2021 was another challenging year as the world endured a second year under a worldwide pandemic, which strongly influenced and constrained the availability of shows to watch, whether it was on broadcast, cable, or streaming online. Fortunately, there was an intriguing array of shows which broke-through to the zeitgeist. As discovered last year, the online streaming platforms (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, Paramount+, Viki.com) dominated, providing some of the best serialized shows, so as of last year, I made sure to expanded my Top 10 list to include international content.
Per the new norm, television critics (“entertainment critics”) are challenged to cull a large volume of shows to a simple “Top 10” and, in assessing those that I did watch, it yielded fascinating results as it made me realize which shows I truly enjoy and why I spend my time with these shows. Thus, I have done my best to weigh each on a fair scale to select shows that earned a spot in my “Top 10” list, based on the following criteria:
- fearless storytelling
- highly entertaining
- water-cooler factor
- clearly ascertainable “hero” and “heart”
- strong, complex, well-developed female characters
- empowered female characters
To briefly explain:
“Fearlessness” in storytelling means a willingness to tackle the topic or subject of its story head-on with no regrets.
“Highly entertaining” is pretty self-explanatory — the viewing audience must enjoy watching the show and not just endure it.
“Consistency” means that each episode must stand on its own. Lots of serialized shows have one or two great episodes and then fall-off the creative-cliff for the rest of the season. So maintaining the momentum of a strong, well-written season is crucial as well.
The “water-cooler” factor is also essential. People must be talking about the show. It must be part of the zeitgeist and inspiring passion in those who watch it.
There had to be a clear “hero” and a reason to care about the characters — the “heart.” There are simply too many shows that forget we want to root for someone and we want to care about the characters.
Finally, the show had to not only have strong, well-developed female roles, it had to empower those female characters. This should be a given in any show, but now more than ever, this criteria needs to be recognized as crucial to any top show.
This criteria actually sets a high bar and it made it a bit easier to see which shows truly earned a spot on my “Top 10” list for 2021, which included:
Happiness (Season 1, Viki)
Inspector Koo (Season 1, Netflix)
Only Murders In The Building (Season 1, Hulu)
Yellowjackets (Season 1, Showtime)
Hospital Playlist (Season 2, Netflix)
Yumi’s Cells (Season 1, Viki)
Squid Game (Season 1, Netflix)
Money Heist (Part 5, final season, Netflix)
The Good Fight (Season 5, Paramount+)
The Great (Season 2, Hulu)
The following briefly describes why I felt each of the “Top 10” shows warranted recognition for their achievements in 2021:
Happiness (Season 1, Viki)
Who doesn’t love a rom-com set in the midst of a zombie-apocalypse? Fortunately, the 12-episode South Korean drama series HAPPINESS found a clever way to mix romance, zombies and apocalypse all together in a way that it turned out to be what I thought was the most fun series to watch all year. From the opening minutes through the finale, the show micro-focused on a couple who started out as unexpected friends (bonded years earlier on a school rooftop to the present when their careers intersect), providing them with incentive to pose as a married couple in order to secure living accommodations. That decision then sets off a chain of events amidst a comedy-of-errors, which compels them to protect their entire apartment building from an outbreak that turns the infected into ravenous creatures with a thirst for human blood.
Starring Park Hyung-sik (known for his roles in HWARANG: THE POET WARRIOR, STRONG GIRL BONG-SOON, SUITS) and Han Hyo-joo (known for her recent roles in W: TWO WORLDS and the USA Network series TREADSTONE), both perfectly cast and phenomenal in their roles as life-long friends, one working as a police detective and the other as an counter-terrorist instructor, who find themselves defending their apartment building during a viral outbreak. As seen through the lens of their characters as friends and enforcement professionals with a joint-objective, the story takes on unexpected comedic and romantic tones, amidst terror and uncertainty as the infection rate spikes and the flawed humans living around them revert to more base preservation instincts, leaving viewers wondering who is the bigger danger to the heroes: the infected or those seeking to use the infected for their own personal gain?
HAPPINESS easily ranks as my Number 1 favorite series all year due to its superb casting, layered storylines, hilarious dialogue, rich character development woven together in multiple character objectives and motivations, set among bright visual palette with sunny cinematography and catchy theme music, creating an unexpected backdrop to its zany and thrilling zombie/rom-com. It also smartly shaded the story with increasing tension as to an uncertain future with the scarcity of resources creating a series of individual survival tests for every character introduced.
