NEW SHOWS The Righteous Gemstones “I Speak in the Tongues of Men and Angels” (A-) / season premiere “After I Leave, Savage Wolves Will Come” (A) Adding actors as wild as Eric Andre and Eric Roberts only adds to a wildly successful ensemble. This means that – likely only temporarily – Kelvin (Adam DeVine) gets short shrift. But his gaggle of Power Team-wannabes and the sycophantic Keefe still make for great sight gags.
The show feels even better-directed than before. Extended scenes like the flashback that begins the scene and Gideon’s ride through the abandoned areas of the Gemstone compound have a deft touch to them. The show is as ridiculous as ever, but the people who make it so are even more committed.
I intentionally avoided a lot of new music this year. I checked out and enjoyed some albums by the likes of Silk Sonic and Lil Ugly Mane, but my focus was mostly on great music from the past. So for the first time in a long time, I won’t be doing a top 10 albums. Instead, I’ll add 10 more songs to my best tracks of the year playlist, which you can listen to on Spotify.
Adele – “Love Is a Game” Arooj Aftab – “Mohabbat” Julien Baker – “Bloodshot” Courtney Barnett – “Rae Street” Leon Bridges and Keite Young – “Like a Ship” Big Thief – “Little Things” BTS – “Butter” Caribou – “You Can Do It” Charli XCX feat. Christine and the Queens – “New Shapes” Clairo – “Wade” Lucy Dacus – “Thumbs” Deafheaven – “Great Mass of Color” Gang of Youths – “The Angel of 8th Ave.” Idles – “The Beachland Ballroom” Illuminati Hotties feat. Buck Meek – “UVVP” Sarah Jaffe – “Frances McDormand, Catherine O’Hara” Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet” Cassandra Jenkins – “Hard Drive” Khruangbin and Leon Bridges – “B-Side” Lecrae feat. 1K Phew – “Wildin” Little Simz – “Protect My Energy” Lizzo feat. Cardi B – “Rumors” Robert A.A. Lowe – “The Sweet” Magdalena Bay – “You Lose!” John Mayer – “Last Train Home” Cristin Milioti – “715 Creeks” Mitski – “Working for the Knife” Mdou Moctar – “Afrique Victime” Mr Jukes and Barney Artist – “Vibrate” Kacey Musgraves – “Easier Said” Noname – “Rainforest” Arlo Parks – “Eugene” Caroline Polachek – “Bunny Is a Rider” Nolan Potter’s Nightmare Band – “Holy Scroller” Joe Pug – “Crescent Bridge” Purple Disco Machine feat. Moss Kena and the Knocks – “Fireworks” Olivia Rodrigo – “Déjà Vu” Royal Blood – “Typhoons” RXKNephew – “American tterroristt” serpentwithfeet – “Bless the Telephone” Silk Sonic – “Leave the Door Open” Snail Mail – “Valentine” Sparks – “So May We Start” Spoon – “The Hardest Cut” St. Vincent – “The Nowhere Inn” Tinashe feat. Wax Motif – “Undo (Back to My Heart)” Turnstile – “New Heart Design” FKA twigs feat. Headie One and Fred again.. – “Don’t Judge Me” Tyler, the Creator – “Wilshire” Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen – “Like I Used To” Vandoliers – “Every Saturday Night” Vanilla & Pepper – “Seven Seas” The War on Drugs feat. Lucius – “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” Kamasi Washington – “My Friend of Misery” The Weather Station – “Tried to Tell You” Kanye West – “Come to Life” Tierra Whack – “Dolly” Willow feat. Travis Barker – “Transparent Soul” Remi Wolf – “Grumpy Old Man” Yuno – “Somebody”
Best Actor in a Comedy Series Glenn Howerton, A.P. Bio Jack is basically Howerton’s Dennis from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but without the sexual deviance. He’s still an awful person, but a year-plus in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, has made him kinder and gentler, but still with a knack for petty revenge schemes. In the show’s final season, his cynicism wears out his welcome with Lynnette as he realizes he still needs a lot more growth. But he just can’t help himself in out-psyching a potential new partner in the hilarious How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days riff “The Perfect Date from Hell.”
