We’re in the golden age of TV, meaning that it’s never been so consistently strong in quality and that there’s never been so much of it available at once. It’s easier than ever for audiences to check out international programming. British comedies like Fleabag, Chewing Gum and Catastrophe found overseas acclaim pretty quickly after their initial premieres, and Britain is still living under the spell cast by Scandi-noirs like The Killing.
That’s exciting for those of us who have a lot of procrastinating to do, but it’s also a daunting task for any pop culture fan to try and navigate. Even critics face this conundrum. Where the hell do you start? How do you keep up with everything? And what happens if you miss something that’s perfect for you, but you just had no damn idea it was there? Alas, it’s a problem that’s happened to me many times: You hear whispers of a cool show, make a vague note of it in the back of your mind, then by the time you’ve cleared your schedule enough to watch it, it’s either been cancelled or disappeared from legal viewing options.
Never fear, for I am here to make sure you are aware of three sinfully underrated shows that aired in the past couple of years on my side of the pond. You may have heard of one of them but I highly doubt the other two ever passed your radars, so it seems only fair that they get a second chance.
This 6-episode comedy aired on ITV 2, whose original programming tends to skew more towards the kind of reality TV you pretend you’ve never heard of when in polite company (Love Island and Bromans, anyone?) Sadly, their best offering in years seemed to sink without a trace, but that may have been because basically nobody even knew it was on.
The story follows four black Londoners who perform in an unsuccessful jazz quartet and find themselves sent back to the 1920s by way of a magical lift (operated by Homeless Pete). While there, they decide to take advantage of the era’s newfound love for jazz and pretend they wrote songs like ‘Hey Ya’ and ‘Crazy in Love’.
Daniel Lawrence Taylor co-writes and stars as Nick, the over-sensitive leader of the band who approaches everything with a tad too much caution; the wonderful Adelayo Adedayo is his sister Lauren, the tomboyish drummer and only one who seems smart enough to truly navigate their newfound circumstances; Kadiff Kirwarn is sex player Jason, an incorrigible womanizer whose little head does all the thinking for him; and Samson Kayo is Horace, the vocalist whose child-like naivety shields him from almost everything. There’s not a weak link in the bunch, but Kayo may get all the best lines (his excitement over being in the 1920s and the possibility of getting to burn a witch had me in stitches).
Time Wasters is super funny, but it’s also razor sharp in its genre styling. Time travel is a well-worn trope of sci-fi, but it feels incredibly fresh in this show, and through such simple subversions. As one of the characters mentions in the first episode, how often do you see black people time travel? We’ve all been asked which period of time we’d love to go back to, given the chance, but unless you’re white, your options tend to be pretty limited. Here, the quartet have to contend not only with racism but with the contemporary fetish for their culture: People scream in terror as they pass the four in the street, but they’re still desperate to have them perform jazz at their latest house party. It’s a shame that this show went unnoticed by audiences because it offered some of the sharpest satire in both comedy and genre fiction. The intersections of race, class and culture are examined with plenty of belly laughs, and their take on the money driven shallowness of the flapper era is sublime (‘Who wants some cocaine?!’)
A BBC 3 exclusive, released after the channel went entirely digital, this drama seemed too cold for some viewers. Set at Edinburgh University (yay!), the series follows two lifelong friends who start the same course and become seduced by an unlikely source. Jude, a dynamic businesswoman (played by Louise Brealey from Sherlock) offers several lucky girls every year the chance to be part of her prestigious internship program. But this is no ordinary work experience where you spend most of your time fetching the coffees and photocopying documents: The interns of the Solasta Women’s Initiative are glamorous, well-connected and guaranteed a place in the upper echelons of society. Of course, Holly and Georgia become embroiled in this seductive world, and struggle to hold onto their formerly unbreakable friendship. Imagine Gossip Girl by way of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
As someone who attended Edinburgh University, I am keenly knowledgeable of its particular appeal. It’s an astoundingly beautiful university in a city with the sights to match, but it’s also one where you struggle to ignore the monied nature of it all. I’d never been more painfully aware of my own status as a working class woman until I went there, and I’m someone who grew up near people who lived in castles. It’s a city where someone will ask what school you went to, and the expectation is you’ll respond with the name of a top private one (once, after I’d graduated, someone asked me if I knew Pippa Middleton. It’s that kind of university).
What Clique nails is the contradictions of the university and how people like me - working class Scottish women who don’t have to pay to attend it - are torn between being repulsed by that world and desperately hoping to be a part of it.
Outside of that, the show is also one of the most scathing indictments of privileged ‘choice feminism’ I’ve ever seen. Jude makes her debut by giving a speech in class about how women don’t get far in business not because of societal barriers or misogyny, but because we won’t shut up about being victims. Her motto is less Lean In than Be One of the Lads, and she advocates for women wielding power in the same way a man does. When she introduces the stunning beauties who were hand-picked for her women’s initiative, you almost understand the desire to do as she says. The reality of this situation is much darker than the utopia she promises, and as the series progresses, you see the desperate seediness of this ethos.
I’ve heard that Clique is indeed returning for a second season, which sort of breaks the rules of my own post, but I’ll allow it anyway.
This is the one you’ve probably heard of, thanks to its availability on Netflix (and Kristy’s review). Alas, there definitely won’t be a second season of this sci-fi comedy, but thankfully its six episode run ends in a satisfying manner, so don’t worry about cliff-hangers and the like.
Created by Howard Overman (the man responsible for Misfits), the show follows Amy and Raquel, two 20-something women with histories of mental illness who also have the ability to see demons. While Amy is reluctant to get involved with this strange new world, Raquel is eager to be the living snot out of every demon she encounters, which will come in handy when the ‘head demon prick’ sets out to capture her for nefarious misdeeds.
The Buffy parallels in this show are obvious - young women kicking supernatural arse will do that - but where Crazyhead truly excels is in its emotional beats. Both women have lived with the stigma of mental illness for most of their lives and it impacts everything they do. Their friends and family look at them with that glint of concern in every conversation and they often struggle to articulate how they feel. The demon pricks - mostly men in their encounters - use that knowledge to gaslight them and make them doubt themselves over what is and isn’t reality.
As hilarious as the show can be - there’s a conversation involving ham that made me literally spit-take - it’s not afraid to get disturbing either. One character goes through possession, an exorcism and zombie hunger in ways that are viscerally bleak but still able to elicit a chuckle. Seeing this kind of story with women and the power of female friendship at the heart of it is a true delight, which makes its cancellation all the harder to swallow.
Crazyhead is available to watch on Netflix. Clique is available in the UK on BBC 3 via the iPlayer. Timewasters is not currently available on any streaming platforms from what I’ve been able to gleam.
What underrated one season wonder shows do you recommend? Answers in the comments.
(Header image from ITV 2 Website)