Deck the halls with carefully-ordered sheets of paper! Fa-la-la-la-la! La-la-la-la! Listmas Season is upon us all once again, folks. That most wonderful time of year where culture writers on the Internet gather together all of the media they’ve consumed over the prior twelve months as a means of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Well, we here at Set the Tape are a collective of culture writers so we are legally obliged to put something together ourselves in order to satiate the SEO Gods! Also, cos it’s just fun to do! This week, we’ll be giving you listicles on our favourite movies, music, books, and general stuff of 2021. But we start, as always, with television.
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Normally, this’d be where I sit and pontificate on the question of “what even constitutes television anymore?” with regards to the increasingly blurry arbitrariness of the medium nowadays. Television is no longer tied down to a big bulky box with four or five channels, nor is it tied down to a specific broadcast hour, and rarely is it home to big watercooler conversation starters like it used to be – partly cos of that whole plague thing but mainly because of the continued fragmentation of viewership habits. Arguably, antiquated ideas of how you define television can be summarised by the fact that the big three UK terrestrial channels come together this year to fund their own Brit-centric streaming service which they’re making original content for. That’s how fundamentally Netflix and its ilk have shifted the landscape of television. Plus, y’know, the Emmys last week completely doing away with distinctions between Daytime and Primetime because they’re that meaningless in the digital revolution.
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Despite how the wider general landscape may appear, though, the picks for our personal favourite shows of the year find things rather split between the old ways and the new. Buzzy geeky Twitter-enflaming (the new watercooler) streaming series sit alongside harrowing one-off broadcast films. Cable transplants rescued by the benevolence of digital corpos rub shoulders with the rare digital-to-terrestrial transfers. Even long-standing institutions find themselves revitalised by cribbing from the serialisation-heavy streaming blueprint. All of these entries are in no particular order and only represent the individual writer’s personal favourite show of the year, rather than the always-subjective “best.” What were your favourite shows of 2021? Let us know here or on the socials! Tis the season, after all! – Callie Petch
Originally called The Offenders, this BBC One crime thriller/comedy concerns seven unlikely law breakers, all from different walks of life, being forced to work together as part of a community payback project. The not-so-glamorous job of litter picking, cleaning and tidying up for hours a day. But during their time together, bonds are formed and secrets are revealed when the group are pulled into criminal gang activity where they must work together, despite the clear differences between them, in order to survive.
Created by actor and comedian Stephen Merchant and Elgin James, the former’s silly, offbeat humour is often clear. But part of what makes The Outlaws so entertaining and watchable is it’s a lot more than a mere comedy about a bunch of rebels on community service. It can also be gritty, dark, dramatic and sometimes heart-warming. The clear differences and divides between the characters are interesting to watch. Take Rani’s (Rhianne Barretto) close bond with Christian (Gamba Cole) as soon as they meet; a pair who’d probably never meet before this but end up drawn together through the things they have done wrong. As we get to know the characters and see why they ended up litter picking in high-vis vests, it becomes clear that The Outlaws is also part character study, adding another element to this enjoyable show.
Undoubtedly the big draw for casual viewers is the appearance of Hollywood actor Christopher Walken in quite a fun performance, one different from the sinister characters of his movies yet still enjoyable. In general, the cast – also including Darren Boyd, Nina Wadia, Grace Calder, Charles Babalola and Jessica Gunning – all give impressive performances. A second series has already been ordered, hopefully picking up from where the final episode ends to tie up some loose ends. But whatever Merchant and the team decide to do with Outlaws next, if it’s as witty, gritty and enjoyable as series one then viewers are going to be very happy. – Adam Massingham
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With the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s been hard to always stay excited for certain projects. Sometimes, it’s merely that they’re characters and stories I’ve not been as invested in, but a few of the announced shows and films have simply failed to get me excited. When it was first announced, Loki was one such project. I liked the character, sure, but didn’t see what more could be really done with him, especially as this wouldn’t have been the same version of the character. It felt a bit like a pointless exercise.
Boy, was I ever wrong. After WandaVision tried to be a bit weird and The Falcon and the Winter Solider was a very traditional comic style story, Loki felt like something wholly different from either. The scope of the story it was telling, the visual style it brought, the uniqueness of the soundtrack – so much theremin! – it felt like a show that really didn’t belong in the MCU; and I guess it doesn’t really, since it takes place outside of the timeline.
