We love TV, but sometimes it feels like the only choices on a given night are between the show about the detective who solves crimes, or the doctor who solves crimes, or the lawyer who solves crimes.
Living through an era of Peak TV (as TV critics love to note) it’s easy for a truly superb show to get lost among all the crime-solving doctor detective lawyers that are current staples of the 2020/21 TV slate. And although it’s not possible for us to watch every show out there (ok, it’s not possible for you to watch every show out there. That’s our job!), it would be a shame to let the rare gem slip through your fingers.
Here are 5 shows that are worth investigating in 2021, not only because there is nary a crime to be solved among the lot, but also because they have stellar casts, incredible production and costume design, zinging dialogue, nuanced political or social commentary, and on occasion even cause us to reflect upon what it means to be human.
For All ManKind (Apple TV+)
If you like intelligently crafted speculative fiction or just strong solid drama, then For All Mankind may just be for you.
Created by Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore, this series imagines an alternative version of Earth’s history, in which the Space Race never ends, but runs for decades as the Soviets and the Americans battle each other to be the first to space, then to the moon, then to colonize it, and so on.
Peppered throughout this alternative telling of US events are real figures from history including Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, and famous rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Even President Richard Nixon and AU President Teddy Kennedy put in appearances over the first season.
Set against the explosive social, cultural and political events of the 1960’s and 70’s, the first season speculates how America’s efforts to be ‘first’ alters public perception, and subtly influences society as a result. Season 2 sets out to hold a mirror up to Ronald Reagan’s America.
From the opening scene — a somber first moon landing by the Soviets which spurs America to do better — to the closing moments of the first season, For All Mankind offers a sprawling, detail-rich, multi-character exploration of what it takes to reach for the stars.
The series stars Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones, Shantel VanSanten, Jodi Balfour, Chris Bauer, Wrenn Schmidt, Colm Feore, Eric Ladin, Lenny Jacobson, Dan Donohue, and Krys Marshall.
The series first premiered on Nov. 1, 2019, and was renewed by Apple TV+ in for a second season, dropping February 19, 2021.
In December 2020, ahead of the second season premiere, the series was renewed for a third season.
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Ted Lasso began life not as a fully fledged sitcom, but a series of comedy sketch promos for NBC Sports’ coverage of the British Premier Football League. In this stellar series from Apple TV, Jason Sudeikis reprises his role as Ted Lasso, a well-loved and well-meaning American football coach who finds himself in the unlikely position of taking over as coach of a struggling premiere league British football club, where his reception is far less welcome.
Knowing absolutely nothing about soccer, Ted is a proverbial fish out of water. However with an infectious sense of can do, a generous spirit, and a lot of luck, he begins to turn the fortunes of the club around, even though there are those around him who would prefer if he did not.
If you liked the gentle humor and slow character evolution in shows such as Schitt’s Creek and The Good Place then this is the show for you. (And for those worrying about getting into a “sports show” know that Ted Lasso is as much a show about sports as Schitt’s Creek was a show about running a hotel.)
The series which has already been renewed for seasons 2 and 3, stars Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham, Jeremy Swift, Phil Dunster, Brett Goldstein, Brendan Hunt, Nick Mohammed and Juno Temple.
Finally, it must be noted that both Waddingham and Temple are particularly excellent. As the show’s only two women among a plethora of male actors playing football players, coaches and kit personnel, both Waddingham, who plays club manager Rebecca Welton, and Temple, who plays WAG Keeley Jones, absolutely blaze their way through every scene (particularly those they share) and into our collective memories as strong, rich, and layered characters we won’t soon forget.
What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
Renewed for a third season back in May 2020, but unlikely to see a fourth season in our immediate future due to a pandemic that has tampered with TV production globally, this Office style, fly-on-the-wall mockumentary is more than the sum of its premise.
Part vampire horror, all comedy, the series follows the lives of four vampires – Nandor, Laszlo, Nadja, and Colin Robinson, living together as roommates in a house in Staten Island.
