My Favorites of 2021
Things I enjoyed this year, which were not necessarily made this year
Apologies if this is not as polished as other things I publish here. I wasn’t motivated to spend time polishing it to the extent that it would delay sharing my list.
When it comes to works of fiction, and scripted film and television, I recently identified one factor that will make or break something for me. It is attention to detail (or lack thereof).
For example, I’ve been watching a Netflix series called Shadow and Bone, and I really want to like it. It was on numerous “your next show” lists targeted at the Game of Thrones fan base as that show was entering its final seasons. And, well, since we’ve now just mentioned the final seasons of GoT, talk about inattention to detail...
Possible spoilers ahead, but in Shadow and Bone, the main character, Alina Starkov, is supposed to be either the fabled savior of the world, or the most dangerous weapon in the world, depending on one’s perspective. Either way, she is the single-most important person in the entire world. Amongst her allies, there are very serious discussions about how she must be protected at all costs, and then the same people who talk about protecting her are just absurdly incompetent at managing her protection. We are treated to a series of mistakes and misfortunes simply too stupid to accept. “That character would never do that,” I find myself saying over and over.
To belabor this point a bit, I quit The Walking Dead sometime in the second season after watching an episode where a small girl, one of the group of main characters, goes missing. The remaining characters split up to search for her, but what follows for the remainder of the episode are pairs of characters strolling zombie country and casually sharing their backstories with each other. Some of the pairs of characters even stop and sit down for their gab sessions. It seems like no one remembers the lost little girl. This is obviously insane, but also, I am expected to sit through a whole hour of exposition and backstories with zero zombies? Is this not a zombie apocalypse show?
These kinds of things just make me feel like I’m not in good hands with the writers. I don’t trust them with the story they’re trying to tell.
On the other hand, take a show like Succession. I can’t say I enjoy it per se. I mean, it’s utterly bleak, and not a single one of the characters is someone I would admire at all in real life. I don’t even root for any of them on the show for that matter. But it’s absolutely one of the tightest, most internally-consistent things you could watch, down to the set design. To wit, in one scene I noticed a discarded flat-screen tv box in the background of a conference room and I was stunned by how perfect that was. What an odd choice some art director made to put a discarded box – trash basically – into the background of a meeting of powerful people, in a fancy conference room, in a fancy glass office tower. But it’s absolutely believable if you’ve ever been inside a place like that. A perfect little detail.
When I watch a show like Succession, I just trust that all the people behind it know what they’re doing, and that trust is automatic, because everything fits together so tightly.
And so, that brings me to a list of some things I enjoyed this year, not all of which were made this year, but all of which reflect the kind of attention to detail that made me say wow...
I don’t need to add more to what I said above, or the endless commentary that’s already out there. The show is brilliantly done.
Two female detectives join forces to solve a rape. The three women – the two detectives and the rape victim – are all underestimated in different ways by the men they deal with.
Normal People (Hulu)
It says something about the golden age of television we’re in right now, and in particular the viability of the “limited series” format that this was adapted at all. I love that it was. It is a story of friendship and romance, kindredness and vulnerability. It’s all so wonderfully real.
Band of Brothers (HBO)
I finally got around to watching this, and it was perfectly balanced – gritty, exciting, poignant, and funny. I struggle to summarize it in words, but it felt like it did justice to the men it portrayed. They are soldiers, but you never lose sight of the fact that they are real guys, from real places.
Foundation (Apple TV+)
I read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy during the summer before I started eighth grade, and I can’t say I remember it well enough to judge whether this is a faithful adaptation or not. In its own right, the show is sprawling and polished, and handles many threads without either overcomplicating or oversimplifying the interwoven politics, history, and science. I’m eager for season two.
The Morning Show (Apple TV+)
The whole cast is fantastic, but Billy Crudup in particular is just wonderful. It’s a show that tries to take on a whole array of topical things (a show about a news show!), starting of course with the #MeToo movement, but then the 2020 election, the pandemic, and more. This kind of attempt at cultural relevance has been done so clumsily before, but not here. It’s funny and serious and real.
It’s a Sin (HBO Max)
I have referred to this as a companion piece for Rebecca Makkai’s novel, The Great Believers (also worth reading). It captures the joy of gay friendships just before the AIDS crisis, and then the loss and grief that followed.
The Chair (Netflix)
The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime)
Mare of Easttown (HBO Max)
The Great (Hulu)
Nicholas Hoult is absolutely delightful in this. I love the “occasionally true” tag at the beginning of each episode, and it feels like an entirely new kind of English was invented for this show – a somehow seamless fusion of period and contemporary vernacular. It sizzles.
Awkwafina is Nora from Queens (HBO Max)
One of my favorite things on this show – apart from Awkwafina herself, and every scene with Bowen Yang of course – are the snapshots of randomness around the city of New York. Like when Nora’s grandma goes to a police precinct to report an identity theft, and there’s a woman in the background, just sitting in the waiting area – dressed in a bridal gown, covered in blood, and holding a knife.
