Four Hidden Gems that Even the Most Educated Television Viewers Haven't Seen Yet
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Four Hidden Gems that Even the Most Educated Television Viewers Haven't Seen Yet

By Brian Byrd | Seriously Random Lists | July 12, 2012 | Comments ()


Every now and then friends or random Twitterers, aware of my affinity for television, will ask me to suggest a great series they've never seen. What used to be a rather simple request has morphed into a fully loaded question with a difficulty level equivalent to solving a quadratic equation while chugging Goose through a garden hose. For one, tastes vary. Outside of "The Wire," true pop culture unanimity is nearly impossible to achieve. Furthermore, the wrong recommendation can torpedo your credibility. A friend of mine still gives me shit because I proposed that he, a devoted "Family Guy" disciple, check out "Archer" one rainy winter afternoon. He hated it, resulting in an all-out rumble that left one of his eyes black and the other a slightly darker shade of black.

However, the biggest trouble spot by far - aside from the occasionally violent yet totally justified outburst that decimates long-term friendships - is coming up with a hidden gem for someone with encyclopedic pop culture knowledge. Placating these rain men used to be as easy as pulling up a list of cult TV shows, scanning the entries, and choosing a few that best fit their style. After all, cult television was once a very real phenomenon. In the mid-90s and early 2000s, discerning fans that gravitated toward well-written underground series had few mechanisms in place for sharing their discoveries. They could tape the show, wait for the home video and lend it to a friend, or try and get everyone in the same room each week to watch live. An organic sense of community developed as a result of these intimate person-to-person connections. "Cult" became an apt descriptor.

The Internet eroded these traditional boundaries at lightning speed. Exposing your friends to a fantastic show no longer requires antiquated methods like mailing a VHS tape or physically interacting with other human beings. Social networks, blogs, torrents and emails can disseminate an entire series in seconds. Tablets, smartphones and cloud technologies allow for ubiquitous consumption. Just like that, the cult went from 300 to 3,000,000 almost overnight. Like the hipster who hates his favorite band the moment their song appears in a Honda commercial, followers of certain series fought vigorously to maintain cult status or lobbied hard to get it. The latter group won. Over the past decade, the admittance threshold to this formerly exclusive fraternity has eased to the point of nonexistence. Once the domain of pioneers such as "Freaks and Geeks," and "Buffy," the criteria has broadened to mainstream pop-culture landmarks like "Lost" and "The Simpsons" as well as every low-rated cheeseball sci-fi show in existence. When everything is special, nothing is. This shift toward mass inclusion, coupled with advent of the streaming video and new multimedia platforms, created a larger, more cultured fanbase. TV aficionados are educated, aware, and harder to surprise than ever.

Basically, there's no oil left to be discovered. Those in search of beloved rarities are left to frack the television bedrock in hopes of unearthing treasures that somehow slipped through the now airtight pop-culture cracks. Well, as a native Pennsylvanian I will gladly risk the contaminating the region's water table to bring you four fantastic television series the bulk of this site - nay, THE VAST AND RESPLENDENT INTERNET AT LARGE - has either never seen or barely heard of. In the interest of fairness (and to make it more challenging for me), only shows that have aired in the last 15 years could be considered. Sorry, "Eerie, Indiana." This is bigger than you and I.

Network: FX
Airdate: 2006
Number of seasons: 1

"The Shield," Shawn Ryan's fiendishly addictive, beautifully realized portrait of a flawed law enforcement officer, is widely considered one of the last decade's most outstanding series, its critical and commercial triumphs singlehandedly responsible for FX's transformation into a destination for complex, edgy television. In 2003, FX, eager to capitalize on its burgeoning reputation, ordered a six-episode miniseries focused on a veteran heist crew and the personal and professional struggles they undergo while planning a career-making score in post-Katrina New Orleans. The script gestated in purgatory for over two years until the network tapped the captivating Andre Braugher for the lead role of Nick Atwater. "Thief" premiered a week after "The Shield" wrapped its fifth-season in 2006, concluding a month later to minimal fanfare or critical attention.

