Looking back at the great television of last year, there were plenty of standout series, incredible creative achievements which held millions of viewers in their thrall (and to which the IndieWire team devoted thousands of words of coverage).
However, with literally hundreds of shows on the air or on cable or streaming now, there were inevitably some shows that slipped through the cracks, whether it be in terms of the public’s attention or our own ability to cover them. Below are just a few of the ones which deserved greater recognition for what they were able to achieve on an episode-by-episode basis. Perhaps, should you be running low on fresh new television during these darkest days of winter, one or more of them might spark your interest.
“The Arrangement” (E!)
The E! scripted drama made headlines when it was first announced because of its premise: an aspiring actress agrees to a contract marriage with a world-famous movie star who happens to belong to a weird maybe-cult, a story which bears no resemblance whatsoever to potential real-world events. But while the pilot lacked some amount of oomph, overall the show revealed itself to be a sexy, well-made, and incredibly bingeable soap opera. By the end of the first season, all of the pieces for a truly addictive drama were in place — and now we’re craving the premiere of Season 2.
The FX networks have been leading the charge with some of the best comedies on TV, but even they start to compete among themselves for attention in this glutted landscape. “Baskets” has received some critical attention — most notably Emmy love for Louie Anderson and a very deserving nod for star Zach Galifianakis who plays twin brothers – a struggling rodeo clown and a snooty small-time businessman — on the show. In its second season, the show made a leap from its dark beginnings to an even darker psychological space that was nevertheless poignant and rewarding. Through the despair and edge of danger, there’s a sweet vulnerability that is almost breathtaking. The strange alchemy between writing and performance cannot be downplayed. It’s a beautiful show that even “Atlanta’s” Stephen Glover had to acknowledge with the highest praise possible: “Man, ‘Baskets’ I actually like a lot…’Baskets’ is white ‘Atlanta’ with white people. I feel like we’re the same show.”
“Blood Drive” (Syfy)
Thoroughly determined to challenge your conceptions of what a show could get away with on ad-supported basic cable, this insane Syfy series put every conceivable grindhouse genre in a blender and hit the “pulp” setting. What emerged was a bloody, violent, profane, and hilariously decadent adventure that still managed to create some solid characters and a storyline jam-packed with twists. Would “Blood Drive” have survived to a second season if it had grabbed the ratings of some of its fellow TV genre offerings? Perhaps, but even though not enough people saw it, those who did saw something special.
“The Good Fight” (CBS All Access)
“Hood Adjacent” (Comedy Central)
James Davis’ dive into various corners of black life in America is made with obvious love and care. Not intended as an instruction manual or nifty explainer, it’s a series that celebrates both the unsung and misunderstood, bringing a positive vibe to everything from the lives of student-athletes to the maestros of the Trap Kitchen. By defying an easy format or a restrictive mission statement, “Hood Adjacent” brings honesty and humor to any number of situations, painting its sketches and more spontaneous field pieces with a fine and funny brush.
“I’m Sorry” (truTV)
Scott Everett White/truTV
Andrea Savage’s truTV series about all the foibles of being both a parent and a comedian was one of the distinct comic outputs of the year. Coming in part from Savage’s experiences and in part from a keen eye and ear for the tiny absurdities that accompany being a parent, it’s a potent combination of outrageous moments and tiny true-to-life windows into what it’s like to live your life without a filter. Bolstered by an incredible supporting cast including Jason Mantzoukas, Martin Mull, and a perfect complementary foil in Tom Everett Scott, “I’m Sorry” revels in life’s awkwardness without making any apologies.
With a setup that could easily devolve into wacky, fish-out-of-water sitcom mayhem, it’s all the more impressive that “Rosehaven” is one of the most genuine shows on TV. Set in a small Tasmanian town, Emma and Daniel are two best friends are trying to get over a pre-empted marriage and an unsuccessful career attempt on the Australian mainland, respectively. Leaning on each other while they regroup, their day-to-day adventures make for honest laughs and a lovely portrait of true companionship. Things aren’t all rosy for these two, but the way they handle all of life’s misadventures is a perpetual TV bright spot.
“Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television*” (YouTube Red)
It takes a lot to poke fun at your own career. It’s another thing entirely to make a whole series about it. But Ryan Hansen had the celebrity send-up series to beat this year, playing a fictionalized version of himself embedded inside the LAPD. Alongside co-star Samira Wiley (not playing herself), the two make for one of the most versatile duos in the business, skewering themselves, the cop drama format, and a constant parade of guest stars, all with ease. There are exactly zero other series in existence that include a fourth-wall-breaking studio audience gag and a Taft-Hartley joke anywhere near each other. This one is a true gem.
A bright and breezy look behind the scenes of the Johnny Carson “Tonight Show,” “There’s…Johnny!” is unapologetically a tribute to a specific time and place. Through the eyes of a wide-eyed midwest transplant as he’s helped by one of the show’s coordinators, it’s a bit of comedy history viewed through a very particular lens. As IndieWire wrote in the close of our review: “Not without its second-guessing, there’s still a lovely underpinning of specificity that finds some honesty among the nostalgia. TV is an increasingly strange business, but ‘There’s…Johnny!’ argues that there’s still a bit of magic in the chaos.”
“The Vietnam War” (PBS)
Although IndieWire did its fair share of coverage on Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s 10-part masterpiece, it hasn’t even remotely reached the level of discussion it deserves, and hasn’t landed on any of our year-end lists because we’ve been sticking to mainly scripted, non-documentary fare. But it’s arguably the most important television event of the year (*ducks from David Lynch fans*) from a societal perspective, and will remain the definitive work on the subject to be viewed, referenced, and examined for years to come.
Even 40-plus years later, there isn’t much clarity about the war itself, but the series makes a well-balanced attempt to lay out the motivations of all sides (which is more than just Americans, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese), and it’s a staggering achievement to have sifted through the wealth of historical material, footage, and new interviews to create such a living document of that experience. It’s incredibly powerful stuff and still clearly reverberates today in politics and how American citizens view government and the press.
Additional note: Three Vietnamese-American actresses have been spotlighted in the past month for varied roles: “Heaven and Earth” star Hiep Thi Ly, a real-life Vietnamese refugee, who died recently from cancer; Hong Chau, who’s been receiving acclaim for her role as a disabled Vietnamese woman in “Downsizing”; and Kelly Marie Tran, the first Asian lead in a “Star Wars” film. All three stories include themes of war, rebellion, and inspiring resilience. This confluence of attention to these women in a year that also included “The Vietnam War” really puts into perspective how far Vietnamese-Americans have come and have yet to go as far as their perception in this country.
“What Would Diplo Do?” (Viceland)
Showrunner/star James van der Beek has proven his comedy chops in the past, especially when playing “himself” on the dearly departed ABC sitcom “Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23.” But during a year where his resume included a number of stand-out supporting roles, it was embodying the spirit of world-famous DJ Diplo for Viceland where van der Beek’s full potential stood out. Pushing the character beyond caricature to pure absurdity, “What Would Diplo Do?” was an unexpected delight, rich with creativity. The question asked by the title has seemingly infinite possibility, as we hope to keep discovering in the future.