People have gotten into the habit of asking me for recommendations and its a tricky business. Most of the time anything I suggest won’t be viewed by the person even if it’s something I think they will really enjoy. This is just a list of things I find myself suggesting all the time (but it’s okay if you never watch them or if you don’t like them, I still think you’re cool).
With that covered let’s get right into the list of shows. I tried to stay modern and pick shows that were complex but entertaining that most people seem to have missed. These are shows helped me flesh out of my world view or made me stop and consider my position on life’s questions. Also it turns out to be very difficult to describe why I liked a show or why you should watch a show without…you know, telling you the exact plot or story or character details that make the show worth watching for me but I tried!
So here’s a show you probably never heard of and that was so wildly unpopular it was actually cancelled three times. Jericho was a post-apocalypse show before it was really in vogue to be one. The thing is instead of the show having supernatural reasons or magic be the reason for the post-apocalyptic event, and instead of happening in a city with a big government agent at the helm, the story actually centers around a small town in Kansas where the inciting event is an EMP going off, basically disabling everything in the town.
When the power never comes back on and with no information from the outside world the residents have to scramble to get by. This show is really unique because it’s not necessarily focused on the disaster part of the disaster but the human part. The show features a particularly interesting cast of characters and while it was panned for being an action show that was light on the action, I think calling it an action show is a disservice to the amazing human drama it managed to serve up. The show takes a real lens to how people react under pressure and uncertainty and is strangely considerate about issues of family, outsiders, and change. The show is often unfairly compared to Lost but since there’s no mystery box and no riddles, the drama derives from the human connections between characters and their struggle to trust each other and work together.
The Lost Room
In the complete opposite direction is the Syfy’s channels mini series, The Lost Room. Lost Room plays out like a mystery box in a mystery box but one that is actually satisfying to think about and not just toying with the viewer. With only three two hour long episodes the show resolves enough to let you enjoy it but also floats many questions and fun ideas that aren’t resolved so it’ll keep you thinking about the show and its premise long after the TV is turned off.
The short pitch here is a hard sell: a man finds a supernatural hotel key which allows him to travel to any door, anywhere in the world, by way of the hotel room that key is for. When his daughter is accidentally locked away in the room she disappears and he is sent on a wild chase to find her which simultaneously leads him on a quest to understand how the key works and to run into other objects which have different but similarly strange properties.
The show has some rough spots, namely the dialogue is pretty awful and some of the acting is spotty at best but there is something so intriguing about the ideas presented. This is a rare show where the premise and the actual plot do the heavy lifting. I do give a few bonus points for the show being set in Pittsburgh (at one point they filmed in a house I used to pass every day during college) but it doesn’t need those bonus points. The character beats that the show stumbles on are more than made up for by actual meat of the story. I like to think of it as a Silent Hill 1 (the video game, not the movie) style story. It’s not the neatest creation on Earth but it certainly gives the viewer a lot to think.
I think this is generally the most viewed show on this list. I feel like Twin Peaks is probably a very hit or miss show for most people but if you haven’t yet there’s a lot of reasons to sit down and take a journey into the world of Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks is one of moderns TVs great forefathers. You see, before the days of Coop and the rest of the gang exploring the murder of Laura Palmer nearly everything on TV save for soap operas were procedural television. Procedural television means that story lines are almost always contained to a single episode, characters don’t have any or much growth from episode to episode, and each block of TV is like a small reset button that puts everything in the world back to square one, never changing. This was great for a time when there were no playback devices so that if viewers missed an episode or two then they could simply continue to watch again at any point without having missed any key information.
Twin Peaks was a must watch TV show when it originally aired. People faithfully recorded it in the time of the VCRs because the show had to be watched in order, its dozens of stories weaving together episode after episode. This was binge TV before binge TV was even a glimmer in Netflix’s eye. Not only did characters evolve and change over the course of the show but it also contained a murder mystery that was forwarded and complicated every week (a pre-cusor to shows like Lost, Veronica Mars, Dollhouse, Heroes, etc.). The show also contained over arching plots that caused you to want to go back and see if you missed small details (ala X-Files, Gravity Falls, Doctor Who, etc.). The show even had a parallel soap opera that played out in-universe that drives this point home.
