2021, man. Reality kicked us in the butt again this year, and surely, next year must be better. At the moment, though, we can gather some inspiration from TV, which isn’t something that we can always say, especially when a character like Saul Goodman rolls back into town (and he will, while bearing gifts of his own). Nope, this year is all about the curmudgeon: that wild species that really couldn’t give a sh*t. Often, they don’t want to be in the same room as you, and perhaps they’re a bit misunderstood because these creatures can appear as the loner breed (who can hatch by necessity or merely by disposition) or the not-as-bad-as-they-wanna-be type who’s so loathsome that everyone flees their presence. Then there’s the straight-up, i-cant-stand-the-thought-of-you variant. This type has no problem telling you to f*ck off, right to your face.
Is there a little softness inside the curmudgeon? Sure, that’s entirely possible. More dramatically than not on TV, though, they barely tolerate the presence of others. At times, these cranky types are utterly unlikable people. In other instances, the wilier beasts are charismatic (despite their ill-tempered ways) and draw people to them, much to their own chagrin. And what transpires with some of my favorite curmudgeons is fascinating: their stories bend and grow and they both inspire and beat down other characters in transformative ways, for worse and better. We love to see it. It’s fun!
Granted, writers must be fantastic to pull these characters off. They’re not merely giving us Jack Nicholson’s As Good As It Gets character, who simply decided that he wanted to “be a better man,” and that was enough for some to accept his “growth.” That was too easy. You gotta make these characters work for it, and give them real texture and lives and give them room to grow before being judged accordingly. Well, TV writers did it for 2021. Curmudgeons ruled the year of popular and/or prestige TV offerings. So, let’s do a quick-and-dirty ranking for those stand-out examples, who fueled word-of-mouth followings and ascended to the top of our Best TV Shows list this year. And what’s one more ranking list to top of the year? F*ck off and witness the loathing.
8. Charles In Only Murders In The Building: Bless Steve Martin for co-creating this role for himself to inhabit. His Charles is all caged up within his own world and has, in effect, imprisoned himself. He’s a contentedly miserable guy (although Martin’s playing this guy for laughs), eccentric to the max, and shackled to rituals like that daily omelette that he tosses into the trash. And he seems alright with this, until the whole murder thing happens and propels him to take a step back and really examine himself. He grows in his interactions with Mable and Oliver and realizes how life could really be, but boy, does that season finale throw a wrench into things. If you haven’t watched yet, I won’t spoil (because there will be Season 2 coming), but let’s just say that there’s a fresh obstacle in place that will prevent Charles from lofty pursuits like self-actualization.
7. Bucky Barnes in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Christ, this guy has been through everything, and there’s a twist with poor Bucky: his curmudgeonly ways source from decades of being warped into super-soldier mode. We’d all be pretty f*cked up after being programmed by HYDRA and being forced to blindly kill targets, including Tony Stark’s parents. That went down in Captain America: Civil War, and Bucky was never truly able to undo that animosity towards him. It’s no wonder that he needs some serious therapy in this Disney+ show because his crankiness coexists alongside vulnerability. That dichotomy is part of why Marvel fans love Bucky so much, and why Sebastian Stan told us that he wants Bucky to have a “nice warm bed as a 200-year-old man with a family.” And you know what? Bucky would love that ending but can’t shake the grump.
6. M.O.D.O.K. in (duh) M.O.D.O.K.: Like Martin, Oswalt had a hand in crafting the ways of this character, given that Oswalt co-wrote with Jordan Blum. Moving past the source material, they made M.O.D.O.K. a bad dude that must balance his family life. The problem is this: he’s insufferable and basically the Kevin James-type husband, and although his co-workers must put up with him, his wife has had enough. M.O.D.O.K. scrambles to keep all the pieces of his life together, and it doesn’t work. I love that Oswalt and Blum didn’t take the easy route here while examining a villain’s family life. They didn’t simply make this about a dad pressuring his son to to follow in his footsteps. Been there, done that. Instead, this is a series that happens to be about a supervillain but really beats the stuffing out of him and family-sitcoms, too. Oh and also, it’s a blast to watch a comic book hero or villain do anything beyond try to save the world.
