From Tiger King to Schitt’s Creek, Canada became a nation of TV watchers this year. Between lockdowns and shuttered movie theatres, what else was there to do? Here’s what several of the Post’s writers and editors (and a former CEO) were watching this year.
Out of all the binge-watching that has taken place in our home this year, there is one scene that stands out, and I’ve been struggling to figure out why. The show is Shameless and the setting is a well-worn living room, where the various members of the raucous Gallagher clan, so often at the centre of the calamity, intoxication, fornication, theft and insurance fraud perpetrated by their patriarch, sit quietly watching a documentary on TV, in rapt attention. It’s never explained why — or maybe it is in later episodes; we are still mid-binge — but there is a peace to the tableau that must be a necessary escape for these characters. Perhaps we are all, to less extreme degrees, like the Gallaghers, looking for a little distraction in the midst of a chaotic world.
There is another living room scene that comes to mind, from about 25 years earlier. A startled elderly woman looks in the direction of a childless couple in their 20s who are staring thunderbolts at her while a police drama unfolds on a nearby TV screen. Playing the role of the elderly woman was my grandmother-in-law, and she had committed the unpardonable sin of talking over the dialogue of Homicide: Life on the Street.
Long before streaming, there was must-see TV, a slogan that NBC used to refer to its prime-time lineup. Homicide was not considered must-see by many North American viewers — it peaked at 24 in the Nielsen TV ratings in season two and never made it above 66 after that in its seven-year run — but it was must-see TV in our house on Friday nights. No interrupting allowed.
You would think there would be a streaming audience now for a show that propelled the careers of Andre Braugher (hello, Brooklyn 99) and David Simon, creator of The Wire, and was considered by critics one of the best shows on television for years after it ended. But no. It’s box-set DVD or bust. And so we will continue with Shameless, having already powered through Game of Thrones, The Undoing and The Queen’s Gambit since the current, never-ending season of The Virus began. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s conceivable we’ll make it through all 134(!) episodes. Perhaps by the time that’s done, one of the many services out there that are hungry for content will do the right thing and stream Homicide. Still, no interruptions, please.
— Ron Wadden
The Informer (Amazon Prime)
It’s one rule that’s rarely broken in post-9/11-era television: When battling terrorists, the ends almost always justify the means. Jack Bauer on 24 made torture seem like standard operating practice, and constitutional freedoms a far-left plot to destroy America. Yet when the clock stopped we stood up and cheered his heroic efforts to stave off Armageddon. Even a more nuanced character like Homeland’s Carrie “Why shouldn’t I sleep with my suspect?” Mathison could be excused for a few dozen ethical lapses if she beat the jihadists by season’s end.
That’s part of what makes The Informer so refreshing. It’s just as addictive, suspenseful and binge-worthy as the others. But the British mini-series’ central terror-fighting protagonist, Gabe (played brilliantly by Paddy Considine), is disagreeable and unscrupulous. And we sense from episode one that Gabe is unlikely to redeem himself by the time it all wraps up. The program never downplays the horrors of terrorism, but probes the murkier aspects of counter-terrorism, with the risk of its overzealous practitioners inadvertently expanding the ranks of violent radicals.
The story has Gabe recruiting Raza (Nabhaan Rizwan), a young Muslim man who finds himself in jail overnight for a minor offence. He clearly doesn’t know any terrorists but, well, he’s Muslim, so why not? Over the course of the series, Gabe exposes Raza to increasing dangers and prods him into more and more brazen betrayals, seemingly oblivious to the consequences for his young agent.
Rizwan is a revelation, one of those actors who has a natural magnetism and effortless charm. The Informer also uses flash-forwards beautifully, helping build to a truly shocking end. Spoiler alert: it’s an end that may not justify the dubious means. (On Amazon Prime)
— Tom Blackwell
It feels diabolical to have found so much joy in Corporate. To be savouring a workplace satire when I haven’t stepped into an actual office for months. It is hands down the most gleeful watching I’ve done during the pandemic. Bleak, grey yet absurdly hilarious, the Comedy Central series follows junior-executives-in-training Matt (Matt Ingebretson) and Jake (Jake Weisman) as they shirk any real responsibility at the multinational corporation Hampton DeVille.
The third and final season, which aired this summer, has some real gems. An overriding sense of futility is offset with sweetness in episode 3, “The Importance of Talking S**t,” as Grace (Aparna Nancherla) and Kate (Anne Dudek) put the kettle on, kick off their shoes, share a cookie and bond over trash talk.
Meanwhile, an escalating war of passive-aggressive notes made me think of the author of the Post’s own prominently placed, copy room/kitchen missive. Have they found peace in their home office while locked down, or redirected their hostility to neighbours and couriers? “Face-to-face confrontation feels a little aggressive,” Matt says in the episode. “I wish there was something in between being passive and being aggressive. I just don’t know the term for it.”
Episode 5, “F**k You Money” — in which Matt and Jake take a business trip — is another highlight. When bellhop Tandry (played by the brilliant Martha Kelly of Baskets) asks them if they’re in town for business or pleasure, Matt answers: “It’s funny that the opposite of pleasure is business.” Jake adds: “Business is pain. We’re in town for pain.”