Best Actress in a Comedy Series Jean Smart, Hacks All hail Jean Smart, who joins Ted Danson as the greatest TV actors of all time. While she was terrific in Mare of Easttown, she’s even better here as the obscenely wealthy (she has a soda fountain in her kitchen!) and complacent comedian Deborah Vance. Desperate for love and attention, but savvier than she lets on, it’s a flawless performance. And newcomer Hannah Einbinder brings out the best in her.
Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Cole Escola, Search Party It takes a really compelling actor to create a villain this complex and still have you feel nothing but utter hatred for his character. But Escola does just that as the “evil twink” who kidnaps Dory, imprisoning her in a felt replica of her own apartment. He may be right that her friends circle was toxic, but he can’t make her see that she was the problem. He’s even more delusional than she is in thinking they can go from kidnapper/kidnapped to BFFs. But it was hilarious to watch him try, especially when he’s playing dress up in his aunt’s clothes.
Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Tracey Ullman, Curb Your Enthusiasm With apologies to the always wonderful Amy Ryan on Only Murders in the Building, no woman made me laugh harder this year than Ullman. As a late-season addition to the show, she served as a perfect foil for Larry. He dates her solely to try to get her to change a law he doesn’t like, but finds she’s more than just unpleasant: she’s a major disruptor to his whole routine. She butts heads with Leon and is perpetually horny, creating some priceless facial reactions from Larry. I could have watched her, Larry David and J.B. Smoove riff for hours.
Best Ensemble in a Comedy Series Reservation Dogs It’s not a surprise that veteran actors like Gary Farmer, Wes Studi and Zach McClarnon are terrific, getting to flex their comedy muscles. But the main quartet were basically all unknown, and they imbued each member with deep sadness – that manifests itself in different ways – and solid identities, even though their lives are constantly in flux. Like the show itself, a real miracle.
Unsurprisingly, with the world upside down for another year, there weren’t a lot of stand-up comedy specials released in 2021 (though it did pick up in December). As such, I’m expanding this category a little bit to include some of my other favorite things that made me laugh.
Bo Burnham: Inside (Netflix) Easily the special of the year, but to call it a “revelation” would be both missing the point and revealing a lack of familiarity with Burnham’s past work. His catchy songs/emotional breakdowns are nothing new. It’s just catchier and better directed than ever. Is this heaven or a white woman’s Instagram? Neither. Just a brilliant comic mind doing what he does best.
How To with John Wilson (HBO) The second season of this delightful series doesn’t change up the formula, but finds new depths anyways. While trying to find a way to recycle his batteries in the most environmentally friendly way, he learns of the dangers sanitation workers face daily and of how municipalities treat people they view as garbage. He also tries to find contentment while trying to find a parking spot. But most fascinatingly, he reveals his connection to a dangerous cult that tried to recruit him while he was in college.
I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix) Somehow even more hilarious and meme-ready than its first season, Tim Robinson’s insane sketch comedy found time for disgusting meals, suicidal prank show hosts and even a bit of sweetness thanks to guest star Paul Walter Hauser.
Nate Bargatze: The Greatest Average American (Netflix) Filmed at an outdoor venue with strict COVID protocols (and an annoying number of fly-bys from helicopters), Bargatze kicked off 2021 with a solid, clean hour that felt like a great conversation with an old friend, instead of a tightly polished performance. It was just what I needed.
The Super Bob Einstein Movie (HBO) Bob Einstein tragically passed away in 2019, and he finally got a proper send-off from his friends and family. Really, you don’t need much more than warm remembrances and great clips from his appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Super Dave.
