We are, as has been noted at almost every fifteen minute interval, in a golden age of television. Once cinema’s red-headed step-child, the last decade-and-a-half has seen an ever-increasing number of high-quality shows arrive. Big-name actors and directors now think nothing of popping over and doing a season or two of work on a series in the hope of picking up an Emmy, or a steady paycheck. Or even simply enjoying the creative freedom that is becoming less available at the studio level. And with that, more and more outlets are going into the business.
Whereas twenty years ago, you were pretty much stuffed if the big networks passed on your pitch, now you don’t have only pay-cable channels like HBO and Showtime to go to, but also literally dozens of basic-cable possibilities, from FX and AMC to Bravo, The History Channel and MTV. Not to mention online-only streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Yahoo and even the PlayStation Network.
The result is that there’s too much TV. Not just for you to watch, but for anyone to watch. There’s such a deluge of cable drama that even seasoned TV critics, with literally nothing else to do, can’t keep up. The outcome of that is now a glut of shows that go mostly unbuzzed, which begs the question: if a prestige cable drama airs and no one watches, did it ever really exist at all?
And yet, these shows aren’t just disappearing after one season. It seems actively hard to get cancelled once you’ve aired your first run. Short of being a critical and commercial disaster like AMC’s “Low Winter Sun,” you’ll get a second chance to build an audience and become the next big thing in drama, even if your show didn’t get great reviews or ratings, pick up water-cooler buzz, shelf-loads of Emmys, or even merit a weekly recap from Vulture or The A.V. Club.
It’s a refreshing, if out-of-character, phenomenon in a business that’s often knee-jerk in its responses (see movies being pulled from theaters if they don’t perform in the first weekend), that in a difficult marketplace, shows are being given time to organically gather a following. But the networks aren’t exactly acting as a charity, they’re merely afraid of cutting something down prematurely. For example, “Breaking Bad” was a low-rated critical hit in its early days, but when the show hit Netflix in advance of its fifth season, it suddenly became a ratings phenomenon, and one of the biggest shows on TV.
Keeping all of that in mind, with acclaimed shows wrapping up (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Parenthood,” “Sons Of Anarchy,” “Parks & Recreation” have said goodbye, and we’ll lose “Justified” and “Mad Men” in the next few weeks too) and spots opening in the scheduling calendar, there’s room for a new series or two to become the next big thing. So, we’ve picked out ten low-profile, under-the-radar cable dramas that you probably haven’t watched, and aren’t constantly buzzed about on Twitter or among your friends. We’ve then investigated whether they’re worth watching, or whether you’ve been rightfully ignoring them. Take a look below, and let us know your own hidden TV gems in the comments.
What Is It? Cinephiles who signed up to HBO’s soft-core friendly sister channel, Cinemax, in order to watch “The Knick,” might be surprised to learn that Steven Soderbergh’s critically adored period medical drama isn’t the network’s first foray into long-form drama. Previous ventures include ropey conspiracy thriller “Hunted,” and long-running special forces actioner “Strike Back,” which airs its fifth and final season this summer. Its biggest hit to date, however, is “Banshee,” a super-pulpy crime show recently renewed for a fourth season. Created by novelists Jonathan Tropper (“This Is Where I Leave You”), and David Schickler (“Kissing In Manhattan”), and executive-produced by “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” creator Alan Ball, it sees an ex-con diamond thief (Antony Starr) move into the Pennsylvania town of the title, in an attempt to evade the Ukranian mob boss he stole from. He assumes the identity of the town sherrif, reunites with his now-married accomplice and ex-lover (Ivana Miličević), and comes into conflict with a local crime boss (“Festen” star Ulrich Thomsen), a former member of the Amish community.