Twin Peaks isn’t just the king maker of serialization but also one of the harbingers of cinematic language / visuals to the small screen. The show is shot with more nuance and attention than nearly any other show of its time.
More than that it’s a great show. With intense and memorable characters, amazing small story lines, impressive world building, strange dialogues, haunting music, unforgettable acting, and an unplaceable aesthetic that leaves it in the uncanny time period between 1950 and forever, Twin Peaks is a show that is worth a watch for so many reasons beyond its place in TVs history.
I’d also suggest Twin Peaks: The Return when you’re done with the original as it once again completely pushes the boundaries of what storytelling and visual language on TV are but the original series is absolutely the first stop you should make on your trip into the wild world of Twin Peaks.
Please Like Me
Here’s a show I never thought I’d recommend to anyone. Please Like Me is an Australian show starring comedian Josh Thomas. This four season series is basically both impossible for me to suggest and also causes me concern that people haven’t watched it.
The show starts off a bit rough with the usual sad sack 20 something white man who is vaguely uncomfortable and only vaguely funny as he navigates his own sexual identity and meandering life with no grace and no charm but the show slowly morphs into something really sincere about how difficult and depressing “finding yourself” in your 20s can be. It deals with the myriad of life issues that go on in the background of trying to get yourself together as well including a disjointed family, friends who are active detriments to your life, managing money, drugs, and the usual heap of awkwardness.
The main character, Josh, is his own worst enemy. A dour and disconnected man with friends who want him to be better than he is but are all similarly trapped in their own repeating pitfalls the show starts to sound rote as I describe it but if nothing else you should (or shouldn’t) watch it for the relationship that Josh has with his mother.
You see the series starts off with two events: Josh realizing he is gay AND Josh’s mother attempting suicide. Prime comedy beats.
The show takes a nuanced and realistic view of what it is like to interact with, care about, and love a parent whose mental health is not stable while never actually centering the show around it. Josh’s mother is a part of his life but not in a PSA way, just in the way that ones mother can sometimes influence or change a persons view after a talk with them. It’s that part of the show that really connected with me. The show is honest in a way that I wish more shows could be and even if it’s not always funny in the way that makes you laugh out loud, it’s funny in the way that celebrates that the real humor in life is all of the absurdity.
On the other side of things is my favorite show: Pushing Daises.
Bryan Fuller once described the show as a “forensic fairy tale” and I really can’t think of any other description that could do the show justice. If you’re unfamiliar with Bryan Fuller he’s the creative mind behind Hannibal, Dead Like Me, American Gods, and many more. He is known for extremely cinematic story telling and dialogue that runs so fast it could make your head spin.
The main pitch is that despite living in our regular and non-fantastic world our main character, Ned, the Piemaker, has an extraordinary gift: he can bring the dead back to life with a single touch but if they are alive for longer than 60 seconds, something else has to die. A second touch will make the re-alive thing dead again. He runs a pie shop and one day a private eye sees him un-dead a man and realizes he can use his gift to help solve crimes. Ned is reluctant but does so to keep his secret. Everything else a spoiler so we’ll stop there.
This show is a perfect checklist for things that I like so I understand if it’s too sweet or too whatever for other people. While it is essentially a murder mystery / love story, Pushing Daises is really first and foremost an experience for all of your senses. Its sets and costuming are full of bright colors and motifs, the music borders on obnoxiously cheery, it has a narrator who gives you facts and figures in precise measure during the show, and it features so much dialogue that I’d be shocked if there were more than a handful of seconds of silence in every 42 minute episode. The show is off and running from the first moment and you will want to follow it everywhere.
The downfall of this show was the ’07-’08 writers strike which put the show on hiatus, made it jump networks and give it a large downgrade in budget but it actually doesn’t hamper much in the second season (you’ll likely notice it but not mind too much). With amazingly complex characters, beautiful design, fun mysteries, it is an unparalleled show.
Sense8 is a mind trip.
A show from the Wachowskis (Matrix, Speed Racer, Jupiter Ascending) who I have a love-hate relationship with, at least in this case, it’s settled on love.
In this fantastic voyage through life that we call humanity we get a show like Sense8. While we only got two full seasons and two specials out of the actually pitched five seasons, it is absolutely worth it. Shot beautifully, acted incredibly, and making concepts that are both too sci fi and too human work together the show is both art and shlock in equal measures.
