Every best of the year roundup tends to start with some sort of caveat from the writer, so here’s mine: this year has been one of the craziest, busiest years of my life, and escaping into these shows after working for ten or twelve hours every day was the intent. I tended more toward light and easy than my usual darkness.
Best Western: The Mandalorian seasons 1 & 2
I kept trying to review this show, to put some insightful feminist, Marxist, or deconstructionist spin on it that the casual viewer might have missed, but the truth is, it’s a western. That’s it. From the moment episode one season of 2 opens with Mando cruising into a deserted desert town on bike, you know the only thing that’s missing is horses, and stagecoaches, and a dirty old man with a cheek full of chaw. And that’s okay. The Mandalorian has lightsabers and blasters and cloning AND dragons.
The Mandalorian is more fun than 98% of westerns ever made. Yeah, I said it. It also has baby Yoda, otherwise known as Grogu. If you’re not convinced yet, you never will be.
Best Horror: Utopia
Utopia is one of the most disturbing shows I’ve ever seen, and it was released at a moment in history absolutely riddled with conspiracy theories and lies. This, more than the show itself, is probably the reason it wasn’t renewed. It hits nerves.
Nevertheless, I think it will become a cult classic that many people talk about in the future. The show isn’t just terrifying because it could be something that happens, it’s addicting in the way that the best conspiracy theories are; there’s always just one more shred of proof around the corner to validate your perception. Don’t believe that kind of thinking is addictive? A librarian friend recently told me to spend some time looking into the VMAT 2 gene and COVID vaccines. Talk about a wormhole.
Utopia will haunt you.
Best Sci-fi: Westworld Season 3
Do I even have to make this case? The whole theme park is really just designed to do what Google and Facebook, and every other tech corporation that relies on advertising is currently doing right now: creating models of our desires and motivations so that can they can predict our actions to sell us the product we need before we need it. Breaking Bad alumni Aaron Paul joins the cast and once again, we question what makes us human, and if AI robots somehow deserve the title a little more than we do.
Stellar performances, jaw-dropping twists, and casual, gorey violence are the hallmark of this show. Season three continues that in the best way.
Best Comedy: Cobra Kai
“Damn, is that a good name for a dojo!”
Although at first it’s sort of like a nostalgia band on tour, William Zabka and Ralph Machio are so compelling in their reprisals that it’s hard not to let the autoplay keep going.
It was fascinating to watch in terms of a religious critique, as well. Both Senseis ultimately create a cult, convincing their devotees that their brand of karate is not just the only way, but the only “right”. The funny thing is, there is enough truth in each approach to karate to be considered correct, and both cults, I mean dojos, are pretty innocuous until someone evil seizes control. Sound familiar?
That aspect of the show gave me chills and the rest of it made me laugh. That’s a knockout punch.
Most forgettable fantasy: His Dark Materials
With full apologies to Philip Pullman, whose only job as a writer of an acclaimed twenty-five-year-old series at this point is to cash checks, I started to think of him as the man who may have ruined portal fiction forever. Both adaptations of his work have fallen flat and far short of achieving the greatness I’ve heard his fans talk about. I haven’t tried reading the books, because I saw Golden Compass before I knew it was based on a book–which always ruins it for me–so it’s not like my reaction to the show is one based off the shows living up to my book-based expectations. The show just isn’t that good.
In HBO’s first and second seasons, Lin Manuel Miranda looks like he’s sleepwalking at times, and while Ruth Wilson does a good job being menacing and brooding throughout, none of the actors in the show actually brings their characters to life. Or maybe the characters were really only poorly formed archetypes with animal sidekicks to begin with? Lee Scoresby (Miranda) is a knock off Indiana Jones, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) rushing to the north pole is basically Doctor Frankenstein shouting about dust, and Lyra Balacqua (Dafne Keen) could be the child orphan heroine of literally a thousand epic fantasy books.
Whatever magic was in the pages to make this story so beloved is thoroughly lost on screen. I honestly don’t think I would be current on this show if it weren’t for the slowdown 2020 has caused in production. There wasn’t much else to watch, and I needed something to glance at in between grading papers.
Best Fantasy: The Good Place Season 4
What, the show ended in January, before the pandemic, so that means it doesn’t count? Not so fast!
My wife started watching this before bed and it wasn’t long before the weirdness of the premise became hilariously compelling, despite my initial reservations. Not only does it offer easy laughs, those without an aversion to sacrilege will find its take on the traditional Judeo-Christian afterlife to be one of the more realistic offerings in fiction. Dysfunctional, witty like Better Off Ted, and easy to binge, this show is one that will find it’s way into re-watch queues the way Friends and The Office do for many.
You actually feel for the characters at the end of Season 4 and maybe, just maybe, that means we’ll all be worthy of The Good Place eventually. Here’s to a much better 2021!