The best show about life in Texas premiered 25 years ago this week. In fact, Mike Judge’s King of the Hill has aged so well that I’d basically put this as my 1b show, next to The Simpsons as 1a. Consistently sharp in its satire with a killer jokes-per-minute ratio, it also features arguably the greatest TV character of all time in Bobby Hill. This list was tough to make, given how many tremendous episodes this show produced over its 13 seasons, but here are my 10 favorites.
10. “To Sirloin with Love” (Season 13, Episode 20) Fox didn’t treat one of its crown jewels as well as it should have in its final season. Eighteen episodes aired on a somewhat normal schedule, then this series finale aired months later alongside another Bobby-centric episode (“The Boy Can’t Help It”). Then, four unaired episodes premiered in syndication in an entirely different decade (OK, just seven months later). Despite no major events, this was the absolute perfect series finale. Hank and Bobby grow closer than ever after the latter joins the local community college’s meat grading team, identifying optimal cuts of beef. Bobby had had plenty of hobbies in the past that Hank enjoyed too, but this was the one closest to his heart.
9. “Keeping Up with Our Joneses” (Season 1, Episode 10) Like The Simpsons, the early seasons of King of the Hill featured a limited budget and crude animation, but had extremely thoughtful and sweet episodes. When Bobby’s caught smoking, Hank tries the tough-love approach of making him smoke until he’s sick. Unfortunately, it gets Bobby hooked and activates Hank and Peggy’s desire for nicotine. Before you know it, all three are fighting for a puff. Even early on, the show mined humor from letting the Hill parents spiral when they pride themselves on being put together. Luanne also gets a chance to shine, finding a creative way for her relatives to ward off their addictions.
8. “Reborn to Be Wild” (Season 8, Episode 2) A personal favorite. Hank gets excited when Bobby takes an interest in church and youth group, but recoils he discovers when the pastor has long hair and tattoos, shredding at the skate park and on stage. This is an episode where Hank is both wrong and right. He’s wrong to claim this version of Christianity is any less authentic than the buttoned-up version he practices, but he’s right when he shares a tender moment with Bobby in the garage, explaining that he doesn’t want faith to be just another fad for his son. (This episode also features an absolutely perfect joke: a Christian ska band called the A-Men.)
7. “Hank and the Great Glass Elevator” (Season 5, Episode 11) The show had plenty of great guest stars, from one-offs (Brad Pitt as Boomhauer’s awful brother) to long-running additions (Tom Petty as Luanne’s husband Lucky). But for me, it’s no contest who the best was. The late great Governor Ann Richards played herself, the victim of Hank’s ill-timed mooning. Bill takes the fall (“I don’t have as far to drop,” he explains) and the two strike up a warm relationship that catches the attention of his horrid ex-wife Lenore (guest star Ellen Barkin). As in life, Richards is funny and relatable, but takes no bullshit. It would have been great if she had stuck around.
6. “Hank’s Dirty Laundry” (Season 2, Episode 17) This episode is really the essence of Hank. When he’s accused of late fees for failing to return an adult video he didn’t rent, he stages a boycott of Arlen Video, and even does research by watching a porn marathon (with tapes provided by an anonymous friend). Most people would just pay the fine and go about their day. But only Hank would turn it into a weeks-long ordeal simply to prove he was right.
Animaniacs When I saw the season premiere was rated TV-14, I figured it had to be a mistake. But then they got away with a “grab ’em by the pussy” joke, and I realized it was intentional. This second season pretty much ditched any semblance of being for kids and was all the better for it. What other show would parody Run Lola Run or Marina Abramović?
Birdgirl – “Sharebear” This spin-off of my beloved Harvey Birdman never quite hit the highs of that Hanna-Barbera riff. But this second episode came closest, as Sebben & Sebben’s new product – a cross between Teddy Ruxpin and Alexa – wreaks havoc on the world by exposing its owners’ darkest secrets. A privacy nightmare was never so funny.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “The Last Day” When the show took a year off to retool to grapple with COVID and a new wave of protests against police brutality, it came back with arguably its worst episode to date. And any time an episode tried to be honest about policing, the show came to a screeching halt. But there were still plenty of funny moments and a finale that would have been perfect even without its attempts at relevance. The last heist was perfectly low stakes, even if there were some high stakes for individual characters.