Bad coffee, white noise, stark surroundings, passive-aggressive notes and the camaraderie that comes with talking s**t once defined office culture. From aptly named CEO Christian DeVille’s (Lance Reddick) hurricane machine to failing streaming service Hampton DeView — and its algorithm-driven flagship series, Pickles 4 Breakfast — even in its nihilism, Corporate manages to find the light.
— Laura Brehaut
So he’s a little pompous, annoying and snobby with a bent towards pontificating about wine and the opera — but Frasier’s Frasier Crane, and his germaphobe brother, Niles, have helped brighten the doldrums of the very unfunny COVID-19 pandemic for my 15-year-old daughter Grace and I. The ’90s sitcom follows the life of a hoity-toity, sherry-loving, psychiatrist/radio advice show host who desperately tries to find love while managing relationships with his ageing blue-collar dad Martin, Martin’s dog Eddie, the live-in physiotherapist Daphne Moon, and his brother, Niles.
There’s something about the relentless virus news and ever-present crushing anxiety that has made a nightly escape to Frasier’s Seattle an essential, before-bed ritual.
While the show has prompted many important discussions, such as the blatant absence of people of colour and the portrayal of larger bodies — after a spell of compulsive eating, Daphne finds herself at a “fat farm” (cringe), the episode dubbed “The Year of the Raisin” was nothing but fun. In it, Frasier tries to get wine-snob Niles out of his apartment by telling him that a local shop is running out of the expensive 1982 Chambolle-Musigny. (The 1934 edition happens to retail at the LCBO for $477.) Niles realizes the trick: “In ’82 there was a drought in Bourgogne,” he says. “The locals dubbed it The Year of the Raisin.”
Admittedly horribly offensive to the innocent dried fruit, the phrase does spark some resemblance to a year that has sucked like no other. The raisin is dry — a mere shell of the juiciness of the grape it once was. Think of yourself this time last year. See a pattern yet? Raisins are also about 60% sugar, and pack an unhealthy punch of calories and fibre: think cramps, gas and bloating. The ugly wrinkled fruit is also considered a choking hazard for small children, and anyone with a dog is familiar with sniffing a “raisin” that found its way suspiciously onto the sofa. But perhaps most importantly, every grape made into a raisin is one less for a glass of wine. 2021 didn’t come soon enough.
— Lisa Machado
For All Mankind (AppleTV+)
It’s been a rough 50 years for fans of the moon landings. When Neil Armstrong took that “one small step” in the summer of ’69, it seemed like the start of a glorious age of manned space exploration. You could be forgiven for thinking that by 2001 there’d be regular flights to the moon, like in the movie 2001.
Instead, we took a big step backwards, retreating to near-Earth orbit, at least as far as crewed missions went. And now we’re just about to retrace our first steps, a half-century later. Americans (and a Canadian!) plan to orbit the moon in 2023, in a repeat of the Apollo 8 mission of 1968. That’s if the Chinese don’t beat us to it in Space Race 2.0.
All of which makes For All Mankind such as escapist treat. It’s set in an alternate 1969 in which the Soviets make the first lunar landing a month before the Americans. They follow that up with the first female moonwalker. With the discovery of water near the moon’s South Pole, the race is on to create permanent bases – in the 1970s! Meanwhile, stung by the Soviet’s co-ed cosmonaut corps, NASA starts recruiting female and Black astronauts. Civil rights and feminism take a giant leap forward.
Season two lands on Feb. 21, and looks to be set in the 1980s, with an end-of-season-one teaser showing a huge, ocean-launched rocket on its way to the moon. As we wait for space exploration to catch up with the real 1969, it’s nice to see alternate-universe 1969 bearing such fruit.
— Chris Knight
Five best bets
In normal times, my television viewing is limited to politics (no surprise; I served in public life for 19 years, most as chairman of Metropolitan Toronto) and sports (no surprise; I’m also a former president of the Toronto Blue Jays). The Leafs and Raptors also get my attention, but my love is baseball, and I watch most Jays games in person or on TV.
In fact, I have some unfinished sports business: I recently told the NFL commissioner that I have few things left on my bucket list, and he knew a Toronto team was at the top.
But these are not normal times, and like most everyone in lockdown I have turned to Netflix, Crave, HBO, etc., for entertainment. I found a television renaissance in full bloom – great stories well told, happily including some of politics and sports.
Here are some of my favourites:
The Undoing (HBO). A six-episode murder mystery starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Compelling and watchable.
The Loudest Voice (Crave). The story behind the creation of Fox News and the rise and fall of founder Roger Ailes, played convincingly (physically and otherwise) by onetime Gladiator Russell Crowe.
The Last Dance (Netflix). The Michael Jordan story. Ten episodes about the greatest NBA player of all time.
Virgin River (Netflix). A young, beautiful L.A. woman looks for a new life in a tiny community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Twenty episodes over two seasons, with multiple compelling stories intertwined.
Your Honour (Crave). Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad stars as a judge in quandary. We’re just a few episodes in, but I was glued to my seat in what appears to be one of the best so far.
— Paul Godfrey