If binge-watching was an Olympic-level sport, then 2021 was the year of athletes! With COVID-19 robbing us of the better half of a year, we turned to streaming services like Netflix to fill the void. To live vicariously through the eyes of their many, many fictional characters. This year, though, Netflix delivered some A-grade original content. We’re not talking about just high-quality entertainment here. Oh no, there were series this year that utterly changed the landscape of visual storytelling.
For so long, we’ve thought cinematic action sequences, groundbreaking animation and award-winning performances to be squarely locked within the realm of theatrical films and maybe HBO. Netflix provides a stunning rebuttal to that notion. In fact, there could very well be an argument for long form television to be the superior mode of storytelling.
Some of you die-hard cinephiles are probably sharpening your pitchforks right now but these entries below will definitely give cause to pause. So it is with great honour, that we present our list for the best TV series of 2021 that you can only find on Netflix!
1. Midnight Mass
Creator Mike Flanagan more than redeems himself for 2020’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor” with a series that truly left us with nightmares by the end of it, “Midnight Mass”. On the surface, the series seems to be your typical small-town creature feature in the form of a prolonged miniseries. However, beneath the vernier is an emotionally complex and terrifying tale about what happens when people blindly follow after charismatic religious leaders. Beyond the spooky imagery and jaw-dropping reveal near the end, the series is most disturbing when it appeals to our collective sense of faith and despair amidst this year.
We all want to believe some miracle will save us from suffering but to what extent are we willing to sacrifice our morality? “Midnight Mass” delivers the answer and it chilled us to the core. Two actors who should absolutely be nominated for an Emmy Award this year are Hamish Linklater as Father Paul and Rahul Kohli as Sheriff Hassan. Their performances in “Midnight Mass” are some of the most heartbreaking and realistic depictions of people in communities of faith. So often in media, there’s the tendency to depict people of faith as credulous, violent fanatics or cynical hypocrites. Here, though, Flanagan’s characters feel just as human as the frightened viewers from across the screen.
2. Squid Game
How do we best describe a premise as brilliantly messed up as Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Squid Game”? Think of it as the most f**ked episode of “Black Mirror” made into a series set in Korea. Even then, that analogy can’t quite encapsulate all the themes and socio-political intricacies of South Korea’s capitalist class system. Look, if you like watching people get murdered while playing cute children’s games in a bid to win a buttload of cash, then this is the show for you! Yeah, that explanation should do it. Dong-hyuk’s series is a scathing indictment against the cruel economic reality of South Korean society. One that feels right at home with films like Boog Jong-ho’s “Snowpiercer” and “Parasite”.
There’s something incredibly unique in the way Korean filmmakers and showrunners approach acting and performance. There’s an inherent intensity and desperation that American and western dramas can’t quite replicate. “Squid Game” has utterly convinced us that the dread, hunger and emotional vulnerability seen characters like Gi-Hun and Sang Woo are not some hyperbolic caricatures of the poor. No, this is human nature, and try as we may, we could not look away. Neither should you.
3. Money Heist
So many times, Netflix would start strong with an amazing series like “House of Cards” or “Daredevil” only to have them end on a whimper or be cancelled altogether. Álex Pina’s “Money Heist” (or “La casa de papel “) does not disappoint. It started off with a bang and it ends with the greatest heist plan ever to put to screen. If you’ve been following the series thus far, then you know that the series has evolved past being an ambitious Spanish crime thriller and into a global phenomena. An epic showdown between libertine revolutionaries and corrupt government officials and authorities. What started as a badass heist has errupted in a war for the hearts and minds of the Spanish people with the fate of a nation at stake.
This year, we were treated to both Money Heist Part 5’s Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, with each volume containing five episodes each. There was never a moment throughout Part 5 in which fans rested easy. At any moment, it truly felt like any one of our favourite characters could be taken out, which indeed did happen. Nonetheless, the series ends on a high-note that left us a jubilant, weeping mess and frankly that’s all we could really ask for out of Pina and company. Magnifico, magnifico, magnifico!
Video-game films are mostly rushed, awful cash-grabs that bank on fan-service and nostalgia. Well, we can’t argue with that sentiment. As for video-game based TV shows though, you’d be completely and utterly wrong on that count. Just look at the love and care dedicated to shows like “DOTA: Dragon’s Blood”, “Dragon’s Dogma” and “The Witcher” on Netflix. Polished, high-budget fantasy series that honour their source material while still innovating on established lore to create something new and unique. This glorious trend all started with one particular Netflix series, made by creators Adi Shankar and Warren Ellis: “Castlevania”.
It started strong with a captivating and agonisingly human take on the show’s chief antagonist Vlad Dracula Tepes. From there, it branched out from immaculate fantasy action to vampiric political drama to existential discourse. Yes, a bloody video-game show will make you question the very nature of good and evil. This year, we were treated to aspectacular final season that completely subverted our expectations while simultaneously giving us more of what we loved. For that, we gave it our highest grade because it truly is groundbreaking.
Yes, that’s right, we’re giving the final two spots on our list to two video-game based series. The world has truly gone mad! Full disclosure: we know nothing about League of Legends (LoL). Nothing about the lore, the characters or the gameplay. Apparently, even die-hard fans admit that the game itself is scant on details. Against all odds, Riot Games alongside the wickedly talented Fortiche Production have created what can only be described as a CGI-rendered oil painting brought to life. Without ever launching into lengthy loredump monologues, “Arcane” tells us everything we need to know about the world of Piltover and Zaun through stunning imagery. The artstyle alone is already revolutionary, with its ability to display an overwhelming amount of detail for both sweeping vistas and facial animation.
To match the series’ gorgeous visuals, “Arcane” has a story that feels as fantastical as it is realistic. In contrast to its elements of colourful techno-sorcery and ornate steampunk scientific optimism, there is a dark reality hidden beneath the surface. We dare you to find a fantasy series that deals with such heavy themes like class struggle, police brutality, substance abuse, trauma and nationhood. All at the same time! Yet the series never gets lost in its heady concepts because it is grounded by a strong emotional core. At its heart, this series is a tragedy about two sisters, Jinx and Violet. A story about how violence and poverty ultimately breaks them. The series is already renewed for another season and we could not be happier. Without a shadow of a doubt, “Arcane” is the best Netflix series of 2021!
Do you agree with our list? Were the other shows you think belong on it? Be sure to let us know with a comment!