A handful of older films, games, and TV shows that I enjoyed in 2021

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries on this list.

At this time of year, practically every outlet – from dying newspapers to new social media channels – churns out list upon list of the best entertainment products of the year. The top threes, top fives, top tens and more of 2021 abound! I have something similar in the pipeline, but today I wanted to take a look back at a handful of films, games, and TV shows from previous years that I found myself enjoying in 2021.

I have long and seemingly ever-growing lists of films, games, and TV shows that I keep meaning to get around to! I still haven’t seen Breaking Bad, for example, nor played The Witcher 3, despite the critical and commercial acclaim they’ve enjoyed! I also have a huge number of entertainment properties that I keep meaning to re-visit, some of which I haven’t seen since we wrote years beginning with “1.” In 2021 I got around to checking out a few titles from both of these categories, and since there are some that I haven’t discussed I thought the festive season would be a great opportunity for a bit of positivity and to share some of my personal favourite entertainment experiences of 2021… even though they weren’t brand-new!

Film #1:
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)

We’ve recently marked the 20th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnum opus. The passage of time has done nothing to detract from these amazing films, and this year a 4K Blu-Ray release has them looking better than ever before.

The early 2000s had some serious pitfalls for film and television. CGI was becoming more mainstream and many filmmakers sought to take advantage of it, but just look to the Star Wars prequels and how outdated the CGI in those titles is; it hasn’t held up well at all. The majority of the special effects in The Lord of the Rings were practical, and combined with clever cinematography even incredibly dense and complex battle sequences still look fantastic two decades on.

Though I don’t re-watch The Lord of the Rings every single year without fail, I’m happy to return to the trilogy time and again – and I almost certainly will be for the rest of my days! The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Middle-earth was one of the first fantasy worlds I encountered as a young child; I can vaguely remember the book being read to me when I was very small. The conventional wisdom for years was that The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable – but Peter Jackson proved that wrong in some style!

Film #2:
Despicable Me (2010)

I spotted this while browsing Netflix one evening, and despite having seen at least one film with the Minions, I hadn’t actually seen the title that started it all. I have to confess that I didn’t have particularly high expectations, thinking I was in for a bog-standard animated comedy. But Despicable Me has heart, and there were some genuinely emotional moments hidden inside.

The Minions got most of the attention in the aftermath of Despicable Me, and can now be found on everything from memes to greetings cards! The critters are cute, but they’re also somewhat limited – and I think it’s for that reason that I didn’t really expect too much from Despicable Me except for maybe a few laughs and a way to kill an empty evening. I was pleasantly surprised to find a much more substantial film than I’d been expecting.

There were still plenty of laughs and a ton of cartoon silliness to enjoy and to keep the tone light-hearted. But there was a surprisingly emotional story between the villainous Gru and the three children he adopts – especially Margo, the eldest. I can finally understand why the film has spawned four sequels, fifteen shorts, and a whole range of merchandise!

Film #3:
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

The Final Frontier has a number of issues that I’m sure most of you will be aware of. It arguably suffered from a little too much involvement from William Shatner, who sought to put Captain Kirk at the centre of the story at the expense of others. But The Final Frontier has some truly great character moments, including one of the final times that Kirk, Spock, and Dr McCoy would be together before The Undiscovered Country brought an end to Star Trek’s original era.

The film has some truly funny moments, too: the scene where Uhura catches Chekov and Sulu pretending to be caught in a storm being one, and Scotty’s moment of slapstick being another that never fails to win a chuckle. The Undiscovered Country was a great send-off for Star Trek’s original crew, but it was quite a heavy film with a lot of tense moments and high-octane action. The Final Frontier brings more light-hearted moments to the table, and that’s something I can appreciate when I’m in the right mood.

There are some exciting sequences too, though. The shuttle crash is a very tense and dramatic moment, and the final confrontation with the entity at the centre of the galaxy, while silly in some respects, does succeed at hitting at least some of those same dramatic highs. Though I wouldn’t suggest that The Final Frontier is anywhere near the best that Star Trek has to offer, it’s well worth a watch from time to time.

Game #1:
Control (2019)

Though hardly an “old” game, I missed Control when it was released in 2019. It had been on my list for a couple of years, and I was pleased to finally get around to playing it this year. The game had a far creepier atmosphere than I’d been expecting, with protagonist Jesse having to battle an unseen enemy called the Hiss.

