The 5 Best New Shows Our TV Critic Watched in February 2021

7 minute read

February may be the shortest month of the year, but the 2021 edition certainly has dragged on, hasn’t it? Maybe it’s the cold and snow blanketing so much more of the country than usual, or maybe it’s our collective impatience with a slow vaccine rollout as we approach the once-unthinkable milestone of a year under varying degrees of lockdown. Whatever the reason, television can make the days pass a bit faster—and, thankfully, this month has brought a whole lot of quality programming. The rise of foreign TV remains a blessing; among February’s most worthwhile new shows are a literary adaptation set in 19th-century New Zealand, a distinctive Swedish crime drama, a delightful baking series from Britain and a must-see BBC drama that mixes the ecstasy of youthful self-discovery with the devastation of the early AIDS crisis. The final title? A quintessentially American documentary series that captures our country at its best and worst through the lens of the Black church.

For more suggestions, peruse my lists of last month’s highlights and the top 10 shows of 2020.

Beartown (HBO)

Most crime dramas open with the crime itself, front-loading the violent act that will shape the plot and developing the characters only to the extent that its exploration requires. Beartown, a Swedish HBO Europe import based on the novel by Fredrik Backman, avoids that template; writer Anders Weidemann (Interrogation) spends almost two of the miniseries’ five episodes spinning a web of conflicts within the eponymous struggling community. Recruited to salvage a hockey program that is crucial to the place’s identity and survival, retired NHL player and Beartown native Peter (Ulf Stenberg) moves his family across an ocean to take the coaching job, only to discover that the star of his new high-school team, Kevin (Oliver Dufåker), is the son of a former classmate (Tobias Zilliacus) who’s spent decades nursing a grudge against Peter. Complicating matters are the town’s hermetic insularity, the tense dynamic among the teenage teammates and a magnetic attraction that develops between Kevin and Peter’s daughter, Maya (Miriam Ingrid). By the time Beartown drops its bombshell, the scene feels both inevitable and crushing. But the show distinguishes itself much earlier—as a patient portrait of a stiflingly small place with a long memory; an investigation into the perils of masculinity; an icy Scandinavian take on Friday Night Lights; and maybe even a preemptive rejoinder to the upcoming Disney+ Mighty Ducks series, whose saccharine content is likely to be through the roof.

The Black Church (PBS)

The Harvard professor and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates, Jr. serves as executive producer, writer and host of The Black Church, which traces Black spiritual life all the way back to Africa, through slavery and civil rights, into the present. Early in the four-hour miniseries, Rev. Al Sharpton calls the church the “epicenter of Black life”—and Gates’ deeply researched retrospective goes a long way towards supporting that thesis. He explores the central role the church played in Emancipation, Black politics from Reconstruction to Dr. King to Barack Obama, and a cross-pollinating American musical tradition that took root in Sunday church services (if you don’t know about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the first great rock ‘n’ roll guitarists, you’ll find out enough here to send you down a YouTube rabbit hole). Though Gates is a Christian, he acknowledges that Islam has also played a central role in the African-American community. And he’s not afraid to be critical, in segments that lament how socially conservative congregations have alienated LGBTQ community members and how religious infrastructures created by Black men have barred Black women from positions of power. Despite its traditional style, the series distinguishes itself through Gates’ candid interactions with interviewees who range from scholars and theologians to celebrities like Oprah and John Legend. He harmonizes with gospel singers, calls back to preachers and delves into his own faith. The Black Church is the kind of documentary that only someone with a personal connection to the material could make. [Read the full essay on The Black Church and two other new docuseries that dare to tell the truth about Black history. Also in TIME: read an excerpt from a book by Gates that serves as a companion to the show.]

It’s a Sin (HBO Max)

It’s one of the oldest stories of modern times: after growing up in a place that makes them feel like a freak or an abomination or a space alien, a young person lights out for the big city, in search of their people. But what happens if you arrive, find precisely the community you’ve spent years longing for, start living the liberated life of your dreams—and then it’s over just as quickly as it started? The party becomes a nightmare. Everything fun is suddenly dangerous. Your chosen family starts dying. It’s almost as though the universe is doubling down on the 18 years’ worth of shame you absorbed on your way to freedom.

That is the predicament facing the group of friends at the center of HBO Max’s deeply humane, richly observed, frequently funny and fully devastating It’s a Sin. The miniseries, which broke viewership records when it aired in the UK, spans ten years at the outset of the AIDS crisis in London. Creator Russell T. Davies—the prolific TV producer who previously chronicled aspects of British gay life in Cucumber, A Very English Scandal and the groundbreaking Queer as Folk—wrote all five episodes, anchoring his scripts in real history that has haunted him for decades and deploying rage, empathy and humor in just the right places. [Read the full review.]

The Luminaries (Starz)

An enchanting, enthralling miniseries based on Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winning 2013 novel, The Luminaries is set amid the New Zealand gold rush, and opens with two very different portraits of its protagonist, a young woman named Anna Wetherell. The first time she appears onscreen, it’s 1866, and Anna (a guileless but bright Eve Hewson, from The Knick) is a mud-caked, almost spectral figure darting through the night in a tattered dress and coat. A flash of gold dust briefly illuminates the forest when her hem catches on a log. Nearby, a gun fires, a man falls to the ground and she keeps running until she collapses at the door to a cabin. Quickly discovered by two men on horseback, Anna—known locally as a prostitute and an opium addict—is imprisoned on charges of vagrancy, public intoxication and attempted suicide. [Read the full review.]

Nadiya Bakes (Netflix)

The Great British Baking Show has, over the course of 11 seasons, introduced dozens of lovable and talented UK home cooks to fans around the world. Its brightest star to date is 2015 champion Nadiya Hussain, a British Bangladeshi mother of three whose culinary skills and infectious enthusiasm have earned her a thriving career as an author and TV personality. That television work is finally starting to trickle across the Atlantic, via Baking Show‘s stateside platform Netflix. Last year we got the enjoyable Nadiya’s Time to Eat, but this past month brought an even more delightful sequel: Nadiya Bakes. In each of eight themed half-hours (“Savory Bakes,” “Baking on a Budget,” etc.) the ebullient Hussain keeps up a brisk pace, zooming through a handful of delicious-looking creations, with time left over to profile a relevant professional baker. If you don’t find at least one recipe per episode that you absolutely need to make, then baking will probably never be your thing. But, especially in these isolated times, the pleasure of Hussain’s upbeat company might be an even bigger draw.

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