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My High 5 for 2021

Every year I offer up my Top 5 new shows for the year, hopefully in time for your summer bingeing.

2021 was a good year for content which is just as well given those long, arduous lockdowns.

A colleague once remarked that a lot of TV “sits in the middle,” a sentiment I concur with, meaning most TV is very well made, neither woeful nor ground-breaking. I only dished out two 5 star reviews this year, but there were plenty that nudged very close.

In Australian drama ABC had a killer year, with Sunday night dramas delivering stand-out new shows.  Commercial broadcasters were pretty disappointing, especially Nine and 10, although Seven brought us a very comforting outback drama. SBS did well with their limited drama budget.

But TV isn’t all about Drama, with Factual content remaining high at public broadcasters. There was even one reunion show which reset the way such shows should be addressed.

My list is in no particular order, but it is confined to shows that were new in 2021.

Wakefield (ABC)
I am so grateful I stuck with Wakefield. If I’m honest I was undecided after the first episode…. not that it wasn’t well-performed, nor striking in its style and landscapes. But I just couldn’t work out what the hell psych nurse Nik (Rudi Dharmalingam) wanted. Yet as Wakefield unravelled over its 8 episodes it was clear that Nik had history that is weighing heavily on his mind. Kristen Dunphy’s script never took the safe nor linear path in seeking to portray mental health, often rebounding on itself in some post-Rashomon circle. The whole series was like a jigsaw of mystery, emotion, sanity for the viewer to navigate. Directors Jocelyn Moorhouse & Kim Mordant even injected song & dance into this bold work, with Dharmalingam forced to perfect tap dancing for his role. The collision of ideas and visuals was sometimes exquisite and the crescendo is deeply affecting, visually striking, superbly performed. Wakefield is one of the finest and most original local dramas produced in years.

Landscapers (Stan)
The 4 part UK drama is based on incidents of 2014 when husband and wife Susan and Christopher Edwards (Olivia Colman and David Thewlis), were arrested over the discovery of two dead bodies in the backyard of their former home. It was a secret they had kept for 15 years. Driving the investigation are bickering cops, DC Emma Lancing (Kate O’Flynn) and DC Paul Wilkie (Samuel Anderson), adding to the dark humour of this tale by writer Ed Sinclair. They are acting on a tip-off but know they have to build a solid case especially if they are to extradite the couple from France. Colman and Thewlis are quite magnificent in their roles as a devoted, suburban couple who could very well be monsters within. Later episodes contain stunning, tour de force scenes which will surely elicit award nominations. Yet director Will Sharpe also brings superb imagination and stylistic choices to the work. Not just playing with time, it blurs the lines between Hollywood / Britain, naturalistic / unconventional, colour / black & white and even the process of filmmaking itself.

Mare of Easttown (Foxtel / Binge)
Mare is Detective Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), whose recent case around the disappearance of a teenage girl is a thorn in her side. But Mare has a lot going on in her life, including the impending wedding of her ex-husband Frank (David Denman), the health of her grandchild and a looming custody battle, and a belligerent mother (Jean Smart) making home life worse than it already is. Thankfully she meets visiting novelist Richard (Guy Pearce) one night at a bar who sees beyond her abrasive personality (aka he’s just horny) and the two have casual sex -with him keen to reconnect. All of that is upended when a friend of Mare’s teen daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) winds up dead in a river, but Mare will be further challenged by an out-of-town Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters). It’s all a slow burn, without a great deal of sunshine, but with Winslet in charge you’re always on solid ground. And where it goes is both thrilling and surprising.

It’s a Sin (Stan)

When Russell T. Davies sets his sights on a passionate new story, you’d better hold on. His miniseries on the HIV / AIDS epidemic of Britain in the 1980s unleashes a kaleidoscope of ideas, characters, youth, sex and politics which is timely to revisit during our current crises. Olly Alexander is magnetic as the horny, anarchic young Ritchie, while Keeley Hawes has never been better in an unforgiving role as his mother. Along with cameos from Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry, there’s an irresistible, hedonistic soundtrack fused with fear and Thatcherism. Get out the tissues, it is not without deeply moving moments.

The Newsreader (ABC)
Michael Lucas’ 6 part essay on the inner workings of a fictional News at 6 newsroom is part workplace drama and part news events time capsule. But they mingle together deliciously. Careers rise and fall around the Challenger Disaster, Halley’s Comet, Lindy Chamberlain, Russell St. bombing, AIDS crisis and Chernobyl -all of them in 1986. Like Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom real-world events are the backdrop to the characters’ arcs, but this time they centre around a torrid relationship between rising reporter Dale Jennings (Sam Reid) and ambitious news anchor Helen Norville (Anna Torv). William McInnes is sensational as the bullying boss and it was particularly pleasing to see Marg Downey allowed to show her dramatic subtlety as the woman behind the TV star. All of Lucas’ references to Ray Martin, Harry M. Miller, 60 Minutes and chequebook journalism demonstrate insight into a ferocious era, but one brimming in misogyny, racism and homophobia. These make the ride brilliantly entertaining and scary all at the same time.

Runners-Up (in no particular order):

Allen v Farrow (Foxtel / Binge)
Back to Nature (ABC)
Bump (Stan)
Don’t Look Up (Netflix)
The End (Foxtel / Binge)
Exposed: Ghost Train Fire (ABC)
Fires (ABC)
Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra (ABC)
Friends: The Reunion (Foxtel / Binge)
Hacks (Stan)
How Can You Mend a Broken Heart? (Foxtel / Binge)
Kevin Can F*** Himself (Amazon Prime Video)
Nitram (Stan)
Only Murders in the Building (Disney+)
Oslo (Foxtel / Binge)
RFDS (Seven)
Schmigadoon! (Apple TV+)
The Serpent (Netflix)
Squid Game (Netflix)
Strong Female Lead (SBS)
Tick Tick Boom (Netflix)
Time (Foxtel / Binge)
Tina (Foxtel / Binge)
The Unusual Suspects (SBS)
Veneno (ABC)
Vigil (Foxtel / Binge)



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