This year’s Top 40 Serial TV Series unfolds against a background of continually rising inequality. Thomas Piketty (Capital in the 21st Century) and company released their figures charting global disparities exacerbated by Covid, this was front page news in Le Monde and ignored in the U.S.
Billionaires have captured much more of the global wealth since the onset of Covid and part of the increase in profits is from that enormous moneymaker, the streaming services, expected to generate $70 billion in revenue in 2021 with almost half of all of the global profits going to U.S. streamers.
Meanwhile, the wealthiest 10 percent own 76 percent of the riches of the world while the bottom 50 percent own only 2 percent. It is the wealthy group that also leads in the destruction of the world through the carbon emissions that sustain its extravagant lifestyle. The most unequal level of emissions being in North America where the same 10 percent are responsible for approximately 75 percent of the pollution that is killing the Earth, while the bottom 50 percent are responsible for only about 10 percent of emissions.
The need to produce constant weekly product to match streaming competitors reached a level of frenzy this year to the point where the pressure put on industry workers resulted in even a traditionally sweetheart union like the IATSE sanctioning a strike. In addition, movie producer and star Alec Baldwin shot a camerawoman who was a IATSE activist, possibly because of the hiring of props and arms personnel with little or no experience in order to hasten production.
Stories of the lust for profit
Three parables illustrate the nature of this profit lust, heightened by the persistent presence of the virus, which has once again accentuated the drive to streaming.
The first story involves what used to be what Theodor Adorno termed “a mark of suffering,” now reduced to simple branding as the level of daily commodification also reaches new heights. Netflix’s reality series Coming Out Colton pretends to be the painful story of Colton Underwood, the NFL linebacker turned star of ABC’s The Bachelor – a heterosexual Cinderella fantasy which two seasons ago starred Colton as the prince.
Colton acknowledged, after the fact, that he is gay, and thus that the whole season, and perhaps the whole idea of the show, was a farce. In the Netflix series, Colton “comes out” to his parents but does it on-camera in a way that is, rather than an authentic moment, just a step in his further enlistment under the rubric of the star-making machine.
The most cynical aspect of the show though involves the use of the series by Netflix to take a swipe at one of the biggest moneymakers of its streaming rival Disney, which owns ABC where The Bachelor has been one of its major hits. The pain of the homosexual experience and the joy of its normalization thus both take a back seat to personal aggrandizement and industry competition. Netflix is using the documentary to attempt to show up the populist simplicity of the network while calling attention to its own supposed sophistication, while actually simply showing the cutthroat nature of the business.
The second revelation also involves Disney, which recently hired Geoff Morrell as the new guardian of its image and public relations. The Disney family brand has been built on ferociously concealing any of the contradictions that arise in the entertainment industry, with the former guardian Zenia Mucha nicknamed “mother crocodile” and “director of revenge.”
Morrell, her replacement, is currently working with British Petroleum, trying to burnish its image after the Deepwater Horizon spill which devastated the Louisiana Gulf Coast environment and economy. His previous position was as Pentagon Press Secretary in charge of promoting and putting a smiling face on the illegal, unlawful and murderous U.S. invasion of Iraq.
This hiring thus casts in concrete the military-industrial-entertainment complex, with Morrell now keeping the Disney skeletons in the closet just as he has done for the polluter BP and the Pentagon war criminals. With an ex-Pentagon employee now fronting for Disney, it’s difficult not to compare the way the U.S. dominates the streaming industry with the way it dominates the weapons – or rather war – industry with the U.S. defense budget greater than that of the next 11 countries combined. And the problem is China?!
The third item shows up the lie, perpetuated by both the Obama and Trump presidencies, that the industrial economy is returning to the West. Since the announcement of the Disney Plus streaming service, that is the move of entertainment to a symbolic, virtual or digital economy, the company has generated more worth on the stock market than Ford or General Motors, the former engines of the U.S. growth.
Is there hope within this bleak news? Yes, indubitably, there were a number of series this year which rose above their labels and companies and either struck blows aimed at illuminating social problems – my Top 20 – or with supreme competence told compelling stories in serial form – my 10 honorable mentions.
I also mention those who rose – or rather sunk – to the level of 5 worst with a bonus wurst. All of the series mentioned are culled from the 135 series I watched this year, from 13 countries, spanning the globe to find those gems which contradict the general trend towards ever more meaningless and more frenzied frivolity and fiddling, while the planet burns or is consumed in a either a nuclear holocaust or a viral apocalypse.