One thing I really admire about Control is the way it made incredibly creative use of some fairly plain environments. The entire game takes place in what’s essentially a glorified office building, and rows of cubicles or the janitor’s workspace could, in other games, come across as feeling bland and uninspired. But Control leans into this, using the environments as a strength, juxtaposing them with incredibly weird goings-on at the Bureau of Control.

I also liked that, for the first time in years, we got full-motion video sequences in a game! FMV was a fad in gaming in the early/mid-1990s I guess, primarily on PC, and titles like Command and Conquer and Star Trek: Starfleet Academy made use of it. It had been years since I played a game with FMV elements, and it worked exceptionally well in Control – as well as being a completely unexpected blast of nostalgia!

Game #2:
Super Mario 64 (1996)

Despite the serious limitations of Super Mario 3D All-Stars on the Nintendo Switch, which I picked up last year, I can’t deny that it’s been fun to return to Super Mario 64. One of the first fully 3D games I ever played, Super Mario 64 felt like the future in the late ’90s, and even some titles released this year, such as Kena: Bridge of Spirits, owe parts of their 3D platforming to the pioneering work that Nintendo did with this game.

Super Mario 64 is and always has been good, solid fun. There doesn’t need to be an in-depth, complex story driving Mario forward to collect stars, because the game’s levels and bosses are all so incredibly cleverly-designed. Jumping in and out of different painting worlds is relatively quick and feels great, and the sheer diversity of environments is still noteworthy in 2021. Mario goes on a journey that takes him through snowy mountains, a sunken shipwreck, sunlit plains, cities, clouds, and more.

I can’t in good conscience recommend Super Mario 3D All-Stars. The way these games have been adapted for Nintendo Switch isn’t worth the asking price. But even so, going back to Super Mario 64 has been one of my favourite parts of 2021, a chance to reconnect with a game I played and loved on the Nintendo 64. If you’ve never played it, track down a copy and give it a go. You won’t regret it.

Game #3:
Red Dead Redemption II (2018)

I’d been meaning to get around to Red Dead Redemption II for three years – but I’d always found a reason not to pick it up (usually it was too expensive!) It took forever to download on my painfully slow internet connection, but it was well worth the wait. I’ve had a fascination with America in the 19th Century for as long as I can remember – I guess partly inspired by playground games of “the wild west” that were fairly common when I was young. I even had a cowboy hat, toy gun, and “Davy Crockett” hat when I was a kid!

Red Dead Redemption II transported me to that world in a way that I genuinely did not think was possible. Films and TV shows can do a great job at pulling you in and getting you lost in a fictional world, but the interactive element of video games can add to that immersion – something that was absolutely the case with Red Dead Redemption II. The amount of detail in the game’s characters and open-world environments is staggering, and having finally experienced it for myself I can absolutely understand why people hail this game as a “masterpiece.”

I wasn’t prepared for the many emotional gut-punches that Red Dead Redemption II had in store. In many ways the game tells a bleak and even depressing story, one with betrayal, death, and many examples of the absolute worst of humanity. But every once in a while there are some incredibly beautiful moments too, where characters sit together, sing, play, and revel in their bonds of friendship. Red Dead Redemption II gave me the wild west outlaw fantasy that my younger self could have only dreamed of!

TV series #1:
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69)

I’ve re-watched quite a lot of The Original Series this year, probably more episodes than I’d seen in the past few years. Because of its episodic nature, it’s easy to dip in and out of The Original Series, firing up an episode or two to spend an hour with Captain Kirk and the crew without feeling the need to commit to an entire season of television.

The Original Series started it all for Trekkies, and I’m always so pleased to see that modern Star Trek hasn’t lost sight of that. In this year’s episodes of Lower Decks and Discovery we’ve gotten many references and callbacks to Star Trek’s first series, keeping the show alive and relevant as we celebrated its fifty-fifth anniversary – and the centenary of its creator, Gene Roddenberry.

Though dated in some ways, many of the themes and metaphors present in The Original Series are still relevant today. Society has changed since the 1960s, but in some areas we’re still fighting the same or similar fights for acceptance, for equality, and so on. The Star Trek franchise has always had a lot to say about that, being in some ways a mirror of society and in others depicting a vision of a more enlightened, optimistic future.

TV series #2:
Fortitude (2015-18)

I went back to re-watch Fortitude this year, for the first time since its original run. The series starts very slowly, seeming at first to be little more than a murder-mystery in a different setting. But it builds up over the course of its first season into something truly unexpected, crossing over into moments of political thriller, action, and even horror.