Over the course of its first season, the show managed to do an amazing job at making this different version of Loki into a likeable hero; one I genuinely believed would make this kind of turn. It also began to lay the groundwork for the introduction of the multiverse, one of the biggest new parts of the MCU. All of this was done by a cast of amazing new actors, with Owen Wilson and Sophia Di Martino in particular, stepping up and making this a series worthy of attention. Out of everything coming in the MCU’s future, I never expected more seasons of Loki to be what I was most excited for. – Amy Walker
You is trashy and melodramatic and shouldn’t be the smash hit it is. Yet, thirty episodes in, the series is even more enthralling than when it started. In You’s third season, we follow the exploits of Joe and Love, a newly married pair of well-to-do serial killers, in leafy San Franciscan suburbia, as they juggle parenthood with the advances of amorous neighbours and the vacuousness of local socialites.
As Joe, Penn Badgley convinces with a mix of effortless charm and simmering darkness, making the character bizarrely sympathetic in spite of his murderous tendencies. Love is a worthy match – being just as if not more willing kill to be with the husband and son she loves – and Victoria Pedretti boasts a powerful onscreen presence to equal Badgley’s.
This third season is as hellish as ever, with the usual You fare of secrets, revelations and a suite of pretentious side characters. The result is a bingeworthy thriller that builds to a bloody conclusion, one driven by two powerhouse performances. Joe and Love are reprehensible people doing reprehensible, and often very stupid, things, but you can’t stop watching them do it. – Lachlan Haycock
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It was always going to risk being divisive. Any time a fan favourite is remade or rebooted, whether in the same format as the original or in a different media, there is always the risk of angering the fanboys and girls, and the live-action version of Cowboy Bebop was no exception. However much it differed from the source material – and yes, there were some major differences – it was still a show worth judging without getting too caught up in the past. It’s understandable how these things would have mattered to the most purist of fans, but, at the end of the day, Netflix’s take stood up perfectly well on its own.
The cinematography at times made proceedings feel like a direct animated translation, and the quick-cut editing was very in keeping with the anime. The action was always well presented, the pacing of the episodes worked and the expanded character backgrounds made things more interesting. The place where this Bebop absolutely excelled, though, was in the casting. John Cho was superb as the suave but troubled Spike Spiegel, Mustafa Shakir brought so much depth to Jet Black, and Daniella Pineda was fantastic as the very sweary Faye Valentine. Oh, and an extra special mention to Harry and Charlie who starred as the very good boy Ein.
When this write-up was started, we still had hope for a second season to let it further find itself, but yet again the Netflix axe has swung and there will be no more Cowboy Bebop. It would seem that all those who maligned it without giving it a chance won out. I very much wanted to see where the future would take the crew of the Bebop, especially with the last-minute introduction of Edward, played by newcomer Eden Perkins. But that now seems like an impossibility. For shame, Netflix. For shame. – Helen Balls
Mike Flanagan has fast become the go-to name for top-tier horror drama, in no small part because of his work with Netflix over the past couple of years. From the underrated Hush to the critically acclaimed Haunting of Hill House, the director has put his skills to great use for the streaming company, and this year’s Midnight Mass is no exception.
Set on the secluded Crockett Island, Midnight Mass focuses around the weird things that start to happen with the arrival of a mysterious young priest and a returning hometown kid fresh out of prison. Miracles happen, monsters appear and the townsfolk have no idea what to do with themselves. It’s a simple premise played out and produced brilliantly; a Flanagan special.
Netflix has given the director the opportunity to hone his skills in long-form storytelling. The aforementioned Hill House – and, to a point, follow-up The Haunting of Bly Manor – let the filmmaker tell more story, flesh out his worlds and give the audience the opportunity to sink deeper into them. With Midnight Mass, Mike Flanagan brought the scares, the drama, and the monologues that made him famous and respected; upping his game in the process. It is required viewing for horror fans everywhere. And those fans won’t be disappointed. – Andrew Brooker
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Towards the end of 2021, Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport of the United Kingdom, made waves during a select committee meeting, lambasting Channel 4 as being funded by taxpayers. She was quickly criticised, both by the general public and in the hearing itself, yet Dorries, who normally enjoyed roasting the BBC, clearly had her eye on doing something to Channel 4. Help, a feature length drama put out by the channel in September, might well have been the reason the channel had provoked her ire.