Dopesick/The Crime of the Century – Dopesick, the fictional series, documents the spread of Oxycontin in the Appalachian population, a group of workers that will become redundant as coal disappears and are now consigned to death by overdose. Michael Keaton is particularly effective as a country doctor who could have become a Disney-type “wise old salt” but who instead undergoes a painful metamorphosis. Meanwhile, two dogged state prosecutors attempt to sound the alarm while the Sackler scion first pushes the drug and in a final cowardly act attempts to remove the family wealth from any financial liability.
Alex Gibney’s two-part doc, on the creation in pharmaceutical labs of Oxycontin and its even more deadly cousin Fentanyl, follows with almost fictional intensity the two creators as they market their deadly product, concerned only with their own profit margins.
Goliath Season 4 – The last season for this series, about an alcoholic but crusading lawyer played impeccably by Billy Bob Thornton. It’s short on the personal peccadillos of the character, which became a drag in seasons 2 and 3, and long on his struggle to bring a drug company again in the Sackler/Purdue Pharma vein to task. David E. Kelly’s trademark courtroom reversals and heroics here are in the service of proving that the drug company was not in the business of easing pain but rather, as Thornton’s lawyer claims, in the much more profitable business of “promoting addiction.”
The White Lotus – The pilot of this series about privileged tourists lavishing and lording it over still-colonized Hawaiian natives was the best hour of television this season. It featured a pregnant worker in the hotel forced to give birth in a back office because she was afraid to leave her job for fear of being fired, while a honeymoon couple complain about not getting the best suite. There was never anything as powerful as the first hour, but Mike White’s HBO series still unerringly kept the focus on race and class disparities in a way that may force other series to foreground these tensions and that showed up series (eg Nine Perfect Strangers) that didn’t.
Thin Ice, battle for the Arctic
Thin Ice – This Swedish series, available on Amazon Prime, set at a climate conference in Greenland, was the best political thriller of the year. It centers on the exploitation of the Arctic as a way of profiting from global warming. The series cannily encompasses the indigenous question in Greenland, Danish profiting from its control over the land mass, and Russian, U.S. and Nordic jockeying for position to mine the area and control its seaways. The series initially focuses on Russia as the threat to Arctic harmony, but by the end works its way around to the greater threat as we recall Donald Trump’s offer to “just buy Greenland.”
Tandav – This Indian series from Amazon, unlike fluff like Mira Nair’s Netflix outing A Suitable Boy, begins with a farmers’ strike in Delhi at the moment when farmers were actually in the street protesting the Indian premier Modi’s attempt to make their life more onerous, so they would collapse and be absorbed by Indian agribusiness. The police – two roly-poly seemingly comic figures – then massacre the demonstrators while in the upper echelons of Indian society a palace coup brings a conniving son to power. It’s a critique of Modi-style neoliberalism that was rivalled in the film department by Netflix’s equally vicious The White Tiger.
Pros and Cons – This Danish series, available on Amazon Prime, follows the exploits of two scam artists, Eric and Nina, who give up the game and instead go straight, only to find that their jobs either pay little or involve necessary sexual liaisons to get ahead. Overwhelmed with the daily pressure of making ends meet, they decide to return to scamming as the only way to partake of any of the wealth that they see all around them. It’s as good a representation of the desperation of the Western capitalist working class as television allows, and a nicely done series of reversals as they strike pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies who are in the business themselves of scamming their customers.
Wanted/The Unusual Suspects – Two female revenge series from Australia, the first available on Netflix, the second on Hulu. Wanted is a more advanced Thelma and Louise which emphasizes the class differences between two women on the run and the patriarchal web they are snared in as they are pursued by drug kingpins and corrupt cops. The second focuses on the high-end relationships between gated community privileged wives and their maids, as the two discover they have more in common then they think – both are left high and dry by men who cheat them. The Unusual Suspects is also revealing about how much of the contemporary landscape is simply an advanced Ponzi scheme, not just fraying at the edges but collapsing at the centre.
