Hello! It’s too late to post my favorite TV shows and films of 2021, because it’s now 2022 and no one cares! Or maybe someone cares. In any event, it pleases me to post this information and at least give my WordPress skills a workout.
Normally I write A Whole Thing about what the year in TV meant to me, yada yada. Who has the energy? I don’t! Whatever energy I do have is going into writing a book. I am excited to bring Burn It Down into the world and I am focusing on almost nothing else for the next several months. I am nervous about writing my first book, and the world continues to be A Lot, but I have a new mantra from Gerri:
Here are the usual rules about why some shows/films are not on the lists below. It is possible that:
I didn’t have time to get to it.
I sampled it and didn’t like it as much as you did.
I tried it and strongly disliked it. What were they thinking?
I’m a cruel hellbeast determined to bring pain and suffering to the world. (This is probably the reason.)
Three lists coming at you: My Top 10 TV Shows (the best of the best in a very strong year!), My Top 10 Movies, and a longer Top 40 TV Shows roster (there was so much variety in what was good this year. Sincere thanks to everyone who worked hard to make good shit during a very hard time).
The book is my reaction to and examination of the trends that produced #MeToo and various racial reckonings as well as the labor unrest gripping Hollywood during Hot Strike Summer. For the book, I interviewed more than 150 people at all levels of the industry, and did several deep dives on troubled productions and franchises — reporting that illuminates how entrenched the biggest problems are.
The chapter on serious problems at the hit TV show Lost and its “poisonous culture” was excerpted by Vanity Fair (there’s a longer version of this chapter in the book). The week that Lost excerpt came out was a wild, tumultuous ride, and I’m beyond grateful that the great folks at the ATX TV Festival gave a panel to myself and writer/creators Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Melinda Hsu Taylor (both were sources for that chapter and many other parts of the book), so we could process the whole thing. On that panel, which is available via the TV Campfire podcast, we talked about the polar bear in the room, but also about industry change and the strikes and so much more. It was a singular moment and I was thrilled to share that moment with the ATX family.
In any event, Burn It Down is a look at how much has changed in the American TV and film industries and how much hasn’t, and it delves into why some problems remain stubbornly persistent. That said, a number of industry people are working to reform Hollywood on many different fronts, and I’m happy to say that I spoke to dozens of those brave, persistent, amusing and intelligent folks.
The day the book came out, I published this piece on Charisma Carpenter, Cordelia Chase (her Buffy and Angel character), and why the way they carried themselves in life and on screen got me through some incredibly hard times. I’m so, so proud of this essay and thrilled that Roxane Gay and Meg Pillow of The Audacity published it (read The Audacity, it rules!). By the way, you do not have to subscribe to the Audacity to read the piece.
Here’s some of the coverage of the book that I enjoyed a whole bunch (and I’m adding to this list as links come in):
And now: podcastery! My whole personality is now “I will go on your podcast and yell about Hollywood fuckery” (well sometimes it’s not yelling, it’s just, uh, witty and/or forceful chatting). Anyway, here’s selection of radio/podcast appearances (which are generally available on most if not all leading podcast platforms):
The Maris Review podcast is wonderful, and I was nervous because it was one of my first interviews about the book, but Maris Kreizman is the best and I enjoyed our talk so much
I have long enjoyed the work of Adam Conover, so getting to chat with him on the Factually podcast was a delight! Worth a listen just for Adam’s fiery (and correct) intro to our conversation. Here’s the YouTube version of that chat, in which you can see why I never play poker, because every emotion I have is plainly visible on my face at all times
I talked to the CBC’s Frontburner about how the strikes are affecting productions in Canada and the US
I adored talking to the great Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood, for the podcast In Her Voice
I caught up with Ken Levine (a writer/producer/director for shows like Frasier and M*A*S*H, among many other projects) on his Hollywood and Levine podcast and it was — no surprise because Ken is the best — extremely enjoyable
Also, I just about died (in a good way!) when this feedback from Kerry Washington came across my Instagram feed. If you find the type too small to read, she called it “great reading to contextualize this necessary strike” and “Fascinating. Devastating. Important.” Wow!
