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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Twelve Excellent New TV Shows From 2021 That You Might've Missed

Add savvy comedies, searing dramas and an 80s-set gem about building an aerobics empire to your summer catch-up list.
By Sarah Ward
December 17, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
December 17, 2021
  shares

At some point, we all have to realise that we just can't watch every TV show ever made. It's a sad revelation, and it mightn't feel the case after a few years spent at home more often than anyone would've liked, but it's the practical reality. So many streaming platforms to choose from, so many new series hitting each and every one of them all the time — throw in all the regular old television channels, too, and that's every TV fan's current, ongoing, never-ending dilemma.

We all have gaps in our viewing as a result. And while it seems like every television program that's ever hit airwaves or the internet is always available all of the time, even the list of shows that you can watch in Australia has gaps, because we don't necessarily get access to everything the moment it lands overseas.

With all of that in mind, it's been impossible to watch everything new that's hit the small screen Down Under over the past year — but summer is a great time for catching up. Here are 12 standout series that mightn't have made their way to your streaming queues yet, but you should make a date with as soon as you can. And if you've seen them already, summer is also the perfect time for a rewatch.

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THE SEX LIVES OF COLLEGE GIRLS

Here's a great way to know whether a new TV comedy is worth watching: check whether Mindy Kaling is involved. After stealing every scene she could in The Office, then turning The Mindy Project into a smart, funny and adorable rom-com sitcom made with oh-so-much love for the genre, she just keeps adding new shows to her resume as a co-creator, writer and producer. The Sex Lives of College Girls is the latest, and quickly thrives thanks to the kind of savvy, authentic, honest and highly amusing writing that's always been a hallmark of Kaling's work. If you didn't know she was behind it going in, you'd easily guess. It also sports an immensely descriptive title, following four college freshmen — strangers to each other, but now roommates — as they navigate the move from high school to the fictional Essex College in Vermont.

Because three movies currently in cinemas starring a member of Chalamet family just isn't enough (aka Dune, The French Dispatch and Don't Look Up), The Sex Lives of College Girls features his Timothée's sister Pauline (The King of Staten Island). She plays Kimberly Finkle, who heads to Essex as valedictorian of her small-town school, is more excited about the classes than the parties, but still wants to have the full college experience. And, she's thrilled to find herself rooming with aspiring comedy writer Bela Malhotra (Amrit Kaur, The D Cut), star soccer player Whitney Chase (first-timer Alyah Chanelle Scott) and the wealthy Leighton Murray (theatre star Reneé Rapp) — even if the latter in particular doesn't initially return the enthusiasm. The quartet's exploits from there navigate all the usual kinds of relatable college antics, but do so with a warm-hearted vibe, a great cast, insightful humour, and a shrewd focus on friendships and figuring out who you want to be.

The first season of The Sex Lives of College Girls is available to stream via Binge.

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THE PURSUIT OF LOVE

Bolters and stickers. They're the two labels given to women in The Pursuit of Love, a lavish, effervescent and also impeccably shrewd new three-part miniseries adaptation of Nancy Milford's 1945 novel of the same name. Befitting its source material's timing, the storyline leads into the Second World War, all as chalk-and-cheese cousins Linda Radlett (Lily James, The Dig) and Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham, Little Joe) grow from teens into women — and the former, the impulsive and passionate daughter of a Lord (Dominic West, Stateless) who doesn't believe in educating girls and hates foreigners, chases romance at all costs.

Fanny narrates the story, detailing Linda's ups and downs alongside her own. Her own mother (Emily Mortimer, Relic) is purely known as "the Bolter", having left Fanny with her sister (Annabel Mullion, Patrick Melrose) as she too sought love again and again. It's a label that Linda despises when it's applied to her, though. Whether having her eyes opened to the world by her bohemian neighbour (Andrew Scott, His Dark Materials), falling for the first arrogant boy (Freddie Fox, Fanny Lye Deliver'd) she spends any real time with, or later crossing paths with a motivated Communist (James Frecheville, The Dry) and a French duke (Assaad Bouab, Call My Agent!), she does keep leaping forward, however. In contrast, Fanny literally bumps into Oxford academic (Shazad Latif, Profile) and settles into domestic bliss, all while worrying about her cousin. Mortimer also makes her directorial debut with this swiftly engaging look at well-to-do lives, and unpacking of the way women are perceived — and it's the latter, the vivid staging and cinematography, and the vibrant performances that make this a must-see.

The Pursuit of Love is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.