Curb Your Enthusiasm – “The Mormon Advantage” It’s easy to take Curb for granted. The last three seasons have been consistently funny, even if the seasons themselves have been inconsistent. Larry David constantly includes jokes and premises only he could get away with, and frequently delivers brilliant guest stars. Everything came together in this finale, which sees Larry stealing shoes from an exhibit at a Holocaust museum and having a showdown with Lt. Col Alexander Vindman, who repeats his own history by exposing a “quid pro quo” call between Larry and an elected official.
The Handmaid’s Tale – “The Wilderness” I’m not gonna lie. This season was rough. June finally made it Canada but made a lot of stupid, frustrating decisions again. But at least the finale was in league with the show’s finest hours. After learning Fred will be granted immunity and allowed to live in Geneva, June strikes an off-books deal which frees some women of Gilead and leaves Fred to the ex-Handmaids, who have their bloody revenge in the woods.
I think I can be forgiven for avoiding tough dramas this year, which already had enough misery. Even the hour-long series I did watch had plenty of humor. What can I say? The year started with an attempted insurrection, but eventually got brighter. Still, with a resurgence of COVID, it’s not surprising that all I wanted to do was laugh.
10. A.P. Bio (Peacock) With the announcement that it’s finally been canceled (for real this time), I decided to give this final season the edge over the latest seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Search Party. With one of the best ensembles on TV, the show gave each of their main cast members a chance to show off their unique talents, including a bottle episode where the students try their hand at erotica. But the secret weapon of this show has always been its enormous heart, and it was hard not to get choked up when Jack is let down once again by his deadbeat dad (guest star Bruce Campbell). Standout episodes: “Tornado!,” “Tons of Rue,” “Love, for Lack of a Better Term”
9. The Great (Hulu) While this season occasionally felt a bit repetitive as Catherine and Peter scheme and delay their attempts at power, no show was better at both satire and crude jokes. (It also featured the most sexually liberated characters on TV.) A late season arrival by Gillian Anderson as Catherine’s bitchy mother pushed it to another level. Standout episodes: “Dickhead,” “A Simple Jape,” “Five Days”
8. Ted Lasso (AppleTV+) Despite what you may have heard, this season was good, actually. I may not be fully on-board with Nate’s heel turn, but it’s not a mistake to complicate characters who seemed to move in only one direction. If you wanted all the warm fuzzies, the show provided a new classic Christmas episode. But it also delivered an extremely twisted relationship reveal early in the season and delivered a splendid homage to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. That a show could do all this, and focus on the main character’s messy mental health journey, and still include all those dad jokes proves it still has a winning formula. Standout episodes: “Lavender,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Beard After Hours”
7. Hacks (HBO Max) My favorite binge of the year. What could have easily been 10 episodes of Boomer-vs.-Millennial fish-in-a-barrel jokes instead proved to be far more interesting for both Deborah (the great Jean Smart) and Ava (astonishing newcomer Hannah Einbinder). Both were richly drawn, and often wrong (and often unwilling to correct themselves). But both grew as comedians and people by season’s end. But the show also found time to give itself over to its equally compelling side characters, including Deborah’s manager Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson). Standout episodes: “D’Jewelry,” “Falling,” “I Think She Will”
6. What We Do in the Shadows (FX) Part of me wonders if this was intended to be the last season, and a late renewal forced a rewrite of its odd finale. We’ll probably never know, but this was still a riotously funny season. There wasn’t a funnier half-hour of television than “The Casino,” which ditched the normal opening credits for depressing B-roll of Atlantic City and only got funnier from there. “Bazinga is the war cry of Sheldon,” a newly Big Bang Theory-obsessed Nandor states. Nandor actually became the focus of the season, stuck in a malaise after another failed relationship. Whether he was dancing in spandex or pretending to be hibernating while other vampires fondled him, Kayvan Novak never gave less than his all. Standout episodes: “The Casino,” “The Wellness Center,” “A Farewell”
Decided to change up my brief TV reviews for this year. Instead of grading every single episode of TV week-to-week, I’m hoping to go a bit longer on shows at their premieres and finales, digging in a little deeper than a sentence or two (time permitting). Hope you appreciate the difference.