I love reading critics’s end-of-year lists and, because I’m a nerd, I also enjoy making lists of things I should check out (at this point, my Things to Watch Google Doc is one of history’s greatest epics). It’s weird how other critics’ lists are correct and the lists I post annually are also perfectly correct.
But my lists are the most right!
Before I get to the core of this post, I want to mention that I’m moderating a Better Off Ted reunion for charity on Dec. 27. Stop by if you care to — it should be fun! (Of course, for Veridian employees, this event is a mandatory training session.)
All right, as usual, you could make a pretty good Top 10 list of things I have only seen part of or have not seen at all. Not sure if you were aware of this fact, but there is a lot of #content out there.
So this list, especially given how often quarantine brain derailed me this year, is not comprehensive. I’m sure, in the next week or two, I’ll watch more things I wish I’d included. Regardless, I’m glad for the existence of all these shows — and movies, documentaries, multi-part documentaries, films-that-are-probably-not-TV, TV-that-might-be-movies and documentary-scripted hybrids, plus unicorns that are also 10-hour films, etc.
Two omissions from these lists that were still important parts of my 2020 viewing experience: The Great British Baking Show (which goes by the nickname GBBO in its original habitat) and the Great Canadian Baking Show. I’d like to unburden myself a bit regarding both of those programs. A bit later in this post, I delve into how what’s good about them relates to key aspects of my favorite scripted programs of 2020. Skip ahead to the lists if you don’t want to wade through this part!
This is my personal list of the top 100 101* programs of the decade.
I only considered programs that premiered after January 1, 2010. If you get mad about an omission, there’s a 98% chance that the show you’re cranky about premiered before that date. I’m almost annoyed at myself for imposing that limitation, because it means I can’t include Men of a Certain Age, which is so, so great (and which premiered in December 2009). But that’s the rule I decided on, so it is what it is.
Here’s what I decided not to consider for the list: Commentary programs (like “Full Frontal”), documentaries, comedy specials or any kind of reality TV. Though I didn’t set out to exclude it, I also ended up without any shows primarily aimed at kids. No hate for any of these genres: I just ended up organically focusing on the kinds of scripted storytelling I love.
So this list consists of scripted TV released in the last decade that I saw and liked enough overall to put it on this list. My best-of-the-decade roster would have been much longer if I could have put selected seasons of some shows on it. But I went with the “all or nothing” approach. There are shows below that had occasional dips in quality, but they also had something special, were pretty consistently good and/or had a number of excellent or great runs during their lifespans, so they made the cut. And of course some of these programs are notably more ambitious than others! But they each brought something special to the game and I am glad I watched them all.
Where to see these shows depends on what country you live in and what company has the rights to a particular show at a given point in time. Given that those circumstances can and do change, I’d consult justwatch.com if you want to know where to find all this delicious content.
I watched a lot of TV in the past decade. A lot. Probably more than is strictly advisable. No regrets. This is the best of what I saw. Let’s get into it, shall we?
Television, there’s too much of you. Stop. But also, don’t.
I didn’t do individual writeups of each show on this list, as I did with my 2018 list, in part because this was a looong year and I still have a lot of things to get done before 2019 calls it a day. OK, fine, that’s partly a dodge. I am pretty busy, but even if I wasn’t, the truth is, penning 40 41* individual writeups is challenging. Fun fact: Writing short is often harder than writing long. It’s true.
You may assume that every show on this list will bring you joy for a distinct and delightful array of reasons. Watch them all.
A few bits of houskeeping: One reason I’ve posted this list is to draw your attention to something completely unrelated (I guess this is my version of a pop-up ad?). Feel free to skip ahead to the list(s) if that’s the only #content you desire.
The documentary This Changes Everything (which is already available to rent/buy on various platforms) arrives on Starz on Dec. 16. I would love it if you watched it, and not just because I’m in it (stone-cold humblebrag, Mo! Wow! This is the real brag: Someone said that I sort of serve as the Neville Longbottom of the film and I have never felt more profoundly complimented. I recently re-read the entire Harry Potter book cycle, and Neville and Luna Lovegood are kind of the best. Also, the fact that Hermione ends up with Ron is one of the great literary catastrophes of our age, but that’s not the topic at hand right now.)