I may just start this one again, because in the beginning I wasn’t watching it with much focus. It starts out loose, as if Ramy is just a dude you know. His jokes sometimes don’t work, and that feels intentional. It’s his life we’re seeing, a real life. And then at some point, Mahershala Ali enters the picture as the Imam of a local mosque, and he is just magnetic. The whole center of gravity of the show shifts, and it becomes something much more profound, and vulnerable, and beautiful.
Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
Honestly, this one wasn’t as tight as the others, but man I will watch Steve Martin and Martin Short in anything.
Ted Lasso (of course)
Hacks (HBO Max)
Schmigadoon (Apple TV+)
Television Documentary / Reality:
Ugly Delicious (Netflix)
My Octopus Teacher (Netflix)
Philly D.A. (PBS)
Muhammed Ali (PBS)
These shows that I have not watched appear on numerous “best of 2021” lists. I mention them here so that you won’t think I am some philistine who didn’t like your favorite show. These are my list now.
The White Lotus
For All Mankind
I Think You Should Leave
What We Do in the Shadows
I feel like I didn’t read very many novels this year, perhaps because I shifted a lot of my fiction reading to short stories. This year I subscribed to a handful of quarterlies and also caught up on 4-5 years worth of “The Best American Short Stories.” Of the novels I read, here are the ones that stood out:
Matrix, Lauren Groff
I think Groff is my favorite writer of the moment. I especially loved her story collections – Delicate Little Birds, and Florida. Her latest novel, Matrix, is easily my favorite fiction work of the year and is very much a departure from her other books. It’s a period piece spanning the life of a woman who becomes prioress and then abbess of an English nunnery when her friend, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine effectively banishes her from court. The subjects of Matrix are almost all women and its heroes exclusively so. Men are present at all only as a remote threat, sometimes distant and other times looming.
Salvage the Bones, Jessmyn Ward
Weather, Jenny Offill
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro
The Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk
This is a book about trauma and recovery, and I’m not exactly sure why I picked it up. It crossed my radar and caught my eye. It’s a history of the treatments for trauma and depression, as well as a personal account of what the author saw and learned through his own experiences treating patients – interspersed with anecdotes that are heart-wrenching and powerful.
Summer of Soul ...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised (Hulu)
Questlove found himself with all the footage of a (somehow, amazingly) forgotten summer music festival, and he cut it together with documentary clips that provide the fraught context of the times. And then he had the brilliant idea to gather some of the original performers and film them watching their own performances and others – footage they’d not seen in decades, if ever. This one is just masterful.
Judas and the Black Messiah (HBO Max)
LaKeith Stanfield is an actor who fills all the space he’s in. So is Daniel Kaluuya. This one left me shaken and speechless for a good while.
Mitchells vs Machines (Netflix)
The whole family loved this one. We had to pause and rewind bits of it multiple times, either because we were laughing so much we missed things, or because the bit was awesome enough to watch twice.
This adaptation is worthy of the novel (ironically, that revealed for me some weaknesses of the novel I had not seen before)
There’s no podcast I absolutely binged on this year, but here are some that I dipped into and enjoyed most...
This podcast introduced me to some thinkers who inspired a lot of my journal entries and other writing this year:
Daniel Schmachtenberger – He is the thinker who drew me to Rebel Wisdom in the first place. His focus is sensemaking and the epistemic crisis we are in as a culture.
Jules Evans – Philosopher who focuses on balancing rational and scientific disciplines with the most useful aspects of religious and contemplative traditions and the spiritual realm more broadly.
Ian McGilchrist – Writes about the differences between and interdependence of the brain’s two hemispheres, and the problems with our left-brain dominated world.
John Vervaeke – Writes about meaning (the human need for meaning, and the meaning crisis that plagues modern life) from a cognitive science perspective.
Making Sense with Sam Harris
When he grinds his axe about wokeness and cancel culture, Harris seems to lose all his normal faculties, but I avoid those bits and dip into the interviews he does with leading scientists, philosophers, psychologists, and other thinkers. Harris attracts people who are worth listening to; he is a good interviewer and largely stays out of the way of his guests.
Against the Rules with Michael Lewis
Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything
Death, Sex & Money
Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell
The New Yorker: Fiction
The New Yorker Fiction: The Writer’s Voice
Somehow the TikTok algorithm manages to promote beauty and joy, in my feed at least. One genre I really appreciate is one where someone representing other people’s idea of a stereotype posts a video, promptly gets mocked, but then manages to convert her or his horde of bullies into a large fan base. One example is a 50-something guy who works at McDonalds; another is a teenager with a facial deformity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s happening on TikTok and not on other social networks. TikTok has super easy tools for responding to comments with videos, “dueting” with other people’s videos, mixing them into your own, etc. They have made something good, and it’s working.
These games were huge time-sucks during my 2021. Whenever I wasn’t playing them, my thoughts drifted to them during every idle moment, constantly and obsessively, until I eventually beat them.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Divinity: Original Sin II