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Squid Game to Sex Education: 10 best international shows of 2021

  • 2021 has given us some truly fantastic storytelling on streaming platforms with a wide variety of worlds and universes to get lost in and relish. There’s just too much great stuff for any one person to watch.
  • Suchin Mehrotra

  • Hindustan Times

Last Updated: 05.47 PM, Dec 30, 2021

Squid Game to Sex Education: 10 best international shows of 2021
Stills from Netflix shows Squid Game and Sex Education. 

For all the crippling uncertainty amidst a floundering entertainment industry trying to find its feet again, the last two years have cemented the fact that we truly live in the age of streaming. And as a result of the ongoing streaming wars, 2021 has given us some truly fantastic storytelling on streaming platforms with a wide variety of worlds and universes to get lost in and relish. There’s just too much great stuff for any one person to watch, and what a privilege it is to have that problem. 

That said, from murky murder mysteries and hopeful gems to empathetic teen dramas, rich people behaving badly, superheroes acting atrociously and beyond, in no particular order, here’s my list of the best international TV shows of 2021:

Squid Game on Netflix

At a time when everything the streaming giant does is thoroughly scrutinised and endlessly opined over, South Korean streaming smash hit Squid Game reminded us of the power of Netflix. By doing what they do best - giving a platform to a story from one corner of the world - Netflix’s global might allowed Squid Game to become one of the most-watched streaming shows of all time.

But despite its delectably unnerving premise, the unrelenting thriller was more than well-crafted shock value and empty entertainment. Through its heart-in-your-mouth thrills of straddling both gore and psychological horror, the dark parable had much to say about the state of a world rife with inequality and fuelled by classism, commodities and capitalism. 

Despite its shaky end, Squid Game serves as yet another gateway project to help put South Korea’s stellar storytelling on the map. Not to mention giving us chilling Halloween costume ideas for years to come. 

Sex Education: Season 3 on Netflix

Season 3 of Netflix’s charming coming-of-age triumph is another winning chapter in series creator Laurie Nunn’s deeply empathetic saga of self-acceptance. Apart from a fresh wave of sex-related insecurities and the ongoing will-they-won’t-they Otis-Maeve relationship drama, this season also sees a new villain headmaster at Moordale — Hope (Jemima Kirke), who is here to clamp down on the “sexual deviant-infested” school.

More than its supremely lovable characters, where the series soars is how much it truly cares about them, and demands we feel for them. Arguably the show’s greatest achievement is how it makes concepts into living breathing characters, as a shining benchmark of how to make a 'social message show,' impressively moulding its clear agenda into lovable characters and an engaging narrative. Above all, I love that Sex Education makes me think and reflect, and at times, straight-up uncomfortable. But it is a kind of discomfort I am grateful for. 

Succession On Disney+ Hotstar

It's hard to say much about Succession's cover to cover stellar third season, that hasn't been said already. The show has simply never been better, once again straddling the addictive power struggles of a great gangster epic with the nuances of an intimate family drama and the razor sharp one liners of a laugh out loud comedy.

Among the Jesse Armstrong-created shows many, many achievements (those Herculean performances, the absorbing cinematography and beyond) is the fact that it is and does so much at once. Each episode leaves so much breathing room for interpretation and limitless discussion about everything from shifting allegiances and trauma to morality and suing Greenpeace. 

Three seasons in and Succession continues to surprise us and keeps us on our toes as one of the best-written and most exciting shows on TV. Simply put, it’s all bangers all the time. 

Modern Love Season 2 on Amazon Prime Video 

John Carney’s series adaptation of the popular New York Times column (and subsequent popular podcast) of the same name, (re)tells real love stories about real people.  Season 2 offers fresh faces in eight new fables of love. If Season 1 felt like the big, flashy, feel-good Hollywood love story, Season 2 feels like its Indie movie sibling in terms of its choice of stories and their telling, offering another deeply rewarding mixed bag of the best kind.

For many, Modern Love is little more than a fuzzy comfort watch, and I could not disagree more. To me, it is an ongoing quest to try and understand love by immersing us in the experiences of real people. Stories of love and tales of connection have never been more important than they are today. While there can never be a bad time for Modern Love, we need it now more than ever.

Ted Lasso on Apple TV+

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - to me Ted Lasso is the show of the pandemic era. It’s everything the world isn't right now, and everything it needs - uncomplicated, funny, heartfelt and hopeful. The series embodiment of the hug we all desperately need to help us get through each day. 

