10. Sweet Tooth
Is this a weird time to get into a show about an apocalyptic plague? Sure. Did I get into this one just the same? Sure did.
The characters are solid; Gus, his reluctant guide Jeppard, and his self-appointed guardian Bear are a good main trio, each with their own complex backstories; and Aimee and Dr. Singh show us what life has been like in post-collapse America. (Given the choice, sign me up for Aimee’s isolated sanctuary over that creepy, cult-like suburb Dr. Singh had lived in.) The world of the show, an America being reclaimed by nature wherever stubborn enclaves of people aren’t holding out pockets of kinda-sorta-society, is very well realized, and looks hauntingly beautiful. They tease just enough about Gus’ potential abilities, and his role in saving hybrid kind.
But if you want to check this show out, strap in, because this season is very much Act One of at least three. There are some reveals and questions answered, but they’re leading to bigger stories down the line.
The most (ie. only) PG offering from the DC Universe streaming service is a lot more CW than Titans, so it makes sense the CW took it in. That said, it’s weird how despite being about actual teenagers, it feels like it has much less teen soap drama elements than anything Arrowverse. Sure, Courtney/Stargirl gets a love interest, but dating a cute boy is such a tertiary concern for her. They built origin stories for not just Courtney but an entire team of misfit heroes, made stellar villains out of Golden Age B-listers like The Gambler and freaking Sportsmaster, Luke Wilson is so wonderfully earnest as former sidekick Pat Dugan, this is a really solid show, and I hope moving entirely to the CW doesn’t hurt their budget too badly, and that maybe they find their way to Earth-Prime and meet Supergirl or the Legends that would be nice for everybody just saying.
Really my only note is that Courtney commits so fast and so hard to being Stargirl because of a questionable belief re: her parentage, and also to making four teens she barely knows and who mostly don’t really like her into a new Justice Society that sometimes you wanna shout “Jesus, Court, slow down,” but that only makes Pat saying basically that more sympathetic. And the third act is moving and gripping and sweet in a way a lot of shows struggle to achieve.
8. The Umbrella Academy
Welcome back, Umbrella Academy, it’s been a minute. Was it a bit of a tease to open the season by showing the Hargreeves siblings at full power, having unlocked their full potential, then rewind to a point where that very much has not happened? Maybe. Maybe we could call it a promise, because they started nudging that way by the finale. Anyway, the siblings find themselves in Dallas, sprinkled through the early 60s, building what lives they can, until Number Five shows up needing to get the band back together to stop another apocalypse that funny story they once again may have caused. It’s a good look at the societal issues facing America (especially the southern parts) in the 1960s, as Allison joins the civil rights movement and an amnesiac Vanya becomes close with a farmer’s wife and her autistic son. Plus there’s a coup in the sinister time police agency, a plot to kill JFK, a big reveal about World’s Worst Dad Reginald Hargreeves, and the siblings actually manage to heal some wounds and become a proper family again.
Somehow it took me almost a year to actually finish this season… it dropped July of 2020 and I finished it July 2021… so that’s a little damning. But hey, maybe that’s on me, maybe I knew where the episode seven cliffhanger was going and was so nervous to get there I got distracted with other shows and literally every Best Picture winner in film history. But the story’s still interesting, the cast’s still great, overall it remains a solid show that’s improved on the frustrations of the previous season, if not 100%.
7. Superman and Lois
Okay I’m breaking my rules a little on this one because at time of writing there’s still one episode left, thanks to a COVID shutdown causing a couple lengthy hiatuses, but there’s only one left and I know I say “Never build monuments to the living for they can still disgrace the stone,” and I know I’ve dinged at least one show on this list for a weak finale, but it’s going to be weird enough having two separate seasons of Legends of Tomorrow on the list next year, and if we’re honest COVID meant four unfinished seasons got ranked last year… so I think I’ve seen enough to declare Superman and Lois the new gold standard of the Arrowverse.
It’s a look at how big corporations prey on small towns through predatory loans and big promises about jobs that come at shockingly low wages and vanish at the first sign of collective bargaining. It’s a look at mental illness in teens, and the struggle to fit in. We have a complicated sibling relationship as Jordan Kent has an uphill battle learning to control his emerging powers, while former golden boy Jonathan tries to find his place in the family dynamic and school hierarchy.
And it’s anchored by two great performances from Tyler Hoechlin (one of the best live action Supermen), and Elizabeth Tulloch proving that Lois Lane is a force to be reckoned with on her own. They bring an incredible amount of heart to this series, backed up by some truly touching flashbacks and montages about their past together.