There are some truly shocking and gruesome moments in Fortitude, and it can be a harrowing watch in places. But it’s riveting at the same time, and I managed to get hooked all over again by the complex characters, the mysteries and conspiracies, and the bleak but beautiful arctic environment.

Fortitude featured some star names among its cast, including Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, and Dennis Quaid – the second-most-famous Dennis to be featured on this website! Although it was fun to watch it weekly during its original run, Fortitude is definitely a show that can be enjoyed on a binge!

TV series #3:
Family Guy (1999-Present)

Family Guy’s sense of humour sometimes runs aground for me, dragging out jokes too long or failing to pay off neat setups with decent punchlines. But with the full series (up to midway through Season 20 at time of writing) available on Disney+, I’ve found myself putting it on in the background a lot this year. The short runtime of episodes, the lightheartedness, and the way many of the jokes are often disconnected from whatever nonsense plot the episodes have going on all come together to make it something I can dip in and out of while doing other things.

There are some insensitive jokes, and some entire storylines in earlier episodes have aged rather poorly. But Family Guy seldom strikes me as a show punching down; it satirises and pokes fun at many different groups. In that sense it’s kind of halfway between The Simpsons and South Park; the former being more sanitised and family-friendly, the latter being edgier and meaner.

I rarely sit down and think “gosh, I must watch the latest Family Guy episode.” But if I’m in need of background noise or something to fill up twenty minutes, I find I’ll happily log into Disney+ and put on an episode or two.

So that’s it.

There have been some great films, games, and television shows that were released in 2021. But there were also plenty of entertainment experiences from years past that, in different ways, brightened my year. As we gear up for New Year and for everyone’s end-of-year top-ten lists, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that.

I hope you had a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday, or just a relaxing day yesterday! I did consider writing something to mark the day, but I found that I had remarkably little to say that was different from the piece I wrote last year. 2021 has been “2020 II” in so many respects, unfortunately. However, unlike last Christmas I will be able to visit with some family members – I’ll be seeing my sister and brother-in-law later this week, which will be a nice treat! So here’s to 2021’s entertainment experiences – and as we enter the new year, it’s worth keeping in mind that we don’t only have to watch and play the latest and newest ones!

All titles on the list above are the copyright of their respective broadcaster, distributor, developer, network, publisher, studio, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Five television shows that ran too long

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the titles on this list.

When writers and producers sit down to craft a new television series, usually they can’t plan for anything beyond a single season. Most television shows are greenlit for one season at a time, and renewed for one additional season at a time. Forward planning for events that may take place in Season 6 of a show are usually not at the forefront of creators’ minds when sketching out the storyline of Season 1.

And this approach makes a lot of sense. A series like Terra Nova clearly had a multi-season story planned, as Season 1 ended on a cliffhanger, but cancellation meant that the remaining story was never put to screen. That’s frustrating as a viewer – and yes, even though it’s been ten years I’m still sore about Terra Nova!

Terra Nova had the opposite problem to the titles on this list!

But one drawback to this season-by-season approach to writing and storytelling comes when a show is renewed. If writers have managed to successfully wrap up a season-long storyline and character arcs, what comes next? This is something I’ve termed “the Disney sequel problem,” because it’s comparable to a situation many sequels to successful Disney films find themselves in. What comes next after “happily ever after?” Or in this case, what comes next after a finished story?

Some shows just run and run and run, continuing long after they’ve completely exhausted their potential stories and original purpose. These shows tend to morph into something different – even unrecognisable – from their original incarnation. Even though the characters may remain the same, storylines change and often get wilder and more bizarre. Though some shows retain a large following even as they change, in many cases fans of the first couple of seasons realise that the changes have been for the worse.

The Simpsons is now approaching its 33rd Season…

Television, like any entertainment or artistic medium, has its limits. No single story can run and run forever, and no set of characters can endure season upon season of increasingly outlandish storylines. Most television shows, like most stories across other forms of media, have natural lifespans. In some cases that could be a single season, in others it could be ten seasons. It varies a lot and depends on the show. But practically every show eventually hits that wall – and some try to sidestep it and keep going.

Today we’re going to look at five examples of television shows that should’ve ended far sooner than they did. As I always say, this is just the opinion of one person. If you like a show on this list and enjoyed its later seasons, that’s okay. I’m not trying to claim these shows or their latter episodes are somehow objectively bad. Simply put, I feel they outstayed their welcome.

Number 1: The Simpsons (1989-present)

The Simpson family.

