Until COVID hit, I confess I was not watching a lot of television (except of course, for hockey). As a result, in 2020, we started traveling less. Then hockey came to an 8-month halt. And we ‘cut-the-cord’ – opting to stream, making it much easier to watch great shows when we want to. Since nothing changed in 2021, TV watching continued.
As always, I'm a bit behind the times. So these are the 9 shows I saw this year that were the best I saw (not necessarily first broadcast in 2021).
And now, without further ado – my top TV Shows for 2021:
9. Searching for Italy (CNN)
A few programs arrived during COVID that hit the right moment. For me, Stanley Tucci’s homage to his homeland was one of them.
It’s food based (what show based in Italy wouldn’t be). From pizza to pasta to the perfect San Marzano tomato. Searching for Italy trumpets food, land and people as the conduit to culture.
During season one (there will be more), Tucci goes to Tuscany, Sicily, Milan, Bologna and Naples. The country is ingrained with Tucci. His parents lived in Rome when he was a boy. So of course there's an emotional scene when he and his parents visit their apartment years later.
Tucci, for all his love of food, has only a limited vocabulary to express his joy other than “Oh my God”. And Searching isn't light-hearted; if you’re looking for another Someone Feed Phil, you’re out of luck.
But Tucci is going to places I’ve been (and want to return). We foodies and travelers are living through him. He’s experiencing the joys we desire but can't right now.
If only he'd only had more than one bite of pasta and shown more than 0% body fat…
8. Wolfgang (Disney+)
You’d think Wolfgang Puck was so ubiquitous that any biography wouldn’t possibly break new ground.
After all, he’s on the Home Shopping Channel every hour. His frozen foods and cafes dominate gourmet markets in the United States. And you can’t go to one of his restaurants without seeing him work the crowd.
But it turns out there’s a lot more to him that meets the (superficial) eye. Puck grew up poor in post World War II Austria. Following World War II, raised by a single mother, he suffered abuse from his stepfather, who told him it was unmanly for men to be in the kitchen. So off we go to Austria, to visit those roots, meet his sister, and find out what motivated him to become the first superstar chef. (His motivation? “Fear of failure”)
He landed in America. His first success was at the Los Angeles hotspot Ma Maison. But when he opened Spago, he became the first celebrity chef. Spago redefined 'hotspot'. Sure, it was the place to be. But Spago became famous for the quality and inventiveness of his dishes.
There’s time for reflection by Puck; his relentless pursuit in business came at the expense of his personal life. But he is so interesting – even if you aren’t a foodie, his story is compelling.
I can’t claim to know Mr. Puck well, but I’ve met him on numerous occasions and can say he seems as happy, genuine and engaged in person as on screen. I’ve watched him greet two little old ladies from Iowa as effusively as the biggest A+ list celebrity. He is the real deal.
7. Staged (Hulu)
In many ways, Staged was the perfect COVID stay-at-home show. Michael Sheen and David Tennant play themselves. If you don't know them, they're among the elite of the UK's great stage, film and TV actors. And they know it.
In Staged, they’ve agreed to do a play but the rehearsals and discussions must be virtual. "Virtual" is something the temperamental actors don’t easily adapt to. Threaded throughout are appearances from Samuel L. Jackson to Dame Judi Dench. And their wives are on screen as well, rolling their eyes as they (barely) tolerate their husbands’ rants and raves.
The entire series is via Zoom; only the final scene doesn't take place on a computer monitor.
I laughed throughout the 14 episodes (most around 20 minutes long). But there are lots of “ifs” for lots of you. For one – it helps if you’re familiar with Sheen and Tennant. Also, their accents (Welsh and Scottish) were strong enough to make me put on English subtitles.
Yet in the end – their ravings from boredom, distraction, and their own egos – are more than enough to make this a totally worthwhile diversion.
6. Imposters (Netflix)
This Bravo series ended in 2017 but received new fame when re-released on Netflix.
Many TV characters these days are hard to root for. The characters tend to be deeply nuanced with equal parts good and bad. (Billions and Succession come immediately to mind). Imposters is different: the characters are indeed nuanced. But they're people to root for – whether hero or villain.
It’s a simple premise – a female con artist marries people and then disappears with their money. To pull off that concept, there must be good writing and acting. There is: Imposters turns out to be an original, fun dark comedy where it’s easy to root for people.
The series doesn't work without the performance of Inbar Lavi as Maddie, the con artist. Lavi fleeces her unwitting victims, but they somehow retain strong affection for her. Lavi is gorgeous; each of her 'marriages' are therefore credible. Yet she’s empathetic, savvy, vulnerable and a vixen all in one.
