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

By Brian Byrd | Lists | July 12, 2012 |

By Brian Byrd | Lists | July 12, 2012 |

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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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.