Best TV Drama 2021

2021 was another year which marked a march away from the relevance of network TV towards the dominance of streaming. In this age of complexity and nuance where there is no longer a broad shared culture, the SVODs have the upper hand: they can produce shows tooled for any particularly micro-tribe.

It’s not going to get any better for network TV.

Here are the best shows I saw this year…

10. For All Mankind

Once Apple TV+’s alternate history series about the Space Race revealed what it was *really* doing midway through season one, it took on a completely new dimension. As much a secret history as an alternate history, this show is equally about down here as it is out there. It reveals exactly what we lost by not pushing forward with space ambitions after the moon landings. Like all Apple TV+ shows, the storytelling has a solid old school charm, with some great characters and performances, and immense production values (again, a regular for Apple shows).

9. Only Murders In The Building

A frothy confection that is instantly engaging thanks to the chemistry among the three principles – Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez. It plays nicely with the conflict between old and young generation, pointing up the strengths and weaknesses of both, rather than taking any sides. And as you would expect from a Steve Martin vehicle, the dialogue sparkles: “The only thing your generation is scared of is colon cancer and societal change,” as Selena Gomez says to her older comrades. Not the only true crime podcasters investigate real crime series you’ll find this year, but certainly the best.

8. You

This has been a year of regular series steadily improving in quality and You is no exception. The best of the three seasons, There’s a great dynamic between Penn Badgley’s psychopathic world’s worst husband Joe and Victoria Pedretti’s equally psychopathic Love, with both of them digging new graves in suburbia. Stitched through with black humour, the stakes are raised continually with plenty of twists and turns. Pedretti does her best work here.

7. The White Lotus

A show about terrible people doing terrible things – I don’t know if that trope’s arisen because we like to revel in our moral superiority or to gawk at a slow-motion car crash, maybe both. The White Lotus is packed with brilliant performances, each one simmering in turn while creator Mike White slowly and sadistically turns the blade on each one of them as they gather in a Hawaiian hotel.

6. The Good Fight

Not enough people are watching the only satire on TV, and a great one at that, which has skewered every aspect of the Trump presidency and the subsequent fallout. This year I watched both the pandemic-truncated season 4 – with the soon-to-be classic Jeffrey Epstein episode – and season 5’s post-January 6 nightmare for America. Ostensibly a legal drama, this show is really a dissection of US society with a focus on who actually pulls the levers of power.

5. The Crown

The best season of the Royal drama – though not the best Queen, although Olivia Coleman does a passable job. There’s an almost unbearable sense of tension building throughout these episodes. With the addition of Diana and Charles’ affair with Camilla, the Shakespearean tone comes to the fore, every scene heightened with the knowledge of what is to come. Emma Corrin as Diana, Josh O’Connor as Charles and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher are all fantastic.

4. Mare Of Easttown

Hatchet-faced people investigating a grim crime in a depressingly hope-free post-industrial town, so much, so UK network TV. But this series is elevated by the excellent writing and show running of Brad Ingelsby and the performance of Kate Winslet which turns it into a detailed and ultimately inspiring character study of a woman who’s lost so much – not the least her hope for the future – and yet still does her best for her community. Mare of Easttown isn’t about the crime, it’s about human beings struggling to get on and it has a big heart tucked away.

3. Squid Game

TV commissioners often recoil from anything too imaginative, as if ‘real’, or their perception of such, is the only way to tell a story. But you can examine a serious subject by slamming your nose against the brick wall or sitting on a distant hill and taking a more reflective view. Squid Game does the latter in the way it tackles the mechanics of the capitalist system (sounds dreary doesn’t it?) in a story that could not be more unrealistic and as such delivers a more effective gut punch. Desperate people on the edge of society are given the chance to compete in a life-or-death struggle for big rewards. It’s all one big game, for the edification of those who don’t have to get their hands bloody. It’s also the most popular TV show in the world this year so maybe there’s something to that imagination lark.

2. Sex Education

Despite the title, this show is really about love in all its many forms. Ostensibly another fantasy – the cast are British but it’s set in a school that is like no British school anywhere – Sex Education uses the lack of specificity to make this a universal story about discovering love here in the 21st century. The character work is phenomenal, one of the best shows for that on TV, the storytelling at turns heart-soaring and heartbreaking. Thoroughly modern in every human aspect, it tracks the diversity and complexity of how we live today. Sex Education has improved with each season and this one was so close to being the best show of the year. But then came…

1. Succession

On the surface, another show about terrible people doing terrible things, but just like Sex Education, it’s really about love, particularly what happens when you don’t get it as a kid and how that drives you in adult life to fill that void. Succession is a rich, complex series that tackles many things crucial to today’s world and this third season is the best. Eschewing big plots, it drills down into the characters of the children of media magnate Logan Roy (think: Rupert Murdoch) and how their search for his approval both destroys them and corrupts the wider world. The performances at every level are astounding, the writing pitch perfect as it coldly dissects this toxic sphere of existence. One of those series that will ultimately define the golden age of TV.

Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings

This was a fun two hours, no doubt compounded by my love of martial arts movies, Chinese movies and Chinese culture generally.

Definitely in the wuxia style, the fight scenes are phenomenal and it captures many elements of Chinese mythology and runs it in the background without making a big deal about it. The characters are winning and there are good performances from Tony Leung and Awkwafina, who is always Awkwafina but works here. A guest star steals the show but I’ll avoid mention of that one.

As the original comics came out of the Kung Fu craze in the seventies, this avoids the standard Stan Lee origin trope which we’ve seen many times – nerd meets tragedy/hardship and is rewarded with powers – and that makes a fresher take for a Marvel movie.

Endings are the hardest part of any creative endeavour and this one has some of the regular failings of the genre. But definitely worth a watch, and a quick shoutout for the score too.

RIP Wilbur Smith

Some sad news about a new acquaintance.

From the press release: Global bestselling author Wilbur Smith died unexpectedly this afternoon at his Cape Town home after a morning of reading and writing with his wife Niso by his side.

 

The undisputed and inimitable master of adventure writing, Wilbur Smith’s novels have gripped readers for over half a century, selling over 140 million copies worldwide in more than thirty languages.  His bestselling Courtney Series, the longest running in publishing history, follows the Courtney family’s adventures across the world, spanning generations and three centuries, through critical periods from the dawn of colonial Africa to the American Civil War, and to the apartheid era in South Africa. In the 49 novels Smith has published to date, he has transported his readers to gold mines in South Africa, piracy on the Indian Ocean, buried treasure on tropical islands, conflict in Arabia and Khartoum, ancient Egypt, World War Two Germany and Paris, India, the Americas and the Antarctic, encountering ruthless diamond and slave traders and big game hunters in the jungles and bush of the African wilderness. However, it was with Taita, the hero of his acclaimed Egyptian Series, that Wilbur most strongly identified, and River God remains one of his best-loved novels to this day.

 

Wilbur Smith’s very first novel When the Lion Feeds, published in 1964, was an instant bestseller and each of his subsequent novels has featured in the bestseller charts, often at number one, earning the author the opportunity to travel far and wide in search of inspiration and adventure. 

 

He was a believer in deep research, meticulously corroborating every fact and adhering to the advice of his first publisher, Charles Pick at William Heinemann, to ‘write about the things you know well’.  Smith, accomplished as a bushman, survivalist and big game hunter, gained a pilot’s licence, was an expert scuba diver, a conservator, managed his own game reserve and owned a tropical island in the Seychelles. He also used his vast experiences outside of Africa in places like Switzerland and rural Russia to assist with creating his fictional worlds. His own life, detailed in his autobiography, On Leopard Rock, was as stirring and incident packed as any of his novels. 

 

Named after one of the pioneer brothers of air flight Wilbur Wright, Smith was born on January 9th, 1933, in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia in Central Africa. His father, Herbert Smith, was a sheet-metal worker and a strict disciplinarian and it was his more artistically inclined mother, Elfreda, who encouraged the young Wilbur to read the likes of CS Forester, Rider Haggard and John Buchan.  

 

At the age of eighteen months Wilbur became seriously ill with cerebral malaria, and there was a possibility he would be brain damaged if he survived. As he reflected: ‘It probably helped me because I think you have to be slightly crazy to try to earn a living from writing.’

 

His father thought his son’s obsession with books was unnatural and unhealthy and Wilbur became a secret reader, spending hours in the outhouse long-drop latrine where he kept his cache of favourite novels.

 

At eight, Wilbur enrolled at Cordwalles boarding school in Pietermaritzburg in Natal, South Africa, a preparatory school with the motto ‘courage builds character’, but the experience was brutal. He read voraciously as consolation, was considered a poor pupil, but excelled in English composition. It was at prep school that he discovered Ernest Hemingway who would have a profound influence on his writing.

 

Senior school was the prestigious Michaelhouse in what is now KwaZulu-Natal Midlands in South Africa. Wilbur was no happier: ‘Michaelhouse was a debilitating experience,’ he recalled. ‘There was no respect for the pupils. The teachers were brutal, the prefects beat us, and the senior boys bullied us. It was a cycle of violence that kept perpetuating itself.’ Reading and creative writing became his refuge.

