Glancing back at 2021’s unscripted gems

Written by corres2

As 2021 approaches its end, many critics compile a best and worst list of notable series. I’m not big on lists. Ranking series strikes me as presumptuous and absurd.

But having written more than 300 columns this year, it’s fun to glance back at those offerings that stood out. Let’s start with documentaries and nonfiction series.

The year began with promise, as Netflix debuted “Pretend It’s a City” on Jan. 8. The series offered brief, half-hour conversations between essayist Fran Lebowitz and director Martin Scorsese as they glanced back at their 50-year friendship and discussed how culture, society and their beloved New York City had changed in those years. Cranky and enchanting in equal measure.

On Jan. 25, “POV” aired “The Mole Agent,” a delightful film from Chile about a man who, worried about his mother’s care at a nursing home, hires an old man to move in and check up on her surroundings. Along the way, he becomes the darling of the senior facility.

When FX and The New York Times presented “Framing Britney Spears” in February, few thought the pop star would become the subject of such passionate debate. The film recalls Spears’ gruesome treatment by news and celebrity media as well as her exploitative conservancy arrangement.

The March “Independent Lens” documentary “Coded Bias” explored how racial assumptions were baked into the systems and algorithms that have become an essential part of the workday world, from job interviews to loan and mortgage applications.

HBO’s May documentary series “Crime of the Century” explored the Sackler family’s aggressive marketing of opioids, a story brought to dramatic life in Hulu’s miniseries “Dopesick.” Another May Debut, the PBS miniseries “Life at the Waterhole” used the techniques of reality television to construct an artificial desert oasis and document the behavior of the critters who decided to drop in. The “Independent Lens” film “The Donut King” also arrived in May, the remarkable story of how a single Cambodian immigrant created an empire of fast-food franchises in California while at the same time offering a history of war, genocide, cultural assimilation, success and personal disaster.

Two of the biggest documentary events of 2021 involve music and culture from more than a half-century ago. Directed by Questlove, Hulu’s “Summer of Soul” draws on lost and misplaced footage to recall a 1969 Harlem music festival.

Presented over a series of weeks, the concerts attracted hundreds of thousands to see the Staple Singers, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, the Fifth Dimension and so many more. Similar to the footage, memories of the performances seemed lost to time, overshadowed by Woodstock, which took place only a few weeks later.

If “Summer” revived a lost memory, Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back” marathon on Disney+ documented the most celebrated artists of the century, and yet made their dynamics and creative process seem entirely new.

And if you’re limited only to cultural convulsions from 1969, don’t forget HBO’s recent documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street.”


• An active serial killer on “FBI” (7 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14).

• UCLA and NC State meet in something called the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl (7 p.m., Fox).

• Elizabeth Stanton hosts “Popstar’s Best of 2021” (7 p.m., CW, TV-PG).

• Diplomatic immunity on “FBI: International” (8 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14).

• Kevin and Madison tie the knot on “This Is Us” (8 p.m., NBC, r, TV-14).

• “American Experience: The Codebreaker” (8 p.m., PBS, r, TV-PG, check local listings) recalls a woman cryptologist long lost to history.

• A DEA agent appears to have been compromised on “FBI: Most Wanted” (9 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14).

• London calling on “New Amsterdam” (9 p.m., NBC, r, TV-14).

• Chefs compete to please judges with meals composed of ingredients they did not choose on the new series “Raid the Fridge” (9 p.m., Food, TV-G).


Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March star in the 1933 adaptation of Cole Porter’s comedy “Design for Living” (8:45 p.m., TCM, TV-G).


Very bad product placement on “American Auto” (7 p.m., NBC, r, TV-14) … A marathon of six consecutive episodes of “black-ish” (7 p.m. to 10 p.m., ABC, r, TV-PG) … Self-care on “Grand Crew” (7:30 p.m., NBC, r, TV-14) … Dean Cain hosts two repeat episodes of “Masters of Illusion” (8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., CW, TV-PG).

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