On the eve of the main awards-giving entity for the field of television announcing their nominations celebrating the excellence of the season past, I adhere to my tradition, which is by now long-standing, of tossing my modest couple of pennies into the discussion. With the usual regretful caveat that, for as much I watch, I’m not adequately caught up on my long list of must-see series to make this list comprehensive or definitive, what follows are my choices for the ten best offerings from the 2020-2021 season in the now broadly defined field of television. In a curiosity attributable in large part to pandemic-related production slowdowns, not a single title that figured in last year’s list is eligible for this year’s.
#1 — I May Destroy You (HBO). Created by and starring Michaela Coel, this series is an ingenious powerhouse. Coel’s dazzling, devastating writing explores the myriad ways consent is stripped away from people and the faulty social constructs that prevent those who have been acted against from restoring the lost parts of their being, much less achieving justice. It is simultaneously about the complexities of modern friendship and the fraught challenges of the creative process. I May Destroy You does so much, and does it all exceptionally well.
#2 — How To with John Wilson, season 1 (HBO). The beautiful oddity of John Wilson’s observational documentary series, rife with comedy and tinged with melancholy, is difficult to describe. Further, I’m doubtful that any description, no matter how eloquent, can convey its specialness. Wilson somehow makes the mundane into poetry while also gently jabbing at the absurdity of our varied interactions with the world around us.
#3 — Ted Lasso, season 1 (Apple TV+). An admirably guileless comedy, Ted Lasso takes one of the more well-worn basic premises, a fish-out-of-water story, and creates an unstoppable joy machine from it. Jason Sudeikis demonstrates real acting wizardry in making the title role work, but the cast is aces up and down the roster.
#4 — Lovecraft Country, season 1 (HBO). This genre romp, adapted from a Matt Ruff novel and created for television by Misha Green, is the wildest of wild rides. Mostly a revelry of horror, Lovecraft Country takes diversions in adventure and science fiction while offering sly, savage commentary on the righteously preserved bigotry that shaped and poisoned the nation.
#5 — Pen15, season 2 (Hulu). The gimmick of thirty-somethings Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing thirteen-year-olds became an afterthought in the second season of Pen15 as well-observed character comedy prevailed. Even without a personal background that relates, I felt the painful accuracy of the season-ending theater storyline down to my bones.
#6 — Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself (Hulu). This skillful adaptation of a stage piece (both the original production and the filmed version are directed by Frank Oz) spotlights a masterful performance by Derek DelGaudio. At the core, its a magic act. It’s so much more, though, full of poignant grace notes that are astonishingly preserved after being necessarily shifted from the enhancing intimacy of the theater.
#7 — I Hate Suzie, season 1 (HBO Max). An utterly fearless lead performance by Billie Piper is at the center of this scabrous comedy about a mid-level actress suffering through a scandal at least partially of her own making. Piper co-created the series, with regular collaborator Lucy Prebble, making her headlong charge into darkness all the more impressive.
#8 — WandaVision, season 1 (Disney+). The first proper foray into television by the Marvel Entertainment Industrial Complex leadership that bent all of U.S. moviedom to their will, WandaVision is messy, devious, and wildly entertaining. After years on the Marvel payroll, Elizabeth Olsen finally has the space to flash her talent, and gifting Kathryn Hahn the role of Agatha earned someone angel wings.
#9 — What the Constitution Means to Me (Amazon). Heidi Schreck’s justly lauded theater work is captured for the screen by director Marielle Heller. At a time when one political party is hellbent on wreaking havoc on every governmental norm so they can keep exploiting people, Shreck’s challenging patriotism includes the necessary reminder that, for many citizens, there is still a lot of work needed to realize a more perfect union.
#10 — Small Axe: Lovers Rock (Amazon). “You’re as much to blame/ ‘Cause I know you feel the same/ I can see it in your eyes/ But I’ve got no time to live this lie/ No, I’ve got no time to play your silly games/ Silly games.”