Germinal in the time of Striketober
Germinal – In this year of Striketober and of Starbucks and Amazon unionizing, this French series, available on Amazon Prime, masterfully refashions Zola’s quintessential tale of a mining strike in a way that casts a long shadow over today’s corporate landscape. The grey palette and earthily complex depiction of the strike, largely from the workers’ perspective, returns this series to what the French do best, a recounting of their own history in the line of the greatest of French series Un Village Française, and in direct contradiction to the airy transparency of their celebrated series Call My Agent (Ten Percent) and Spiral (Engrenage).
For Life – Season 2 of this ABC series began with a bang as Aaron Wallace won his release from prison where he, like many Black men, was incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. The show then falters as it focuses on the personal relationship between Wallace and his wife but picks up momentum and becomes a series for the ages as it incorporates two events. The first is the concealing of Covid deaths in prisons which turn, because of the inattention and rapid spread of the virus, from detention cells to slaughterhouses. The second has prosecutor Wallace pursuing and placing on trial a cop in a Black Lives Matter plot that illustrates that Serial TV can tackle current issues with urgency. This belies the usual use of the form to surround viewers with ever more hyper-mediatic and slick modes of endless referentiality. The reward for this trailblazing? The series was cancelled.
Kate Winslet's character Mare, confronting capitalist devastation of a community
Mare of Easttown – Kate Winslet was astonishingly authentic in this HBO series about Winslet’s detective, tracking a murderer and also confronted with the decaying situation of an American rust-belt working class-community, left for dead in a Pennsylvania ex-mining and manufacturing town. The thickness of the web of relationships, both familial and communal, that Winslet’s character encounters suggests that those relationships have not been entirely torn asunder by the economic devastation wrecked on them by American capital’s flight to where it can extract lower wages. Jean Smart’s cynical but ultimately caring and supportive mother was another revelation of this series.
The Labyrinth of Peace – This series is the proud product of German, Swiss and French public TV, now on Netflix. It charts the aftermath of World War II in Switzerland as a group of young Jewish refugees arrive in the country, welcomed in not for any authentic humanitarian purpose but because they will help ease the “public relations” problem of the country’s close connection through its “neutral” banking system with the Nazi hierarchy. Astounding contradictions abound in this stunning publicly financed answer to much private streaming mediocrity.
The Wonder Years – This ABC series, masterfully written by Saladin K. Patterson, while posing as a simple remake of the ’80s show effect expands the range of content the sitcom is capable of handling. Set in 1968, the show, about a Black middle-class family, is alive with all of the tensions of that era. The lead teenage boy’s father is a Black Nationalist, his brother is a soldier in the Vietnam War and his sister, is part debutante but also part budding Black Panther supporter who trades her SAT study manual for Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice. The pilot, skillfully directed by the ’80s series lead actor Fred Savage, has a black-white baseball feud interrupted by the murder of Martin Luther King in a crossing of the typical teen coming of age story with a tale about the dawning of political consciousness.
Clean Break –This Irish series, streaming on Acorn, methodically traces the increasing desperation and inability to alter his situation except through crime of a bankrupt car dealership owner whose upright, moralistic banker keeps tightening the screws on him and enjoying his misery. The small businessman’s bad decisions and the corruption of all those around him describe a world where class contradictions are so acute as to make life impossible for all but those few who control the purse strings.
Reservation Dogs – New Zealand Maori Taika Waititi’s fractured sense of humor and pathos, so evident in the wonderful exposure of the ignorance of xenophobia in Jojo Rabbit, guides this tale of four Native American teens on a res they are desperate to leave but that keeps calling them to stay through its own little miracles. A Sioux warrior who helped vanquish Custer keeps appearing to one of them, a local cop calls the soda machine dispensing sugar to sedate them “white man’s bullets,” and, in a stunning fantasy, the boy Bear’s mother imagines the local Anglo doctor as the master of an Indian plantation with her as one of the slaves. Small moments accumulate in this touching, tender and witty description of the pain and triumph of reservation life today.
Snowpiercer rails against Elon Musks
Snowpiercer Season 2 – Sophomore outing of this Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) series, about a train with the last survivors on earth after a climate catastrophe, which picks up after a revolution led by Daveed Diggs’ Detroit detective has overthrown the rigid class structure of the vehicle. Arriving to re-introduce capitalist discipline is Sean Bean’s Mr. Wilford, a neoliberal Richard Branson/Elon Musk type whose contempt for equality drips from every corner of his mouth onto his fur coat. The season shows the savagery that underlies the cult of the contemporary CEO and couldn’t be more relevant with Musk himself, who boasted about the coup in Bolivia to secure lithium for his company and was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year.