Also it’s the most gorgeously shot series the Arrowverse, possibly the whole CW, has ever had. Thanks to HBO Max chipping in on the budget, hope that becomes a regular thing.
Maybe the fight between the Kent/Lane family and would-be Kryptonian saviour Morgan Edge trips over its cape in the last episode and this ranking looks silly, but I don’t think it will. Thus far, they’ve hit every beat they aimed for… although Morgan Edge does not make it into “Love to hate” territory as a villain. I do hate him, but it’s not often fun.
6. Resident Alien
Alan Tudyk’s charming enough as alien-among-humans Harry Vanderspeigle that he could carry this whole show, but he in no way has to. The show finds hooks and arcs for so many of the Colorado townspeople: Alice Wetterlund’s almost-Olympian D’Arcy; the brash, arrogant Sheriff Mike Thompson and the meek, unappreciated but more intuitive Deputy Liv Baker; and of course the highlights are Sara Tomko as Asta Twelvetrees, Harry’s main nurse and eventual best human friend, and Judah Prehn as Max, a local kid with a rare genetic quirk that lets him see Harry’s true form, leading to this classic line: “There are more people in this town who can see me as an alien than there are slices of pizza. Humans have a term for this: ‘Bad luck’ and ‘raw deal’ and ‘this is some bullshit’.” Max is a fun nemesis turned friend for Harry.
This one’s just a fun, pleasant watch with just enough serialized elements to keep you intrigued, and also Nathan Fillion as the voice of an octopus. I only dock it points for having two resolutions to the central murder mystery, one of which is a little confusing and only exists to redeem Harry a little, but only to us, the audience, because no character sees it play out. Definitely a top three show about a charming alien protagonist attempting to live among the humans but secretly plotting to destroy them, and the other two are Invincible and Solar Opposites, so that’s rarified company.
5. Doom Patrol
The Doom Patrol came back strong this year, with the cast all still killing it week to week– and more Timothy Dalton is always welcome– and no shortness of the delightful strangeness that made this the Year Five Champion. For example, episode four, “Sex Patrol,” which finally addressed how Danny the Brick, formerly Danny the Street, was doing, took so many unexpected left turns that by the 40-minute mark I could only shake my head and say “I would never have guessed this is where this episode was heading,” but each one was delightful. The situations they get in are wonderfully bizarre, the traumas they grapple with are powerfully human, and it’s a visual feast, Doom Patrol is an amazing show. Sure, they got cut an episode short by COVID, but they’re hardly the only show on this list to end on a cliffhanger. And it was better than Flash’s COVID finale from last year, and no worse than what Smallville or Star Trek: The Next Generation did all the time on purpose.
Honestly, my only notes are that the Candlemaker isn’t as well developed as it could be, and without the villain being a unifying issue (like Mr. Nobody was in season one), everyone sort of takes turns wandering off into their own isolated plotlines, taking at most one other person along for the ride for an episode. And while Cliff’s ham-fisted attempts to reconnect with his daughter and Rita’s attempts to combat some maternally ingrained imposter syndrome work, there isn’t a solid through-line… and not all fans were that big into “Cyborg just wants to date a woman who, okay, is a bit of a war criminal.”
And some shows were willing to do the Weird Stuff in a more cohesive way. Well, one show, to be sure.
Once we all calmed down about all the character intros we thought we’d get but nobody promised or even teased (we honestly thought someone had been cast as Reed Richards and this is where we’d find out, like that wouldn’t have been leaked months earlier, what were we on), WandaVision gave us a compelling treatise on grief and trauma, and how failing to process them can have ripple effects to those around us, all through the prism of sitcom hijinks. And the sitcom episodes were hilarious! Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany were a great comic duo, and remained great as the dark truth of their TV life came into the light. Then Randall Park and Kat Dennings returned are were also great, we had a solid origin story for Monica Rambeau so she can go be in The Marvels next year, Kathryn Hahn was a delight…
And then in the last episode Vision fought a different Vision and two powerful witches able to alter the fabric of reality just… hadouken’d at each other until one of them lost. And Twitter continues to argue over whether Wanda needed more consequences than watching her family blink out of existence. So… ended on a weak note. Nobody’s fan theories came true, sometimes because fans set their hopes way too high, sometimes because we didn’t expect the answer to be so bland and basic. “What could Director Hayward’s big secret be?” asked viewers, and the answer was “He’s kind of a tool.” And people said “…Oh.”