Given The Simpsons’ place in popular culture and the show’s enormous influence over satire and comedy, this one is painful to admit. But The Simpsons, which will begin broadcasting its 33rd season later this year, has clearly and demonstrably gone on too long. Its original premise – satirising family-oriented 1980s sitcoms and taking a comedic yet biting look at America as the 1990s dawned – has entirely evaporated, and while there have been creditable attempts in recent seasons to recapture parts of that, the show has largely forgotten its roots.

A few weeks ago I picked out twelve of my favourite episodes – and as I was composing that article I came to realise pretty quickly that all of my favourites were within the first eight or nine seasons. That was when The Simpsons was at its peak, and while the show is still running and clearly has an audience, even Simpsons fans admit that it’s gone downhill.

The Simpsons’ decline set in sometime around the year 2000.

One of the most-cited differences between The Simpsons in its ’90s heyday and the series today is the characterisation of Homer. Originally he was presented as a hard-working everyman, down on his luck and with undeniable flaws, but nevertheless someone viewers could root for. In his first standalone appearance in the Season 1 premiere Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, Homer’s financial problem and desire to do right by his family as Christmas approaches elicits genuine sympathy; an oddly timeless story. But by later seasons, spurred on by a desire or need to continue a trend of increasingly outrageous storylines, Homer has been turned into a character that’s half-clown, half-jerk, exaggerating his worst traits and becoming a parody of himself.

Unlike some other entries on this list, The Simpsons is episodic in nature. It didn’t have a single overarching story to tell that was exhausted at some point in its run. Instead it had an underlying premise, and a desire to show Americans a satirical mirror of their society. But since the show itself became part of American popular culture, and inspired not only a whole genre of adult-oriented animation but also a whole style of comedy, its ability to effectively do that waned. And as writers exhausted plausible storylines to put a comedic spin on, all that remained was to take the show to extremes – pushing the boat out ever further to try to keep it funny.

Number 2: Supernatural (2005-2020)

Brothers Sam and Dean Winchester in Season 15 of Supernatural.

Supernatural is the show that originally inspired this article! If you’re a regular around here you might remember it from last year’s awards – where it “won” the award for worst television series of the year. I stand by what I said then: Supernatural had become the king of running too long.

When Supernatural premiered in 2005 it had a wonderfully innovative premise. It was a great blend of episodic, monster-of-the-week television with season-long character arcs and stories that rumbled away in the background, particularly the disappearance of the boys’ father and their quest to hunt the Yellow-Eyed Demon. As Sam and Dean travelled the United States hunting an array of new and old monsters and horror movie villains, there was a lot to love.

Sam and Dean Winchester in the pilot episode.

But Supernatural exhausted its original storylines sometime before 2010, certainly by the fifth season or so. Not only that, but having faced down examples of most horror staples – ghosts, demons, werewolves, and the like – the writers and producers were running out of material. The show moved away from its original semi-episodic format toward a more serialised approach, and while there’s nothing wrong with serialised storytelling, combined with the satisfying conclusion of Supernatural’s original storylines and the exhausting of most monster-of-the-week stereotypes, there was nothing left for the show to explore.

For me, one episode more than any other cements Supernatural’s decline: Season 6’s The French Mistake. It was at this moment that the show lost all semblance of seriousness and descended into the fan-servicey mess that became the hallmark of its latter seasons. The transformation of main characters Sam and Dean from two relatively ordinary guys thrust into a world of demon-hunting into invincible Biblical warriors anointed by God and the angels was catastrophic, but that episode was the icing on the cake.

Number 3: Lost (2004-2010)

Title card for Lost.

Lost is absolutely one of the best shows of the 2000s, and unlike other entries on this list which ran for a decade or longer, its six seasons actually seem rather modest in comparison. But Lost nevertheless exhibits many of the same issues, including exhausting its original premise and storylines, and putting its characters in increasingly weird and wacky situations to try to keep the magic going.

I mentioned at the beginning that many television shows are written season by season, without much thought for how or when they will end. Lost is a case in point. JJ Abrams, who created the show, has become notorious for writing half a story – a beginning without any idea of how it will end. In fact, the so-called “mystery box” has become a hallmark of the way Abrams creates his stories. In the case of Lost – as with the Star Wars sequel trilogy that Abrams also helmed parts of – the weaknesses of this approach become apparent.

Lost started strongly and encouraged fans to theorise and speculate – but the writers and producers hadn’t planned any answers to the questions they set up.

There were mysteries in Season 1 of Lost. What caused the plane to crash? How were they so far off-course? What’s with the weird smoke monster? What’s inside the hatch? Who is Kate, and what did she do? But fundamentally it was a character-driven story with a strong focus on the need for survival. The characters found themselves in a hostile environment with no immediate hope of escape, and much of the drama came from that premise.