 

At sixteen Wilbur contracted polio which left him with a weak right leg, but it caused him little problem until later in life. The experience prompted his depiction of the flawed hero in his novels, in particular Garrick Courtney in the Courtney series of adventures.

 

Inspired by his own experience running wild on his father’s ranch, Wilbur wrote When the Lion Feeds, the story of brothers Sean and Garrick Courtney, and the tough life of cattle farming in the shadow of the Zulu wars and the gold rush. It was infused with the world he knew intimately. His agent sent it to Charles Pick, then Managing Director of William Heinemann, who immediately responded to the raw authenticity of the storytelling.

 

A Hollywood deal followed, and foreign rights sales racked up.  The novel was a bestseller and Wilbur quit his job at the tax office to write full time. His instinctive grasp of narrative, the rich material of his upbringing and the boundless story opportunities of his African homeland produced a string of novels that thrilled an ever-growing readership.  His obsessive dedication to the craft of authorship enabled him to write almost a novel a year, allowing his publishers to build a bestselling brand name. 

 

As well as standalone novels, from piracy and poaching to diamond smuggling and the pursuit of buried treasure, fuelled by high-octane derring-do and featuring rugged wish-fulfilment characters, Wilbur expanded his popular Courtney Series of conflict and ambition within a sprawling family, moving back and forward through the centuries.

 

In the 1980s he began the Ballantyne Series, chronicling the family’s struggles during Rhodesia’s brief history and a decade later he would begin a series of novels set in Ancient Egypt, the latest of which, The New Kingdom, was published this autumn.

 

Smith’s personal life was as eventful as his novels. Another marriage producing a son failed, and then he met young divorcee Danielle Thomas whom he married in 1971 until she died from brain cancer in 1999, following a six-year illness.

 

It wasn’t until he met his fourth wife, Mokhiniso Rakhimova from Tajikistan, in a bookshop near Sloane Square in London, that Wilbur found true happiness and peace of mind.  They married in May 2000.  

 

Niso has been instrumental in managing Wilbur’s legacy project. A deeply loyal man, he had remained with his original publishers for forty-five years, but in December 2012 he moved to HarperCollins in a publishing deal that also included co-authored novels, the first of which, Golden Lion, was published in 2015.  A further move followed in 2017 when Wilbur Smith joined Bonnier Books UK.  

 

 A passionate advocate of adventure fiction, Wilbur endeavoured to share his love for the genre through the global charitable foundation he and his wife, Niso, established in 2015. Dedicated to growing the readership for adventure fiction and the promotion of reading and writing for younger generations across the world, the joyous and productive work of The Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation will continue, led by Niso Smith.  As the final piece of the legacy puzzle, Wilbur and Niso recently started a vertically integrated media company, Leopard Rock Studios Ltd, to produce film/tv and other projects by reimagining Wilbur’s classic IP for a new generation of fans. 

 

As Wilbur Smith said at the conclusion of his memoir On Leopard Rock published in 2018: ‘I’ve had tough times, bad marriages, people I loved dearly dying in my arms, burnt the midnight oil getting nowhere, but it has, all in the end, added up to a phenomenally fulfilled and wonderful life. I want to be remembered as somebody who gave pleasure to millions.’  He remained as committed to his readers as they were to him and their dedication and engagement was one of his greatest joys. On his behalf, we thank them all.

 

Kevin Conroy Scott, literary agent for Wilbur Smith for the past 11 years, said:

‘Wilbur Smith was an icon, larger than life, beloved by his fans who collected his books in hardbacks and passed his work down through generations, fathers to sons and mothers to daughters. His knowledge of Africa, and his imagination knew no limitations.  His work ethic and his powerful, elegant writing style made him known to millions. I cherish the role of working side by side with his wife Niso and the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation to keep the flame of his fictional universe alive for many years to come.

 

Kate Parkin, Managing Director of Adult Trade Publishing for Bonnier Books UK commented: It is with deep sadness that we mourn the death of our beloved author Wilbur Smith whose seemingly inexhaustible creative energy and passion for storytelling will long live on in the hearts and minds of readers everywhere. Wilbur never lost his appetite for writing and remained working every day of his life. He leaves behind him a treasure-trove of novels, as well as completed and yet to be published co-authored books and outlines for future stories. It has been a privilege and an honour to work closely with him on this remarkable publishing legacy and we look forward to sharing them with his millions of fans worldwide in years to come.

The Summer Of New Beginnings

I’ve written a piece for Medium about the massive changes that are coming for all of us, and why you should get the best out of them.

The psychic shock of the last 18 months has hit hard. People are re-thinking their lives and how they want to spend them. If you want to work from home, with all the benefits that come with it, it’s never been easier. If you want to work from home as a first step on a journey to an entirely new way of living, well, you can do that too. Because the power has shifted into your hands.

