From ‘I May Destroy You’ to ‘Immigration Nation,’ 2021 Peabody Award Nominees Capture the Zeitgeist

·3-min read

Every year, the Peabody Awards recognize a stacked group of TV projects across all different genres, taking care to highlight shows that are worthy of further consideration. Looking over the 2021 nominees, it’s interesting to note the Peabodys’ assertion that this year’s honorees “represent the most compelling and empowering stories” released during an unusually fraught year marked by plague, protests and a worldwide reckoning with the unjust systems that have propped up outdated thinking for too long. Very few of the nominated series were made with the knowledge of the pandemic year to come, and yet all echo its singular strangeness in some way or another.

Winner announcements began virtually on June 21. But when it comes to nominees, on the documentary front, it’s encouraging to see “Immigration Nation” garner more attention than it did upon its premiere in August. Netflix’s docuseries may have suffered from the “too hard to watch” factor, as people may have flocked to something more like fellow Peabody nominee “Ted Lasso” for the TV equivalent of comfort food. (Apple TV Plus’ “Ted Lasso” was ultimately one of the winners announced on June 21.)

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“Immigration Nation” is decidedly, purposefully made to cause discomfort. Filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz embedded with both ICE agents and the families that U.S. Border Patrol separated as the Trump administration ramped up its efforts to radically reduce immigration, legal or otherwise. It’s a uniquely upsetting, illuminating series that deserves a closer look. So, too, do Netflix documentaries “Crip Camp” and “Disclosure,” which both shine a light on underserved communities — those with disabilities and trans people, respectively — to moving effect.

On the scripted front, it’s always intriguing to see where the Peabodys might land given its voting body’s eclectic taste, and 2021 proves to be no exception.

This year’s entertainment category includes several standouts that nonetheless belong to wildly different genres from each other, making it one of the most fascinating to unpack. In just this one category, the Peabodys have recognized empathetic comedies including “Ted Lasso” and “Never Have I Ever,” Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s smart look at an Indian American teen girl’s determination to have a “normal” high school experience.

It also threw nods to Steve McQueen’s lush film series “Small Axe,” which could not be more different in form, function and execution than fellow nominee “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” (this year’s lone late-night nominee and also a winner). Netflix continues its dominance with “Gentefied” and “Unorthodox,” which again have very few stylistic or narrative commonalities beyond the fact that both center on communities — East L.A. Mexican Americans and Satmar Jews — that rarely get to star in scripted stories onscreen.

Going by these nominees, Netflix seems to have won over plenty of Peabody voters this year. Of course, HBO nonetheless makes its presence known with nominations for Michaela Coel’s triumphant limited series “I May Destroy You” and an intimate “Euphoria” special produced during lockdown.

As good as “Euphoria” stars Zendaya and Colman Domingo are in this two-hander of an hour, the impact of “I May Destroy You” has proven more long-lasting. Coel’s bruising, funny, insightful show has only become more powerful in the year since it premiered, not least because it manages to hit on so many of the pressing issues that surrounded it upon its debut without ever becoming too didactic to take.

In Coel’s capable hands, “I May Destroy You” did, in fact, destroy so many of us in exactly the way you want a work of TV art to, grabbing viewers by the heart and throat with its clear-eyed, compassionate view of the world around us.

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