5. Denise in Master Of None: Aziz Ansari directed this season and largely refrained from putting his character on camera, and the end result was a completely different mood. Lena Waithe’s character took center stage, and we received a meditation about a tough egg to crack, who’s understated but still incorrigible. Denise might seem cool, but privately? She chooses to grumpily and painstakingly eat a hamburger in a car (and evade discussions) rather than have dinner with her wife. Even when things are good, and even when Denise has other partners (and it seems to be good with them), there’s always a sense that she’s holding back, and that’s the case with all of her relationships except for one: Aziz’s Dev.
Here’s the thing, though: Denise is the only one who’s able to bring the real Dev out and to make the process feel authentic, even though he presents a different, more upbeat face to the rest of the world. Their dynamic previously got the spotlight during a Season 2 Thanksgiving episode, and it really got fleshed out this year. Dev needs a polar opposite like Denise to make him reflect on how he can work on himself, and it’s heartbreaking to see, but Denise showcases the best of Dev. She’s a terrible spouse but a terrific friend, and this is a curmudgeon that you want on your side.
4. Geralt in The Witcher: Granted, I’m using a GIF here that shows Geralt in his least curmudgeonly moment of the whole series, but I have a method to my madness because it boils down to this: There’s something about the Geralt-Jaskier relationship and that monstrously beautiful “Toss A Coin” song that made Geralt’s grunt-filled nature hit home. As a Witcher, he’s feared and ostracized for his mutant powers and potions and leather pants that reek of onions commingling with destiny. He’s more than underappreciated for slaying monsters, and he’s coped by shutting people out, but the Bard pushes his way into Geralt’s heart, to a point, before Geralt torpedoes the friendship. Yet when they meet again in Season 2, Geralt’s striking a different vibe. Because fate demanded it, he’s grown to be a father figure to Ciri, and Jaskier really lets Geralt have it. And somehow, an apology emerges, but don’t worry, Geralt will always be Geralt, and he won’t truly abandon his crotchety ways anytime soon.
3. Logan Roy in Succession: What else can I say here on Logan that hasn’t already been said in one of our own Brian Grubb’s Report Cards? I’ll give it a shot. Logan is the modern, cable news-pushing version of Shakespeare’s King Lear. He’s both malignant and magnetic, to the point where everyone is dying to actually hear Brian Cox tell them to f*ck off on the street. We never got to know the younger Logan (although we’ve seen a few glimpses while the series’ intro song plays), but there’s gotta be plenty there that’s worth watching, too. As Cox told us, he wants to see what made Logan slide from ambition to disillusionment, and everything that made him what he is today: the monster who everyone fears and is incrementally tearing Kendall’s soul to pieces. This show really came to a boil with Logan shutting down the three-piece coup, and the power-play spectacle is addictive. Season 4 can’t come soon enough.
2. and 1. Helen in Mare Of Easttown and Deborah in Hacks
Brian Cox rules, but he can’t measure up to the lady who owned a doubleheader in 2021. Jean Smart, the undisputed queen of abrasive characters, gave us two varieties of curmudgeon in 2021. First, she gave us an irresistibly cranky Delco mother to Kate Winslet’s Curmudgeon Jr., and we really got to see where Kate’s detective received at least part of her disposition. Somewhere in all of this, too, Easttown (like all small towns) had an effect on all who resided there. Yet Smart’s cocktail-swilling grandma gave us plenty of laughs, despite the murder business hanging over the whole joint.
Then came Hacks, a show that made me cackle with glee at every turn. Seriously, it was the best day when I realized that I thought I was watching the season finale, only to discover that two more episodes awaited. That was Christmas in June, for real. As Vegas stand-up legend Deborah Vance, Jean is cranky and hilarious and captivating and frankly a bit insane. She, like Hannah Einbinder’s Ava, is navigating how to survive in a world where she’s newly considered an outcast, and she simply doesn’t have the warm and fuzzy ways to “nice” her way into a resolution. Deborah’s story has reached a pivotal point between seasons, but watching these two exchange blows and nods of respect — knowing that they need each other — is really something. Hannah Einbinder’s Ava holds her own, and Jean ends up giving as good as her character takes.
The Summer of Jean Smart is still real, and I’m thrilled to watch her pull that acerbic heft out and wield it with aplomb. We’ve could have seen this coming, with Jean’s recent turns in Watchmen, Dirty John, and Fargo positioning her for a prestige-TV takeover, but her starring turn in Hacks is a celebration. Jean Smart could teach a master class in curmudgeonry. All hail the Queen.