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Television, on the whole, is better than it has ever been. Channels abound, and there are more shows currently airing than anyone could ever dream of watching. There are more quality shows than ever before, as cable and various websites churn out shows that are as good as or even better than traditional network offerings. Needless to say, it’s easy for amazing shows to slip through the cracks.
But have no fear! I’ve put together a list of the ten best shows currently airing that you should be watching. There should be something on here for everyone, but this is hardly a definitive list. Shows such as Game of Thrones or American Horror Story aren’t listed, since both perform extremely well in the ratings. These shows are the ones you might not have heard of, or that you may have heard of in passing but never really took the time to check out. Either way, give these shows a chance- I promise it will be worth your time.
Rectify (Sundance Channel, first season available on DVD)
2013 has proven to be a coming out party of sorts for Sundance, with the network airing two of the year’s best dramas. Rectify is likely a show most people have never heard of, due to the small reach of Sundance. But it is, without a doubt, one of the best dramas on television.
The series tells the story of Daniel Holden, who spent the last 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend. His conviction is vacated when new DNA evidence is discovered. The series follows Daniel as he tries to reintegrate himself into the free world, which is a particularly daunting task as he has spent the majority of his life in prison. Not to mention, his home town still believes him to be guilty.
What makes Rectify a truly exceptional show is the incredible combination of acting, writing, and directing. While the entire cast is excellent, Aden Young’s portrayal of Daniel is a thing of beauty. While the role could easily be a noisy showcase, Young’s performance is a study in how powerful silence can be. The stillness Young brings to the role crafts Daniel into a complex cypher. The rest of the characters sputter around Daniel, who, in turn, just watches and tries to understand the action. Young’s work makes it so easy to understand Daniel’s struggle to fit in, and to sympathize when the world continues to move so much faster than he wants it to.
The show’s first season aired this spring, and it consists of only six episodes. Sundance has already given the show a green light for season two, which should air in the spring of 2014. There’s plenty of time to catch up before then.
Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel, series available on DVD and Netflix streaming)
Like Rectify, Top of the Lake likely missed most people’s radar due to it airing on the Sundance Channel. But this seven part miniseries, starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss and Oscar winner Holly Hunter, is an incredible story of two very different women and what drives them.
Set in New Zealand, the main story follows Moss’s character Robin, who is a detective, as she investigates the apparent rape of a preteen girl. Running parallel, and at times overlapping, the investigation is the creation of an all-female commune run by Hunter’s character GJ. Unlike so many shows, this series has a clear arc along with a clear focus. The story is tautly crafted, the performances deep and emotional, and the cinematography stunning.
Moss and Hunter both give great performances with vastly different characters. GJ is a mysterious character with haunted eyes that only reveal snippets of what lies beneath, while Robin is a woman who longs to please everyone, but may not be able to as her investigation begins to heat up. Like Rectify, the short length of the series makes it an easy one to pick up. Unlike Rectify, this was a one-off miniseries, so there will be no opportunity to revisit Robin, GJ, or any of the other complicated by extremely interesting characters living in Top of the Lake.
Orphan Black (BBC America, first season available on DVD)
If you have ever dreamed of watching a show about a woman who finds out she is one of several clones, then have I got a show for you! If you haven’t, trust me, Orphan Black is only about clones on the surface. It’s really about so much more. The basic plot is that a woman finds out she’s one of multiple clones - who are suddenly becoming sick with no warning. It’s also about one woman’s search for a purpose after squandering years on the run from her responsibilities. Furthermore, there’s a whole shady organization that might be responsible for the creation of the clones - but there’s no indication as to why the clones were created, or why they were allowed to discover each other. So many questions!
At the end of the day, Orphan Black works for one reason. Tatiana Maslaney. The relatively unknown Canadian actress effortlessly inhabits the various clone characters, creating complex personalities and distinctive tics in each. I repeatedly forget that Maslaney plays each clone, as the characterizations of each are so different. There are different vocal inflections, different physical movements, and different facial expressions. Even if the story weren’t completely engaging, I’d recommend watching the show for Maslaney’s performance alone.
However, the story is also excellent. Filled with the requisite amount of angst, thrilling suspense, romance, and mystery, Orphan Black is an exciting ride. The show will return for a second season this spring, with many more mysteries to unlock and new clones to meet.
Broadchurch (BBC America)
Broadchurch has been in the news a bit lately because Fox has announced it will be making an American version of the show set to air in 2014. And Fox recently announced that one of the original series’ stars David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame) would be starring in the new version – this time with an American accent. Now, you might be thinking, great! I’ll just wait for the American version to come out, thanks for letting me know! However, if you had seen the British version, you would be approaching that news with the same trepidation as the rest of us who know what an absolutely spectacular series the original was.