I do forgive them for the Quicksilver misdirect. Yes, the dick-joke resolution to that character killed the dreams of a dozen fan-theories, but using the only other live-action Quicksilver actor as “recast Pietro” was the only way to keep us in the audience as in the dark about him as Wanda. If it had been some notable sitcom star, say, Frankie Muniz, we’d know immediately it’s not really Pietro, but if it’s an established Quicksilver actor, there’s mystery. Just… just don’t tell me you didn’t know we’d leap into crazy speculation about the X-Men, WandaVision writers, of course that’s what we did.
(Also I get not wanting to end Wanda’s story with Dr. Strange showing up to fix everything but if the ad breaks in Wanda’s sitcom world weren’t Dr. Strange trying to make contact, like the original plan, you needed a replacement explanation for what they were.)
Damn but Loki had style. Plus great humour, awesome leads, and real suspense, but it had style for days. The premise was simple: take the MCU’s favourite wild card bad guy, stick him in a situation where, for perhaps the first time, he’s no longer the smartest guy in the room, and then put him in a battle between order and free will, the consequences of which could be universally devastating. Simple!
Not everyone’s on board with the, well, self-cest, the budding romance between Loki and Sylvie, a female variant Loki, and sure, it does seem a little… Onceler fic*. But I’ve also heard arguments of “This is not a real thing they’re advocating for, nobody in the real world is at risk of hooking up with an alternate version of themselves, it’s fine.”
Still though, I loved the ride, from meeting the Time Variance Authority to Loki and Sylvie bonding to the Lokis at The End of Time and of course the reveal of He Who Remains. Tom Hiddleston’s still great in the title role, and they surrounded him with people who could match him, from Owen Wilson to Sophia Di Martino to an all-too-brief visit by Richard E. Grant. And damned if Jonathan Majors didn’t take 11 minutes of exposition and make it interesting in the finale.
My only note is that, of all the MCU TV shows this year, this was the only one not concerned with telling a complete story, and it ended on a pretty major cliffhanger. But I would argue that an exciting cliffhanger ending that makes you excited to see what comes next might be better than a kind of bland, basic ending that makes you think you got over-invested in the show’s mysteries.
*Don’t click that link if you don’t want to know about the dark side of Dr. Seuss fandom. Do click that link if you want an entertaining look at a very weird and short-lived Tumblr phenomenon.
Lucifer made all the big swings I look for in a final season without ultimately being the final season. The cast were playing the roles like it was their last chance, the writers made big moves, we seem to have finally ended the will they/won’t they dance between Lucifer and Chloe, and we had some old favourites back. They broke their pattern (for the better) with the first unambiguously sinister Celestial Of The Season, Michael (even Tom Welling’s Cain was an okay guy for a stretch in the middle of season three). When they chose to be funny, I nearly always laughed. When they chose to be sad, they were absolutely gutting. This season was a joy, I’m mystified how it took me so long to watch the second half.
All that and a musical episode! Which was delightful!
1. The Boys
Now that the worldbuilding from season one is all taken care of, season two of The Boys could get down to the ugly business at high speed: that business being cranking up the uncomfortable deep-dive into corporate corruption and America’s growing problems with white supremacy, thanks to the arrival of Stormfront. The way evil uses memes and social media (“When it shows up on your uncle’s Facebook, you know it’s working”), the way corporations will just roll with white supremacy if it helps the bottom line, the government’s inability to stand in their way (“We are going to hold hearings” has never sounded so toothless)… Homelander was already a disturbingly accurate look at America’s moral failings, and Stormfront brings it to the next level. Plus a look at Frenchie’s greatest failing, which informs his relationship with Kimiko (“The Female” to comic fans), Hughie and Annie’s strained relationship, Billy’s reunion with his presumed dead wife… even moreso than the late, beloved Preacher, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and showrunner Eric Kripke have taken the world and characters of The Boys the comic and made a deeper, richer story, where even The Deep’s descent into a Fresca-fuelled cult is a compelling plot.
I appreciate that they had an Easter egg reference to the comics’ Russian hero Love Sausage, but damn I was not ready for how it ended up going.
Do I understand why perpetually overwhelmed Vought executive Ashley Barrett of all people gets the “With” credit? No. But whatever.
And that’s it for this season. COVID, cancellations, COVID-caused cancellations, and me not knowing that a couple of shows had comic origins (and not even knowing what one of those shows is) brought the list down closer to a manageable level. Maybe that’ll continue next… [touches ear] What’s that? Twenty, you say? Twenty that we know about, you say.
Well… see you next time, for whatever plague-time topic seems worthwhile.