Nandor, along with husband and wife duo Laszlo and Nadja, is woefully out of step with the modern human world, relying on his familiar Guillermo for everything (including luring virgins to the house). Meanwhile, Colin Robinson, an energy vampire capable of sucking the life force out of his victims by boring them, sometimes literally to death, is savvy to 21st century tech but uses his abilities to troll forums, and fill comment sections online.
Rounding out this band of misfits is Guillermo, Nandor’s down-trodden familiar, who harbors a not so secret desire to be ‘turned’ by his vampire master. However, unwilling to lose his indentured servant, Nandor keeps Guillermo hanging indefinitely, creating the ultimate co-dependant relationship.
Over the course of season 2 Guillermo discovers he is descended from the Helsings, a line of powerful vampire hunters, and may just have the ability to annihilate his roommates if he should choose to take that route. In fact the only thing staying his hand might be his genuine affection for needy Nandor, which is not always reciprocated.
While the series revolves around a quartet of vain, spoiled, needy and ungrateful vampires who spend their days attempting to keep their ancient traditions – both vampire and human – alive, and navigate the modern world around them at the same time, it does so with a cheeky sense of the absurd.
Profoundly silly at times, replete with obscene sex jokes and bawdy puns, and stuffed with an astonishing number of celebrity cameos, What We Do in the Shadows wants us to guffaw at its overt goofiness and squirm at its campy horror sequences, while expertly drawing us in to a cleverly concealed human drama at its core.
In fact, the closer we look at the lives of these characters, struggling to stay relevant, or to be admired, or remembered, or even just loved, the show subtly reminds us that we are all Nandor, Laszlo, Nadja, and Guillermo. And sometimes even a little bit Colin Robinson.
Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
This incredibly well-crafted 9 part series, named one the the 10 best TV shows of 2020 by the American Film Institute, follows the political movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment – along with the social backlash led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly – that followed, in the 1970’s.
Featuring a powerhouse ensemble cast including Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Margo Martindale, John Slattery, Tracey Ullman, and Sarah Paulson, Mrs. America picked up ten Emmy noms including Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding Writing, as well as acting nominations for Blanchett, Aduba, Martindale, and Ullman – with Aduba winning Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series.
The limited run series could have chosen to tell a linear story, but instead centred each episode around a different feminist icon, including Gloria Steinem (Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Aduba), and Betty Friedan (Ullman), and by doing so imparted both much needed perspective and nuance, while simultaneously broadening the historical canvas.
At the center of the show though, and the figure we return to again and again, is Phylis Schlafly (Blanchett), the conservatist activist who fought, if one can believe it, against the amendment, and encouraged stay-at-home suburban mothers to do the same.
Echoing political events across the US in 2020, those wondering how anti-feminist and misogynist grass-roots movements can capture the imagination of a nation should look not further than Mrs. America for parallels.
Produced by FX and originally aired on streaming service FX on Hulu, Mrs. America was created and co-written by Davhi Waller and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Amma Asante, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and Janicza Bravo.
Flack (Amazon Prime)
This scathing look at the PR industry will almost make you feel guilty for laughing out loud. But you will still laugh. Flack stars Anna Paquin as Robyn, a talented PR agent whose self-professed talents include lying and drinking!
Robyn’s job is to put out a seemingly never ending slew of celebrity fires, while her own personal life wobbles dangerously off the rails. If it sounds familiar it’s probably because although strictly a comedy, Flack still swims in the same waters as ABC’s #TGIT drama Scandal, with the exception that on Amazon Prime you can push the boundaries of what is possible on US broadcast television.
Shooting from the hip with witty dialogue, outrageous client predicaments, and ingenious last minute saves, Flack is a fun and irreverent rollercoaster ride through the debauched inner circles of the rich and famous.
The series is technically not new, although it is new to Amazon Prime. It premiered its first season of 6 episodes in the UK, before moving to the streaming giant for Season 2.