10 of the best series of 2021 on Showmax and Netflix
If there is one thing I am grateful for in 2021 it’s that I didn’t need nor want to watch Tiger King part 2. That insanity was literally so last year, coming as it did in the early months of the pandemic and lockdown when we all needed a ridiculous distraction, and many of us were stuck at home, drunk and crazy. What? There’s no judgement here.
Putting together a top 10 list in December is always a bit weird; dates are blurry even in normal situations, and oftentimes you watch a series in one year that was made in another.
Take Little Birds on Showmax. It’s from 2020 but was added to the platform on 1 December 2021. I began watching it on December 19. It’s only six episodes and I enjoyed it very much. The locations, sets and costumes are simply fabulous. Inspired by Anaïs Nin’s posthumously published 1979 collection of erotic short stories of the same name, Little Birds is set in Tangier, 1955, and stars Juno Temple (from Ted Lasso, what a revelation and a delight – Juno, not Ted; Season 2 left me deeply unsatisfied) as the new wife of a deeply closeted Englishman. David Costabile you will recognise from Billions (he plays Wags); he was also in Breaking Bad and The Wire. Of Nin’s stories, The Guardian said: “There was much more to them than that, and Little Birds is a series that honours them and their spirit, adding even more to them and making them resonate anew.”
The reason it’s not on my actual top 10 is because the list was completed before I watched it, and I am not willing to compromise.
At the other end of the last-minute-of-2021 scale for me is The Power Of The Dog on Netflix. Benedict Cumberbatch is without a doubt superb in the Jane Campion-written and -directed movie but after two hours I was left bewildered and still waiting for something exciting or even interesting to happen. Like a plot.
The biggest disappointment of the year was the non-appearance of The Crown Season 5, which was due in November (12 months after Season 4). And that we can lay firmly at the feet of Covid, which delayed so many productions, and indeed The Crown this very month, reports Hello!.
With the sickness shaping and informing every aspect of our lives, the top 10 I’ve put together for 2021 is a mixture of melancholy, drama, despair, horror and comic relief; a bit like a metaphor for life itself.
Margaret Qualley plays Alex, a young mother who leaves her emotionally abusive boyfriend, taking their toddler daughter Maddy with her, and gets a job working as a maid. It’s a chilling indictment of the social welfare system in the US, which is tangled in red tape and vicious circles, and seems to hinder more than help.
“What makes the 10-episode Maid such a powerful miniseries, though, is that it details precisely what did happen to Alex that pushed her to the economic margins — and drives home the point that it can happen to anyone,” says The Boston Globe.
This is Showmax’s first Original rom com, and it’s deliciously light and frothy, and the ideal thing to sneak off to binge when the family get togethers become too much, or you need a break from the nonsense going on in the real world. Capetonians can play “spot the location” too. I’ll go first: Brennaisance in Stellenbosch. Ilse-Lee van Niekerk (Getroud Met Rugby, 4 Mure, Die Boekklub) stars as Jessica, a wedding planner who’s surrounded by love but struggling to find it for herself, because her boyfriend David (Armand Aucamp) is handsome but a chop. Former child star Blyde Smit (Erfsondes, 7de Laan) plays Jessica’s sister Luca, a software developer who is more fluent in Klingon than flirting (and ultimately became my favourite character in the series), with Fleur du Cap nominee Bianca Flanders (Nêrens, Noord-Kaap; Address Unknown) as her bisexual best friend Abi, a professional baker and ready to get down with just about anyone, which leads to some cringey moments. SAFTA winner Kevin Smith (Skemerdans) is Abi’s dad (and Luca’s boss), with Melt Sieberhagen (Proesstraat) as his boyfriend. Troukoors (Wedding Fever) is Afrikaans with English subtitles.
It’s cute and funny but I am cursed with questioning things like how, if the first episode is Valentine’s Day, there is a wedding six weeks from then, and it’s followed by a three-month gap (no spoiler), Jessica is still wearing sundresses and the outside shots haven’t changed seasons?
The third and final season of this wonderful award-winning series aired in 2021. With a beautiful cast, it’s set in New York City’s African-American and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming drag ball culture scene from the 1980s to the mid-1990s. Mj Rodriguez made Emmy history by becoming the first trans lead ever nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series.
“If you watch this season, and more specifically the finale, that was what it was always intended to be,” said co-creator Steven Canals, reported by Variety. “If you go back to the first season, everything was a setup for this final chapter. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end, and this final season was the end of this three-arc narrative that we’ve been telling. … It’s us finally allowing our characters to explore what it means to have all of the things that they very clearly stated in the first season that they wanted.” The Guardian called it a “show to fall head over heels in love with.”
HBO, as always, had a good year. “The White Lotus is a sharp social satire following the exploits of various employees and guests at an exclusive Hawaiian resort over the span of one highly transformative week. As darker dynamics emerge with each passing day, this biting six-episode series gradually reveals the complex truths of the seemingly picture-perfect travelers, cheerful hotel employees, and idyllic locale itself,” says the website.
I found it to be quite sad on many levels, which is strangely enough a good thing because it means the characters truly got under my skin, and I was thoroughly engaged and involved. That is good television.
“This nightmarish vision of paradise is the comedy of the year,” said The Independent in a five-star review, as reported by BBC. Comedy? Ummm, yeah okay – but definitely the blackest of black kind. Season 2 has been confirmed.