This Changes Everything systematically (and entertainingly and thoughtfully, in my opinion) takes on the issues of institutional and informal exclusion, bias and sexism in Hollywood. It contains a lot of useful facts and figures but also a bracing array of interviews with top actresses and directors. And yes, I’d say all these positive things even if the film wasn’t the reason I became best friends with Yara Shahidi and Meryl Streep. (This is a lie. We are not friends. Let me dream.) Here are some critics’ takes on TCE in case you want to read up on it before deciding whether to check it out.
Back to the list! Yearly whine: These are not all the shows I watched. I viewed part or all of many more programs. These are the ones I deemed worthy of being on this long (and yet difficult to pare down) list.
If I wrote about a show this year, I’ve linked to that piece within the list. And if you want to know where to stream any of the shows below (that information can be confusing and non-intuitive), or you just want to know where to find obscure gems like Rubicon and Slings & Arrows), I find Just Watch quite helpful on that topic.
Here are the house rules on why some shows are not on the list:
I didn’t have time to get to it.
I sampled it and didn’t like it as much as you did.
I tried it and strongly disliked it. What were they thinking?
I’m a cruel hellbeast determined to bring pain and suffering to the world. (This is probably the reason.)
As you already know, Fleabag was the best TV program of 2019. Kneel.
My 2019 Top 10 (in alphabetical order)
Better Things, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fleabag, The Good Fight, The Good Place, Lucifer, One Day at a Time, Schitt’s Creek, Succession, Watchmen.
The Top 41* Television Programs of 2019 (in alphabetical order)
*Update on Dec. 31, 2019: When first published, this roster had 40 shows, but I’ve now added The Expanse, which released its fourth season 10 days after this list came out. Around the middle of the show’s second season, I fell behind on The Expanse, in large part due to Peak TV glut and various other time-devouring commitments. Fortunately I’ve had time lately to get caught up, and we finished Season 4 on Dec. 31, 2019. It’s a late-breaking and deserving addition to the list!
Hello! I am very excited to share this with you. This fall, Tara Bennett and I co-hosted a Lost retrospective podcast for SyfyWire. The six-part podcast explored the show’s impact, influence and legacy through a series of conversations with special guests. We’d love it if you checked out all six parts, but if I may be so bold, you’re really going to want to hear the season finale.
“Slings & Arrows” arrives on Acorn’s streaming service on Monday, Nov. 4, which should be a national holiday in North America, probably.
I wrote about “Slings,” the great Canadian series, twice about a decade ago. The first piece I’m republishing below is from 2008 and is an overview written on the occasion of the show’s DVD box-set release. The second story, from 2007, focuses on the third and final season. Each season is only six episodes long, which may well be a selling point for many folks overwhelmed by #content.
If you’ve never seen the show, you can read the first few paragraphs of the first piece safely. There are a few mild spoilers in these pieces but 1. They shouldn’t interfere with your enjoyment of “Slings” in any way, if the show ends up being your kind of thing and 2. I’ve marked where to stop reading the first piece if you’d rather go in knowing nothing.
You should definitely go in knowing that I love “Slings & Arrows” and that I consider it one of the great unheralded gems of the last couple of decades. It’s lovingly knowing about how hard (and how joyous) it can be to create good art, it’s often quite funny, it’s genuinely moving at times, and it features fine performances from Paul Gross, Rachel McAdams, Luke Kirby, Mark McKinney, Sarah Polley, Colm Feore, Stephen Ouimette, William Hutt, Don McKellar and many others.
A note about its arrival on Acorn: Season 1 arrives Nov. 4, Season 2 shows up Nov. 25 and Season 3 hits the service Dec. 16. And I know there are now approximately eight million streaming services vying for your money, but if you like U.K. TV, consider signing up for Acorn. It’s particularly strong on British TV and, in general, shows in which people wear sweaters while drinking tea or solving crimes (or both).