Which is odd. Like a kitten that brews its own beer, there was nothing not to love about this show. The writing is brisk and tight; the realistic dynamic between Atwater and his crew (which includes Clifton Collins Jr. and Malik Yoba, with Sarah Connor and Merle appearing in key supporting roles) is exceeded only by Atwater's relationship with his angsty teenager daughter, played by the always-angsty Mae Whitman in a role that doubled as her audition tape for "Parenthood." Half the penultimate episode focuses on the heist, which proves well thought out and stuffed with tension. A broken, festering New Orleans - still on life support less than a year after being nearly eradicated by our government a hurricane - eschews simplistic clichés to become a genuinely compelling character of its own. It's Braugher, though, who ropes these individual standouts together and ensures they exceed the sum of their parts. His cohesive, commanding presence elevates an already decent series into something unique, a fine performance justly rewarded with a 2007 Emmy for Best Actor in a Miniseries.

"Thief" was the guy at the office predicting Dubya would be horrible president two weeks after 9/11 - brilliant, but just a hair too early to the party. In 2006, pop culture websites were only beginning to emerge from the Internet's primordial ooze. On demand viewing was in its infancy. Streaming content was a pipe dream. Miss the six episodes when they aired and you were shit out of luck. Had "Thief" premiered just one or two years later there's a damn good chance it would have maintained a loyal following with plenty of critical support. Instead it became one of the truly overlooked standouts of the last decade.

Where you can watch it: For years it was if this show never existed. FX declined to release it on home video and torrents were nowhere to be found. Hulu, doing the Godtopus' work, added it last year. Stop reading and start streaming now.

Network: HBO
Airdate: 1997-1999
Number of seasons: 3

Todd McFarlane was never one to follow conventional wisdom. The writer/artist left Marvel in 1991 to form Image Comics, pinning the future of this new brand on a disfigured undead assassin blessed (or cursed) with finite magical powers bestowed upon him by the devil himself. Of course, the brooding, violent "Spawn" became a massive hit in comics circles, and before long McFarlane was approached with offers to see his creation converted into other mediums. There was only one problem - authenticity. The comic is darker than Wesley Snipes eating chocolate inside a dying star. Graphic sex, soul-numbing violence, and enough language to make Al Swearengen call the FCC were all integral to the book's appeal. Compromising anywhere meant exorcizing the comic's essence.

Fortunately, HBO gives less fucks than Lord Varys at a nunnery. Not only did they welcome McFarlane's creation with open arms, they went out and animated the damn thing to preserve the comic's signature style. Fifteen years has passed since its premiere, but "Todd McFarlane's Spawn" remains an unsettling series even by today's standards. What's brooding and depressing on the page becomes positively morose on the screen, an evolution largely a result of Keith David's stellar voice work. Spawn's incessant torment is evident in every line, regardless of whether he's ghosting mercs as a supernatural badass or watching his wife fall asleep beside his former best friend. Crediting a late-90s cartoon with jump-starting a wave of comic book adaptations is bridge too far. But the two-time Emmy winner provided a window into the future appetite for non-conventional serialized programming based on alternative intellectual properties, and it did so in wonderfully entertaining fashion.

Where you can watch it: For whatever reason, "Spawn" isn't available on HBOGo (I contacted the network for clarification but haven't yet received a response). Amazon has various DVD box sets for sale if you can't find a working torrent.

K Street
Network: HBO
Airdate: 2003
Number of seasons: 1

If you think Magic Mike was the first Steven Soderbergh project to center on men getting paid obscene money to shove their dicks in the faces of ordinary Americans, you obviously missed "K Street." Trying to summarize this...thing, which debuted on HBO in the fall of 2003 and lasted all of 10 episodes, is a challenge I may not be equipped to meet. Here goes: at its core, "K Street" is a series about the District's pervasive lobbyist culture. Pretty straightforward, right? Fuck you. The single camera show centers on legendary lobbyist/noted eel enthusiast James Carville and his wife, fellow influence peddler Mary Matalin, who both work for a firm that may or may not have connections to a terrorist organization. I think. I don't know, the plot sort of fades in and out like a shitty transistor radio. In fact, "K Street" either ends with a slick surprise or a perfectly straightforward closing shot. I can't decide because I'm not confident I fully understand what I saw. It's that type of show.

