What an interesting year it has been for television as streaming plateaued after an unprecedented surge in 2020 and production had to retool its methods—both in direct response to the pandemic. The result was a moderately successful 12 months which produced some terrific new shows, but was largely dominated by returning titles.
For this list, only new series were considered. So, as monumental as the third season of Succession was, and as moving as the Master of None spin-off proved to be, they could not be included here. Neither could some of the best Indian titles, which you can check out by clicking here. Rest assured, you won’t find Call My Agent: Bollywood on either list.
You will, however, read about an epic morality tale and a delightfully contained comedy; a darkly humorous miniseries; and two documentaries—both about voice-of-a-generation women.
Without further ado, the top five international shows of 2021, in no particular order:
Only Murders in the Building
At a time when most mainstream ‘content’ seems to be produced and sold by algorithms, Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building (available in India on Disney+ Hotstar) was a refreshing blast from the past. Largely restricted to an upscale New York apartment complex, the quirky comedy combined Steve Martin and Martin Short’s classic humour with the millennial sensibilities of their co-star Selena Gomez. A treat for fans of true crime podcasts, murder mysteries, and terrific television: C’est moi.
The White Lotus
Like Only Murders, HBO’s The White Lotus (also available on Disney+ Hotstar) was another pandemic production—but despite being set on a sprawling tropical island, it felt just as claustrophobic as that show. Deeply uncomfortable and darkly comedic, creator Mike White’s stinging satire of white privilege felt both timely and disappointingly timeless.
Directed by Academy Award nominee Garrett Bradley, Netflix’s three-part series about the tennis champion Naomi Osaka could hardly be described as a sports documentary; calling it a character study would be more accurate. The show was far more comfortable spending time off the court than on it, staying by Osaka’s side as she tried to comprehend her newfound status as an icon, and how she used her platform to talk about matters close to her heart.
The Mosquito Coast
The dark horse of the list, Apple TV+’s massively entertaining adventure series, based on the book by Paul Theroux, combined the pleasures of old-school Hollywood storytelling and socially conscious themes. A terrific new addition to the roster for a streaming service that is still, almost miraculously, only populated by original programming.
Pretend It’s a City
The second Netflix series on this list, like the first, is also a documentary. Directed by Martin Scorsese and featuring New York City fixture Fran Lebowitz at her most unapologetically savage, Pretend It’s a City is essentially a follow-up to their 2010 documentary Public Speaking. Call it an acidic diatribe against the concept of time, or a wistful attempt by two elderly people to make sense of their rich lives, Pretend It’s a City felt like getting a seat at the hottest table in town for four hours. It could’ve gone on for 40.