November 28, 2012

12 Great (Yet Underappreciated) TV Shows You Should Start Watching

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What is the issue?

It seems like everyone I know has a certain amount of shows that they obsessively follow, and like that Seinfeld episode where Jerry staunchly insists he doesn’t want more friends, they refuse to let a new one into her life. When I tried to recommend Parenthood to my grandmother, she practically stiff-armed me and ran the other direction as she shouted: “I have enough shows!” I felt like a panhandler.

However, if you find yourself ready to adopt another program, here are 12 viable options (in no particular order) you might consider — each currently airing and worthy of saving from the cold. All of the shows on this list are ones deserving of higher viewership or left behind by the Emmys. Long-running cult favorites like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Parks and Rec and 30 Rock and Emmy regulars like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad — while some of my favorites — were politely left off the list. (Love you, Liz Lemon!) And Game of Thrones and American Horror Story fans: you have enough things. Let other people have nice things.

America, behold your Party Downs and Veronica Marses of the future. Give them a good home while episodes last.

1. Parenthood

Parenthood

I’ll admit: I actually didn’t watch Parenthood at first because I didn’t want to be disappointed by it. The show features a dream cast of name TV actors Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls), Peter Krause (Six Feet Under) and Craig T. Nelson (Coach) and supporting players who never got their due Erika Christensen (Traffic), Dax Shepard (aka that dude who gets to sleep with Kristen Bell) and Monica Potter (Julia Roberts’ doppleganger). On top of that, Parenthood was executive produced by the people who brought us Friday Night Lights and Arrested Development. It was so right it had to go wrong. I was validated in that assessment when the reviews for the pilot were thoroughly “meh.”

Parenthood debuted the same year as Modern Family, another multi-generational, ensemble-driven family show which sucked up all the critical and popular oxygen. At first, Parenthood couldn’t figure out how to nail the divide between drama and comedy, and its humor felt forced. But over time, the show figured out what it did best, which was finding the drama in everyday life. The stakes in any given Parenthood episode are usually low, but the payoffs are huge: This season I’ve cried during almost every single episode — that adopted child subplot is murdering my emotions — and it’s sneakily becoming one of TV’s best shows, beating the crap out of Modern Family on almost any given week.

Also, Emmy voters: Please show Lauren Graham some love. Between Parenthood and Gilmore Girls, she’s given you 11 years of some of the finest acting on TV. Give her anything, like a gold watch or a cup of coffee. But she will not be ignored again.

Recommended episode: “One More Weekend With You” (Available on Hulu)

2.Cougar Town

Cougar Town

Like Parenthood, I initially dismissed Cougar Town — because its title and premise were absurd. The show was about older women who date hot younger men, and that’s the whole show? I tuned into the pilot out of morbid curiosity and my suspicions were confirmed. I found the tone unflatteringly snarky and Cox’s relationship with her son beyond creepy. Although the pilot was a ratings hit, the show’s viewership fell off a cliff afterward — as viewers realized it sucked.

But then a weird thing happened: Creator Bill Lawrence used the show’s low ratings as an opportunity to revamp the show and completely throw out the old premise. Instead, Cougar Town became a better version of Scrubs, about an unusual group of friends who become more like a big, dysfunctional family. On the strength of its surprisingly stacked cast and mile-a-minute scripts, Cougar Town became the wildest screwball comedy on TV, and Busy Phillips proved a comic revelation. Last year’s “Pig Trials” segment, for my money, was the funniest thing I saw on TV all year.

Cougar Town debuts on a new network in January. Let’s hope TBS doesn’t cock up that Cul-De-Sac Crew magic.

Recommended: “Finding Out” (Available on YouTube)

3. Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23

Don’t Trust The B– In Apartment 23

This show is another entry in the “great show, bad title category,” and like the brilliant Better Off Ted before it, Don’t Trust the B probably won’t last another season. (It’s amazing it lasted this long.) Because who wants to admit they watch a show with that name? No one, and I can’t even picture how the pitch session for this show went down. Whenever I bring it up to friends who haven’t seen it, they laugh. But then I sit them down and force them to watch a couple episodes and they are hooked. (For fans of the show, start with the Kiernan Shipka episode. That’s a perfect one for newbies.)