In HAPPINESS, while the male characters were all well-developed and varied, what impressed me the most was the care and consideration given to the female characters portrayed by: Han Hyo-joo, Park Joo-hee, Song Ji-woo, Kim Ju-yeon, Park Hee-von, Lee Joo-sil, Han Da-sol, Jung Woon-sun, Bae Hae-sun, Moon Ye-won, Lee Ji-ha, Baek Joo-hee, and Nam Mi-jung. Their portrayals were exceptional and you felt their love and commitment to their characters and the layers provided. Whether they were a counter-terrorist agent, military officer, mother, janitor, con-artist, opportunist, grandmother, store cashier or long-suffering wife, you felt what these female characters felt, and that they were doing their best under extraordinary circumstances. So you rooted for some, cheered for others, and felt uneasy about those who motives seemed to sway from day to day.
The chemistry between leads Han Hyo-joo and Park Hyung-sik brought an extra layer of romantic-comedy to each scene that they are in together. They were the “beating heart” of the entire series and you could not help but root for their characters to realize how perfect they were for each other, beyond just being roommates. It served as a rosy, romantic atmosphere for scenes that would normally be spine-chilling. By adding a subtle layer of romance, HAPPINESS enticed viewers to look beyond the terrifying viral outbreak to see the characters as humans who are caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Special shout-out to Jo Woo-jin for his complicated portrayal of a military man trying to be a better human, yet burdened with finding a life-saving solution in time to stop a cataclysmic event. He was the unlikeliest of heroes, but he was the hero that they needed.
Mostly, HAPPINESS just makes you feel good watching it. It is nearly impossible to make an apocalyptic drama series fun to watch, yet that is what HAPPINESS did. You enjoyed watching it and you wanted to spend time with the characters. Their dilemma was relatable and timely and enticed the audience to identifying with it and reacting to it as if it were happening to them. That ability to draw the audience into the story and make them invest in the characters so much that they cared immensely about what happened to each is simply brilliant craftsmanship. Thus, once the series ended, the audience yearns to spend more time there, which is unexpected. After all, in the real world, viewers have been stuck in a worldwide pandemic; thus, you would think that the audience would be tired of viral outbreak and stories of people stuck in their homes. Surprisingly, HAPPINESS found a way to make the audience want to be locked up with them. That only happens as a result of careful and clever craftsmanship.
Judging from the amount of excited and enthusiastic social media conversation, HAPPINESS is the zombie-apocalypse that many would volunteer to be a part of. So hat-tip and a bow of gratitude to those who brought HAPPINESS to life on-screen. HAPPINESS is an extraordinary series and deserves endless praise. Find a way and watch it. You will find yourself enthralled and delighted.
Inspector Koo (Season 1, Netflix)
Equally surprising, the South Korean drama INSPECTOR KOO is a story of a former police woman commissioned with tracking down a sociopathic killer, who turns out to be a woman from her past. INSPECTOR KOO sets the stage for a dark tale of death, killing, and revenge, yet it found a way to do it in the most charming and fun way possible. It set its story among a group of insurance investigators, who work as quasi-police to track down those who file fraudulent insurance claims, which led them to a series of killings that had gone unnoticed. Thus began a cat-and-mouse game with high stakes as the serial killer decided that there is some fun to be had in playing with the investigators hot on her trail.
INSPECTOR KOO stars Lee Young-ae, Kim Hye-jun, Kwak Sun-young, Kim Hae-sook as the four women whose personal and professional lives intersect setting off a chain-of-events resulting in multiple deaths as each woman hides an ulterior motive. Thus, who to trust and to what extent shifts throughout the series and illustrates how complicated women are with relationships, motivations and choices that they make. Best of all, INSPECTOR KOO introduced its male characters — fantastically portrayed by Bae Sung-chul, Jo Hyun-chul, Lee Hong-nae, and Jung Seok-yong — as serving female characters as supporters, employees and co-accomplices. The grace and humor used to craft these roles made each a bit funnier to watch in the midst of a female-dominate cast. As a whole, the character interactions were cleverly and deftly done. Special shout-out to Bae Sung-chul, whose character Santa is not only one of the brightest spots in the series, he also served as a loose-thread mystery that was never quite resolved and that question tickled your brain as viewers wondered just why he went above and beyond in his care-taking and ever-present watchfulness over his colleagues.
It was also fun to see Kwak Sun-young and Kim Hae-sook in such different roles from their HOSPITAL PLAYLIST characters. No matter whether they play supporting roles or starring roles, their roles are always memorable and layered. You just never know what their characters are really up to and that murky motivations they harbor, which adds to the tension about what those characters will do next.
But, by far, the central cat-and-mouse game between the characters portrayed by Lee Young-ae and Kim Hey-jun is what grabbed attention and did not let go. It was riveting watching their deadly “game” and constantly made the audience wonder who they were rooting for and why. Lee Young-ae’s ability to capture attention while completely disheveled and wearing just the most functional wardrobe was noteworthy as the character clearly does not care about conventions or even basic hygiene. INSPECTOR KOO smartly relied on the interpersonal chemistry of the characters to captivate and made you invest to such a degree that it does not matter how they look or act, it only mattered in how they related to each other. The fact that they cared about each other so much, made the audience invest in them as well. Sharing and caring is what ultimately drew the audience in.