Acorn’s press release reminds me that New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum called “Slings” “the single best TV show about theater ever made,” and she is correct. That said, it’s about more than just theater; it’s really about why people choose to pursue creative endeavors, despite how hard those paths usually are. “Slings” blends smart satire and humane insight in equal measures, and that is a genuinely hard thing to do. A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted about this Acorn release and the love for the show remains strong.
The below was first published Feb. 5, 2007:
The strike by Hollywood writers may be over soon — and hooray for that. But there’s been one benefit to this otherwise frustrating TV drought — it’s given us a chance to catch up on some worthy programs via DVD. And “Slings & Arrows” may be the ideal viewing choice for these waning days of the strike.
Each season of the Canadian series, which concerns the backstage drama at a Shakespeare theater festival, is only six episodes long, and all three seasons were released in one boxed set by Acorn Media on Feb. 5. The handsome and handy set includes a brand-new disc of extras, but never mind them (the extras aren’t great, though the extended versions of some episodes are a nice plus).
The play’s the thing, or rather the New Burbage Festival’s often-hapless attempts to stage the Bard’s classics — that’s the main attraction. (There’s more on the show here.)
“Slings,” which has given showcases to actors such as Rachel McAdams (“The Notebook”), Sarah Polley (the writer/director of “Away From Her”) and Canadian stage legend William Hutt, is set in New Burbage’s rehearsal spaces, offices and pubs. And no TV show has ever done a better job of demonstrating why otherwise sane people are willing to risk their relationships, their financial health and their sanity, all for the love of the theater.
Those who wrote and performed “Slings” show a palpable love for language and the magic of the stage. And there are fascinating insights into what goes into creating a terrific performance.
This piece was originally published March 14, 2009. The publication I worked for then let the post lapse into the void. But there were many copies.
Can you believe it’s really over? I can’t either. Before accepting that fact, let’s talk and think and write about the finale way too much. Here goes…
Part 1: The interview with Moore
MR: I think one thing that threw me about the finale was that it was hopeful.
RDM: [laughs] There were a fair number of people that were prepared for the most nihilistic [finale ever].
MR: “You’re going to kill them all, aren’t you!?”
RDM: I know.
MR: It’s the ultimate sucker punch of “Battlestar Galactica” — that it ends on a hopeful note.
RDM: Yeah, it’s true. It’s the final twist. The final twist is — that it’s all OK.
MR: Talk to me about that whole second Earth thing. That kind of gave me pause me when I saw it.
RDM: It was built into the show when we decided to get to Earth. This was always the plan – the plan was to get to Earth, have it be a cinder, and then go, “God, where now?” And take the audience on this other journey and make them forget about that and not think about it. Because the concept of the show was to search for a place called Earth.
So we wanted to give that to you before you expected it and make it a downer and [have you go,] “Oh shoot, now what?” And now you’re really adrift. [The intention was] to put the audience with the characters, where they were really adrift and not hoping that anything better was going to happen.
And at the very last, at the very end, to then have a moment of hope, to have something to hang on to, and to give them the thing that they had quested for for so long, and to give that to the audience too.
MR: And so it’s as if this Earth is an homage to the other Earth, the first one.
RDM: I thought there was something interesting about that. This isn’t the original Earth. We’re actually [living on] an homage, as you said, to the original Earth. They come here and try to learn a lesson from the original Earth and make this Earth a better story.
MR: So the question is, did they learn their lesson?
RDM: Exactly. And the show could not answer that. It didn’t feel right for the show, like [happens] with so many things, to give a definitive answer to that. Any more than the show said, “This is the answer to terrorism, this is the answer to Iraq, these are the answers to security and freedom.” It gets to a place where you have an opportunity and you have a hope, but you couldn’t definitively say, “It’s going to be OK.”
MR: I went back and watched the closing moments of “Crossroads, Part 2” again, and the final image is of a planet that looks a lot like Earth. How does that fit in to what we see in “Daybreak”? Can you walk me through that?