Is It Worth Watching? It depends on your tastes, but yeah, actually. “Banshee” is like the disreputable, ADD-inflicted little brother of the more immediately prestige-y crime dramas like “Boardwalk Empire.” It’s one who grew up simultaneously on “Grant Theft Auto,” crime-themed comic books and Elmore Leonard novels, but it has a sense of fun to it that, for all of its gore and nudity, makes it infinitely more enjoyable than, say, the grimy “Sons Of Anarchy.” Shot with considerable flair and vibrant, poppy colors, and with arguably the best, crunchiest action sequences on television, it’s undeniably ludicrous stuff, but is exactly aware of its own ludicrousness, while still pulling off some emotionally resonant moments. The plotting is genuinely twisty and unpredictable, and it hasn’t become formulaic yet. Sure, Thomsen aside, it might not have the highest caliber of actors on TV, but their characters are colorful enough that it doesn’t matter too much. And the writing isn’t of the same stature as something like “Justified” (probably its closest comparison point on TV: fans of that series would do well to check out “Banshee” when it ends next week), but it’s enormously entertaining, and so far has only gone from strength to strength.
Where Can I Watch It? A fourth season will air next year. In the meantime, you can catch up with the season on Cinemax’s VOD system MAX Go, or on DVD.
What Is It? Hoping to meld two recent pop culture mega-obsessions by mixing “Game Of Thrones” and “Pirates Of The Caribbean,” Starz show “Black Sails,” created by former “Human Target” writers Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, and produced by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, is a sort of loose prequel to “Treasure Island,” seeing young John Silver (Luke Arnold) join the crew of the fearsome pirate Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) as they plunder the West Indies in search of the gold from Spanish galleon the Urca de Lima. Shot with an international cast in South Africa, with a pilot directed by “The Descent” helmer and “Game Of Thrones” vet Neil Marshall, it’s got some hugely impressive production value at work, rarely skimping on lavish sets and giant boats, and is somewhat in the mold of Starz’s trademark drama “Spartacus,” with lashings of blood and nudity along with all the rum and buried treasure. A third season’s already been ordered, which will see “Rome” actor Ray Stevenson join the cast as Blackbeard.
Is It Worth Watching? You wouldn’t imagine “boring” to be a word associated with a firmly R-rated Michael Bay-produced pirate series, and yet boring is the one that mostly comes to mind with “Black Sails.” It’s not that it skimps on the action — there’s plenty of it going on, all of it mostly high quality, and again, there’s no faulting the production values, which aren’t all that far removed from the ‘Pirates’ movies, or at least “Cutthroat Island.” Occasionally, it taps into the obvious appeal of a TV show about pirates (everyone loves pirates!), but it feels like more filler than killer. The pace picks up a little in the second season, but the first is deathly slow, and even recent episodes make it feel like it’s spinning its wheels more often than not. Part of the problem is that the characters simply aren’t interesting enough on the whole: blandly handsome, but not as colorful as you’d hope, given the world it takes its place in. Even Stephens’ bisexual, granite-voiced Flint, the show’s central figure, fails to be of much interest (the actors can feel miscast or wooden, too, which doesn’t help). Pirate fanatics will probably have fun, but we wouldn’t feel that confident recommending this to many others.
Where Can I Watch It? The show’s available to stream on Starz On Demand.
READ MORE: ‘Treasure Island’ Prequel Series ‘Black Sails’ To Hit Starz Courtesy Of Swashbuckling Producer Michael Bay
What Is It? The streaming generation’s first attempt to update and/or reinvent the cop show. Amazon’s “Bosch” brings the best-known creation of crime-writer Michael Connelly (“Blood Work,” “The Lincoln Lawyer”), LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, played here in a long-deserved leading role by great character actor, Titus Welliver, familiar from everything from “Deadwood” and “Lost” to “Gone Baby Gone” and “Argo.” Welliver’s joined by a strong supporting cast, including “The Wire” veterans Jamie Hector and Lance Reddick, with a writer from that show, Eric Overmyer (who also co-created “Treme”), acting as showrunner, bringing another crime legend, George Pelecanos, with him. The arc of the show sees Bosch, a no-nonsense military veteran, facing a wrongful-death lawsuit from a shooting victim, while looking into the murder of a young boy (with case-of-the-week elements along the way, too). It’s noirish, classic crime-novel stuff, and Amazon renewed it soon after the show premiered earlier in the year, with a second season coming in 2016.