A harrowing, moving, and fundamentally upsetting examination of the difficulties faced during the COVID-19 pandemic by the country as a whole but focusing on one care home, Help is unflinching and unapologetic. Viewers are confronted with brutally honest portrayals of the nightmare some of the most vulnerable members of our society had to endure, along with the underpaid staff who were as good as abandoned yet still expected to care for them. Marc Munden effortlessly uses the techniques of the horror genre to bring a disturbing, fear inducing realness to the film, and by the end the audience is left with no question who the writer (Jack Thorne) blames. And we are furious. – Paul Regan
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Superman & Lois
While Superman appears to be a character that is proving a hard one to crack on the big screen, television has had no such problem. The latest in the growing Arrowverse, Superman & Lois excelled by downplaying its connections to previous Arrowverse series in favour of something more down to earth. There are spectacular action and visual effects here, and this is perhaps the best-made series from the Berlanti branch of DC’s live-action properties, but in taking an Everwood-meets-Friday Night Lights approach to the most powerful and famous superhero of all, the series managed to get to grips with the humanity of the Last Son of Krypton, enhanced further by Tyler Hoechlin’s engaging performance, as a Superman struggling to find the balance between being a father and a superhero.
Incredibly cinematic in its look and presentation, the series is not what you might have expected from a franchise that has given us The Flash and Arrow, but instead is a wonderful family drama that is amongst the best superhero storytelling on television at the moment. Hopefully, it can keep that momentum going into its forthcoming second season. – Eamon Hennedy
I honestly do not know why I never checked out Taskmaster before this latest series. A comedy game show in which famous funny people debase themselves with ridiculous tasks in a silly yet supportive and never cruel environment? Hosted by Greg Davies in full “Junior School teacher performatively sick of everyone’s shit” mode? That show sounded so up my street it was already in the process of gentrifying the surrounding neighbourhood even before I got halfway through that sales pitch. And, when my perpetually out-of-step-with-live-TV arse finally sat down to give it a try with the most recent series… yeah, it did indeed turn out to be exactly the kind of show I had been craving these past two years.
The thrill is in the very premise. Five comedians gather together to take part in a series of tasks across a 10-episode series. Whomever does the best, wins, not that the competition part of the equation is what really matters. Rather, what matters is seeing a bunch of really funny and really charming people try their best to solve those often-ridiculous tasks in their own inimitable styles. Guz Khan’s unparalleled ability to bullshit his way through his reasoning on loophole abuses. Alan Davies’ long stare of weird despair when tasked with making his face look like another upside-down face. Morgana Robinson’s deranged “proposal” to the Taskmaster’s Assistant. Desiree Burch eating sand. Everything Victoria Coren Mitchell did.
Each week gave me new reasons to fall in love with each comedian, especially the ones I’d not heard of prior to the series; a constant barrage of full-on belly laughs; and enough serotonin to power me through the next seven days almost single-handedly. Undoubtedly, I’m the last one on this particular bandwagon, but, yeah, I’m all aboard The Tasksmaster Express from now on! Maybe I should be more proactive when people recommend me shows instead of inadvertently putting them off… – Callie Petch
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Things haven’t been the best for Doctor Who in recent years. Since Chris Chibnall took over running the show, fans seem to have been divided by what we’ve had. The first series under his leadership lacked any classic monsters, which upset some long-time fans, and the second series introduced some big revelations that some people just openly hated. Add on the long gaps between series and it’s been hard. And all of this on poor Jodie Whittaker, who’s been receiving abuse simply for daring to be the first female Doctor too.
The latest series, titled ‘Flux, had a lot riding on it. It’d already been announced as the last ‘full’ series with Chibnall and Whittaker, and thanks to being one serialised story, fans were putting a lot of expectations on it.
The series begins with an episode that throws a lot at viewers. A new companion, new ‘ancient’ enemies tied to the Doctor’s lost past, familiar enemies, several mysteries, and an energy wave that’s literally tearing the universe apart. Over the course of the following five episodes, the show would spend its time explaining a lot of this (though some stuff seems to have been left hanging for the upcoming specials), and mostly does a good job of it.
Thanks to the small number of episodes, the series goes with a brisk pace, throws a lot at the audience, and never really lets you get bored. There might be things you don’t like mixed in, but it’s never dull. And because of that, the boldness of what was tried here, I think the series mostly succeeded, and is easily the best of this Doctor’s era. – Amy Walker