What could have been just another police-procedural or serial-killer-story, ended up being a thoroughly addictive, charming and surprising series. INSPECTOR KOO kept the thriller/mystery front and center throughout the series and wove in its entertaining characters through a series of challenges and reveals in such a way to keep the audience hooked all the way through. It is one of those rare Korean drama series where you hope that Netflix will grant it a second season just because it feels like there are more mysteries to solve and more villains to track down, and it would be fun to see more of those adventures with our heroes in hot pursuit.
Only Murders In The Building (Season 1, Hulu)
Another unexpected delight was ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING. Hulu struck gold with its gifted and talented ensemble that was helmed by the comedic-trio of Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short. Brilliant casting combined with phenomenal character stories, which when whipped together with a surprisingly layered murder-mystery story, created entertainment magic. The series not only managed to peel back the layers of its mystery episode by episode, it revealed more layers to its core characters as well. So much so, that each new suspect/character introduced in the show was a treat.
Selena Gomez deserves special praise as she made her interactions with her accomplished comedy scene-partners feel effortless and genuine. Believability and authenticity was absolutely essential in making ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING succeed. The story and performances had to feel natural so the audience would invest in the show. Every critic and audience response reflected awe at how fun, funny, and real their scenes felt. The audience cared deeply about this oddly-paired trio and could not wait to see what they discovered about the murder and each other throughout the season. Ratings clearly reflected that invested interest as Hulu greenlit a second season quickly after the series premiered.
Also wonderfully featured were the female characters portrayed by Amy Ryan, Tina Fey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Jayne Houdyshell, and Vanessa Aspillaga. Showcasing women in these varied roles was brilliant. It gave a false sense of hope and romanticism to the series, lulling the audience into complacency when the show was always intended to be a murder-mystery from beginning. So the first death was a “red-herring” before revealing a second murder and the final deadly surprise. The Arconia proved to be a deadly place to live and yet its perky crime-solvers club kept the audience believing that they would prevail in the end and not fall victim to the Arconia death-curse. The “sleight of hand” reveal of Tim Kono’s killer was the perfect magician’s trick.
ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING had a bit of a rebel streak. It was set up as a classic mystery that could have been found in any Agatha Christie book, but decided to keep raising the stakes until the audience realized that the first murder was just the beginning. Clever. Brilliant. Jaw-dropping. Irrepressibly cheerful. And best of all, fun. I cannot wait to see what Season 2 of ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING brings.
Yellowjackets (Season 1, Showtime)
Let’s face it: YELLOWJACKETS is an uncomfortably jarring series. That said, it is also a carefully staged “train wreck” type of story that you cannot stop watching. In this case, it is an airplane crash in the remote Canadian wilderness that sets the stage for a brutal tale of survival, interwoven with a future storyline set 25 years later, as the survivors’ attempt to reconcile their ruthless past actions while being blackmailed, which is like having a figurative “knife at their throats.” It makes for a riveting series where the audience feels invested in the survivors’ ability to evade exposure and eliminate the threat before it tears all their lives apart. Yet, even while rooting for them, there is that uneasy feeling throughout that perhaps they deserve to have their lives blown up. After all, the sins of their past are truly terrifying and someone should pay the price for those evil deeds.
Starring Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Tawny Cypress, Christina Ricci and — and portraying their characters’ younger selves are Sophie Nelisse, Sophie Thatcher, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sammi Hanratty — in YELLOWJACKETS, because 25 years have passed between the events in the wilderness and their seemingly established lives in 2021, everything feels on the verge of an volcanic explosion. There is an undercurrent of anger, fear, rage and brewing suspicion, foreshadowing a tantalizing tale of retribution and supernatural upheaval. Whether there are actual supernatural forces at work or just circumstantial mysterious occurrences, YELLOWJACKETS is content to let viewers’ imaginations run wild. If you want to believe, then by all means, believe it. YELLOWJACKETS is also unconcerned and unconstrained by the typical niceties that women are typically bound by in film and television. YELLOWJACKETS is willing to show the ugly side of women and is unapologetic about it. The 360-degree exposure of women portrayed as self-serving and voraciously willing to seize every thing they want in their lives is chilling and unsettling. But it is also true. Women are not to be seen as weaker, to be protected and shielded, nor are they to be placed on pedestals. They are flawed, greedy, vain, and will do anything in the right circumstances. That unpredictability is what keeps viewers entranced.