Broadchurch is a classically British mystery, which is to say it’s not focused on throwing red herrings at the audience and stunning us with twists and turns. Rather, it presents a mostly straightforward investigation into a child’s death that is enhanced through the strong emotional portrayals of the various central characters. Tennant and Olivia Colman take the reigns as the two detectives assigned to the case, he, an outsider with a dark past and she, the mother of the dead boy’s best friend. The various townspeople/suspects are dotted with some familiar faces for fans of Doctor Who and Harry Potter.
The plot is well crafted and the final reveal of the guilty party is true to the established story. But it is the heartbreaking performances that will leave you gutted. Colman is exceptional, and her character’s journey from the premiere to the finale is an amazing one. The other stand-out performance comes from David Bradley (most recently seen as Walder Frey on Game of Thrones). I dare you to not forgive him for the Red Wedding after you see his performance.
The series was originally intended to be a one-off, but it has been announced that it will return for a second season in 2014. There is no word on how that will come about and who, if anyone, from the first season will appear.
The Fall (BBC, available on Netflix streaming)
Like Broadchurch, The Fall centers on a murder investigation. However, this is a much darker series that places dual focus on both the detective working the case and the serial killer responsible for a series of grisly rapes and murders in Belfast. Starring Gillian Anderson as the detective Stella Gibson and Jamie Dornan (Once Upon a Time) as the serial killer Paul Spector, the show is a masterful cat and mouse game that doesn’t shy away from showing us the similarities between cop and killer in addition to their differences.
Stella is an emotionally closed off woman in a man’s world, who makes no apologies for her lack of womanly charms. She’s just as tough as the various male antiheros we’ve encountered over the past ten years. Paul is a family man who chafes under the yoke of being a father and husband. His perverse desire for power over women can only be expressed when he escapes from home and stalks his victims. By knowing what drives both the killer and detective, the audience is given the opportunity to get into both characters’ heads – a gift not often afforded us in most cop/killer series.
While Stella isn’t what one would term “likeable” as a lead, trying to piece together what makes her tick is an interesting endeavor. And trying to understand why Paul kills is just as interesting. The show never asks us to sympathize with either character, which is also a refreshing change. The series has aired its first season, and will be back for a second in 2014.
Hannibal (NBC, first season available on DVD)
I know, I know. You’ve seen Silence of the Lambs, or Manhunter, or Red Dragon, or Hannibal Rising, or Hannibal the film. And Anthony Hopkins will always be Hannibal Lector in your mind. That’s exactly what I thought before I began watching the series this past spring. But let me tell you, you will forget all the past Hannibal Lector films once you start watching this series. What Bryan Fuller has accomplished with his latest “little television show that could” is truly astonishing.
From a story standpoint, pretty much everyone knows that at some point, Hannibal Lector will be locked in a prison for the criminally insane and will tell Clarice Starling he once ate a census taker’s liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti. But Hannibal is set years earlier, before Will Graham captures Hannibal and puts him away. This series takes a look at the time Will spent getting to know Hannibal, back before anyone believed the psychiatrist from Maryland was really a cannibalistic killer.
While the show may be named after Hannibal, the series’ central character is Will Graham, portrayed masterfully by Hugh Dancy. Will is a mentally fragile savant who can inhabit the minds of killers, perfectly reconstructing their actions. This, naturally, takes a major toll on him both mentally and physically, leading to him spending time with Hannibal Lector (played with incredible poise and presence by Mads Mikkelsen), who serves as Will’s confident. Of course, we know there’s more lurking under the surface of that relationship, but the characters remain blissfully unaware of what is to come.
Watching each episode is like listening to one of Hannibal’s beloved symphonies. Everything, from the color palette used to the cadence of the actors’ voices, works in perfect harmony to bring together a wonderfully rich story. Despite tragically low ratings, NBC has taken a chance on the series and will be bringing it back next year for a second season. Please check it out before then – Hannibal wouldn’t be pleased if you pass it up.
Parks and Recreation (NBC, seasons 1-5 available on DVD and Netflix streaming)
Another series that NBC has mercifully allowed to continue, despite continual low ratings, is this comedy gem starring Amy Poehler. I’ll admit I came late to the Parks and Rec game, as I wasn’t a huge fan of the show’s first season. But, here’s a little secret: the first season isn’t all that great. The show was retooled at the start of season two, and turned into the excellent comedy it is today.