Lost had become unrecognisable by Season 6, with a narrative that involved worldwide conspiracies, time travel, an island that could literally move, and so on. For fans who had become engrossed in its world, perhaps some of these answers were satisfying. For many, though, they were not, and what started as a fun and mysterious show lost its way when the creative team found themselves boxed in narratively, unable to find a satisfying way to conclude various story elements.

Number 4: 12 Monkeys (2015-2018)

12 Monkeys protagonist James Cole in Season 1.

As with Lost above, 12 Monkeys doesn’t seem to have enough seasons to fit the bill as a show that outstayed its welcome. But it absolutely did! The series began with a similar premise to the 1995 film of the same name – a man from the future must travel back in time to the modern day in order to prevent the release of a biological weapon that would decimate humankind.

That premise sounds amazing, and more than a little timely given the year we’ve just had! Though time travel stories are seldom my favourite for a number of reasons, 12 Monkeys Season 1 absolutely nailed it. But then they ran out of story, and what was chosen to replace it simply did not work. Things went downhill fast.

12 Monkeys did time travel very well… in its first season.

The plot became overly complicated when the original premise – stopping the release of the virus – was played out. What replaced it was a convoluted and frankly just plain dumb story about an international conspiracy to “stop time itself.” Yeah. I know.

Though the characters remained the same, the lines they were spewing now made no sense, and the show had to create increasingly stupid reasons for both using the time machine – its central piece of tech – and for including characters from the modern day. With the focus having switched to battling this weird army of time-hating people, the entire concept of the series was lost.

Number 5: The Walking Dead (2010-present)

An iconic image from Season 1 of The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead’s main problem is that the entire show is built around a very simple premise: zombies. When the zombies stop being frightening, and when the show’s original cast has been decimated by season after season of “shocking” deaths, there’s nothing left to do. That should be game over – and The Walking Dead managed about three seasons before that feeling set in.

Unfortunately, despite hitting the wall, The Walking Dead kept going. The zombies stopped being the show’s focus and were relegated to a background role, with the impetus switching to new groups of characters who, for no other reason than “because plot,” would turn out to have a burning hatred of protagonist Rick Grimes and his group.

Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery’s Michael Burnham) appeared in The Walking Dead.

After the show found success with the Governor as its main human antagonist in Season 3, the writers evidently became desperate to recapture that feeling, throwing villain after villain at Rick. That’s all the Terminus cannibals were, that’s all Negan was, and now this new villain Alpha is in the same mould.

The Walking Dead, along with Game of Thrones which was around at the same time in the early 2010s, helped to pioneer the idea of a “disposable” main cast – where viewers were kept on the edge of their seats not sure if all of their favourites would survive to the end. The problem is that the end should’ve come far sooner. Spin-offs like Fear the Walking Dead and World Beyond can pick up the baton for the franchise, telling new stories with new characters. But the main series should’ve ended a long time ago.

So that’s it. Five shows that ran too long – or are still running too long!

Usually this happens for “business reasons” – namely money. Investing in the creation of a new television series is expensive, and when a show is a hit, executives and producers naturally want to keep going, bringing in more money and making use of existing sets, props, and characters. However, this can come at the expense of artistic integrity and good storytelling, with shows forced to make major changes to compensate for either concluding their original story or simply running out of ideas.

We didn’t even mention The Big Bang Theory…

None of the shows on the list above were bad. I actively enjoyed all five in their early days. But somewhere along the way their original intentions got lost, and the transformed series that resulted became less enjoyable. In some cases this can happen within a season or two, especially if the original creative team tell what is essentially a one-and-done story across one season of television. But other shows have a slower, more gradual decline over the course of several years, with concepts that were interesting and exciting in Season 1 decaying and becoming clichéd tropes by Season 5. There are different ways this decline can manifest, just as there are different lifespans for different shows.

As a fan, in every single case I’d rather be writing an article saying “this show was cancelled too soon!” instead of “this show should’ve been cancelled already.” I’d rather lament what we could’ve seen had a show ran for just one more season than feel it declined because it went on too long. Perhaps that seems paradoxical, but sometimes, as the saying goes, “less is more.”

Regardless of what I may think, this phenomenon isn’t going away any time soon. Television producers will always look to continue successful projects where they can and cancel those that don’t bring in enough viewers and enough money. That’s just the way the industry works!

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective network, broadcaster, studio, and/or distributor. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.