There are a million reasons to watch the show — the delightfully acrid humor, the zippy pacing, James Van Der Beek’s career self-effacement, strawberry jam porn sessions — but the star is Krysten Ritter. Yes, she plays the “B.” (Who has a name, thank you! It’s Chloe.) Ritter has always been relegated to Joan Cusack best friend roles, but here, playing a delightfully uninhibited socialite with a taste for casual sociopathy, she finally gets a role she can sink her comic teeth into. Ritter kills it every week, and last week’s Thanksgiving episode was no exception, especially the scene where Chloe orders June to fan herself with the pity money Chloe got from her parents after tricking her family into thinking her roommate June was disabled. (It’s a long story.)

Don’t Trust the B— isn’t one for the whole family, but with a title like that, would you expect anything less? Think It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but with more pillow fights.

Recommended: “It’s A Miracle” (Available on Hulu)

4. RuPaul’s Drag Race

RuPaul’s Drag Race

Look, straight people: I know this sounds like something you’d never be into. But RuPaul’s Drag Race is the finest reality competition show on TV (suck it, Top Chef) and you’re missing out by not watching it. Because it’s about drag queens, the show features a plethora of high camp elements (RuPaul’s weekly broadcast to the girls is called “She Mail”) and boys in skimpy shorts — which I will never complain about. But the show also has heart and brains, both of which stood out in a recent episode where the queens had to create their own superheroes with a full backstory. My favorite was Chad(issa) Michael’s Firecrotch, a heroine “devoted to vaginal rejuvenation.” You’ll never see that on The Amazing Race.

Also, because RPDR is on LOGO, it will probably be on forever, despite a technically modest audience. Praise Drag Jesus for niche networks.

Recommended: “Dynamic Drag Duos” (Available on Logo)

5.Happy Endings

Happy Endings

Happy Endings is the hardest-working show on TV, throwing hundreds of jokes, pop culture references and sight gags into every episode. In its three seasons, the show has quickly become the heir to Arrested Development’s madcap throne. It’s gotten off to a rough start in Season 3 (with the DOA Alex-Dave storyline), but last season proved Happy Endings was more than a Friends clone. Instead of a hollow retread, the show started to deconstruct its very sitcom roots and became a long commentary on the TV comedy form — one arguably better than its Central Perk forefathers.

If cerebral isn’t your thing, the show also features a lot of poop jokes and Max doing funny voices. See? Something for everyone.

Recommended: “More Like Stanksgiving” (Available on ABC.com)

6.Community

Community

If you aren’t watching this show yet — after all the A.V. Club and Entertainment Weekly endorsements — then may God have mercy on your soul. Community is going to go off the air soon, and it’s your fault. Now go look it up and think about what you’ve done.

Recommended: “Mixology Certification” (Available on YouTube)

7. Friday Night Dinner

Friday Night Dinner

British imports have a great track record of becoming cult hits in the states, like The Office, Downton Abbey and Doctor Who, and the BBC’s Friday Night Dinner will prove no exception. The show follows a very rigid formula in which two brothers attend a weekly Friday night dinner with their wacky parents and hi-jinks ensue. But what makes the show transcend its worn premise is its Seinfeld-esque structure, one that never ceases to tie its comic threads together beautifully. Friday Night Dinner’s running gags always stay fresh and fun, and Tamsin Grieg (of Episodes and Black Books) brings down the house every week as the domineering family matriarch. She keeps the show’s madcap energy from getting out of control.

Recommended: “Buggy” (Available on YouTube)

8. Enlightened

Enlightened

I struggled with giving this slot to Nurse Jackie, another dark comedy about women behaving badly, and both of them are excellent at showing the humanity lurking inside unlikeable people. But I’m throwing my vote behind Enlightened, if only because it’s trying to do some of the most ambitious work on TV. Enlightened takes a page out of Young Adult’s playbook, finding the painful comedy of arrested development. Like Theron’s Mavis Gary, Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) struggles with finding the enlightenment inside her after attending a court-mandated retreat after an office breakdown. All she wants is to be the change she wants to see in the world and all that jazz, but what if she can’t change? What if she doesn’t know how?

Following Amy’s story takes a lot of patience from viewers, much like creator Mike White’s previous efforts, The Good Girl and Year of the Dog. However, what it lacks in episodic accessibility and cuddliness it makes up for in featuring acutely drawn characters. White is a master chronicler of human nature, and even if Amy isn’t always likeable, she feels honest and true, and Dern’s performance is scarily good at navigating Amy’s ups and downs. Enlightened might be destined to always have a small audience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the best shows on TV.