Is It Worth Watching? A moderated yes, for fans of the genre, anyway. There’s a lot that “Bosch” does right: a very strong central performance from Welliver, a real feel for its Los Angeles setting, a slow-burning approach, and a nicely textured feel. But Bosch himself (perhaps because he’s been borrowed from in the nearly 25 years since he first appeared in print) doesn’t, despite the performance, quite stand alone from the many other troubled supercops who’ve appeared on television over the years, coming across as ultimately over-familiar. And the dialogue (“Your ass is mine!”), which sometimes could have been copy and pasted from other series, doesn’t help much either. That said, if you’re a fan of the cop procedural, this is one of the better ones in recent years, with a “Wire”-style approach to pacing that isn’t for everyone. Even if the series doesn’t come anywhere near the socio-political brilliance of David Simon’s classic (what does?), it’s a smart use of the streaming/binge-watching way that the show debuted.
Where Can I Watch It? The whole first season is available on Amazon Prime right now.
“Halt & Catch Fire”
What Is It? One would probably feel bad that everyone described AMC’s “Halt & Catch Fire,” one of two big dramas the network launched last year, as “Mad Men in the 80s with computers,” if you didn’t suspect that’s exactly how the show was pitched. Created by newcomers Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers, but run by ex-“Southland” writer Jonathan Lisco, it’s set in Dallas in 1983, and sees the slick, mysterious Joe (Lee Pace), recovering failure Gordon (Scoot McNairy), and rebellious young prodigy Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) team up to put together a reverse-engineered competitor to the IBM PC. Kerry Bishé, Toby Huss and Annette O’Toole were also among the cast (with James Cromwell joining for Season 2), and the big name helmer involved was Oscar-winning “The Secret In Their Eyes” director Juan Jose Campanella, who directed the first, second and final episodes of the first season.
Is It Worth Watching? The Playlist team is slightly divided on this one: at least one staffer is an unrepentant fan, one stuck with it purely for the actors, and one gave up early on, never to return. It’s pretty evident that the show never found its own identity — it doesn’t have the rich novelistic feel of “Mad Men,” and the characters, particularly Pace’s Joe, can feel like troubled prestige drama anti-hero cliches in places, while the plot never finds particularly interesting or surprising places to go. That said, it is lovingly put together, and for every cringeworthy moment (a foreplay scene that involves holding a live wire, was one of the accidentally silliest things we’d seen in a while), there was something much better. Most importantly, it has three killer performances at the center (plus Kerry Bishé, who’s very good but needs better material). We’ve loved Pace, McNairy and Davis in the likes of “Ceremony,” “Monsters” and “Breathe In,” and they’re worth watching the show for week-on-week on their own, even if they’re sometimes given impossible moments to play (particularly Pace). Right now, it’s a mediocre show with lots to like about it, but it’ll be interesting to see if it can crystallize into something stronger if, and when, it takes the criticism to heart.
Where Can I Watch It? Season one arrives on Netflix this week, ahead of the Season 2 premiere on May 31st.
“Hell On Wheels”
What Is It? With “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” wrapping up, and few of their new shows taking off, AMC increasingly threatens to become a network entirely made up of “The Walking Dead” and spin-offs of other hit shows, like “The Walking Dead.” Except there’s “Hell On Wheels,” a period drama series that’s quietly made it to a six-year run (by the time the two-part final season wraps up in 2016) without anyone you know watching it. Created by Joe & Tony Gayton (Dwayne Johnson vehicle “Faster”), it’s a decidedly “Deadwood”-influenced Western about a Confederate soldier (Anson Mount) hunting the Union soldiers who killed his wife and child, who takes a job on the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. It’s a great concept for a show, and it’s had the talent to match: Common, Colm Meaney, Tom Noonan and Dominique McElligott have been among the regular cast, while Wes Studi and Virginia Madsen are among those with some smaller roles, and Michelle MacLaren, Catherine Hardwicke, Rod Lurie and Neil LaBute have all helmed episodes. Initially debuting to high ratings, the show fell off almost immediately, but maintained its ratings despite the network attempting to bury it on Saturday, hence its continuing renewal.