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CALLS

Everyone has heard about the response that The War of the Worlds reportedly sparked back in 1938. That's when Orson Welles adapted HG Wells' novel into a radio play, and the result was so convincing that it reportedly incited panic among listeners. Watching Calls, it's easy to understand how. 'Watching' isn't exactly the right term for this mystery series, though. Like all those folks glued to their radios 83 years ago, Calls' audience is forced to listen intently. Indeed, in terms of visuals, the series only provides two types: words transcribing the conversations heard, and abstract visuals that move and shift with each sentence uttered and every suspenseful pause left lingering. Accordingly, focusing on the snippets of phone chats that tell the program's stories is what Calls is all about.

Remaking the French show of the same name, and directed by Evil Dead and Don't Breathe's Fede Álvarez, something much more than a small-screen version of a story-fuelled podcast eventuates. A starry cast voices the chats — including everyone from Parks and Recreation duo Aubrey Plaza and Ben Schwartz to Wonder Woman 1984's Pedro Pascal and Zola's Riley Keough — but it's the tension and power of their words that leaves an impression. Each of the nine episodes tells a short story that eventually builds an overall picture, and getting caught up in them all is far easier than the underlying concept might initially make you think.

Calls is available to stream via Apple TV+.

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THIS WAY UP

In Britain, This Way Up didn't drop both of its seasons in the same year; however, that's how it panned out for Australian viewers. And, that's a great thing — not only because this smartly written, astute, insightful and delightfully acerbic series about London-based Irish siblings Áine (Aisling Bea, Living With Yourself) and Shona (Sharon Horgan, Catastrophe) keeps viewers hooked episode after episode, but because binging your way through it immerses you wholeheartedly in their chaotic lives and headspace.

As the first season establishes, English teacher Áine is riding the ups and downs of a mental health journey that saw her spend some time receiving in-patient treatment, and has left Shona, the high-powered overachiever of the pair, perennially worried. Even as COVID-19 approaches and begins to affect their lives in the second season, that dynamic is still in place. But Áine is now embarking upon a relationship with Richard (Tobias Menzies, The Crown), the father of a French boy (Dorian Grover, The White Princess) she tutors, all while trying to hide it from her bosses and said kid. Shona is the least-fussed bride-to-be there is as she prepares to get married to her long-term boyfriend and ex-colleague Vish (Aasif Mandvi, Evil), and also navigates more than a little awkwardness with her friend and new business partner Charlotte (Indira Varma, Official Secrets). The heart of this series is the push and pull between this sisters, and how they try to weather everything that life throws their way — and it remains firmly intact across its full run so far.

The first and second seasons of This Way Up are available to stream via Stan.

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THE NORTH WATER

When ex-army surgeon Patrick Sumner (Jack O'Connell, Seberg) secures a gig on a whaling expedition to the Arctic working as the ship's doctor, he's clearly running from something. His new colleagues are instantly suspicious of his story, bloodthirsty harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell, Voyagers) among them — although Captain Brownlee (Stephen Graham, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) and whaling company owner Baxter (Tom Courtenay, Summerland) are mostly just happy for his cheap services. That's the setup for The North Water, the 19th-century-set, five-part miniseries that takes to the seas, to the cold and to a brutal world, and proves grimly mesmerising with its Moby Dick-meets-Heart of Darkness vibes. Charting a survivalist tale not just of the physical kind amid all that unforgiving ice (and on those treacherous waters), but also of the emotional and mental variety as well, this is one of the most relentlessly intense shows to hit screens in 2021 — and it's also gripping from start to finish.

The first episode sets the scene in a slow-burn fashion, culminating in sights so searing they're impossible to forget — and the story, as well as the vast chasm between Sumner and Drax, only grows from there. Writer/director Andrew Haigh adapts Ian McGuire's novel of the same name, but this series has the Weekend, 45 Years and Lean on Pete filmmaker's stamp all over it. He finds as much empathy here as he has throughout his stellar big-screen projects, and once again demonstrates his extraordinary eye for detail, exceptional sense of place and winning way with actors. With the latter, having O'Connell and Farrell lead the charge obviously helps. They're not only reliably phenomenal; they each put in some of their best-ever work, and their performances seethe with complexity. So does the entire miniseries, which is never willing to pose easy answers or provide straightforward interpretations when ruminating over the minutiae is much more riveting, fascinating and realistic.

The North Water is available to stream via Binge.