Write What You Know

One of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice is ‘write what you know’.

When I’m out talking to people, it usually crops up, often followed by, “I’ve worked all my life in a shop/factory/field/whatever – nobody’s going to be interested in what I know.”

That’s really sad.

Because the advice isn’t about ‘out there’ – the things you’ve done, how you’ve spent your days. It’s about ‘in there’, in your head.

How you see the world through the filter of your experiences. More importantly, what you’ve learned about human beings. About love, hate, jealousy, greed…

Your view is by definition unique. And everything you’ve learned by observing through the prism of your life – about the nature of people and the way the world works – has the capacity to illuminate someone else’s life.

Look inside. Write what you know. Everything else is just research.

Strange Lights In The Sky

After The New Yorker published its fascinating in-depth article about why the Pentagon has started taking UFOs seriously, I thought I’d share a personal story.

When I was 17 I was dating a farmer’s daughter. The farmhouse was out in the middle of nowhere on some high land where you could see for miles. One night her father rushed in from finishing milking the cows. He was extremely excited, and he was the most down to earth person you could imagine. He summoned us both outside where he pointed across the dark countryside to the lights of a power station.

Three globes of light were circling the cooling tower. They performed some strange manoeuvres, then, as we watched, they shot off at great speed into the night in different directions.

No idea what I’d seen. I would rule out plasma balls or any by-product of electricity generation. They moved with seeming intelligence and when they went in different directions it was in a manner that ruled out some natural force.

That night has stayed with me ever since. That unconscious sense that this is something unusual. But, as an aside…

The power station was called Drakelow. It’s now been decommissioned, but it had been built on an ancient site where archaeologists have discovered votive offerings to the gods. A sacred site. That makes me wonder if this phenomena has been witnessed across the centuries.

In old English Drakelow means Dragon Mound. In folklore all over the UK any place given the dragon name is linked with lights in the sky. If you want to find out more, read Paul Devereux’s excellent book, Earthlights. He’s a scientist and he looked into historical reports about these kinds of lights which seemed to move with a mind of their own…

The Aliens Are Coming!

Anyone who is friends with me on Facebook will know I’ve been having some fun with all the recent news releases about UFOs, the Pentagon confirmation of an incident yesterday and the forthcoming release of whatever is in US government files before June 1.

But here’s an interesting thing: does rising public interest in UFOs always happen during a US Democratic Presidency? Check this out:

1947 – first modern wave, Kenneth Arnold’s ‘flying saucer’, Roswell – Harry S Truman

1961 – second wave, Betty and Barney Hill abduction – JFK

1966 – Michigan ‘swamp gas’ incident – Lyndon B Johnson

1990s – alien autopsy, X Files explosion – Clinton

Today – accelerating sightings/interest – Biden

These are the main moments on the timeline when an interest in alien contact broke into the public consciousness. Interest declined during Republican presidencies.

I think there might be a sociological reason, something along the lines of: under a Democratic President there’s more idealism and people are looking ‘out there’ and under a Republican President there’s more focus on material things so people are looking inside.

For discussion.

The Future Is Coming Fast

Nothing really changes unless there’s a crisis. If something kinda sorta works, we muddle on because the effort, time, cash and reputations on the line to bring about change look like too high a price to pay for decision-makers.

But when terrible things happen we get Great Leaps Forward that spin us into brighter futures.

Without four years of Trump standing up for white supremacy and shifting resources into the pockets of billionaires, would we have got Biden’s transformative Presidency tackling the climate emergency, deep-rooted racial injustice, healthcare and an unbalanced economy? All issues that people said couldn’t be changed fast. All things that are now being tackled.

Crises are terrible, but crises disrupt stagnant or sclerotic systems.

The pandemic has been devastating with millions of lives lost. Yet out of it we’re seeing medical advances that are propelling us into a new and better world.

The mRNA technology which was used in a Covid-19 vaccine to massive success will change the face of medicine. It can be used to turn our own bodies into super-powerful drug-producing factories. Trials have already shown breakthroughs in treating advanced cancers, MS and malaria, and vaccines are now being developed for these and other illnesses.

mRNA’s promise ranges from the expensive-yet-experimental to the glorious-yet-speculative. But the past year was a reminder that scientific progress may happen suddenly, after long periods of gestation. “This has been a coming-out party for mRNA, for sure,” says John Mascola, the director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “In the world of science, RNA technology could be the biggest story of the year. We didn’t know if it worked. And now we do.”

It’s worth reading the entire well-researched article from The Atlantic linked above. Out of the bad, good things will come.