Adding to the multi-tiered and multi-layered portrayals of “women on the verge” are co-stars Ella Purnell, Rekha Sharma and Sarah Desjardins, who are also depicted as women willing to do anything and everything to get what they want, and it does not matter if these characters are reporters, detectives, daughters, mothers, nurses, drug addicts, or politicians on the rise. In YELLOWJACKETS, everyone is fair game to being exposed to their ugliest core. Yet, despite these horrific and terrifying core personas, as a viewer, you still want to root for them. Why? Because we have invested in their fractured selves, hoping that they can find a way to extract themselves from their black-hearted abyss and salvage some semblance of humanity. We want to hope that they can be better humans worthy of a love-filled and rewarding future. But the question of whether they truly deserve it remains.
YELLOWJACKETS is unflinching and demands that the viewing audience embrace the ugliest sides of the characters along with their beautiful sides. That is who humans are: to be human is flawed and ugly, yet it is their hearts and souls that we are rooting for. Fortunately, YELLOWJACKETS not only secured audience attention, it hit the zeitgeist and was quickly granted a second season renewal. So there may be hope for the characters yet. Stay tuned. We shall see. Either way, brilliant portrayals, fantastic writing and fearless storytelling puts YELLOWJACKETS on this list.
Hospital Playlist (Season 2, Netflix)
Two years in a row, the South Korean drama series HOSPITAL PLAYLIST earned a spot on my annual Top 10 list. Looking back at its most recent season, HOSPITAL PLAYLIST served up a second round of the most hope-filled and big-hearted characters to grace the screen this year. Centered around 5 surgeons and their romantic counterparts, HOSPITAL PLAYLIST focused on the best of us: what we should all aspire to be, particularly when called to serve in the medical profession.
HOSPITAL PLAYLIST’S first season was a delightful tale of 5 life-long friends who found a way to work at the same hospital and reunite their college band for some light-hearted fun during their precious off-duty hours. Fueled by uplifting and heart-felt songs performed in the basement of one of their homes, their music hideaway was rejuvenating — both for them and for the audience. It left fans and viewers with a feeling of euphoria at the end of the series’ first season, and managed to propel that wave of enthusiasm and determination to save lives because no one was going to die on their watch. That eternal sense of responsibility fueled with tenacity made HOSPITAL PLAYLIST a balm and source of joy for a world held hostage under a second year of a seemingly never-ending pandemic.
At noted last year, HOSPITAL PLAYLIST is centered around its core characters, who bonded and became friends in medical school and followed them into their careers 15 years later. The premise is that these five surgeons care and depend on one another, especially now that they are working at the same hospital. The fact that the show had the male characters center their friendships around the sole female in their tight-knit friend group is key to the series. Jeon Mi-do is marvelous in her role, which allows her character to quietly influence the lives of her four male friends, as they rely on her for emotional support and advice, and clearly will do anything for her.
It remained fascinating seeing how the supporting female characters then revolved around that close-knit group intertwining both their personal and professional worlds, and how all deferred to Jeon Mi-do’s character. By the end of Season 1, the series set up an important story for her character which sent ripple-effects throughout everyone’s lives — and set up the show for its second season. Credit is due to Jeon Mi-Do and her female co-stars: Shin Hyun-bin, Ahn Eun-jin, Cho Yi-hyun, Kim Hae-sook, Kwak Sun-young, Ha Yoon-kyung, and Park Ji-yeon, who brought such heart-felt resilience and depth to their characters that it gave HOSPITAL PLAYLIST fuller shades of female-influence and presence to the series.
Credit is also due to the show’s talented male co-stars: Jo Jung-suk, Yoo Yeon-seok, Jung Kyung-ho, Kim Dae-myung, Kim Jun-han, Jung Moon-sung, Bae Hyun-sung, Kim Kap-soo, and Moon Tae-yoo, whose characters created such heart-tugging dilemmas and storylines, and who also reacted with such heart and emotion to the female characters as they shifted their interactions as needed to convey deference, value and respect.
HOSPITAL PLAYLIST is one of the most surprising and heartfelt medical dramas that I have ever watched. It tugs at the heart-strings and finds ways to remind you that these doctors are tenacious in their dedication and pursuit of saving lives, even at the expense of their own health and happiness. One of the most endearing aspects in the show was inclusion of the band practice scenes, which gave the show its title. It is the music that threads their lives and binds them together that also keeps the viewer engaged throughout the series as well. It adds a layer of addictiveness and moments of comedy that helps balance the more tense medical drama scenes.
HOSPITAL PLAYLIST earned its spot on this list for a second year for delivering exceptional stories and characters, which includes the writing, the production, editing, music, costuming, set dressing, and casting for key roles and supporting roles. It continued to raise the bar on what a medical drama series should offer. It is amazing series that will remind you that we are all human and need each other. It is so beautiful, touching, and addictive. For two years it has brought so much joy in our lives. It will be missed next year.
Yumi’s Cells (Season 1, Viki)
The South Korean dramedy series YUMI’S CELLS earned a spot on this list due to its stellar character performances intermingled with cute, sassy and incredibly funny animation. It seamlessly interwove its real-world with its animated-cartoon character world creating a hilarious and heart-warming series where viewers were equally invested in the real-world characters and the ‘toon world characters that inhabited their human counterparts, who aided and assisted them in making crucial life decisions as well as navigating the treacherous and mercurial world of dating in today’s modern world.