NEW SHOWS Abbott Elementary – Pilot episode (A-) / series premiere “Light Bulb” (A) The best network sitcom since Happy Endings, this clever project from Quinta Brunson still has a couple characters to develop (her white liberal work husband for one), but it’s already smart, thoughtful and hilarious.
BINGEING The X-Files – Season 10 (B- average) A solid return until an absolutely baffling finale. In fact, it’s so bad it calls into question the entire project. But we’ll always have “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” and Mulder tripping balls at a honky-tonk in Texas.
BEST PICTURE Being the Ricardos Belfast CODA Don’t Look Up Drive My Car Dune Licorice Pizza The Lost Daughter The Power of the Dog West Side Story
Falling off: House of Gucci, Nightmare Alley, The Tragedy of Macbeth Rising star: Spider-Man: No Way Home
The skinny: Three stylish films from master directors look to be shoved aside in favor of more streaming films, which is not exactly an exciting proposition. But it also means Drive My Car, one of the year’s truly great films, has also found room. I suppose that’s a fair trade. But I’m not encouraged by the full-court press to get Spider-Man: No Way Home, the year’s one true blockbuster, to sneak into the Best Picture race. To quote Don Draper, “That’s what the money is for!”
BEST DIRECTOR Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car Denis Villeneuve, Dune Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
Falling off: Guillermo del Toro, Joel Coen Rising star: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
The skinny: It would be very hard to quibble with this line-up, especially since it doesn’t include Adam McKay. But Netflix’s other late awards push could see it overtake the film in its total nominations. Gyllenhaal is basically a lock to win the Directors Guild’s Best First-Time Feature Film award, but it’s hard to know who she would edge out.
BEST ACTOR Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog Peter Dinklage, Cyrano Andrew Garfield, Tick Tick Boom Will Smith, King Richard Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth
The skinny: I wouldn’t call this a weak year for the category, but there isn’t a single late-breaking gentleman that seems like he could find his way in here. Jockey has gotten some strong reviews, but once again Sony Pictures Classics is in charge. That didn’t matter when there was a movie as big as The Father, but this might just be too small for a respected character actor to find himself in the big race.
BEST ACTRESS Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter Lady Gaga, House of Gucci Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos Kristen Stewart, Spencer
The skinny: Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth would seem like a slam dunk. But The Tragedy of Macbeth having almost no traction pushes her aside, even though she’s clearly among the best performers. So Alana Haim has a grand coronation, richly deserved. And while there are no foreign-language performances here (a real shame, considering how many great ones there are), Penélope Cruz is right on the precipice.
NEW SHOWS Curb Your Enthusiasm – “The Mormon Advantage” (A) / season finale Everything comes together in a marvelous finale that weaves together all this season’s plot threads, while somehow introducing Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman to the proceedings in a hilarious way. But the show also has perhaps its riskiest bit of comedy to date, with Larry stealing shoes from an exhibit at a Holocaust museum. Only he could get away with that.
How To with John Wilson – “How to Be Spontaneous” (B+) / season finale This season ends on perhaps its weakest episode to date. But that just speaks to how wonderful this show is that it doesn’t really feel all that disappointing.
CURRENT SHOWS How To with John Wilson – “How to Remember Your Dreams” (A-) Another delightful journey, though it doesn’t take as many surreal detours as you might think.
BINGEING The Great – Season 2 (A- average) Though at times it felt a little repetitive, the show continued to be as funny as ever, while adding deeper levels of emotional complexity to all its characters, even Peter.