Mare of Easttown lived up to its billing, Succession was 2021’s letdown

TV highlights and lowlights of 2021: Television’s tentacles were everywhere

This year, television’s tentacles were everywhere. Over the course of a few days in September, Squid Game transitioned from obscure Korean oddity to binge phenomenon. Next came the inevitable moral panic amid stories of children across the world replicating its brutal challenges in the school yard.

Netflix’s hyper-violent thriller wasn’t the only series to sink its sucker pods into viewers. In March, the sixth and allegedly final season of Line of Duty likewise had us gripped – only for it to all come undone in a disastrous finale that made it feel that everything that had gone before was a honking waste of time. With a twist that made no sense and a plot that disintegrated as soon as you held it up to the light, all that was left to cling to was Adrian Dunbar as saintly Ted Hastings and his endless supply of aphorisms. Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey, how had we been taken in so easily?

Squid Game and Line of Duty were two among a handful of shows that came closest to the Game of Thrones effect. These were, regardless of individual viewing preferences, cultural earthquakes. You might not know AC-12 from Heaven 17, however, you knew Line of Duty was back and that everyone was talking about it.

Justifying the fanfare

One series that justified the fanfare was the HBO-Sky Atlantic small-town thriller Mare of Easttown. With Kate Winslet putting in perhaps her chilliest turn since her unfortunate encounter with that iceberg in Titanic, it was a riveting portrait of midlife ennui and the stifling effect of life in the sticks.


Brooding and meditative, Mare harked back to the glory days of “difficult man” TV and long-form character studies such as Breaking Bad or Mad Men. The welcome difference was that on this occasion the broken individual at heart of the morality play was not a man but a woman. And Winslet brought movie star intensity to the part of a mother unravelling as she confronted her looming decrepitude while trying to ensure her daughter did not repeat her mistakes.

Kin's finale was Irish broadcasting's loudest flub since the new Prime Time set was revealed to be constructed largely of glow-in-the-dark Lego

The twist was that, in addition to exploring subjects such as ageing, grief and family obligation, Mare of Easttown spun a compelling murder mystery. And it topped it off with a genuinely shocking ending. Take note Line of Duty – here was how you delivered a pay-off.

If Mare of Easttown lived up to its billing as one of the year’s essential dramas, then season three of Succession on Sky Atlantic was a thumping letdown. Jesse Armstrong’s satire of a wealthy media family, who aren’t quite the Murdochs but aren’t quite not the Murdochs, was soon rehashing old plot lines. Kendall conspired against Logan. Shiv failed once again to win her father’s love and respect. It was boil-in-a-bag one percenter satire. Critics loved it – or, perhaps, loved the idea of a show they could champion, in the way music journalists get to rave about an obscure band. Ratings, though, remained perfunctory. Here was the mouse that did not roar.

There was, alas, little compelling about Irish television in 2021. In scripted drama, the industry once again failed to furnish licence fee payers with a must-see moment. RTÉ gave it a good shot with Kin, a post-Sopranos gangland saga that distinguished itself with an excellent cast including Charlie Cox and Ciarán Hinds.

Alas, Kin threw all that good work in the recycling bin with a finale that cribbed from the Godfather so blatantly it transcended homage and ended up as parody. There is nothing new under the sun. But there must be something newer than a clumsy rehashing of the Godfather baptism scene. It was Irish broadcasting’s loudest flub since the new Prime Time set was revealed to be constructed largely of glow-in-the-dark Lego.

A major story was the success of non-English language drama. 2021 was the year of the French

Irish talent abroad had a happier time. The second season of Aisling Bea’s Sally Rooney-esque dramedy This Way Up was feted with five-star reviews. The series walked a careful line between comedy and an exploration of 30-something angst, though it was undone slightly by the unconvincing chemistry between Bea and co-star Sharon Horgan and a script that assumed we would believe they were sisters just because they happened to be Irish.

