a few weeks to write, compose and rehearse originally 14 new songs for an album and live performance while also dealing with the death of their former manager, Brian Epstein.
Jackson was given the impossible task of editing down more than 60 hours of footage into a digestible watch and remarkably succeeded. The finished product comes close to being seven hours in duration, divided into three episodes.
The series is a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Guitar riffs and one-offs grow into fully-fledged classics such as “The Long and Winding Road,” “Let It Be” and the titular “Get Back.” But the series also shows the arguments over style and questions regarding management that eventually led to the band breaking up a year later. It’s bittersweet knowing that despite moving past their differences by the end, the goodwill doesn’t last.
“Get Back” is a time capsule of the most turbulent time for the world’s most famous band and a miracle of modern technology in remastering 50-year-old audio and footage. But, most of all, it’s a must-watch for everyone.
“The Beatles: Get Back” is rated TV-14 and available on Disney+.