Technically, Carville and Matalin play versions of themselves, although how much is acting compared to the duo just living their lives in front of a camera isn't clear. But that's mostly by design. Soderbergh nukes the line between fiction and reality, improvising most of the dialogue and shooting episodes just days before they were scheduled to air. Veteran actors Mary McCormack, Elliot Gould, John Slattery and the super-suave Roger Guenveur Smith (who, in Francisco Dupre, enjoys one of the most pimpstastic character names ever) interact with real-life pundits and policymakers Howard Dean, Rick Santorum, and Paul Begala, who appear periodically not to advance the story but reinforce the verisimilitude. Lunches and strategy sessions dominate the proceedings. Hell, half the time it feels like Soderbergh gave a camera to some well-connected senator's nephew, told him to film everything he saw over a two month period, and then just aired the footage for 10 weeks.

So why the hell would you want to watch this? Because it's train-wreck television in the best sense of the phrase, equal parts brilliance and batshittery. Despite its ardent aversion to plot and decision to place two political veterans in starring roles, "K Street" largely achieves what it set out to do - give viewers a realistic peek into the modern political process. Tropes aside, it really is like nothing else on TV before or since. Soderbergh is the mad scientist of modern entertainment, endlessly tinkering with concepts and ideas to see what works. "K Street" is one that escaped the lab before being fully formed. And it made for damn compelling television.

Where you can watch it: Again, no HBO Go. For the four of you who still get red envelopes in the mail, Netflix has the two-disc DVD set.

The Thick of It
Network: BBC
Airdate: 2005-present
Number of seasons: 4

Before "Veep" cemented itself as one of television's strongest comedies, British funnyman Armando Iannucci was best known in America for his 2009 film In The Loop, a wicked satire about Western politics framed against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A handful of critics included the black comedy on their best-of lists, and it earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. But In The Loop wasn't the first time Iannucci satirized British politics. Hell, it wasn't even the first time he introduced many of that film's characters.

"The Thick Of It" is the type of series best enjoyed after a long shitty day at the office. Any fuck-ups you've made at work pale in comparison to the stunning ineptitude exhibited by Britain's fictitious Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. Not one of the characters - from the bumbling minister to his policy advisors - has a competent bone in their body, and that uselessness is mined for deep, sustainable laughs. The only thing anyone on the show does well is curse, because no one on television does highbrow vulgarity better than Iannucci. To borrow a line from Yeezy, he writes his curses in cursive. Chief among masters is the incomparable Malcolm Tucker. If you're not familiar with Mr. Tucker's CV, click here (not fucking safe for fucking work). His unhinged maniacal ravings are works of art, blending inventiveness and contempt in a way that lets us both laugh at and empathize with the unfortunate recipient. Remember, these people are morons. Hysterical morons, but morons nonetheless. Like "Veep," the ultimate hilarity stems from just how closely Iannucci's fictional characters mirror real-life politicians. If "K Street" is meant to critique the political process through infiltration and exposure, "The Thick of It" chooses to highlight its absurdity using unqualified dopes with a propensity for F-bombs. I'm not sure which is more effective. But only one features a prominent government official screaming "fuckety bye." You make the call.

Where you can watch it: Amazon, Netflix DVD, illicit means

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I've got one recommendation, but it's current and may have been endorsed here on the site already: The Fades, a BBC fantasy drama about the undead and angelic beings fighting them. It takes the old "The Chosen One" angle and mixes things up a bit.

  • Zog2012

    Seen it, will check it out, pass, pass. My four might be a little older. 1) The Inside was a FBI procedural created by former Whedon alum Tim Minear. Creative and dark, with Rachel Nichols as the lead, along with Adam Baldwin, Jay Harrington and Peter Coyote. Also worth a shot, Nichols latest effort the only in Canada sci fi Continuum. Solid. 2) G v E (aka Good vs Evil) existed on USA for a season before being picked up by the sci-fi channel. Angels vs Demons fare with a strong 70's vibe. Clayton Rohner and Richard Brooks are the most bizarre buddy cop tandem hands down. Cameos by Deacon Jones. 3) I am a guy, so first choice from the BBC should be Sherlock, but it isn't. Secret Diary of a Callgirl with Billie Piper pushes the edge in a way American television doesn't. Redefines the edge in a couple of episodes. 4) Off the board pick, the Danish nordic noire series Borgen. Popular when brought to the BBC, now on Link TV in the U.S. Second season available for viewing free now. Imagine a middle age women as Jack Bauer, and then make her prime minister. Excellent takes on the state of current government and media. Afghanistan and Greenland episodes are jaw dropping for their intelligence and polish. Instead of monster of the week, there are crisis of the week episodes. Asked three Danes what Borgen means, got three different answers. For me Borgen means good tv.

