In a golden age of TV some series bathe in the glow of public and critical adoration, while others of equal quality lay in their shadow. I asked some students to share their favourite underrated shows, hopefully these will provide some inspiration for revision procrastination over the coming weeks.
But first, how is it that these shows go unnoticed? And how is it that a TV series becomes a phenomenon?
The year 1959 saw the arrival of Rod Serling’s TV behemoth The Twilight Zone. The first adult science fiction show introduced to an American audience, The Twilight Zone used its genre to make serious social critique whilst dodging the censors. Serling’s series was novel. Its twist endings, self-contained stories, strange imagery and abundance of famous faces, clearly enticing. The Twilight Zone appealed to an America forging its post-war identity and dealing with many national fears, including nuclear paranoia. This climate nurtured a seedling show and enabled it to grow into the giant it was and still is. The Twilight Zone was a great show but it was fostered by the right environment to make it a phenomenon. Arguably no other show could do what Serling did with The Twilight Zone. TV is too well-trodden a medium for something to ever again define it in the way The Twilight Zone has done. Yet there are TV series that have found themselves able to emulate its success.
The year 1999 ushered in a new golden age of TV. HBO’s The Sopranos was the show that rang the bell to announce that this new age had begun. It had many of the same features that made The Twilight Zone so brilliant. Dark themes coupled with comedic moments, characters riddled with contradictions, and its cinematic disposition, all served to make the show a masterpiece. Following suit in recent years we have seen the likes of The Wire, The Office, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones reach astronomical levels of success. With the addition of social media, the following for these shows is even more intense. YouTube fan theory videos, memes, and the easy access to reviews mean that these shows are well and truly embedded into our lives. They have become part of our cultural lexicon.
However, what about the shows left behind? There are shows that are just as well-made but do not receive a fair share of the praise. Because, for however much we can point to the similar features of these rock star shows that make them astounding, there is no fool proof algorithm to becoming the next Game of Thrones. When seizing the zeitgeist there is always an element of timing, of chance, of luck. It’s not enough for a show to be great for it to become culturally iconic. That comes from some spark of magic in a relationship between the show and the environment it finds itself in. And like in all relationships, when and if such a spark will occur can’t be predicted. So, the remainder of this article is dedicated to those shows that have enjoyed a smaller level of success but are nonetheless worthy of your attention…
Please Like Me – Reviewed by Maya Marie
Please Like Me is a show that is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Australian writers Josh Thomas and Tom Ward both write and star in this comedy, available in the UK only on Amazon Prime. Please Like Me sits along with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Lena Dunham’s Girls in being one of the few TV shows that genuinely feel relatable. Yet, in comparison, Thomas and Ward’s writing is much more subdued and doesn’t stress so much focus on one character. Thomas’ self-titled character, Josh, is shown coming to terms with both his sexuality and his relationship with his suicidal mother, but the inconvenience he is most vocal about is the appearance of his face. The most painfully relatable character I’ve come across on TV, however, is Ward’s Tom. Pathetically well-meaning but also passive and comically self-depreciating, Tom’s best outlet is winding up Josh and his ex-girlfriend, the now friend-zoned Claire. Unlike sitcoms, such as Friends, these characters aren’t your ideal friends, they genuinely are your friends, for all of their terrible and brilliant qualities. With 30-minute episodes, Please Like Me fits perfectly into your day, acting as both escapism and self-reflection. It is worth subscribing to Amazon Prime, only to cancel after a month, just to watch the four seasons of Please Like Me—I certainly have done.
Baby– Reviewed by Madison Sotos
The Italian series Baby, produced by Netflix, explores the real events of the “Baby Squillo” scandal, involving two underage girls in Rome’s wealthiest district who became involved in a prostitution ring. Not usually one for dark or disturbing topics, I started this show looking to gain exposure to Italian language, without knowing the premise. Indeed, the show doesn’t actually begin exploring the grisly underworld of prostitution until around its fourth episode, by which time I was already hooked. It focuses on the buildup and the events that lead the protagonists, teenagers Chiara and Ludovica, to become involved in the sex industry, focusing on the destabilising effects of an unbalanced home environment, the potentially negative impacts of social media on relationships, and the pressures on young people to grow up too quickly. While I have read criticism that the show glorifies teenage prostitution, I did not interpret it this way and think that this interpretation is in fact missing the point. It does depict the business as glamorous, but the glitz and glamour sucks the viewer in with the goal of displaying the way in which the characters are sucked in, urging viewers to suspend judgment and dig deeper into the psychological manipulation involved. The glamour and extravagance is presented as a tool for the predators who prey on the girls, enticing them with offers of an escape from their real lives, which are littered with economic troubles, broken families, and social pressures, inviting them to instead join in this world which at its surface appears attractive. Alcohol, parties, and luxury goods are the carrots that are dangled in front of the girls, and must be presented in a way that appears alluring, showing us the appeal, so that we can then recognise its dangers.