But despite its unrelenting optimism, season two took us deeper into these beloved characters, further exploring mental health and trauma and delving into the limitations of that very optimism. But despite its ambitions to wade through trickier territory this season, the show remained every bit the timely comfort watch the therapist ordered. In a world driven by judgment, exhaustion and aggression, Ted Lasso is the delightfully stern reminder to be kind, curious, caring and above all - to believe. 

Mare Of Easttown on Disney+ Hotstar

In recent years, the small-town-filled-with-seedy-characters-and-a-tortured-cop-with-a-haunted-past whodunit has become a genre unto itself. While Mare Of Easttown certainly didn’t break new ground, through its finely etched characters, self-assured storytelling and a tour de force Kate Winslet, the HBO series brought a freshness to the familiar. 

The triumphant, twisty drama which took hold of us during the early months of the year expertly blended trauma and grief with a compelling murder mystery. Throw in a charming Evan Peters (Detective Zobel) and the inimitable Jean Smart (Mare’s mother) and you get one of the year’s most gripping shows. 

Invincible on Amazon Prime Video

While many claim to be understandably tired of superhero stories (considering they’re clearly not going away anytime soon) I’d argue there’s never been a better time for truly original comic book storytelling. 

Amazon Prime Video’s winning animated superhero series Invincible, is just that - refreshing and distinctive amongst the sea of super-people that have taken over Hollywood. The mature, meaningful and unabashedly violent coming-of-age series follows a young superhero named Invincible as he comes to grips with his powers, comes into his own and finds his place in a world bursting with fellow superheroes, villains, aliens and beyond. 

Like Prime Video’s other dizzyingly refreshing super-series The Boys, Invincible also exists in a universe where great power brings great irresponsibility - a much-needed respite from the tired righteousness of most comic book storytelling.  Along with its vibrant animation and insanely fun action, Invincible delivers great drama, and heart-wrenching sequences you won’t see coming. It remains one of the year's most triumphant and sorely underrated superhero stories.   

Dopesick on Disney+Hotstar

One of the most hauntingly powerful investigative dramas in recent memory, Dopesick dives into the severe opioid crisis that's plagued the US for the last twenty years. Through showing us multiple perspectives of doctors, patients, drug companies and law enforcement, the mini-series paints a deeply unsettling portrait of everything that led to, and the heartbreaking consequences of, the ongoing crisis and the evils of Purdue Pharma's OxyContin, and the Sackler family.

Aided by a towering ensemble, which includes the likes of Michael Keaton and Rosario Dawson among others, Dopesick combines the shock value of a great investigative documentary with the intimacy and emotional heft of a devastating human drama that demands to be seen. 

Narcos Mexico: Season 3 on Netflix

The third and final season of Netflix’s compelling and criminally underrated Narcos: Mexico brings a satisfying end to the epic drug trafficking crime saga. The gangster drama based on real events once again masterfully weaves together multiple arcs of traffickers, cartels, politicians and the DEA to tell the larger story of Mexico's drug crisis.

As Félix Gallardo's (a formidable Diego Luna) predicted in the haunting season two finale, this season, it's all-out war between the cartels, plazas and police for control, focusing on the rise of Amado Carillo Fuentes (José María Yazpik), one of the most successful traffickers of all time.

The show’s exhilarating entertainment and fine filmmaking make it easy to forget that this is all based on a tragic reality. Narcos: Mexico may be over, but the horrors of drug trafficking that it sheds light on, certainly aren’t. As the show first told us at its very beginning - “This story doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, it doesn’t have an ending at all.”

The White Lotus on Disney+Hotstar

“It’s hard for young, straight white men right now… nobody has any sympathy for them. In a way they’re the underdogs now,” says one of the many (almost) adorably obnoxious rich white characters in HBO’s winning mini-series The White Lotus.

Written and directed by Mike White, the comedy-drama follows a week in the lives of a handful of filthy-rich guests at the White Lotus luxury resort in Hawaii. A delectably pulpy, Bigg Boss-esque guilty-pleasure watch about a bunch of absurdly wealthy human cartoons behaving badly, the series offers a timely, biting dissection of white privilege through its deliciously funny yet sinister tone.

Special mentions:

There was the sparkling specificity and courage of Marvel's WandaVision which offered some of the most distinctive storytelling we've seen from the MCU. Other Netflix gems that deserve a mention include the creepy triumphs of Midnight Mass, as well as another excellent round of the immersive shorts with Love Death And Robots Season 2. Also on Netlfix was season two of Tim Robinson's riotous comedy sketch series I Think You Should Leave - I'm yet watch anything as outrageously funny as the Coffin Flop sketch.