Bob Hearts Abishola Season 2/The Kominsky Method Season 3 – CBS mainstay Chuck Lorre’s best work in years is on these two series. The first continues to recount the middle-aged relationship of a sock executive and a Nigerian nurse in a way that expands on what in season one was an often too sit-com cliched presentation of the Nigerian world. In this season the loneliness of Kimi, played by series co-creator Gina Yashere, Abishola’s best friend, in a white world not of her making, comes touchingly to the forefront. The last season of The Kominsky Method, a sit-com about aging, is fittingly about death as two characters come to an end and as Michael Douglas’ acting coach struggles with the finality of life in a way that is still often achingly funny.
Home Before Dark Season 2 – This series about a pre-teen crusading journalist in its sophomore outing has Hilde tackling a company that has for years polluted her Washington state town and that affects her relationship with her grandfather directly. In this moment of the battle to keep Julian Assange from being turned over to the blindness of U.S. justice for the crime of revealing the empire’s secrets, this series is again a refreshing fictional reminder of what journalism can be. It is also a riposte to Apple’s mammoth-budget celebration of the banality of the form in The Morning Show.
Back to life Season 2 – Second season of this Daisy (Episodes) Haggard BBC series, streaming on Showtime, has Mimi, having returned from prison, this time pursued by the sadistic police chief who is the father of the friend she unwittingly victimized. The show covers ground initially mapped out on the Sundance series Rectify but with Haggard’s humor intact as she battles to be recognized as someone who has paid her debt in an unforgiving and narrow-minded society.
Bitter Daisies – The second season of this Netflix series about a woman fighting back and trying to expose the systematic male power and brutality of a Galician town in Spain culminates in an Eyes Wide Shut “party” that results in a final revenge for multiple young and underage women exploited in a Ghislaine Maxwell/Jeffrey Epstein mode. Season two does partly show a voyeuristic “pleasure” in this forced copulation but its sharper edge still echoes forcefully. In so doing it points out how another Spanish Netflix hit Money Heist, which began on Spanish TV with so much potential, has in the initial episodes of its final season substituted an ever-accelerating series of ever more meaningless shocks for what was initially a populist fantasy about returning wealth to the people.
C.B. Strike – The heart of this series, based on the J. K. Rowling novels, is the relationship between the hobbling detective Strike and his one-time secretary, now partner, Robin. The intrigues, often involving the crimes of state officials or wealthy families, take a back seat in the series to Robin’s slow and painful coming to grips with the realization that the comfortable life offered to her by her corporate partner and soon-to-be husband does not make her happy. This lifestyle of the rich and privileged begins to exact more and more a burden on her as the series progresses and as she begins to question its value. A quandary that those still fortunate enough to have a job find themselves in today.
The Chair – Sandra Oh, the put-upon government agent in Killing Eve, is even more harried here as the newly appointed chair of a liberal arts English department that is, like most liberal arts disciplines, left for dead, supplanted by technical and business programs. The focus here is more on “woke” student culture and its challenge to aging professors, but the highlight of the series is an appearance by David Duchovny as himself, playing an arrogant Hollywood “author” who supposes that academia is now simply another form of entertainment. It suggests that the neoliberalizing of the university has in fact resulted in it becoming just another receptacle for the detritus of pop culture.
Comfortable as opposed to challenging TV but nevertheless worth a look:
Kung Fu – Particularly strong in this CW martial arts series, streaming on HBO Max, was episode 5 which dealt with Asian bashing in the wake of Trump’s Chinese COVID panic. The final moment where the traditionally conservative mother and restaurant owner is converted to activism, offering herself up to be arrested to save an African-American protestor, has a particular frisson.
Big Sky – The first half of this David E. Kelly ABC series was a stunning reversal of the usual powerlessness of the serial killer plot, with combinations of women of mixed races and sexual orientations fighting back. The second arc, involving the decaying head of a Montana ranch, was also powerful but by the second season the show had fallen into a more simplified “twisty” tale that moved the series from groundbreaking to comfort TV, from a challenging series to one that is a guilty pleasure.
Burden of Truth Season 4 – A revival for this Canadian series (streaming on Hulu) as former corporate lawyer Joanna defends a Native American woman who wages a lone battle against a mining company which plans to lay waste the town as her fellows urge her to take the money and run. The indigenous element enlivens multiple plot lines on the series and gives it its raison d’être.