30 Rock– Reviewed by Euan Notely
I’m not going to try and argue that 30 Rock is by any means unsuccessful. The show’s creator and star Tina Fey is doing alright for herself these days. However, what baffles me is that it never quite reached the near-universal popularity of the other great NBC comedies. It aired over the same period as the American remake of The Office, references to which seem to saturate the internet but 30 Rock is being undeservedly left behind.
A workplace comedy set in NBC Studios itself, 30 Rock is built on the central relationship of Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin as an overworked comedy writer and hypermasculine network executive, supported by a terrific ensemble of insane TV stars and useless crew members. While its surreal, often cartoonish sense of humour perhaps makes it a little tougher to warm to, 30 Rock is ideal binge-watching material. The episodes move at a relentless pace, stuffed with cutaway gags and running jokes built up over years. Unfortunately, its biggest barrier to wider recognition is its current absence from the major streaming platforms. All of 30 Rock is currently available for free on Channel 4’s catch-up service, but four minutes of adverts for every 20 minutes of television is likely to prove a sticking point with modern audiences.
Hannibal– Reviewed by Milo Farragher-Hanks
For me, Hannibal remains one of the most singular, fascinating television shows of the decade. Adapting Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels, showrunner Bryan Fuller gave the familiar material a brilliantly idiosyncratic spin. This might ostensibly be a police procedural, but its woozy, dreamlike pacing, haunting hallucinatory images, and layered, disturbing explorations of character psychology make it feel more like a Gothic fairy tale or baroque art-house film; less Luther than Blue Velvet. Mads Mikkelsen’s Luciferian performance as the title delivers a depiction of the cannibalistic killer every bit as distinct as Anthony Hopkins’, while a cast including Hugh Dancy, Laurence Fishburne and Caroline Dhavernas give nuanced turns that evolve as character relationships take unexpected directions. This was a show that was violent in a manner truly disturbing rather than adolescently crass, that engaged with masculinity without indulging in tired tropes or side-lining its women, that was queer in a genuinely strange and truly erotic rather than blandly affirmational or performatively progressive sense, and that refused to explain or apologise for its own oddities. To have lost it so soon is a great shame, but that something as unconventional as Hannibal lasted for three seasons on network television is a victory in itself.
The Leftovers– Reviewed by Laszlo Szegedi
Five years ago, I stumbled on an article about a TV show I hadn’t heard of before, called The Leftovers. The piece was highly critical of Damon Lindelof’s first television project since the controversial finale of Lost for its gloomy tone and occasionally brutal violence. Despite the criticism, the plot actually sounded quite intriguing: The Leftovers follows police chief Kevin Garvey struggling with control both in his personal and professional life three years after the unexplained disappearance of 2 per cent of the world’s population. The show’s first season was indeed surprisingly violent, but the violence never felt as out of context as the article made it out to be. The show had an amazing intro, a beautiful soundtrack (an expansion of German composer Max Richter’s 2003 album Memoryhouse), memorable performances from the entire cast (featuring the likes of Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, Margaret Qualley and Liv Tyler), and terrifying, ambiguous villains (Peep Show’s Paterson Joseph as a man who claimed he could heal grief with hugs, and The Handmaid’s Tale’s Ann Dowd as a fearless cult leader). It was an impressive exploration of religion both as a delusion and a logical response to an inexplicable tragedy, which provided reasonable motivations to its fleshed-out characters. You couldn’t call Ann Dowd’s Patti an actual villain because her ideology made perfect sense in the chaos she was trying to take control of. Best of all, the show never took the Lost route of explaining all the supernatural stuff, instead allowing the characters to stay in focus. In its relatively brief three seasons it never failed to surprise both with style and substance (managing to pull off one of the saddest moments in the series to A-ha’s update “Take On Me” in season three, or the intense season one finale to James Blake’s “Retrograde”) and the supernatural aspect remained compelling throughout. It remains the most emotionally involving TV shows I have ever seen, and yet it’s surprisingly underseen. Go watch it!