The central character Yumi is portrayed by the effervescent Kim Go-eun (known for her roles in COIN LOCKER GIRL, CHEESE IN THE TRAP, GOBLIN aka GUARDIAN: THE GREAT & LONELY GUARDIAN, and THE KING: ETERNAL MONARCH). Casting Kim Go-eun in this mix of reality and fantasy was genius. She flawlessly executed her scenes and nailed the portrayal with such nuance that viewers could practically see the “cell” characters working inside of her in each scene.
Fleshing out Yumi’s world were a few key women and men, who added so much to this heart-felt story of search for love and job fulfillment. The two supporting female characters that acted as guides and buffers for Yumi’s story were her enthusiastic co-worker Ruby, portrayed with such joy by Lee Yu-bi, and Yumi’s nemesis portrayed with precision by Park Ji-hyun, who was a a rival for Yumi’s boyfriend’s attention and affection. Without these characters pushing and pulling on Yumi’s personal and professional lives, Yumi’s life quest would be less tumultuous and fulfilling. They were necessary to show Yumi the path that she must take to achieve her own happiness.
While Yumi’s male love-interests ranged from comical to heart-breaking, it showed how Yumi learned to love and pursue healthy romantic relationships.
Hat-tip to the male characters deftly portrayed by Ahn Bo-hyun (known for his roles in HER PRIVATE LIFE, ITAEWON CLASS, and MY NAME), Choi Min-ho (known for his role in HWARANG: THE POET WARRIOR and professionally as Minho, a member of SHINee), and Park Jin-young (known for his recent roles in HE IS PSYCHOMETRIC and THE DEVIL JUDGE and professionally as Jinyoung, a member of GOT7), who brought their winning personalities to each of their characters so that the audience fell under their spell just as easily as Yumi did. Thus, when she is heart-broken, the audience’s heart hurt as well.
YUMI’S CELLS broke out into the zeitgeist and secured an order for a second season aided by steady stream of social media buzz. Women everywhere related to Yumi’s story and cheered her every step of her journey. With Yumi’s story still unfolding, as she pursues her advancing career and wonders if there is a romantic partner to be found that will fulfill that yearning in her heart, a second season is just what the audience is clamoring for in order to see where Yumi’s journey leads.
What stood out the most was how much the series was willing to trust Kim Go-eun to carry the believability of the story and how she in turn opened her heart so much that viewers invested in her story as if it were their own. The craftsmanship that went into bringing such a character and series to life is astounding. The end result was a charming, heart-warming — and though at times painful — tale of personal growth. That abundance of heart made this series magical. It was also very funny, which counter-balanced it from its realistic feeling life-lessons. Here is hoping that Season 2 will be released soon.
Squid Game (Season 1, Netflix)
The South Korean drama series SQUID GAME seemed to have come out of nowhere and quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, leading to a boom of interest in South Korean dramas, as well as other internationally produced series. Yet what will be remembered from SQUID GAME is not just its cultural achievement and mark on the zeitgeist, but rather its ability to humanize characters that would normally be difficult to relate to in such a way that viewers invested in their desperate struggle to survive.
Like any game of chance, SQUID GAME was stacked against winning. The sheer number of characters killed off is what got viewers’ attention. The games were shocking and terrifying, but the fact that there was virtually only one survivor in the end is what ignited the firestorm of global conversation. Similar to how Agatha Christie is remembered for her story “And Then There Were None” where she killed every character off in the story, SQUID GAME dared to defy conventional storytelling and killed characters that were set up to have a “hero’s journey” and which viewers assumed would survive. The fact that only one character survived was shocking. That was a gut-punch, especially after the surviving character realized how the games had been manipulated and controlled to keep anyone from winning. The fact that there was a survivor became the surprise ending in SQUID GAME.
Hat tip and compliments to Lee Jung-jae for his brilliant performance throughout SQUID GAME. It was riveting and deftly portrayed, so much so that the audience could not help bond with him and cheer for his success.
So how does a horror series like SQUID GAME end up on my Top 10 list? The women portrayed and brought to life on-screen is the answer. It was not that the female characters survived, but rather how they chose to tenaciously LIVE their lives and then sacrificed their lives on their own terms — and that their lives mattered. SQUID GAME’S earned a place on this list because the female characters were significant and mattered, and the artists who portrayed them were extraordinary in their portrayals.