Resident Alien – An alien apocalypse comedy set in small-town Colorado, streaming on YouTube, where the most endearing relationship is between the alien doctor (Firefly’s Alan Tudyk), sent to destroy the earth, and his Native American nurse/office administrator who teaches him what it means to be human, or rather, that all humans are not evil.
WandaVision – Most inventive Marvel series, streaming on Disney Plus, with the whole history of the sit com encompassed in its several episodes, a marvel of set design that still could have resounded more if it had increased the emphasis on the eerie emptiness of the form.
The Vampires of Midland – Russian Dracula series, available on Vimeo, that rather than focus on the decadence of the genre in the now departed Anne Rice Lestat mode, instead, in a very Russian manner, centers on the warmth of all generations of a vampire family which has ceased feasting on humans, but which is now prey to a predatory mercantile world surrounding them.
The Last Socialist Artefact – The Music Man meets Eisenstein’s Strike in this Croatian series, streaming on the French service Salto, about two bumbling “entrepreneurs” who attempt to restore a factory and a town long-since given up for dead as part of the de-industrialization of Eastern Europe.
Biohackers Season 2 – The waters muddy a bit in this second outing for the Netflix German series, initially exploring the underside of biogenetic engineering with last season’s scientist/professor/villainess enlisted by Mia, the student who took her down, against an even more powerful and ruthless foe, the private financier of a pharmaceutical empire.
The Upshaws – This Netflix series is a refreshing throwback to Black working-class sitcoms like Sanford and Son and very alive with the self-deprecating but sustaining humor of its lead couple, a mechanic and a nurse battling to better themselves.
We are all The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead Season 11 – Dynamite action opening of this last season of the perennial cable ratings leader has the newly returned Maggie leading a raid for supplies in an underground lair of the sleeping dead who, of course, waken. Final seasons, let alone an 11th season, are difficult to sustain (just ask the creators of the overblown last season of Game of Thrones) but this one does it with its perpetual focus on the characters even as we watch successive invasions of oxy and fentanyl plus COVID and its variants turn hollowed out Western “democracies” into zombie apocalypses that each day make the show less of a fantasy and more of a documentary.
The 5 Worst Series
Rutherford Falls – Comedy which gets the set-up completely wrong as Ed Helms (a little bit of him went a long way on The Office) instead of being the Anglo oppressor of the Native American community becomes instead their defender. A chance for first rate satire muffed and turned into ridiculous sentimentality.
Bloodlands – Psychotically reactionary BBC tripe from the network which brought you the equally conservative The Bodyguard and Line of Duty. What starts out as a twisty mystery, circles back on itself and moves insufferably to a cynical conclusion which poses as “ambiguous.” Equally reprehensible was the BBC’s Time which regurgitated the worst prison cliches about guards who are victims of vicious prisoners without a thought about the cruelty of the system itself.
Nine Perfectly Boring Strangers
Nine Perfect Strangers – In light of the spotlighting of class tensions in the multi-character The White Lotus, this David E. Kelly series, which sets out to spoof retreat centres, seems instead a highly irrelevant, retrograde way of simply restoring a fixation on their privileged clientele.
Chapelwaite – The Shining meets Moby Dick as Adrien Brody’s retired sea captain is haunted by and haunts a New England seafaring village. The floor of the old house his family inhabits creaks and so does the rickety plot as Steven King’s horror tales expose the wires that hold these rapidly aging contraptions together, especially in the light of the more socially relevant use of the genre by Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, Candyman).
Foundation – The neverending search for a sequel to Game of Thrones (Dune, Wheel of Time, the now-cancelled Game of Thrones prequel) reached a low point in this Apple + high-budget, low energy adaptation of the Isaac Asimov novel where the only hope to save an oligarchic inbred empire is by a technological fix, ala a new iteration of the iPhone or the iPad. Less than meets the eye, this pretentious series instead is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Podcast.
Bonus Worst, or Liverwurst
On the Verge – The life, loves and angst of upper-middle-class women in LA with nothing much at stake. When the going gets tough, they go to the beach or Rodeo Drive. The only thing they are on the verge of is a shopping spree, in this series, streaming on Netflix, that is really just Much Ado About Spending.
Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.