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PHYSICAL

On a typical early-80s day, San Diego housewife Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne, Irresistible) will make breakfast for her professor husband Danny (Rory Scovel, I Feel Pretty), take their daughter to school, then run errands. She'll also buy three fast food meals, book into a motel, eat them all naked, then purge. Physical can be bleak — about the pain festering inside its bitterly unhappy protagonist, her constantly fraying mental health, the smile she's forced to plaster across her face as she soldiers on, and her excoriating options of herself — but it also finds a rich vein of dark comedy in Sheila's efforts to change her life through aerobics.

Add the series to the list of 80s-set shows about women getting sick of being cast aside, breaking free of their societally enforced roles and jumping into something active. GLOW did it. On Becoming a God in Central Florida did, too. And now those two excellent series have a kindred spirit in this sharp, compelling and often brutally candid show. Byrne is a force to be reckoned with here, in one of her best performances in some time (and a reminder that in everything from Heartbreak High to Damages and Mrs America, she's always done well on TV). Also entrancing, engaging and difficult to forget: Physical's desperate-but-determined tone, and the way it seethes with tension beneath the spandex, sequins and sunny beach shots.

The first season of Physical is available to stream via Apple TV+.

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MADE FOR LOVE

When author Alissa Nutting penned Made for Love, no one needed to think too hard about her source of inspiration. Now bringing its tale to the small screen courtesy of the series of the same name, her story ponders one of the possible next steps in our technology-saturated lives. Hazel Green-Gogol (Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs) seems to live a lavishly and happily with her tech billionaire husband Byron (Billy Magnussen, No Time to Die). They haven't left his company's desert campus in the entire ten years they've been married, in fact. The site is designed to cater for their every desire and whim, so they shouldn't need to go anywhere else — or that's how Byron views things, at least. Then his next big idea looks set to become a reality, and Hazel decides that she can't keep up the charade. She certainly doesn't want to be implanted with a chip that'll allow Byron to see through her eyes, access her feelings and always know where she is, and she's willing to take drastic actions to escape his hold over her life.

Bringing the plot to the screen herself, Nutting favours a darkly comedic and sharply satirical vibe as she follows Hazel's quest for freedom, with Made for Love filled with blisteringly accurate insights into the tech-dependence that's become a regular part of 21st century existence. That said, the series wouldn't be the gem it is without Milioti, as well as Ray Romano (The Irishman) in a scene-stealing supporting part as Hazel's father.

The first season of Made for Love is available to stream via Stan.

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THE VIRTUES

Director and screenwriter Shane Meadows has a fantastic track record, spanning everything from Dead Man's Shoes to This Is England — as well as the multiple TV shows inspired by the latter. Fellow screenwriter Jack Thorne is no stranger to working with Meadows, also thanks to the This Is England franchise; however his individual resume includes Dirt Music, Radioactive, The Secret Garden, Enola Holmes, The Eddy and His Dark Materials over just the past couple of years. So, the pair's involvement in The Virtues immediately marks it as a miniseries to watch. So does its star Stephen Graham, yet another veteran of This Is England.

Here, all three combine for a four-part drama that's bleak, raw, frank and devastating — and, once you've started watching, it's also impossible to tear your eyes away from until the credits roll on the final episode. After it finishes, it's downright impossible to forget, in fact, a claim that can't be made of most television shows. Graham plays Joseph, a labourer who's barely getting by. When his ex-partner and his young son move to Australia, he hits the bottle, has a big night, and wakes up certain that he has to head back to Ireland and confront his troubled past. So starts an emotional journey that's never easy — not for a single second — but is also never anything less than astounding.

The Virtues is available to stream via Stan.

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INVINCIBLE

If you've ever shopped for a specific item on Amazon and found multiple similar versions of the same thing, then you already know what it can be like to dive into Amazon Prime Video's streaming catalogue. Many of its new additions instantly bring other shows in its catalogue to mind by sharing and mimicking elements, and Invincible follows that trend. At first, it'll have you thinking about The Boys. Next, you'll start recalling Undone. Those two series mightn't seem like a natural fit, but the combination of superheroes and existential malaise works well here.

Animated like the latter, but willing to get bleak and dark with caped crusaders as the former does repeatedly, Invincible focuses on Mark Grayson (voiced by newly minted Oscar nominee Steven Yeun, Minari). The 17-year-old son of the well-known Omni-Man (J Simmons, Palm Springs), he's been waiting for his own powers to kick in — and, when they do, he's forced to grapple with exactly what that means. Among the star-studded cast, Sandra Oh (The Chair), Mark Hamill (Star Wars) and Mahershala Ali (Green Book) all lend their vocal tones. Off-screen, The Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman is responsible for not only doing the same with the Invincible comic book, but with the series. What lingers most here is the mood, though, with the show at its best when it's getting contemplative and introspective with its teen protagonist.

