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9 TV Shows That Were Total Downers But Still Worth It

By Indiewire | Indiewire July 7, 2014 at 12:46PM

In case you haven't noticed, HBO's "The Leftovers" is kind of a downer. That said, it's is also pretty darn good, and worth watching if you can handle the moments of melancholy.
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"The Leftovers"
HBO "The Leftovers"

In case you haven't noticed, HBO's "The Leftovers" is kind of a downer. It's slightly depressing and revels in its moments of sadness, That said, the show is also pretty darn good, and worth watching if you can handle the moments of melancholy. But "The Leftovers" isn't the first show to lure us in despite its depressing elements. There have been plenty of shows that wallow in the doldrums while still existing as great TV. Here's our list of nine TV shows that were total downers but still worth watching. SPOILER ALERT! Some of these blurbs have reveal key plot points. Read at your own risk, then let us know if you've got a favorite in the comments.

READ MORE: 'The Leftovers' Episode 2, 'Penguin One, Us Zero': New facts, Questions and Theories

Breaking Bad

"Breaking Bad" (2008-2013)

It's not that Vince Gilligan's groundbreaking AMC series was always an especially depressing hour of television -- thanks mainly to Jesse (Aaron Paul), it was often amusing, even. But it was stressful. Watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston) come close to getting caught each week took it out on you in the early years, and then the episodes started to truly break sad. Jesse got deep into his own supply. Walter let Jane die. The entire final season (both parts). Even when Jesse escaped in the finale, what life did he have left? What kind of happiness does he expect to find out there in the desert? "Breaking Bad" may be the most popular downer ever televised, but it was indeed a depressing endeavor. (Ben Travers)

"In Treatment" (2008-2010)

HBO's "In Treatment" was always a gamble. The show, which premiered nightly and followed the conversations between a therapist and his patients, didn't seem so entertaining on the surface, but "In Treatment" eventually proved to be a fascinating character study worthwhile of thirty minutes, five days a week. It starred Gabriel Byrne as a therapist who would see a different patient each day of the week. For its three seasons, the show was frequently tense, gloomy and never an expected happily-ever-after. That's what made "In Treatment" such a great series. It was a realistic depiction of people's life problems and makes us realize that a clean, satisfying ending to our issues is not in store for most of us. (Eric Eidelstein)

"Oz" (1997-2003)

Christopher Meloni in "Oz"
"Oz"

"The Sopranos" turned HBO into a television juggernaut and "The Wire" cemented its acclaimed prosperity, but these shows indirectly cast a giant shadow over the premium cable network's first hour-long series, "Oz," which remains one of television's most woefully overlooked dramas. Critics adore it, but you'll be hard-pressed to find any "Game Of Thrones" or "Breaking Bad" fans who have seen a single episode. And yet, ironically, so much of what makes up our current Golden Age of Television – antiheroes, unflinching sex and violence, moral ambiguities, the fearless disposal of main characters – was born at the Oswald State Correctional Facility and then boiled to a scorching hot temperature. "Oz" is a hard-hitting burst of aggression unafraid to depict the various racial, sexual, and economic corruptions of the system. Watching the tension rise is nerve-wracking enough, but when groups collide it makes for gruesome, burdensome television. It doesn't help that as the series evolves these guilty men become more human and deeply felt, a cause for continual dread when you're in a prison with an erratic, ever-growing body count, as evidenced by the series' incredible rotating ensemble, including Eamonn Walker, Kirk Acevedo, Rita Moreno, J.K. Simmons, Edie Falco, Christopher Meloni, Lance Riddick, Bobby Cannavale, and dozens more. Each episode, co-written by creator Tom Fontana, dynamically weaves a single theme through both the present storyline and flashbacks revealing inmates' unspeakable crimes, all narrated by Harold Perrineau Jr.'s Augustus Hill with a lyrical slam pulse that sizzles like a Spike Lee joint. At times brutally grounded and surreally poetic, the show uses its fictional environment as a microcosm for our society at large, showing how the divides and conflicts manifested in prison first start in the neighborhoods we live in. It's this scarred power that makes "Oz" worth it. (Zack Sharf)

"Rectify" (2013-?)

Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released from prison after new DNA evidence exonerates his 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. Thus begins SundanceTV's anguishing drama "Rectify." But rather than focus on the validity of Daniel's innocence – which is questionable given his esoteric, introverted personality – the show narrows in on the effects of Daniel's release on himself and his emotionally imprisoned family. In an early episode, Daniel reflects on the nature of prison life, recalling, "Once you show a sense of optimism, [guards and inmates] destroy you." The show operates in the same cruel fashion. Any time a character is graced with hope, the reality of his or her situation soon comes crashing down. After basking in a moment of freedom by jamming out to his father's old Walkman, for instance, Daniel accidentally puts on an old mix-tape his girlfriend made him, a doleful reminder of an eroding life. This perpetual cycle of optimism and torment makes the show a bruising soar to behold, as does its sluggish pacing. "Rectify" doesn't just swim in its misery, it slowly marinates in it, making the sorrow of its characters seep into every inch and crack. This pacing, combined with Young's deeply meditative performance, makes even the insignificant-seeming moments, such as Daniel watching pillow feathers fly around his bedroom, have the crushing weight of a cinematic climax. As the slow burn continues through its mesmerizing second season (now airing Thursdays at 9pm), the chance to see these characters walk away with even the smallest sense of fulfillment makes "Rectify" one of television's most stirring and soulful dramas. (Zack Sharf)