Is It Worth Watching? Short answer: ¯_(ツ)_/¯. Longer answer: “Hell On Wheels” has a great premise and setting, some talented actors (Mount plenty of screen presence, and he and Common made a good team) and a ton of production value, but it’s never really got rolling. It’s surely possible to make a Western show without evoking the late, great “Deadwood,” but its influence is inescapable here, and without the memorable characters or David Milch’s poetic dialogue, this ends up feeling like something of a direct-to-video sequel to that show, relying on cliche and sheer plot without ever building up most of its characters to become truly compelling. It clearly has a loyal audience — one suspects that it’s the older crowd that was once AMC’s bread-and-butter — but those looking for the next “Breaking Bad” would probably do better to look elsewhere.
Where Can I Watch It? The first three seasons are on Netflix, and we imagine the fourth will be added before the first part of the split final run (stop doing it to everything, AMC!) airs in the summer.
What Is It? The second foray into an original series for obscure basic-cable channel WGN America (after period horror drama “Salem,” which just began its second season ), “Manhattan” evokes immediate memories of both “Mad Men” and “Masters Of Sex,” perhaps unsurprisingly with the latter, given that creator Sam Shaw, a former journalist, wrote a number of episodes of the Showtime series. It’s got a rather different setting, however: set in 1943, it follows a secret New Mexico settlement full of scientists working on the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government bid to create a nuclear weapon that could bring the war to an end, but those involved are unable to tell even their families what it is that they’re working on. David ‘brother of Megan’ Ellison produced the series, and “West Wing” veteran Thomas Schlamme helmed the pilot and two other episodes, while the cast is filled with scene-stealers: John Benjamin Hickey (“The Good Wife”), Rachel Brosnahan (“House Of Cards”), Harry Lloyd (“Game Of Thrones”), Michael Chernus (“Captain Philips”), Daniel Stern (“Home Alone”) and, best of all, the great Olivia Williams.
Is It Worth Watching: Absolutely, very much so: “Manhattan” snuck up on us quietly to become one of our favorite drama series of the last year or so. Few were aware of it, in part because few people actually know what WGN America is, but Shaw and his team have created a rich, gripping drama with the highest stakes possible, and even though you know the outcome, there’s all kinds of conflict and surprises to be mined from it. It looks gorgeous (they essentially recreated the settlement in Los Alamos), the cast is impeccable and all get material to play with — even the teenage daughter trope feels fresher here — and it plays with tone and genre in a way that makes it feel far more than an imitator of the shows that came before it. It doesn’t quite come roaring out of the gate in the way that some do, but by the end of its first season, it had built up real confidence and skill. Despite very low ratings (only a few hundred thousand were watching by season’s end), the network renewed it for a second season, which will see “Manhunter” star William Petersen join the cast.
Where Can I See It? You can catch up with the first season on Hulu Plus before the second airs in the fall.
“Mozart In The Jungle”
What Is It? Joining “Bosch” and the rightly-acclaimed and award-winning “Transparent” in Amazon’s most recent batch of shows, “Mozart In The Jungle” arguably had the most high-profile, behind-the-scenes talent that the streaming giant’s yet found (at least until their Woody Allen show arrives), being created by filmmaking royalty/Wes Anderson collaborator Roman Coppola, his cousin Jason Schwartzman, and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” writer Alex Timbers. Based on a memoir by oboist Blair Tindall, the series brings sex and drugs into the classical music world, with Gael Garcia Bernal as a genius conductor, “Mistress America” star Lola Kirke as the Tindall surrogate, Saffron Burrows, Malcolm McDowell and Bernadette Peters are among the cast, too. “About A Boy” co-director Paul Weitz helmed the pilot and several other episodes, while Coppola directed a later episode, and Schwartzman cropped up in a cameo, but Amazon bafflingly debuted the show a couple of days before Christmas. So, along with an uncertain marketing campaign, it seemed to go rather under-seen. Nevertheless, Amazon renewed it for a second season.