Big misses

There were big misses throughout 2021. Fresh from the triumph of The Undoing, Nicole Kidman teamed up once again with super-producer David E Kelley for Amazon’s Nine Perfect Strangers. Alas, this satire of wellness culture was green at the gills. It seemed unsure as to which aspects of the mindfulness industrial complex it wished to skewer. And, despite committed turns by Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale as lost souls seeking enlightenment, it was impossible to get past Kidman as a guru with iffy Russian accent and melancholic fright wig.

Apple TV continued to churn out dross. Ted Lasso was almost creepy in its perkiness and with a portrayal of soccer culture that will have rang hollow to anyone who has actually ever attended a soccer match. And yet it was almost a triumph contrasted with the return of the Morning Show, in which Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Billy Crudup and Steve Carrell did their best to tiptoe around the blinding void where the screenplay should have been. Filmed during the lockdown, and a rare series that confronted the pandemic head on, it appeared to suffer from the creative equivalent of Long Covid, lurching ever onward with no destination in view.

Non-English language drama

A major story of 2021 was the success of non-English language drama. Across the past decade, subtitled telly has been dominated by Nordic noir and its dour knitwear. But 2021 was the year of the French. Lupin eclipsed Money Heist to become Netflix’s biggest European smash ever, powered by a charismatic performance by comedian-turned-dramatic actor Omar Sy as “gentleman thief” Arsène Lupin.

Harry and Meghan's Megxit interview with Oprah from March was an unmissable real-life soap opera-in-miniature

The second gallic triumph was Call My Agent! – a cult hit since 2020 but which viewers in Ireland finally discovered en masse. A tale of love, betrayal and comedy incest (well, it is French), it plays out against the backdrop of a Paris talent agency and features a string of starry cameos (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Monica Bellucci). A UK remake in the works will do well to be half as charming.

One British original that kept on giving was the Royal Family. Harry and Meghan’s Megxit interview with Oprah from March was an unmissable real-life soap opera-in-miniature. And it prompted a second popcorn moment in the shape of Piers Morgan’s dramatic wobble off the set of Good Morning Britain.

Nostalgia tracked big through the past 12 months. In May, it was back to the 1990s for a Friends Reunion that saw the cast of the world’s favourite sit com on a couch together sharing stories for the first time in over a decade and a half (while trying to ignore the fact that James Corden was plonked opposite). Another Gen X totem returned, after a fashion, in December as Sarah Jessica Parker resurrected Carrie Bradshaw for Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That – albeit minus Kim Cattrall (who was sitting out the reunion).

Arrival of the geeks

The other story of 2021 was that the geeks have arrived and aren’t going anywhere. The year started with Marvel rolling out its MCU shows on Disney+. The grand project started with the genuinely delightful WandaVision. With Elizabeth Olsen as the telekinetic Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as purple-hued airborne avatar Vision, it played with old school comedy tropes by riffing on I Love Lucy and Bewitched. In so doing, it represented a satisfying departure from the capes and cataclysms formula which has served Marvel so handsomely at the box office yet which has lately started to become tatty at the edges.

Sadly, though, the MCU’s adventures in TV gradually reverted to type, to the point where new series Hawkeye feels as cheap and cheesy as the old, greatly maligned Marvel show Agents of Shield.

The quest for a new Game of Thrones steamrolled on. Foundation from Apple TV+ and filmed in Limerick, Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime, and Shadow and Bone and season two of The Witcher on Netflix all tried to claim Thrones’ crown – with varying degrees of success. But hark now hear – 2022 will see Game of Thrones return to the tumult with its House of the Dragon spin-off and Amazon will unleash its $2 billion (€1.76 billion) Lord of the Rings prequel.

Netflix remains streaming's top dog. All its rivals can do is forlornly nip at its heels

These are epic sagas shrunk down for your living room. And if they float your long boat, then this is a season of plenty. However, if you prefer quieter, human stories then 2021 contained as many misses as hits.

The true winner was inevitably Netflix. The service notched up a string of surprise smashes, including the aforementioned Squid Game, along with steampunk animated series Arcane and Hellbound, another devilish treat from South Korea. With hits like that dropping off the conveyor belt, Netflix remains streaming’s top dog. All its rivals can do is forlornly nip at its heels.

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics