It still shocks me that after the devastation of 2020 and 2021, we were still able to get really quality TV that elicited a lot of emotion from viewers. Be it anger and frustration, or joy and excitement, the TV industry’s best creators were inspired by the difficulties brought on by the pandemic and created some of the best shows in a long time.
This goes for both the local and international industries. So here are some of the shows that had us talking, both in person and on social media and we couldn’t get enough of them.
The Roy family came back with a bang in our lives, wreaking all kinds of havoc on our emotional well-being. They are toxic and the most despicable family of narcissists on TV and yet we can’t help but be obsessed with them. The strong performances from the actors, especially Jeremy Strong (Kendall Roy), has made this season difficult to watch, but impossible to not be entranced by. The shenanigans of a crumbling media empire faced with a workplace sexual harassment inquiry are the perfect setting for a family at war with itself and the battle for complete power and control.
HACKS (M-Net & Showmax)
When Jean Smart deservedly won an Emmy for her role as a washed-out comedian on the Las Vegas circuit, Deborah Vance, it confirmed that the Jean Smart renaissance was in full swing. Hacks explored the complex nature of the employer and employee relationship, especially when you take into consideration the age gap and how Deborah and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) tackle how they work. Brilliantly written and with a lot of nuance and humour, Hacks is one of those shows that will make you laugh, while somehow giving you life lessons? It may be niche, but it’s really good.
UMKHOKHA (Mzansi Magic)
Umkhokha is one of the best dramas to come out of South Africa in a long time. I am relieved that the creators did not go for the low-hanging fruit and make this show into a soapie, because then the acting and writing would not be as solid as it is. Inspired by Macbeth, Umkhokha tells the story of two families looking to cement their power. With the battleground being the contested leadership of a church, which has striking similarities to the Nazareth Baptist Church (Shembe), has made it an intriguing must watch. But it is the writing and performances, especially by Deli Malinga, Sthandiwe Kgoroge and Nay Maps, that has made Umkhokha one of the most exciting dramas of the year.
SQUID GAME (Netflix)
The South Korean horror is a commentary on capitalism and how it forces human beings to do the most egregious things to get ahead. Hwang Dong-hyuk, who wrote and directed the nine-episode drama, cleverly used the setting of deadly children’s games, played by desperate people who owe money, for the amusement of rich patrons. The story goes like this: hundreds of people in financial trouble, accept an invitation to compete in children's games, all with a promise of winning a lot of money. But they don’t realise that it’s deadly. The way he has written the characters and drawn out the tension between them and the viewer, he made it clear that all the characters have chosen to participate in the Squid Game for their own reasons. It is the viral hit of the year and Netflix’s biggest international TV show.
TED LASSO (Apple TV +)
The feel-good factor of comedies like Schitt’s Creek, The Good Place and Ted Lasso, have made them cult favourites and it’s easy to see why - it’s the wholesome characters that we can’t help but root for. The second season of Ted Lasso, while not as great as the Emmy winning first, went darker. It managed to juxtapose the lighter elements of the story, with the dark and paid close attention to the mental health of high performing athletes and how a lot of things we do are a result of a trauma response. We see characters we loved, become terrible, while those we hated, become good. It’s nuanced, clever and still very funny. With some fine performances from Juno Temple, Hannah Waddingham, Brett Goldstein and Jason Sudeikis.
Shannon Esra has been one of the best actors on South African TV and finally, she got to be the lead on M-Net’s Lioness tells the story of Samantha Hugo, a suburban housewife and doting mother of three. However, she spends several years behind bars after being framed for fraud committed by her husband before his passing. This leads to her losing her children, freedom and life and is determined to reclaim what’s hers while clearing her name. With strong performances from Nokuthula Ledwaba, Fiona Ramsay and Jack Devnarain.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (Amazon Prime Video)
Thuso Mbedu was already a star here at home but her work on The Underground Railroad made her into a superstar such that there was outrage when she wasn’t nominated for an Emmy. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, Thuso stars as Cora Randall, a slave who escapes a plantation in Georgia. She boards a train embarking on a trip where she seeks freedom. All this while she is hunted by a notorious slave catcher, Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton). Brilliantly directed by Barry Jenkins, with impressive acting, cinematography, costume and score.
Honourable mentions to Reyka, Maid, Pen15, You and Oprah With Harry and Meghan
This article first appeared in Saturday Insider, Dec 11, 2021