Is It Worth Watching? Yes, with some significant caveats. The classical music scene is a fascinating backdrop for a series, and in places “Mozart In The Jungle” is stellar, exposing the backbiting and infighting of an insular, navel-gazing world, with what feels like a kind of specificity and accuracy, and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, too. Kirke looks set to be a real star, and is excellent here. Bernal is as charismatic and enjoyable as ever, and Peters and McDowell are, obviously, old pros. All this said, it’s also wildly uneven, lurching into sitcom-y broadness and, in places, a kind of half-hearted surrealism that’ll bring back terrible memories for anyone who had to sit through Coppola’s “A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Charles Swan III.” Perhaps fittingly for the subject, it’s also kind of pompous in places, even while it pokes fun at that world. Still, as inconsistent as it can be, it’s an enjoyable, breezy watch, and certainly worth five hours of your time.
Where Can I Watch It? It’s all on Amazon Prime right now.
What Is It? You probably know Ray McKinnon as a long-standing character actor with roles including “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “Deadwood” (he was the ill-fated reverend), “Sons Of Anarchy,” Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” and “Mud,” but McKinnon’s also an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, picking up an Oscar for the 2001 short “The Accountant,” shared with his late wife, Lisa Blount, and “Justified” star Walton Goggins. His features won acclaim, but little in the way of audience, but he still landed his own show with Sundance’s “Rectify.” In the spirit of his feature work, it’s a slow-burning Southern melodrama about Daniel Holden, convicted as a teenager for raping and murdering his girlfriend, only to be released after two decades on death row after new DNA evidence is unearthed. McKinnon has penned the bulk of the episodes so far, while directors, including Keith Gordon and Stephen Gyllenhaal, have helmed installments across the two seasons (with a third due this summer). Australian actor Aden Young takes the lead role, while Abigail Spencer (“Mad Men”), J. Smith-Cameron (“Margaret”), Adelaide Clemens (“Parade’s End”) and Luke Kirby (“Take This Waltz”) are among the supporting cast.
Is It Worth Watching? 100% yes — “Rectify” is one of the best dramas on television. In fairness, it’s been recognized as such by those critics who’ve watched it, but between airing on Sundance and a lack of big names compared to its competition, it’s not caught on with a wider audience yet. It’s easy to see why: in theory, there’s a murder mystery element to the show, with the question of who really killed Daniel, or whether Daniel was wrongly set free, hanging over everything. But McKinnon and his team are far more interested in the consequences of their (anti?)hero’s imprisonment than in answering questions, and the Southern gothic atmosphere is first and foremost here. As such, the pace is very, very slow, almost meditative, and the Sundance label is a fitting one: this could be a long version of a particularly well-executed arthouse drama. But it’s not a somber show either, with a real tenderness at play that makes it unlike anything else on television. If you’re able to deal with something like this with a little patience, you’ll be amply rewarded.
Where Can I Watch It? The first two seasons hit Netflix recently, so hopefully it’ll lead to more people catching on before Season 3 arrives in the summer.
“The Red Road”
What Is It? Sundance’s second homegrown series after “Rectify” (the likes of “Top Of The Lake” and “The Honorable Woman” were foreign pick-ups) was “The Red Road,” and on paper, it looked enticing. The show was created by “Prisoners” screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, while Playlist favorite James Gray directed the pilot (the great Lodge Kerrigan was also involved in later episodes). Between “Rectify,” “Top Of The Lake” and this, Sundance appears to be trying to corner the market in rural crime shows. The setting here is the border of New York State and New Jersey, the leads are local cop Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson, best known for “The Ring”), who covers up an incident involving his schizophrenic wife (Julianne Nicholson), while crossing paths with Phillip Kopus (former Khal and future Aquaman Jason Momoa), a member of the Ramapough Lenape Nation with a criminal past. The show premiered last spring on Sundance, going mostly unheralded after tepid reviews for the pilot, but the network commissioned a second season, which just got underway.