RDM: That was all specifically thought out. The planet that you see at the end of “Crossroads” is this planet that we stand on. It has the North American continent and the South American [continent], it’s very clear, we wanted it to be visually easy to identify for everybody.
Kara takes them to both Earths, as a matter of fact. She takes them to the original Earth, which, when we showed it in Revelations, we were careful to never quite be able to identify the land masses from orbit. We wanted you to accept it as Earth, and most people assumed it was this Earth, but we didn’t want to flat out mislead you, so we didn’t want to have it look like North America too.
MR: So Kara comes back in “Crossroads,” she says, “I’ve been to Earth”…
RDM: She had been to that Earth. The original Earth.
MR: The crispy Earth.
RDM: She guided the fleet to get there. She takes us to that. That’s part of her experience that she remembers. She remembers traveling there, seeing there, and comes back to the fleet saying, “I know how to get to that place.”
In the finale, she makes an intuitive leap connecting the music as coordinates, enters the into the jump computer and those coordinates take us to the second Earth, this place.
MR: It was a little bit of a fakeout, you have to admit.
RDM: Yeah, we did a head fake. But I don’t think it crosses the line, I don’t think it’s unduly misleading. I think you accept it as you go along. And clearly [we] wanted people to draw the connection that it was going to be this Earth, but we also didn’t put anything in the show that prevented us from doing the finale the way we wanted to.
This piece was originally published March 20, 2007.
AUSTIN, Texas — A dusty field in Texas. A ramshackle house in a cash-strapped part of town. The cramped, battered office of a high school guidance counselor.
They’re all unlikely places for a creative revolution, but there’s no other way to describe what’s happening on the set of “Friday Night Lights,” NBC’s acclaimed series about life in the small town of Dillon, Texas.
Far from the bright lights of Hollywood, in vibrant yet laid-back Austin, the actors, writers and directors of the show have created one of the most realistic, subtle, enthralling dramas on any screen, large or small. And they’ve done it on this first-year show by breaking many of the rules of television.
“When I first came on [the ‘FNL’] set, I thought, it’s interesting — this is what I imagined filmmaking would be, before I saw what filmmaking was,” says executive producer Jason Katims, the show’s head writer and a veteran of beloved cult series such as “Roswell” and “My So-Called Life.”
“What I imagined it would be was, people moving really fast, actors trying this and trying that, everybody being very excited, and it being very creative and it being a place to sort of discover things. That’s what I thought it would be, and this is the first time I actually saw it work that way.”
Indeed, a visit to the set of “Friday Night Lights,” which touches on the fortunes of the Dillon High School Panthers football team but is much more about the lives of the residents of the town, demonstrates that the show’s creative process is like nothing else on television.
There are no fancy lighting setups. Actors are not only allowed but encouraged to improvise their lines. Every single scene is shot in real locations, unlike most TV series, which use prefabricated sets. And with inspiration from what director of photography David Boyd calls “gonzo documentary guys” such as D.A. Pennebaker and David and Albert Maysles, three cameras simultaneously record the action, capturing nuances and moments that many other shows ignore in their forced march to the next plot point.
It took a little time to settle into its groove — even NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly says he got a little tired of the show’s “jiggly camera” style, which has been toned down since the pilot.
But over the past six months, as it has unfurled surprising, deeply human stories about an injured quarterback suing his coach; a high school boy’s attempt to care for his sick grandmother; and one couple’s attempt to raise a spirited, smart daughter while dealing with the pressures of modern life, “Friday Night Lights” has quickly become appointment television for a growing number of critics and fans.
One of several fan sites devoted to campaigning for a second “FNL” season, fightforlights.com, has collected dozens of the show’s critical raves, and a recent Tribune column on the show prompted an outpouring of more than 100 positive emails and message-board comments from readers.
“Everything about the show just feels so natural and real, which is a rarity on TV. It’s not about quippy one-liners or bombastic arguments,” one commenter wrote. “All of the characters are flawed, some more than others. But all of it is beautiful to watch.”