The first season of Invincible is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.

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LOS ESPOOKYS

It has taken almost two years for the delight that is Los Espookys to reach Australian screens — and it'll take you less than three hours to binge its six-episode first season. This HBO comedy is both worth the wait and worth devouring as quickly as possible, though. The setup: horror aficionado Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco, Museo) wants to turn his obsession into his profession, so he starts staging eerie scenarios for paying customers, enlisting his best friend Andrés (Julio Torres, Shrill), pal Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti, Ready to Mingle) and the latter's sister Tati (Ana Fabrega, At Home with Amy Sedaris) to help.

Torres and Fabrega co-created the show with Portlandia and Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen, who also pops up as Renaldo's parking valet uncle. This mostly Spanish-language series only uses its biggest name sparingly, however, because its key cast members own every moment. Following the titular group's exploits as they attempt to ply their trade, and to weave it into their otherwise chaotic lives, Los Espookys always manages to be both sidesplittingly hilarious and so meticulous in its horror references that it's almost uncanny. There's nothing on-screen quite like it and, thankfully, it has already been renewed for a second season.

The first season of Los Espookys is available to stream via Binge.

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MR MAYOR

Here are five of the most glorious words you're ever likely to read: Ted Danson plays the mayor. The sitcom stalwart (see also: Cheers, Becker, Bored to Death and Curb Your Enthusiasm) has hopped from The Good Place into Mr Mayor, actually, and into the latest TV comedy created and/or produced by Tina Fey. Fans of the latter's other shows — 30 Rock, obviously, and also Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Great News and Girls5Eva — will know the sense of humour her series tend to work with, and it's a fabulous match for Danson. So too is Mr Mayor's setup, which sees a wealthy, clueless but amiable businessman decide he can improve a post-COVID-19 Los Angeles, and get elected.

Firmly a workplace comedy, the series chronicles the ups and downs in the mayor's office as Danson's Neil Bremer tries to do a job he clearly isn't qualified for. Naturally, with the arrogance of a rich, white and otherwise successful man of a certain age, he believes otherwise. Mr Mayor is firmly an ensemble comedy as well, however, and both Holly Hunter (Succession) and Bobby Moynihan (Saturday Night Live) are comedic gems as Bremer's over-enthusiastic deputy mayor and bumbling communications director, respectively. The series is a tad less successful when it endeavours to be a family comedy, too, bringing the mayor's teenage daughter Orly (Kyla Kenedy, Speechless) into the mix. But when its gags land — and whenever Danson and Hunter share the screen, which is often — it's smart, hilarious and all-too-easy to binge.

The first season of Mr Mayor is available to stream via 9Now.

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SPREADSHEET

When Katherine Parkinson starred in The IT Crowd 15 years ago, she played a woman trying to exude a cool, calm and collected air, but constantly finding her life — and her new job in IT — hindering that aim. In Spreadsheet, her new sitcom role, Parkinson's latest character isn't attempting the same feat. Instead, freshly divorced Melbourne-based lawyer and mother-of-two Lauren has has accepted that her existence is now messy; however, having a spreadsheet to keep track of her revamped love life is meant to help. Embracing being single, and all the opportunities for casual hookups that apps now bring, she isn't looking for a relationship. She even has her colleague Alex (Rowan Witt, Adore) helping to maintain her fast-growing database of sexual options. But this clearly wouldn't be a comedy if her new status quo turned out smoothly and stress-free.

As this new Australian sitcom knows and keenly relies upon, there's a breeziness to Parkinson's comic performances that hits both humorous and relatable notes. Indeed, the British actor is the key reason that Spreadsheet's eight-episode first season is so incredibly easy to binge. Whether Lauren is being introduced in the throes of pleasure in the car park outside the Palais Theatre, is getting intimate in a snake dungeon or sports an eye patch after a run-in with a cuckoo clock, Parkinson is a comedic whirlwind. In a series that approaches its 'sex in the suburbs' setup with smarts and insights, too, she's also surrounded by an impressive local cast that includes Witt, Stephen Curry (June Again), Katrina Milosevic (Wentworth) and Zahra Newman (Long Story Short).

The first season of Spreadsheet is available to stream via Paramount+.

Published on December 17, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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