The central conceit of the series is quite similar to The Office, only set in the local government offices of Pawnee, IN. The kooky cast of characters lives and works in Pawnee, trying to make the small municipal government run smoothly. This being a comedy, naturally, hijinks ensue. But what really makes the show worth watching is how the show has grown and changed throughout the years. The characters have become richer and three dimensional.
Most of all, the show has heart. Leslie Knope, Poehler’s character, is one of the most sincere and wonderful characters you will see on television. You’ll root for her to succeed in both her personal and professional lives. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is just plain amazing. You don’t realize how much your life needs Ron Swanson in it until you watch this show. Its sixth season is currently airing Thursday nights on NBC. Give it a try – I dare you not to fall in love with this loveable group of misfits.
Bob’s Burgers (Fox, seasons 1-3 available on DVD and Netflix streaming)
The only cartoon on the list, Bob’s Burgers is, more or less, the red headed step-child of the Fox Sunday night cartoon line-up. It doesn’t get the press of Family Guy and it doesn’t have the prestige of The Simpsons. And it wasn’t created by Seth McFarlane like American Dad. But you know what? It’s better than all three of those shows.
Bob’s Burgers may appear similar to the rest of the Sunday night cartoons. It’s about a family, with a father who is slightly clueless, an overbearing but loving mother, and three precocious but lovable kids. But that’s really where the major similarities end. Bob’s Burgers is funny without constantly lampooning pop culture and the media (a la The Simpsons). And, most importantly, its humor isn’t mean, as with McFarlane’s shows. Like Parks and Rec, Bob’s Burgers has an incredible amount of heart to go along with its comedy.
Sure, the family’s son is a bit on the slow side. But it’s not the central focus of the character and it’s not incessantly commented on by other characters. Yes, the youngest daughter is a bit of a manipulative mastermind, but she still loves her family and wants to do right by them. And the eldest daughter is socially awkward, but she’s never put down by her family for it. Rather, it’s just used as a fun comedic call out as needed.
Bob’s Burgers is an easy show to pick up, and it doesn’t require too much continuity (although, there are some clear through lines with regard to certain jokes). If you’re looking for something short and fun to compliment your current TV line-up, give this one a chance. The fourth season is currently airing on Fox, and the show has already been picked up for a fifth season.
Face Off (SyFy, seasons 1-4 available via Amazon and iTunes and season 5 available On Demand)
There are plenty of realty competition shows on television. And several are worth watching, like Bravo’s Top Chef or CBS’s The Amazing Race. But lots of people watch those and they’ve been successful for years. Face Off is a gem that has been hiding away on SyFy for the past four seasons. Despite what you may think, it has nothing to do with hockey or with the John Travolta-Nicholas Cage film with the same name. Rather, the series pits amateur make-up special effects artists against one another to see who will come out on top.
This is a show that doesn’t linger in the drama that may happen over the course of a season. Each episode’s focus is on the make-up process, from creating intricate facial sculpts to putting together astonishing paint jobs. When I began watching, I knew next to nothing about everything that goes into creating iconic Hollywood make-ups. Now, when I see a film or television show, I understand the hours of work it takes to get amazing creatures up on the screen.
My favorite part of the series is that the contestants generally want to see each other succeed. Yes, they all want to win, but they are always willing to help each other out if needed, offering advice or just lending a hand with a tricky mold. The contestants are mentored by iconic make-up artist Michael Westmore, most famous for his work on Star Trek, and the judging panel is also made up of clear industry experts. It’s an incredibly fascinating show and lots of fun to watch. The fifth season is currently airing on SyFy.
Orange is the New Black (Netflix, season 1 currently streaming)
Full disclosure, I wasn’t sure if I should put this one on the list. Not because it’s not excellent, because it is without doubt one of the finest shows to air this year, but because I’m not sure it qualifies as a show people aren’t watching. You see, Netflix does not release any viewer numbers, so there could be tens of millions of people watching it, or only a few million. But, I figure I should err on the side of caution and finish off the list with Netflix’s best original series.
Based off the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, Orange tells the story of a sheltered upper middle class woman who ends up in federal prison for her minor role in a drug ring. Turned over to the feds by her ex-girlfriend, Piper has to learn to survive in the very different world of prison. The show was created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds) and is full of equal parts humor and heartbreak.
However, what makes it really worth watching is how amazing the supporting characters are. Yes, Piper is our lead, and she is certainly shaping up to be a very complex character. But the supporting characters are amazing. By the end of the season, you will be desperate to see Red, Taystee, Crazy Eyes, and Nicky’s stories continue as much as you’ll be dying to know what happens next to Piper. Having a cast that works effortlessly together is a thing of beauty to watch. Netflix has already ordered season two, so you really should visit this prison before it arrives next summer. You won’t regret it.