Korean model Jung Ho-yeon (also known as HoYeon Jung) broke-out with her searing portrayal as her character’s death rocked the entertainment world. Jung Ho-yeon was magnificent because in every scene you were captivated by what her character was doing and thinking. Without saying a word, you felt her tenacity and desperation, as well as the desire to protect, and her intense will to love and be loved. Also sharply felt was the loss of Ji-yeong, achingly portrayed by Lee Yoo-mi, who brought so much hope to a hopeless situation and whose sacrifice was made out of a desire to matter to even one person. Also key was the impact of Han Mi-nyeo, portrayed comedically and ferociously by Kim Joo-ryoung. All three women characters fought bitterly to survive and sacrificed themselves to ensure that someone would survive so they would be remembered. That one person would know that their lives and their sacrifices mattered. In addition, just as pivotal were the contributions of Kim Young-ok and Park Hye-jin, whose characters stood by their beleaguered sons through their professional losses and inability to regain a financial foothold in the world. It has been said that South Korea was built on the backs of the mothers and grandmothers who toil every day of their lives for future generations, which was beautifully illustrated by the portrayals of Kim Young-ok and Park Hye-jin.
SQUID GAME is not a series that anyone is likely to forget. It is imprinted on our brains by the emotional connection the audience made with its characters, which are some of the most painful losses of fictional characters in recent entertainment history. To have that kind of impact proves how powerful a connection was made. Curiously, even with the loss of life so high, the series has been greenlit for a second season and will hopefully reveal if the game master can finally be brought to justice. Much of the duality of human nature was deftly portrayed by the participants in the games, but it was also showcased by the series’ central villain. Thanks to Lee Byung-hun’s nuanced performance as the Front Man, the audience felt his anguish when confronted with the dilemma to kill his own brother in order to complete the games. I look forward to watching the show’s second season to see if a woman will prevail in the next round of SQUID GAME.
Money Heist (Part 5, final season, Netflix)
For its fifth and final season, the Spanish drama series MONEY HEIST (aka LA CASA DE PAPEL) ratcheted up the drama. Five seasons and two breath-taking bank heists later, the scorching hot series that dared to make viewers root for the bank thieves came to end. The characters represented more than just being thieves intent on money and gold. They were the champions of a cause — to bring awareness to the government’s corruption and misuse of national funds. It challenged viewers to root for the labyrinthine heists every step of the way over the show’s five seasons.
The story of The Professor, Tokyo and Rio, Denver, Moscow, Nairobi, Berlin, Stockholm, Manila, Bogata, Marseille, Helsinki, Palermo, Lisbon, and Sierra came together with one last and great heist, but it came with a shocking bodycount. They got the money and gold, but the price was unfathomable because not even all money in the world is worth the life of one. That was the cold-hard truth that they all faced. Yet they felt that they did not have a choice. The first heist was for the thrill and money, but the second heist was to rescue one of their own. So while the loss of life was necessary in order to save a life — it was a price perhaps too high.
MONEY HEIST never shied away from the truth that these were thieves and that no one should be rooting for them, yet the audience bonded with them and cheered for them anyway. They were so charming and fun. We wanted them to succeed, and when they lost one of their own, it hurt watching them hurt. Entertainment is seductive and subversive that way: it can make you root for the most unexpected of characters.
In MONEY HEIST, the female characters were just as ruthless and money-hungry and power-driven as the men; and the women who brought them to screen were absolutely mesmerizing. The first character introduced in the series was Tokyo, portrayed by Ursula Corbero. She was the “underdog” whose love of life and hot-blooded pursuit of her romantic suitors made her our hero. Her partnership with The Professor, phenomenally portrayed by Alvaro Morte, made MONEY HEIST addictive. Their platonic bond was stronger than any other relationship established in the series, and once it was destroyed by death, the series was shaken to its core. The pain felt by the survivors was acute. Not one person failed to feel that loss. The Professor had always been the “brains” behind the heist, but Tokyo was the “heart” of the show.
The true strength of MONEY HEIST was its ability to introduce characters that the audience bonded with. So even the casting of hostages and villains (some of which who later turned into allies) was a stroke of brilliance. From Ursula Corbero (Tokyo) to Alba Flores (Nairobi) to Esther Acebo (Stockholm) to Itziar Ituno (Lisbon) to Belen Cuesta (Manila) to Najwa Nimri (Sierra) to Diana Gomez (Tatiana), these women characters were portrayed as equals to their male counterparts.
My compliments to the powerful and riveting performances by the male co-stars: Alvaro Morte (The Professor), Jaime Lorente (Denver), Miguel Herran (Rio), Paco Tous (Moscow), Pedro Alonso (Berlin), Darko Peric (Helsinki), Hovik Keuchkerian (Bogota), Luka Peros (Marseille), Enrique Arce (Arturo), Fernando Soto (Angel), and Jose Manuel Poga (Gandia) as well.