  • RyanBeingManny

    I have always loved these two:
    Kitchen Confidential. It ran for 5 episodes on Fox in like 2005, but was brilliant. Bradley Cooper as Bourdain trying to get his career back on track in NY. The whole cast is genius.
    Starved. I loved this show. It is Eric Schaeffer, but not totally obnoxious. It premiered in the slot directly before Its Always Sunny, and I honestly thought Starved would be the show that made it. Absurd in all the right ways.

  • Renton

    Peep Show is the show I would recommend to anybody. Filthy, funny and far too true. The first series is astounding, really. It got a little more cartoonish as it went on, but the writing was still there, and still hilarious. It also has the unique selling point there you get to hear the two main characters thoughts. In a truthful way. Hopefully you American chaps can view this.

  • Shonda aka fpkillkill

    Goddamn, Thief was great. I watched every episode and was PISSED when they cancelled it. The scene where Mae throws the N word? Incredible.

    And Andre Braugher is always a revelation.

  • squizza

    UC:Undercover, was good and unfortunately only one season long. It aired back in 2002/2003. I wish i could rewatch it. If anyone comes across it on the interweb i suggest giving it a chance. Great cast and a welcome change from the averave police procedural.

  • TheOriginalMRod

    Death Valley ran one season on MTV (has not been picked up for a second season as of March 2012). I didn't even know about it until it had run its course, since everyone knows MTV is crap. But this was pretty funny. You can watch most episodes on YouTube I think. It is kind of like Reno 911 meets True Blood and Walking Dead. It is silly fun, if you like that sort of thing. I do.

    Also Miranda (BBC) which which I have only caught a couple of, on PBS. Wiki says a new season should be out late 2012. If you are a fan of British comedies. (oh ... and I guess it helps if you are okay with tall chicks that are over weight.)

  • Renton

    Miranda was terrible. Every time she pops up on my television I feel a little sad.

  • Donovan

    Spaced? only 2 seasons... early Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost? Thanks for the rest!

  • winged chorus

    This is a fantastic post. Only seen 'The Thick of It', but now I'm definitely going to try to see the others.

  • zzt

    I saw the first three when they were on. Go fish

  • Strand

    "I proposed that he, a devoted “Family Guy” disciple, check out “Archer” one rainy winter afternoon. He hated it"

    Friends don't let friends watch Family Guy.

  • Mr_Zito

    That Spawn animated show was amazing. I only watched the first few episodes they released here in a newsstand VHS collection, so I don't know if it kept good, but it took the stories from the comics and actually improved in the storytelling and darkness. The comics were promising at first but got terrible really fast, it only had something like 20 good issues before it completely stopped making sense. I don't know the TV series turned out, if they kept following the comic book when it became crap or if they did their own thing. I guess I'll try to catch up with it.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    How on earth is "The Thick of It" obscure? Oh, in America. I see. Well, never mind then. Fuckety bye.

  • AudioSuede

    For some reason, even sports fans seem to forget about Playmakers. That show was so intense and true-to-life that the NFL threatened to pull ESPN's rights to their broadcasting, and ESPN hasn't even attempted an original scripted series since.

  • QueeferSutherland

    DAMMIT! I have no excuse for omitting that. None. I own the series on DVD and can quote two or three Demetruis DH Harris lines off the top of my head.

    Seriously, that really bugs me. Great, great call.

  • Ianucci just tweeted that Thick of It is coming to the US unbleeped and that details were to follow...

  • Anyone remember that TNT show "Wanted"? It had a badass Gary Cole leading a militant team of Jack Bauers against bad guys. Rashida Jones and the singer of Saliva were on his team. It was basically an insane dick measuring pile of explosions, muscle cars and TNT approved nearcurses and it was glorious.

    I feel shame.

  • Siege

    I watched the whole run of that show -- I thought it was okay, but I don't think it had time to get truly interesting. I will say that the cast was great, and I particularly liked the way they portrayed the team member who was a religious fundamentalist.

  • A. Smith

    I remember that it ended where one of the team members was an informant. I wanted to see what would happen next. The show was fine, had an eclectic (Josey Scott from Saliva?) but talented ensemble. I think what killed it was the fact it premiered along with The Shield and the comparisons came when it wasn't justified also the show's season was broken in half unexpectedly.