Is It Worth Watching? It should be said that “The Red Road” feels like it’s exactly what it wants to be: the first episode of Season 2, which aired last week, continues along much the same vein as the last. The trouble is that what it wants to be, seemingly, is an extremely boring version of “Justified.” The show does at least delve into some Native American-themed issues, which feels relatively unusual, but it’s otherwise a pretty standard we’re-on-different-sides-of-the-law show that doesn’t have all that much in the way of surprises involved. Despite the big indie-cinema names like Gray involved, the direction feels somewhat uninspired, while the writing (like “Prisoners”) relies a little too heavily on contrivance and coincidence, and Henderson and Momoa simply aren’t compelling enough actors to anchor a series like this. The best element of the show is Nicholson, who builds on her superb performances in “Masters Of Sex” and “Boardwalk Empire” to deal with one of the few truly interesting and original elements of the series, but even then she has to battle against the shaky writing to some degree. It’s not like it’s an actively bad show, but it’s never a good one either.
Where Can I Watch It? Season 2 airs on Sundance on Thursday nights, Season 1 is on Netflix now.
READ MORE: Trailer For James Grey-Directed Sundance Channel Series ‘The Red Road’ Starring Jason Momoa
“Turn: Washington’s Spies”
What Is It? One of a pair of period dramas that AMC launched last year in the hope of filling their upcoming “Mad Men”-shaped hole, this is closer to HBO’s Emmy-laden miniseries “John Adams” than to Don Draper’s antics, following the formation of the Culper Ring, the New York State spy ring that eventually helped to turn the tide in the American Revolutionary War. Created by former “Nikita” writer/producer Craig Silverstein, and with some heavyweight talent behind the camera (“Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” helmer Rupert Wyatt did the pilot, “Downfall”’s Oliver Hirschbiegel the finale), it toplines Jamie Bell as mild-mannered farmer Abe Woodhull, who’s reluctantly (and very, very gradually) brought into the struggle against the British by his old friends, against the wishes of his Loyalist father.
Is It Worth Watching? Despite being literally one of the most important periods in American history, the Revolutionary War remains consistently hard to make work dramatically on screen for some reason (see Al Pacino’s “Revolution” and Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot”). There’s an exciting premise to “Turn,” some very fine work by the cast (particularly Bell, who’s such an interesting actor, Heather Lind as unrequited love Anna, Angus MacFayden chewing the scenery as Robert Rogers, and some top-quality Brit villainy from Burn Gorman and Samuel Roukin), good production value, and occasional twinges of interest. But there was something dry and history-lesson-ish about much of the show, along with a rather glacial approach to plotting that essentially saw the first season serve as a prelude to most of the drama. A bolder series would have reached the same point by the end of the pilot. There’s reason to hope that things pick up: the finale saw things kick into gear much more, and if it can keep up that momentum (as the showrunner has promised), it could turn into something more consistently gripping. With a new time slot (it’s moving to Monday, away from the prestige-drama pile-up of Sunday night), it could well build up an audience, even if it’s seemingly destined to skew older than AMC would like.
Where Can I Watch It? The whole first season is on Netflix now (or Amazon Prime in some non-US territories), so you can binge-watch just in time for Season 2 to begin next Monday, April 13th.
Honorable Mentions: Surprisingly, there’s more where that came from. We decided that series like “The Americans,” “Hannibal,” “Masters Of Sex” and “The Affair” were, while not highly rated, treasured enough by critics and awards bodies to not need the recognition here. The same can’t quite be said of “The Strain,” “Ray Donovan,” “House Of Lies” and “Tyrant,” but they do at least have solid audiences. We’ve heard good things about “Bates Motel” without having the time to check it out yet, though less so about “Da Vinci’s Demons.” Netflix has three rather lesser known shows in “Hemlock Grove,” “Marco Polo” and “Lilyhammer,” while we’ve been meaning to check out DirectTV’s “Kingdom,” starring Frank Grillo, and Starz’s “Power.” And, though both the title and network might be a turn-off, Bravo’s “Girlfriend’s Guide To Divorce” does what it does very well.