For, in a heist, each person or character is an equal part of the whole — and in MONEY HEIST, each death felt as if a body-part had been sacrificed and the “body” was less functional as a whole — the performances were that heart-felt and searing. You felt their desires, their thrills, their ecstasy, their fear, their uncertainty and their love; and that is what we remember having watched the entire series. We loved, lived, and lost with them. They were us and we were them. Their legacy is the family that we felt we had for a time and now remains etched in our memories.
MONEY HEIST was rescued from cancellation by Netflix and then ran an additional three seasons becoming a worldwide phenomenon. That savvy and strategic decision was a stroke of genius. It introduced the entire world to a series about an intricate bank robbery, which was really about meeting a group of characters that audiences around the globe would fall in love with. Netflix saw what we saw: a highly addictive series with powerful performances by some of the most talented artists on screen and behind the screen. MONEY HEIST became a global sensation because it was entertainment at its finest. It was a gift given to audiences everywhere. I remain grateful for that gift.
The Good Fight (Season 5, Paramount+)
For the 4th consecutive year, THE GOOD FIGHT has secured a spot in my annual Top 10 list. It is consistently fearless and will tackle and address any legal, political, social, or business topic that it wants — even if it means a tussle with censors and the network’s legal department. THE GOOD FIGHT wisely centers its series around women and depicts its female characters as being fearless and empowered, while managing to make its female characters delightfully entertaining to watch. It helps that THE GOOD FIGHT provides such sharp, piercing storylines with rich, layered characters. Its female characters are deeply-flawed, yet tenacious, and each suffers personal/professional highs and lows that showcase the daily struggles that women face in the work-force and in their careers while trying to balance a personal life. Special recognition should be given to Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, Sarah Steele, and newcomer Charmaine Bingwa for their phenomenal performances that carried THE GOOD FIGHT through this year. That, combined with the deft performances by the male characters portrayed by Nyambi Nyambi, Michael Boatman, Zach Grenier, Gary Cole, and guest-star Mandy Patinkin, continues to make THE GOOD FIGHT a fun and hair-raising series to watch.
THE GOOD FIGHT is one of the best written shows currently airing with exceptional characters and stories, all while being consistently entertaining. It can be jaw-dropping, but you still enjoy seeing where each character goes throughout the series. I appreciate that THE GOOD FIGHT dares to venture outside the box and embeds little vignettes and animated segments to clarify complex legal or political issues. It is a clever visual tool that keeps the story and show moving right along.
I remain awed by the fact that THE GOOD FIGHT has managed to expand upon its original universe from the series THE GOOD WIFE (another exceptionally well-written and cast show). When I watch THE GOOD FIGHT, it is thoroughly entertaining to see its universe continue to ebb-and-flow around the original universe, weaving in and out while introducing fan-favorite characters from time to time.
Given all the real-world issues the THE GOOD FIGHT manages to weave into its fictional world, it remains a fascinating series that pierces through the legal and political veils to reveal the underbelly and contradictions inherent in both. It offers some of the finest writing and character portrayals that I have seen on screen. More award attention and accolades are surely due to this stellar series.
The Great (Season 2, Hulu)
For the 2nd consecutive year, THE GREAT secured a spot on my annual Top 10 list. That is simply because the Hulu drama returned in spectacular form for its second season. The story is loosely based on the real life of Catherine the Great, who conquered and ruled Russia in the late 1700’s. Not even Russian by birth, Catherine married a Russian king and, upon realizing how weak and foolish her new husband was, devised a plan to overthrow him and rule for herself. Imagine being married off at a young age and finding yourself in a position where, if you do not step up and claim the throne, your entire nation will collapse? That is what is so fun about the Hulu series THE GREAT — it is founded on a very well-known tale, but allows for a lot of comedy and drama with its character interactions as it follows this infamous path of dethroning a monarch and taking his throne.
Starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, the series is a wild romp from start to finish. Bawdy, ribald, and unapologetically sexual, with an abundance of nudity, THE GREAT is an open and forthright examination of the indignities and absurdities that Catherine was subjected to as an insignificant wife to a king. Yet, Catherine was noble-born and destined to rule — whether her husband or any of his countrymen understood that. So, noticing there was a power vacuum, Catherine plotted and seized her opportunities to her advantage. The series has a lot of fun showing: (a) how easy it is to dethrone a king and (b) how unexpected circumstances can uproot the best laid plans and yet still provide another prime opportunity. In the second season, Catherine succeeds in taking control of the country, but her reign is constantly challenged by her dethroned husband and a series of calculated misadventures ensue.
In this series, Elle Fanning is perfectly cast. She looks like an innocent, simpering lady who hides a devilish, cunning side that she employs to her benefit. The theme of men constantly under-estimating women is well-employed and Elle is fantastic in her portrayal of Catherine displaying the differing facades as each circumstance demands. She also works well on screen against Nicholas Hoult, and the scenes with their characters verbally sparring are a constant delight. For the second season, Nicholas Hoult offers a fantastic dose of ”double-trouble” in the series with his dual portrayals of both Peter and Yemelyan Pugachev. It is always comedy at its finest whenever he and Elle are in scenes together.