Recommended: “Pilot” (Available on HBO)

9. Awkward.

Awkward

Sure, the show’s second season was rocky, as it got caught up in resolving the Matty-Jake love triangle at the expense of anything else happening in the show, but the first season was the best emo-tinged teen drama since the great My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks. Awkward. acts as a throwback to those shows, while also being thoroughly of the moment, appropriating Diablo Cody speak in a way that feels surprisingly naturalistic for teen girl world. Although Cody has been widely criticized for the artifice of her scripts (hamburger phones, anyone?), Awkward. doesn’t use its clever dialogue to draw attention to itself. It’s about building a self-contained universe, one with much to say to our own.

As in the case of Clueless and Gilmore Girls, the show is less about what the characters say than what it says about them, how their blog-centric lives act as a channel for their longings, teen frustrations and hope for a better school day tomorrow. Even adults will get sucked into Jenna’s social foibles, as Ashley Rickards does an exceptional job of making her lessons feel universal. The entire ensemble cast is terrific at nailing the effervescent angst of high school, and that joy when the guy you’ve wanted for so long finally notices you. Love might not move mountains, as My So-Called Life’s Angela once mused, but it might move us to grow.

Recommended: “Over My Dead Body” (Available on MTV.com)

10.Nashville

Nashville

When Nashville debuted, Entertainment Weekly TV critic overlord Ken Tucker stated that if the show wasn’t a hit, he knew nothing about television. The buzz for the show was deafening, as critics anointed it the best new show of the fall, praising the Emmy-worthy performances of its stars and the “lived-in” feel of the program. Whereas most shows take time to find their footing, Nashville’s pilot was so confident and assured that it felt like the show’s twentieth episode, rather than its first.

So, why hasn’t it been a bigger hit? A show about country music is a tough sell to those who aren’t into the Nashville sounds, and ads marketed it as a high-camp bitch fest rather than the smart, level-headed drama it is. The closest the show comes to Dynasty shoulder pads is the up-and-coming singer Juliet Barnes (played by Hayden Panettiere), a character who would be relegated to a one-dimensional villain on another show. However, Paniettiere’s portrayal of Juliet (a clear Taylor Swift surrogate) has a surprising amount of soul and depth, the perfect foil for Connie Britton’s Reyna. Britton was superb in Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story, but in Reyna, she finds the role she was born to play: an aging country singer using her hard-won industry smarts to hold onto her career and integrity. It’s like All About Eve with acoustic guitars.

It might take the show time to find the audience Nashville deserves, but smart audiences should take a chance on TV this effortlessly transcendent.

Recommended: “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” (Available on Hulu)

11. Archer

Archer

If this YouTube clip isn’t enough to get you to start watching Archer — TV’s funniest smart-stupid comedy — there’s nothing I can do.

Recommended: Excerpt from “Pipeline Fever” (Available on YouTube)

12.Louie

Louie

This low-rated gem is somehow both one of TV’s most deeply felt dramas and perceptive comedies, a show just as smart about human nature as it is about stand-up. Although the show has often been compared to Seinfeld because of its structure and observational style, Louie is more complicated, conflicted and understatedly beautiful. Some episodes feature more straight-forward plots and punchlines (like the episode Louie takes his sister to the hospital for flatulence), but others explore the surreal poetry of New York in ways Woody Allen would admire. In “Subway/Pamela,” Louie dreams of cleaning up an unidentified liquid on the subway, and the sequence is reminiscent of both Taxi Driver and Kafka, as Louie struggles to make sense of his place in a bizarre and often meaningless world.

You could call Louie just a comedy, but it’s so much more. It’s a masterpiece and miraculously WON an Emmy this year (for writing, but whatever). Maybe there’s hope just yet.

Recommended: Excerpt from “Poker/Divorce” (Available on YouTube)

Honorable Mentions: Fringe, The Middle, Sons of Anarchy and The League

Honestly, I haven’t seen enough of any of these shows to properly include them on the list, as I didn’t want to extrapolate the few (excellent) episodes of Fringe or SOA I’ve seen into a full-blown endorsement. It would be dishonest. However, all of these shows come highly recommended based on my small sample size and the fervent devotion of my friends. For more, you’ll have to watch them yourself. My work here is done. TC mark

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