Every year, dictated by general media tradition, we start cobbling together our Best of the Year lists in November. In order to get assignments out and blurbs written, voting usually ends around the middle of that month. In Ye Olden TV Times that was fine; December was a time of reruns and Christmas specials, not marquee premieres. But in this Peak TV era of programming, streaming services aren’t missing this opportunity to provide new shows to binge, and as such, things get left out of year-end lists that might have otherwise earned a spot.
With that in mind, we are once again putting together “The Best of December,” i.e. everything good that happened after we voted on everything else that was good in 2021. Below are 5 shows and one performance that are worth your time to seek out, and interestingly, each comes from a different streaming service. So while you might not have them all, there should be a little something for everyone.
When it comes to the rest of the best of 2021, you can also check out our lists of the best shows, best episodes, best supporting performances, best new anime, and under-the-radar series.
Watch on Disney+
Some folks liked Hawkeye, others did not, but really no matter where you stand with it there are three things we can all agree on: It’s a Christmas series, Florence Pugh as Yelena is a treasure, and “Rogers: The Musical” is a triumph. What the Hawkeye finale gave us, amid a myriad of questionable other offerings, were great moments around these three elements. The post-credits scene was maybe an all-timer in the Marvel canon, and though the show finished as unevenly as its full run proved to be, its best scenes—the banter, the emotional beats, the surprising swordplay—made up for a lot.
But what really pulled the whole thing together was Yelena, who we first met in the Black Widow movie and who returned here for spicy mac and cheese plus revenge. Pugh’s outrageously fun accent and rampant scene-stealing previewed what might have been a better show, had it focused on her. It wouldn’t have been Hawkeye, sure, but it would have been a kick-ass, magnificent time anchored by an exceptional talent. In Yelena We Trust, and hopefully there is plenty more of her to come. —Allison Keene
Watch on Hulu
PEN15 Season 2 Part 2 left us with an emotional and satisfying conclusion to the beloved series. The final episodes with Maya and Anna are fraught with conflict, ranging in importance from bat mitzvah drama and failing Dance Dance Revolution routines to Anna’s parents’ contentious divorce and Maya’s deep insecurities. Like any middle schoolers, Anna and Maya perceive every small inconvenience as a catastrophe, but no matter how immature the situation, PEN15 always approaches the girls’ perspective with immense care and respect. The years separating Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman from their time in middle school haven’t trivialized junior high dramatics; instead, they’re now able to thoughtfully reflect on the impact these arguably momentary experiences are having on Maya and Anna’s lives.
Despite Maya and Anna’s surface-level conflicts throughout, PEN15 reiterates its simple core belief: that with a best friend you’ll get through anything, whether it’s the sudden death of a loved one or being taken advantage of by someone you were vulnerable with, or any of the other million problems we face in our lives, big or small. —Kristen Reid [Full Review]
Watch on HBO Max
The past few years have really pushed us to consider what the end of the world might look like. And in that sense, HBO Max’s new series Station Eleven, an adaptation of the apocalyptic 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, has unfortunate (or perhaps auspicious) timing. Who wants to watch a show where the world’s population has been ravaged by a pandemic, where characters suffer through what they have lost and debate if hope is a worthy investment? Who wants to inhabit a dark universe that feels just a branch away from our own?
And yet, the 10-episode miniseries pulls off an incredible feat: it is a masterpiece. The timing of our own pandemic escalates the horror and doom of the show, but also makes every emotional beat even stronger. Station Eleven’s pandemic is very different from our own: it is quick. In only a few days the world is forever changed, very few get to say goodbye. The series dives into this pain, and asks if parting is something one can learn to endure in a world that takes each character on their own path. For a series so inspired by the legacy of Shakespeare, it seems fittingly impacted by “parting is such sweet sorrow.” Station Eleven ventures to dwell on both the sweet and sorrow, that both can exist at once all the time.