"Rescue Me"
FX "Rescue Me"

"Rescue Me" (2004-2011)

A drama about a New York City fire house who lost half of their squad on 9/11? And the main character is haunted by the ghosts of those who died, including his cousin? Talk about a downer. Survivors' guilt, alcoholism and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder all make an appearance as Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) tries to get his life back together after that tragic day. But Leary and Peter Tolan's FX series had a surprise comedic element that made the show totally worth the depressing elements. The camaraderie within the squad, the pranks they pull on each other and the weirdos they encounter on every job provided much-needed hilarity. Tommy's family outside of Ladder 62 was also a sitcom to behold. Between his ex-wife, three kids, Irish priest cousin, jail bird uncle and NYPD detective brother, he had plenty of shenanigans to handle outside of fighting fires. Not to mention the literal spirits that follow him around. The show got a bit ridiculous with the body count in its later seasons (you think "Game of Thrones" is bad? Pretty much everyone dies on "Rescue Me") and it definitely had a number of problems with the portrayal of its female characters. But in the end, watching a group of burnt up and burnt out firefighters try to live in the aftermath of 9/11 was a pleasure to watch. (Casey Cipriani)

"Six Feet Under"
HBO "Six Feet Under"

"Six Feet Under" (2001-2005)

"Six Feet Under" is the paragon of modern television. In fact, it transcends television altogether; it's a hybrid achievement of cinema and TV that neither could accomplish in its own right. Without the 90-minute limitations of character development in film, the show eschews TV convention and becomes a five-season, 63-episode cinematic tale of a family experiencing the trials, tribulations, and longevity (or lack thereof) of life. It's about life because it's predicated on death. In conceiving the show, Alan Ball asked, "Who are these people who are funeral directors that we hire to face death for us?" Though the title refers to fact that it's about a family that owns, operates, and lives in a funeral home, it also names its core ideology: "Six Feet Under" is interested in what happens under the surface of everyday life, relationships, emotions, and experiences. It digs deep. Every episode begins with a death, but that aspect of the show actually lends itself to deliciously macabre dark comedy. Where "Six Feet Under" actually gets its downer rap is from its shrewd authenticity. It's only as much of a downer as life itself can be, with love and loss, raw vulnerability, tragic comedy, and extreme highs and lows. You grow to know the characters almost as intimately as your own friends and lovers, and with that comes an unparalleled experience of empathy with the characters' struggles. The series finale, which is widely considered one of the finest in television history, will cause your entire life to flash before your eyes. (Emily Buder)

"The Sopranos" (1999-2007)

The original tune-in-to-see-who-might-die series incorporated 93 (perhaps 94?) deaths and is behind the term "The Big Pussy Rule" that warns cast members that no matter their role they could get written out of a show at any time, named for Tony's one-time best friend. Beyond murder, which the writing often made hauntingly acceptable for the audience, it is the emotional journeys taken by the characters that sticks with a "Sopranos" viewer when the credits roll. Tony's family issues, rooted in his bitter mother, lazy son and corrupted cousin among others; his close brushes with death and prolonged hospital stays; his acute awareness that the world he once knew was slowing dying and there was nothing he could do about it - Jamba Juice takes over a local poultry shop in much the same way an IBM computer puts the coffin nail Don Draper's ad world - all make for engaging and heavy drama. (Brandon Latham)

"True Detective" (2014-?)

True Detective

Unlike "Breaking Bad," the first season of Nic Pizzolatto's haunting HBO drama ended on an unquestionable -- and unexpected -- high note. You can read all about it here, but if you ever hear someone talking about "the light winning," you better believe they're a devotee to the Church of Rust Cohle. That begin said, what made the last episode so shocking, touching, and perfect was the dispiriting lead up to it. These two men fell apart over this case. Lives were wrecked with pieces rebuilt or reformed, but no one was ever the same and only a small part of them survived for the better in the aftermath of the Yellow King. Each week, we saw things we couldn't unsee (or were lucky not to see them, as with the video tape Rust stole in the penultimate episode). "True Detective" may have ended on an upper, but you better steel your soul to get there. (Ben Travers)

"Twin Peaks" (1990-1991)

There's not much else that screams "moody" quite like David Lynch's and Mark Frost's short-lived ABC drama "Twin Peaks." The show followed a group of mysterious and unusual characters who come together to investigate the death of the teenage Laura Palmer in the fictional town of Twin Peaks. There were a few funny moments here and there, but in general the show was as bleak as they come. "Twin Peaks"s strived on being gloomy, dark and mostly just plain scary (the surreal, ominous voices helped make sure of that). (Eric Eidelstein)

This article is related to: Television, Breaking Bad, True Detective, Rectify, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Twin Peaks, Rescue Me, In Treatment, The Leftovers, Lists







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