Equally wonderful are co-stars Phoebe Fox and Sacha Dhawan, who are caught up in the dire and absurd circumstances along with Catherine. As a quartet, Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox and Sacha Dhawan are a comedy-cocktail laced with sublime dramatic undertones. In the second season, the supporting female characters portrayed by Charity Wakefield, Belinda Bromilow, and Danusia Samal also raise the stakes in who controls the monarchy. Women are not always seen as powerful or threatening, but looks are deceiving when it comes to power and ruthlessness. Compliments to their male counterparts, portrayed by Gwilym Lee, Adam Godley, Douglas Hodge, Bayo Gbadamosi, and Sebastian de Souza for bringing their top performances to the series as well.
They are like actors in a Shakespearean play that unfolds in a devilish manner in THE GREAT. The visuals are stunning and the series somehow manages to make even the sexual encounters seem meaningless in the open air and bright light that infuses the series. The use of color and light along with lush pageantry and decorations provides a gaudy mask over the darker themes, desires and power struggles that are woven together as a glorious tapestry, while allowing the audience to voyeuristically watch the power-plays and schemes unfold throughout the series. Ultimately, it is enthralling to watch and you will find yourself unable to turn away — and that is the magic trick of THE GREAT— you are dying to find out what happens next.
Two seasons in and THE GREAT continues to raise the bar in its writing, portrayals, production and all the other elements which go into making a series this addictive to watch. My compliments to all who bring their magic and wizardry of skill into making this outrageous and hilarious series to screen.
As with prior years, it was a struggle to limit my list to 10 shows because there are an abundance of shows to stream and watch in 2021. Thus, I diligently watched as many as I could to ascertain a level of knowledge that would be useful in creating my Top 10 list.
Honorable mentions for 2021 include:
Hello Me (Netflix), Dr. Brain (AppleTV+), Sell Your Haunted House (Viki), My Name (Netflix), WandaVision (Disney+), Hawkeye (Disney+), The Handmaids Tale (Season 4, Hulu), Resident Alien (Season 1, Syfy), Ted Lasso (Season 2, AppleTV+), Wynnona Earp (Season 4, final season, Syfy)
As a point of reference, the following are my Top 10 Shows from prior years.
Top 10 Shows of 2020:
The Good Fight (Season 4, Paramount+)
Crash Landing On You (Netflix)
Westworld (Season 3, HBO)
Itaewon Class (Netflix)
It’s Okay To Not Be Okay (Netflix)
Killing Eve (Season 3, BBC America)
The Great (Season 1, Hulu)
The King: Eternal Monarch (Netflix)
Flower Of Evil (Viki.com)
Hospital Playlist (Season 1, Netflix)
Top 10 Shows of 2019:
Game Of Thrones (Season 8, final season, HBO)
Watchmen (Season 1, HBO)
The Good Fight (Season 3, CBS All Access)
The Morning Show (Season 1, AppleTV+)
Killing Eve (Season 2, BBC America)
Fear The Walking Dead (Season 5, AMC)
The Man In The High Castle (Season 4, final season, Amazon)
Into The Badlands (Season 3, final season, AMC)
Killjoys (Season 5, final season, Syfy)
The Expanse (Season 4, Amazon)
Top 10 Shows of 2018:
Killing Eve (Season 1, BBC America)
The Good Fight (Season 2, CBS All Access)
12 Monkeys (Season 4, final season, Syfy)
Fear The Walking Dead (Season 4, AMC)
The 100 (Season 5, The CW)
The Americans (Season 6, final season, FX)
Westworld (Season 2, HBO)
The Man In The High Castle (Season 3, Amazon)
Star Trek: Discovery (Season 1, part 2, CBS All Access)
Lost In Space (Season 1, Netflix)
Top 10 Shows of 2017:
Game Of Thrones (Season 7, HBO)
Big Little Lies (Season 1, HBO)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Season 1, Hulu)
Black Sails (Season 4, final season, Starz)
Sweet/Vicious (Season 1, only season, MTV)
Mary Kills People (Season 1, Lifetime)
Colony (Season 2, USA Network)
Star Trek: Discovery (Season 1, part 1, CBS All Access)
The 100 (Season 4, The CW)
Fear The Walking Dead (Season 3, AMC)
Top 10 Shows of 2016:
Rectify (Season 4, final season, Sundance)
Westworld (Season 1, HBO)
12 Monkeys (Season 2, Syfy)
The Good Wife (Season 7, final season, CBS)
Bates Motel (Season 4, A&E)
The Americans (Season 4, FX)
Orphan Black (Season 4, BBC America)
Stranger Things (Season 1, Netflix)
Better Call Saul (Season 2, AMC)
Downton Abbey (U.K., Season 6, PBS)