As far as entertainment choices go, the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of September are generally the dreariest of the year. Summer leftovers are being dumped in theaters hoping only to collect on moviegoers desperate for entertainment, while the most summer television series have ended their runs, and the fall schedule doesn’t kick in until the last half of September.
Fortunately, when faced with a dearth of entertainment options, there’s always Netflix Instant to keep you company during those dark, lonely nights before “Dexter” and “Sons of Anarchy” return for their falls runs. If you haven’t watched much television in the last several years, Netflix Instant has a lot of steller options, including several Pajiba favorites: “Friday Night Lights” (Seasons 1-3), “Veronica Mars” (Complete Series), “Arrested Development” (Complete Series), “Firefly” (Complete Series), “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Complete Series), “Doctor Who” (Seasons 1-4), and “Torchwood” (Complete Series).
Chances are, if you’re a regular reader of Pajiba, that you’ve already seen these series or spitefully decided against ever doing so. Unfortunately, aside from those above, or “30 Rock,” “Futurama,” and “The Office,” the next tiers of television shows available on Netflix Instant aren’t as compelling. That is, with the exception of these five little-seen series gems, which should help to make the next month a little more bearable.
The Guild: For those of you who often wonder what our collective obsession with Felicia Day is, “The Guild” provides all the evidence you need (though, another viewing of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog” should help). As someone who has next to no interest in gaming, comic books, or anything that requires the use of an avatar, I’m basically the last person who should be recommending “The Guild,” and yet, despite a modest budget and a lot of geek terminology, I find “The Guild,” immensely appealing. Basically, it’s a web series that Felicia Day created in an effort to put her own real-life online gaming addiction to good use. Day stars as Codex, an unemployed, slightly neurotic, incredibly insecure violinist who fritters away most of her day playing a World of Warcraft type of game, where she’s developed a close-knit set of Internet friends that belong to a guild called “The Knights of Good.” The storylines follow The Knight of the Good as they leave the comforts of their computer monitors and venture out into the real world. It’s an irresistibly endearing show, and you’ll be absolutely gobsmacked by the geeky cuteness of Day. (Seasons 1-3 Available on Netflix Instant; Season 4 Available at “The Guild” Website).
Skins: “Skins” is the dramatic coming-of-age counterpoint to another British series, “The In-Betweeners.” It stars a couple of familiar faces, in Nicholas Hoult (post-About a Boy) and Dev Patel (pre-Slumdog Millionaire). It follows the daily lives of several friends who attend Roundview Sixth Form College in Bristol (that’s a British version of a high school). It feels a little strained initially, as the characters are set up as typical teenage caricatures — the virgin, the slut, the wanker, the black one, the gay one, and the one with an eating disorder — but as the series progresses, each of the characters becomes more rounded and you become more invested in their lives. It’s a well-acted, very-well plotted series that explores the group dynamics while focusing on one character in each episode. It’s funny, poignant, gripping, and sometimes a little heartbreaking. I’ve only seen the first two series, which are the only two available on Netflix Instant. But from what Seth tells me, those are the only two series worth watching, as the cast gets a makeover in Series 3. And you should check them out soon; MTV is set to bastardize them next year. (Season 1-2 Available on Netflix Instant)
Dead Like Me: This little-seen 2003 Showtime series has already developed a cult following, but I’m hoping that it’s availability on Netflix Instant will provide it with more deserved exposure. It follows a college drop-out played by Ellen Muth (where did she go?), who dies in the opening episode and is recruited to be a grim reaper. It’s sort of a light, whimsical inversion of “Six Feet Under,” a tone you’ll likely recognize from series creator Bryan Fuller’s other two brilliant-but-cancelled series, “Wonderfalls,” and “Pushing Daisies.” I liked “Pushing Daisies,” a lot, but it’s premise wore thin after the first season: “Dead Like Me,” didn’t suffer the same premise fatigue (although, it did suffer a similar cancellation fate). It’s a smart show, droll and acerbic, and the chemistry between the actors is phenomenal. It’s one of those shows that probably merited some attention in our Best Television Seasons of the Last 20 Years, but didn’t’ quite make the cut. (Season 1 and Season 2 Available on Netflix Instant, as well as a Dead Like Me movie from 2009 that I haven’t watched, for fear that it would taint my love of the series).
MI:5: “MI5” is an engaging and brutal show and, at times, hard to watch, but all the more rewarding for it. It will grab your junk, throw you through a wall, and kick you in the face while you’re unconscious. Meant to be the British version of “24,” “MI;5” makes Jack Bauer look like a ninny screaming for his mommy. The densely plotted action drama essentially follows the work of a group of MI5 officers who are tasked with saving both Britain and the larger world from terrorist attacks. Week in and week out, the stakes are higher than any other show on television, and it always seems to come down to the lesser of two evils: Allow terrorists to kill thousands of faceless Brits or the more personalized murder of a handful of people you’ve become familiar with. What’s doubly remarkable about “MI;5” is that, unlike “24,” where Jack Bauer stops the bomb at the last second and avoids his own death, any one of the members of “MI5” can die at any time, usually violently and after you’ve gotten immensely attached to him or her. In fact, over the first three seasons, nearly the entire cast was replaced, and turnover is not uncommon even in its eighth series. Only the first four seasons are available on Netflix Instant, and though Richard Armitage and Hermione Norris are compelling draws in the latter series, the storylines lose some of their headiness. Besides, four series is probably enough to get you through the next month, or a heart-attack, whichever comes first. (Series 1-4 Available on Netflix Instant)
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Yes. I know this show was mocked ceaselessly when it originally aired on NBC, and the audience quickly abandoned the show. I think that “Studio 60” had the unfortunate displeasure of being compared to Aaron Sorkin’s previously genius run with “West Wing,” and another show with a similar premise that debuted at the same time, Tina Fey’s “30 Rock.” But for those who abandoned the show, I think you’ll see that it did get progressively better once we weren’t subjected to as many lame skits within the show, and focus turned away from Sarah Paulson’s heavy-handed Christian character. The chemistry between Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford is astounding all the way through the series (and that pilot episode is one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen), while Sorkin managed to squeeze in a lot of sharp commentary about the state of television and the media, commentary that’s probably even better appreciated now. Many of the stronger episodes, too, aired on NBC during the summer, and no one saw them, and those feature the strongest work by the weaselly Steven Weber character. It took Sorkin some time to find his legs with this show; unfortunately, by the time he had, the show had been cancelled. It’s a shame, too, because in the current post-Writer’s Strike television landscape, “Studio 60” would be one of the best shows on TV. It’s still very much worth visiting if you didn’t complete the series in its original run. (Complete Series available on Netflix Instant)