    Man thinking about that got me thinking of Line of Fire. Another cop show aiming to be the successor to NYPD Blue and was also very good with David Paymer playing antagonist. It was canceled not because of ratings but because of the PTC. Unusuals another favorite got me watching tv again, now that its on Netflix watch it now. Thinking about this I could go on and on.

  • annie

    The writing for Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) in The Thick of It is like the Shakespeare of cursing. It might also be time to finally watch Iannucci's Four Lions, a comedy about suicide bombers.

  • csb

    Iannucci didn't work on Four Lions. It was made by Chris Morris, who as it happens created the BBC show "The Day Today" with him back in the 90s.

    It's well worth watching at any rate; brilliant show.

  • The Pink Hulk

    Did anyone BUT me watch the short-lived WB series "Popular," Ryan Murphy's early foray into teen mean girl politics?

  • annie

    That was a pretty great show, but like Glee, it started out great and then got frustratingly weird, even for a teenage girl with really poor taste like I was then.

  • Basement Boy

    Sorry to say, Netflix is turning up nothing for “The Thick of It”... nor under "Iannucci "

  • hindulovegod

    My friends and I were addicted to Spawn. In the 1990s, Todd McFarlane could do no wrong. We gobbled up everything he and Image Comics threw at us.

    My favorite hidden gem, though, is Flying Blind, a Tea Leoni vehicle that ran for one season on Fox in 1992.

  • Slash

    Pfft ... amateur.

    "Action." Ran for one season only on Fox, 1999-2000. Jay Mohr, Illeana Douglas, Buddy Hackett. Goddam hilarious. You can get it from Amazon.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Yes! Even in German dubbing, it is so good that it's still one of my favorite shows.

  • Stinky Pete

    "Action!" is being rerun late nights on IFC, if you're an owl or know how to program a DVR.

  • QueeferSutherland

    Had this post not been 2000 words already, a Fox show would have made the cut. Wasnt "Action," though. If youve never seen "The Loop", find it somewhere and give it a spin. Philip Baker Hall alone is well worth your time.

  • Slash

    "The Loop" sounds vaguely familiar, but I haven't seen it. I will add it to the list.

  • Hank Quinlan's Third Chin


  • POINGjam

    The Spawn show was way better than the comic. Todd McFarlane can't write for shit.

  • Green Lantern

    I gotta echo all the "Spawn" love. I was never the biggest fan of the book (despite having the first 24 issues or so), but I thought that series was almost note perfect to the comics. Impressive at the time, but I'd be interested to see how they hold up.

    'Cause the movie really hasn't.

  • fracas

    Ha! I read/collected the comic for the same number of issues before I got bored with it and realized it wasn't going anywhere.

  • junierizzle

    Spawn was the ish!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 15 years ago? Damn, I'm old-er.

  • Pookie

    “Thief” was Andre Braugher at his best, yes that includes “Homicide.” Well maybe not “Homicide,” but damn close.

  • A. Smith

    I was so miffed I ended up going to bmt right when it premiered. They used to show the series every now and then but I think they stopped in 2007-8. In the end I just torrented the series along with Defying Gravity & Drive.

  • Wednesday

    Netflix is not showing The Thick of It in either Instant Watch or DVD. Thanks for the tip on BBCA...though they haven't been consistent in airing Twenty Twelve in a manner which my TiVo can decipher.

  • ahamos

    Not trying to nitpick, but genuinely confused at the timeline for "Thief". Was it really written 2 years prior to Katrina...about a post-hurricane NOLA?

  • QueeferSutherland

    They wrote the pilot and outline in 2003, changing it to focus more on NoLa once Braugher signed on in late 2005.

  • Fredo

    BBC America has been running "The Thick of It" Saturdays at midnight during their comedy blocks. Set your DVRs.

    And I'll second the shoutout to "Spawn". It's like few shows ever made, nevermind animated. There's not an ounce of niceness in it -- or if there is, be very afraid of it.

  • Vivianne ValdeMar

    2 outta 4: "Spawn" and "The Thick Of It".

  • ceebee_eebee

    The Thick of It is one of the greatest shows ever created. If I admitted how many times I've watched every episode...well, there would be shame. But fuck it. Maybe I've memorized certain episodes but IT'S JUST THAT GOOD. I'm all over it. Like a pigeon on a chip.

  • flighty

    Check out The Armando Iannucci Show, it's very different but darkly hilarious.

  • zeke_the_pig

    Right there with you, mate. The Shakespeare of swearing.

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