We have to say, at a time when we desperately need somewhere to escape to for 30-60 minutes just to give our brains a rest, so-called “peak TV” hasn’t been massively delivering. The first month of 2017 has had a few shows debut, but they’ve either been disappointing (looking at you, “Taboo”), or too brief (“A Series Of Unfortunate Events”), or too “The Young Pope.”
February looks more promising, with “Santa Clarita Diet,” “Legion,” “Crashing,” “Big Little Lies,” and “The Good Fight” among those premiering, along with the final season of “Girls.” But the return this week of Syfy‘s “The Expanse,” a show we were late to discovering the quality of, reminded us that it’s still very easy for good shows to slip through the critical net, and so to stave you over ’til the big dogs arrive, and to complement our list of the Best TV of 2016 from a month or two back, here are 15 underrated or undersung recent shows that you can binge right now, that you might not have seen. Take a look below, and let us know your own recommendations in the comments.
Frowning down at a dead body, forensics expert Dr. Monica Scholls (Andrée Vermeulen, perhaps the series’ breakout) intones “That makes it a dozen baker suicides this year.” “So, 13?” quizzes LAPD Detective Angie Tribeca (Rashida Jones). It’s a dumb joke, but if it’s not to your taste (are you insane? It is empirically very funny), don’t worry, there’ll be two more come and gone by the time you’ve even registered it. Directly channeling the anarchic spirit of the old Zucker-Abrams-Zucker comedies — “Naked Gun“/”Police Squad” in particular — TBS‘ “Angie Tribeca,” spearheaded by Steve Carell, admittedly has the same hit-or-miss quality. But when the gags come this thick and fast, even a 60/40 ratio of good to bad delivers an abundance of laughs. With a trillion celebrity cameos (Bill Murray, James Franco, Maya Rudolph, Heather Graham, Lisa Kudrow, Adam Scott and so on) and the kind of recurring jokes that start off irritating before you start actively anticipating them (what new fake ailment will Alfred Molina‘s pathologist affect today?), the show does run low on energy in its second season (there’s a third on the way). But it remains a surprisingly effective tonic for the shittiness of the world — your brain, realizing it’s really not needed here, gets to have a nice little rest.
Where Can I Watch It? TBS.com puts certain episodes up temporarily, but seasons 1 and 2 are available in their entirety on Hulu and on Amazon Prime Video.
Unlike most of the rest of these shows, “Billions” is a bona-fide, actual ratings hit, and will likely comfortably run for several seasons to come. But it’s a bona-fide ratings hit in the way that its Showtime stablemate “Ray Donovan” is, where it’s not talked about that much by the TV critics and you might not know many people that actually watch it. Which is a shame, because it’s really terrific: a brilliantly written, beautifully paced look at idiot men tearing down their own lives in competition with each other, and the culture that they drive. It’s a Wall Street tale of billionaire hedge-funder Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis, having much more fun here than he ever did in “Homeland”), who may have amassed at least some of his wealth in extra-legal, and certainly immoral, ways; and his nemesis, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), determined at all costs to bring him down. Showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien clearly love playing in this sandbox of wealth and privilege, but the show’s so smart about class and the rivalry of men, so good at making real people out of the supporting players (particularly the female leads, Maggie Siff and Malin Akerman, though Toby Leonard Moore and David Costabile are standouts too), and more than most of these dramas, know how to tell their story across 13 episodes. It’s more fun than it is weighty, but at a time when the swamp remains thoroughly undrained, it also has more to say than much of its competition.
Where Can I Watch It? You should be able to catch up on Showtime’s VOD service, if you’re a subscriber, or buy it on iTunes/Amazon etc if not. Season Two starts in a few weeks.
If there’s ever been an example of a show being more royally screwed over by current events than “The Good Wife” creators Robert and Michelle King‘s Washington satire/sci-fi “Braindead,” we can’t think of it. Through no fault of its own, the show, which must have seemed like a wild exaggeration when it was conceived, was rapidly outstripped in ridiculousness by actual politics, leaving it feeling oddly marooned. The oddball story of an idealistic young documentarian (the ever-appealing Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who starts to intern for her politician brother but discovers that aliens are eating the brains of those in government, causing increasingly paranoid and manipulative partisanship on both sides, it’s such a peculiar mix of tones — there’s political commentary, social satire, sci-fi, comedy and romance — that it shouldn’t really work, but the verve of the writing and the committed and attractive performances all around somehow made it a genuinely witty and surprisingly wise good time. It never pulled in an audience, though, so we can’t say its cancellation came as a huge shock, but it is a shame we won’t get the next three planned seasons, which were to shift the target from DC to Wall Street, Silicon Valley and, finally, Hollywood.
Where Can I Watch It? If you’re a CBS All Access subscriber, you can watch it there; otherwise, Amazon have the first (and only) season available both as Instant Video and on Prime.
A lot of people last year rightly fell in love with Amazon’s Britcom export “Fleabag,” a sexually frank fourth-wall-breaking comedy about a young woman in her 20s in London. But quietly, not long after, another Brit export snuck onto another streaming service that’s very similar and nearly, if not just, as good. Based on her own stage play of the same name, Michaela Coel’s “Chewing Gum” stars Coel herself as Tracey, a virginal, religious 24-year-old on a London council estate desperate to have sex, with her various romantic and personal travails unspooling over the following six episodes (a second season is midway through its run on Channel 4 in the U.K., where it originated). It’s broader and less inclined toward the dramatic than “Fleabag” is (and it actually predates that show by almost a year), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the belly laughs come as fast as they do here, and the world being painted feels as specific and born of love. And it created a real star in Coel, who won two BAFTAs for writing and starring in the series, and who, if we were picking, would absolutely be our pick for the next Doctor Who.
Where Can I Watch It? Season 1 is on Netflix; Season 2 will hopefully follow before too long.
If you know anything about former SNL-ers Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, you’d expect their shared passion project (with former boss Seth Meyers) to be something pretty esoteric — this is, after all, the side project to Armisen’s already esoteric “Portlandia.” But “Documentary Now!,” and we say this with deep love, is so niche that we can’t really believe it ever got made. The IFC comedy is an anthology series (presented each week by none other than Helen Mirren — yes, the actual Dame Helen Motherfucking Mirren) in which each episode pays homage to a famous documentary, from “Grey Gardens” and “The Thin Blue Line” to “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi” and “Salesman.” Some of the episodes are legitimately hilarious, like “DRONEZ,” a riff on Vice News. Some barely qualify as comedies, like the almost Aki Kaurismäki-ish “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” from Season One. But each one is made with such love and craft, and performed with such skill by Hader and Armisen (both doing arguably the best work of their careers), that each half-hour ends up feeling like a tiny gem. Even Paul Thomas Anderson’s on board (he cameos in the penultimate episode of Season 2, a parody of Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense”).
Where Can I Watch It? Season 1 is on Netflix, Season 2 is available on IFC’s website if your cable package includes them, and both are on iTunes and other e-retailers.