In fact, there’s charisma galore among all the leads. Imposters turns out to be sweet, funny, entertaining and even a bit breathtaking, all in one.
5. Billions (Showtime)
The long awaited finish to season 5 finally aired after a lengthy COVID break. Turns out the writers were not idle. In every conceivable way, Billions is the best written show on television.
The cast of now-familiar characters remains the same. And they each are up to their old tricks down to their nebulous sense of good and bad.
The characters are so damn interesting. No one is good and no one is pure evil, either. There’s not a vanilla character in the bunch.
The plot is so damn brilliant. People with wealth on Billions show it, and the sets and plot make no mistake – this is New York at its highest peak.
There’s a major plot twist in the final episode of Season 5 that no one saw coming (no I’m not going to tell it to you). Go and watch Season 5, and hunker down for Season 6, coming soon.
4. High on the Hog (Netflix)
I love the collection of food and cooking broadly known as “Southern” or "Soul Food". So when I heard about High on the Hog, I prepared for the usual "how to cook" documentary.
Instead, High on the Hog is a moving, deeply wrought history of Black America. It starts from the shores of Benin in Western Africa. Here thousands of Africans were captured by slave traders. But it's also those people who learned to cook, and they brought their cuisine and foods – such as okra and ‘real’ yams.
Food, however, is a by-product. This is a history lesson; a fascinating look at the people who both developed the culture and those who preserve it.
The show’s host is Stephen Satterfield. I cannot imagine a more perfect choice. Not just because he's a cook and writer – but because he’s not used to being on TV. There’s no ego, no polished cadence or style. He’s simply warm and genuine.
I learned a lot from watching these episodes. For one, I need to visit Benin (eating French-African food? Yes please).
Netflix recently announced a second season for High on the Hog. That’s good news; I’m hungry for more.
3. Call My Agent! (Netflix)
In the midst of the lockdown, I was desperately seeking something funny to watch. Most American comedies are so formulaic and lacking in intelligence, I was in despair.
Then along came the French comedy series Call My Agent! Originally a French TV show called Dix Pour Cent (10 percent), it's one of those many unknown gems picked up by Netflix. After a few minutes, I didn’t know I was reading along via subtitles and it was smooth sailing.
The show is set in a Parisian talent firm. Four senior agents represent some of the biggest stars in the French film industry. They're struggling to keep the firm running after the head agent suddenly dies.
These four agents – and junior agents – love what they do. They may not love who they work with or where they work, but therein lies the comedy. In the meantime we see what 'agenting' is all about – kissing ass, snobbery, name-dropping and that elusive element called fame.
Call My Agent! feels real. Real-life actors – from Monica Bellucci to Sigourney Weaver make guest appearances.
Comedy often arises when good people want to do the right thing but circumstances deny it. This was the heart of Seinfeld’s genius. Call My Agent! Is original, clever and heart-warming. A perfect recipe for cold weather.
2. Money Heist – Seasons 1 & 2 (Netflix)
Money Heist started out as a low-budget Spanish TV series (La Casa de Papel – The House of Paper). It flopped.
But someone at Netflix saw an opportunity. Soon the Power of NetflixTM propelled it into a genuine sensation and three more seasons.
The cast subsequently went from regional obscurity to international fame. (Good for them - they deserve it). Money Heist has become one of Netflix’s most popular shows of all time. It's deserved. Money Heist is a cleverly constructed, edge of your seat thriller.
It’s addictive drama features a disparate group of criminals led by a Mastermind thief, The Professor. They’re robbing the Royal Mint of Spain of €2.4 billion (about $3 billion US). We'll find out it's technically ‘not a robbery, but a cash infusion'.
The stakes are high. Every heist movie features moves and twists the viewer doesn’t expect (to say nothing of the authorities). But here there’s another chess move every five minutes here. The twists and turns are enough to exhaust you – if the tension wasn’t so high.
To ensure anonymity, the robbers don’t know each other's names. The Professor assigns nom-de-guerres of cities – such as Berlin, Tokyo and Nairobi. Personal relationships are forbidden. And of course, throughout the series, barriers are broken, creating more suspense. The police are not really good people. The thieves are empathetic. We start wondering who really are the good guys.
I wholeheartedly recommend the first two seasons of Money Heist. As compelling a show as any I’ve seen. Then Netflix came in, added three more seasons and a LOT of production budget. The show then went a bit awry. There are needless subplots, surprising murders and far more violence in the final three seasons than necessary.
The joy of Money Heist was a meticulously planned heist with a minimum of violence; a triumph of the little guy over the state. It ebbed significantly in seasons 3-5. But don’t let that stop you from watching a great first two seasons. (You'll probably end up watching the last three anyway!)
1. Succession Season 3 (HBO)