Squid Game (Netflix)
As an indication of how quickly we move on, Squid Game was released in September 2021, and within days was topping the charts as Netflix’s most-watched series in the history of the world. Fast forward to December and it’s nowhere to be found in the “trending” or “popular on Netflix” lists. Not on my app, anyway.
Squid Game is a Korean horror drama about a group of people who play twisted versions of children’s games – to the death. The last person standing receives a jolly nice pot of gold. It’s bloody and ruthless, and a commentary on humanity (or lack thereof). “As the games roll on, an entertainment element is introduced to further twist the already rib-deep knife buried (mostly) figuratively in the contestants’ sides,” reviewed Empire. “Yet there’s heart to be found in the macabre parade of human suffering. Enemies are made amongst the ranks of survivors … but so are allies.”
This is another Showmax )riginal, this time a true crime documentary. It is so good, I watched it then invited friends around to watch it so I could in turn watch their reactions. Part of the appeal is that it falls into the “you cannot make this stuff up” category, and as the layers of the crimes are peeled back, the shocks keep on coming.
Devilsdorp exposes the distressing stories behind 11 killings in Krugersdorp, by the group Electus per Deus (Chosen by God) between 2012 to 2016, dubbed the Appointment Murders and the Satanic Murders at the time. It’s jaw-droppingly chilling. The Weekend Special review says: “Devilsdorp is a four-part series that tries to make sense of the madness that was a four-year murder spree, with accused including mother, daughter and son. It attempts to contextualise the uncontained craziness, depravity, greed and evil of a group of people ‘under the influence’ of a criminal mastermind. And it is both mesmerising and revolting.”
Ah, Kate Winslet. Can she do anything wrong? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single career misstep. She stars in this limited series (HBO) that picked up 16 Emmy nominations (including Outstanding Lead Actress In A Limited Or Anthology Series Or Movie for Winslet) and is featuring on many top of 2021 lists right now.
Winslet plays police detective Mare Sheehan, who is investigating the recent murder of a teenage mother, while she’s been unable to solve the case of another missing young girl for a year, leading many in the community to doubt her detective skills. The world truly sucks because as her professional abilities are called into question, Mare is at the same time trying to keep her personal life from imploding under the pressures of divorce, a son lost to suicide, and a custody battle with her ex-heroin addict former daughter-in-law over Mare’s grandson. “As a murder mystery — despite a few gratuitous red herrings — Mare of Easttown is taut and moody, in the league of the first seasons of Fargo and True Detective. As a study of people and a community, it is spare, melancholy — and haunting,” says Firstpost.
First of all, 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Second, Jean Smart. She plays Deborah Vance, a legendary Las Vegas stand-up comedy diva (read: ageing and becoming irrelevant). She won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (one of two people who have won Emmys for lead actress, supporting actress and guest actress in the comedy categories; the other being the treasure who is Betty White).
Third, Jean Smart again: she plays Mare’s mom in Mare Of Easttown and it’s a delight to see an actress/actor exhibiting such a range in their craft. “Wild versatility,” says The Hollywood Reporter. Anyway, Hacks. Hannah Einbinder plays Ava, a down-on-her-luck comedy writer who is down on that luck because of a tweet she didn’t think through. Deborah employs Ava to revive her material (grudgingly) and the “odd couple” series flies from there, and will continue to do so in a second season.
With a brilliant Season 2 finale setup for Season 3, this cutthroat series about a highly dysfunctional family that happens to be filthy rich, is never going to be anything but compelling viewing. Full disclosure: I’ve yet to finish watching it so I’m going to keep this entry brief because I don’t want to spoil it for myself, or you, of course.
RogerEbert.com says “Succession has been off the air for two long years, but by five minutes into the season three premiere you feel like you never left—partly because the new season picks up moments after where the previous ended, but mostly because it’s just as good as you remember it, if not better.” And that’s why I have faith in putting this as my number two show of 2021. There will be a fourth season.
With Season 5 having been sidelined for several months during Covid, and finally returning with its last episodes (all up and waiting for you now), I selected this as my number one. I’ve watched all the seasons, and this one was for me the best. And now I have this very moment learned something about Season 6 that I cannot share because it’s a massive spoiler, if you’d prefer to avoid it. I do hope it’s not a dealbreaker for Season 6.
For now, Axe (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) are still at each other’s throats, but Axe has developed a couple of blind spots; one is Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) but that’s nothing new. The other is Michael Thomas Aquinius Prince (Corey Stall from House Of Cards), a fellow billionaire. They are out to get each other by whatever means necessary and no matter the casualties of war. With Axe this distracted, Chuck might just be able to trap him.
“It was only a matter of time before Billions pulled the rug out from under us and revealed the true arc of this season. It happens every year (you could criticize the show for being repetitive, in fact, as there’s generally not much structural change from one season to the next) and yet, because of the cast and the writing, it’s incredibly entertaining. It’s always a blast to watch the whole tower of cards come crashing down, creating chaos leading into the next season,” said Entertainment Weekly.
Not a fun fact: Lewis’s wife, actress Helen McCrory (Harry Potter, Peaky Blinders) passed away in April 2021, and he shot most of his scenes remotely in the UK. He wrote a heartbreaking tribute that I’ve linked here because a love such as this should be celebrated. And maybe I’m feeling a bit auld-lang-syney sentimental. As the king of trash TV, Jerry Springer, always used to say, “take care of yourself…and each other.”