Though the “FNL” audience has hovered around 7 million viewers, well below NBC’s expectations, its viewers are positively rabid about the show, as Reilly well knows.
“I just got an e-mail today forwarded to me from one of the heads of one of the major advertising agencies — and I literally get a version of this every day — saying this is the best television show in years, or the best television show on the air,” Reilly says.
“Everything’s real, and all the relationships [make you] feel like you know these people,” says Scott Porter, who plays former Panther quarterback Jason Street, the character who was paralyzed in the show’s first episode. “I think that’s why people who watch the show have such a strong connection to it.”
But if fans travel to Austin to find the show’s fancy soundstages, they’ll be out of luck. There is a bare-bones production office on the outskirts of the city, but there is no soundstage, there are no sets.
All scenes are shot in houses, businesses and stores in and around Austin, which is where you’ll find the gritty high school that doubles as the home of the Dillon Panthers, the tiny house that quarterback Matt Saracen (Evanston’s Zach Gilford) shares with his grandma, and the fast-food joint that doubles as one of the show’s hangouts, the Alamo Freeze.
On the farthest outskirts of Austin on a recent February evening, klieg lights and cranes carrying a rainmaking machine were poised like towering robots over that day’s set, which recently had been home to a herd of cows, judging by what was underfoot. In the March 28 episode, which was filming that night, circumstances force the residents of Dillon to build an improvised football field for an important Panthers game.
On the sidelines, Tim and Billy Riggins —actors Taylor Kitsch and Derek Phillips — tossed perfect spirals at each other during breaks in the filming. Extras wandered around in Dillon Panther shirts and waved pennants during the big plays, which were filmed until the wee hours. As the night wore on and this “Mud Bowl” episode lived up to its name, the actors playing the Panther team members and coaches were soaked by the rain and covered in mud. Nobody minded.
Addressing the show’s critical acclaim and glowing press notices, Kyle Chandler, who plays Coach Eric Taylor, said in an interview the next day, “I don’t think anyone’s going, ‘Oh, well, now I’m going to get this new car.’ I think all the actors on this show love the process more than anything we’ll get out of it in the long run. I love this process. It’s an actor’s dream.”
Shooting in real locations in Texas has given the show an authentic feel that it would never have had in Los Angeles, says Chandler, who was raised in a small town in Georgia.
“When you live in this town, you are from Texas. You’re experiencing and feeling it,” Chandler said. “Austin is a great place. It’s not hard to get ideas for your character when you just go to breakfast across the street.”
But there’s far more to the show than a palpable sense of place. The show’s actors and directors have unprecedented freedom to change lines, alter scenes and improvise moments that feel true to the moment and to their characters. And the show’s writers, who’ve come up with some of the most nuanced, compelling story lines on television (most of which don’t have a thing to do with football, despite the show’s origins as H.G. Bissinger’s non-fiction account of a real Texas high school football team), are fine with those improvised alterations.
“Truthfully, 95 percent of the time, the actors are only lifting up what we originally envisioned as writers,” says Katims. “Every once in a while, you’ll be like, ‘I wanted that line because I wanted that transition.’ But you work it out.”
But on most shows, changing one line – heck, one word — of dialogue can lead to tense negotiations between actors, director and writers.
“Normally you’ve got a writer sitting there, watching every single word,” says Jesse Plemons, who plays Landry Clarke.
In the tiny high school guidance counselor’s office that serves as the office of Dillon High School counselor Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), the quest to convey the emotional truth of a scene and not just recite each word as scripted was demonstrated again and again.
In the scene being shot that night, for a different upcoming episode, Landry is struggling to tell Taylor, a Dillon guidance counselor, about a friend who has been physically attacked. Taylor’s comforting words change slightly with each take. And the words Landry is struggling for come out differently every time; he doesn’t want to reveal the friend’s name, and at one point, Taylor thinks he may have been the one who was assaulted. The words keep changing, but the emotional impact only grows as Britton and Plemons mine the difficult emotions at the heart of this moment.
“We try to definitely hit all the points in a scene, but we’re allowed to change the lines around to kind of fit us and fit our characters,” says Plemons.