While COVID-19 remains a fresh wound and Station Eleven is not for the faint of heart, it rewards the viewer by finding the artful beauty in a painful world. —Leila Jordan [Full Review]
Watch on Netflix
“It’s a bit complicated,” a guard at the docks calls out to Jaskier (Joey Batey) about one of his new songs. “Took me until the fourth verse to understand there were different timelines.” That’s the kind of sly, self-aware humor that The Witcher once again brings to its layered fantasy storytelling. Showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich also made an adjustment after that Season 1 experiment; Season 2 has dropped the timey-wimey stuff, and instead sets a more linear—although still complicated—story that follows Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) and his ward Ciri (Freya Allen), who are finally reunited just as her destiny becomes clear.
Based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels that spawned an extremely popular gaming franchise, Netflix’s series remains both fully engrossing and fully ridiculous. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Like any good bard, Hissrich understands that both parts are necessary to tell a great fantasy tale. It’s also worth noting that Season 2 is a marked improvement over that messy, if enjoyable, first season. More episodic in nature, especially at the start, the series can now let us relish in everything that was previously established. That means Geralt traveling with Ciri—the Child of Surprise whose powers and lineage become more surprising by the day—mourning what he believes is the death of Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), and meeting up with more witchers at their stronghold in Kaer Morhen, including Geralt’s mentor, Vesemir (Kim Bodnia).
This excellent second season is a deeper dive into a rich world that shines in its focus on Ciri and Geralt’s relationship, and how that connection influences everything around them. Though there are plenty of things to quibble over from book to screen (or from videogame screen, although the show is expressly pulled from the page), The Witcher is perhaps best viewed and accepted as a fresh translation of an old fable. Redoing the same thing over and over again, exactly the same way, is boring. The Witcher’s interpretation of its original text offers up something new—and that’s refreshing, both within this story and for fantasy TV at large. —Allison Keene [Full Review]
Watch on Amazon Prime
“The wheel weaves as the wheel wills,” and for Amazon Prime Video’s new fantasy series, it wills it quickly. Running an economic eight hourlong episodes, The Wheel of Time is a brisk entry to Robert Jordan’s massive novel series, which evidently contains 2782 distinct characters. Amazon’s version doesn’t have quite that many, not yet, but I can genuinely say that as a newbie to the franchise it took me several episodes and many tabs to understand what anyone’s name actually was. And yet, this adaptation—developed by Rafe Judkins—does everything it can to be accessible to viewers unfamiliar with the source material.
It doesn’t hurt that the fantasy beats are familiar: There is a battle between light and dark, as well as a Chosen One (the “Dragon Reborn”) who will fight to save humanity—or destroy it in the process. There are critters and creatures and a magic that can only be wielded by women, plus a cult looking to eradicate the use of magic, pretenders to the would-be throne, and a hellish army of darkness. Navigating all of this are four young adults (any of whom could be the fabled savior) shepherded by a powerful sorceress named Moraine (Rosamund Pike).
The Wheel of Time teases out so much, but whether or not it eventually fills that out—or if its surface-level telling of this story will lead viewers to a deeper connection with the series itself—is uncertain. For now, it’s an incredibly fun ride that also doubles as TV’s best and most chaotic D&D campaign. —Allison Keene [Full Review]
Watch on Showtime
Showtime’s survival thriller Yellowjackets feels like such a breath of fresh air. The series is an intriguing mix of genres: part 1990s-set horror story and part modern-day mystery, with heaping doses of teenage angst and supernatural weirdness thrown on top. It honestly feels like nothing else on television right now, and though its pace is somewhat more glacial than its trailers might have initially indicated, there are moments where the tension—combined with our knowledge that many of these people aren’t going to make it out of this alive—is nigh unbearable.
The story begins in 1996 and follows the titular Yellowjackets, a New Jersey girls high school soccer team on their way to nationals. But when the private plane lent by a rich dad for the trip goes down in the Colorado mountains, they spend the next 19 months fighting to stay alive—a feat not all of them apparently accomplish. We know this because the other half of the show’s plot is set 25 years later, as several of the crash survivors (played by Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, and Tawny Cypress) find themselves visited by a nosy reporter aiming to write a book about their stories.
Ultimately, Yellowjackets is a twisty mystery that doesn’t easily give up many of its secrets, and grounds its story in a specifically female experience in a way that other series like this have never bothered to try. From awkward crushes and sexual double standards to character revelations driven by the fact that the girls’ menstrual cycles sync up… basically what I’m saying is that Lord of the Flies could never. —Lacy Baugher Milas [Full Review]
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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