Our main premise is that eight strangers around the globe find out suddenly that they are a newly evolved spies of human, one that is constantly connected to all of the others in its small eight person cluster. They share joy, sadness, pain, and everything in between as they are slowly hunted by an evil corporation who seeks to capture them.
What people might point to as the shows best attributes: the amazing action sequences, the visual stitching together of a half dozen actors, the globe trotting filming which took place in over eight countries with countless local crews and actors, or even just the inventive premise instead I would say that the shows greatest achievement is actually much more boring: its joyous and beautiful celebration of humanity. In all its varied forms.
It often goes over the top and can take a few episodes for people to get into (it has to deeply explore eight major characters, dozens of locations, motivations, so give it a little breathing room to get started). It’s meant to be binged and keep you on the edge of your seat in the middle of an episode as it is one of the very few shows on Netflix which actually takes advantage of a variable run time. Episodes are as short or as long as the creators felt they needed to be instead of forced 42 minutes without narrative weight or meaning (*cough*Marvel shows*cough*).
At the end of the day the show asks: What if we were more connected? And the answer is so obvious that it makes you feel silly you had to ask in the first place.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
This was a joint venture between BBC and Netflix and I saw it once described as a mash up between American TV and British TV and I have to say, that’s pretty spot on.
Based extremely loosely on the books by Douglas Adams Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a wild ride of a show. Only spanning two stellar seasons the show kicks up from normal story to absolutely going wild in a record few minutes. The show’s first season has one of the best wrap ups of any show on Earth but it really starts to shine in its second season where the characters evolve in interesting ways and the story is free to go completely strange instead of trying to explain or ground itself in the real world.
It’s hard to describe this show to you without giving away anything and it’s certainly a show you’ll want to go into blind (the “mysteries” are fun either way but part of the fun is just trying to figure out where things will go next). This is one of the few shows that I re-watched almost right after it ended because I wanted to go back and see everything I had missed (and yes, I had missed quite a bit).
The show is probably one of the best acted on this list, the story is certainly one of the tightest, and it contains a cast of characters who range from extremely loveable to completely unlikeable giving you a lot of people to root for or against at any given moment – there’s almost nothing and no one that isn’t memorable, no middle of the roads here. While it took me about four episodes to get invested in the show it wasn’t because I didn’t like it but because I just couldn’t see where it was going. Don’t bother with that, just put your hands up and enjoy the ride.
Last but not least is the show with the greatest potential that was crushed by the network whose job it is to professionally squander good shows, Fox. Almost Human ran exactly one season, was moved around by the network so consistently that even I missed an episode, and was quietly cancelled for being “too expensive”.
Lead cranky cop Detective John Kennex is a distrusting angry man who just woke up from a coma and is paired with special android DRN-0167, Dorian, whose model isn’t used anymore because it had “trouble dealing with emotional responses”. Dorian is a soft and sweet “synthetic” who is unique and simply wants to do the best job he can, whereas Kennex is a human who has locked away his emotions. So the show is basically as boiler plate as it gets in the buddy cop pantheon. Together they investigate the weird future tech crime of the week which needs their mix of human ingenuity, logic, and heart to be solved.
Except here is where the show goes off the rails. The world building in the show is on absolute steroids. Every episode reveals another strange and interesting level in a world that is only supposed to be less than 40 years away from ours. Tackling all manners of issues that technology is just touching on today (enhanced genetic codes, organ printing, dark web smuggling, sex robots, and even an episode about the “web of things”) the show starts to really peel back the layers on how technology that is created to improve our lives could be used and abused.
The show starts to get into its central mystery just at the same time that it was cancelled so it will never be resolved but that also means it’s fun to think about and on the plus side, the show never really had time to dig itself into a hole of bad ideas like most long running mystery / cop shows (Castle, Bones, Eureka, etc.)
The show has problems, it’s true. Too much tech babble, weak secondary characters, and some episodes veer a little too supernatural for an initial pitch of logic and tech based show but the shows strengths more than make up for it. The stellar chemistry between leads is easily the shows biggest highlight. Urban and Ealy have several scenes in which they are simply talking to each other and trying to connect but often failing and these are some of the best in a series made of thoughtful and interesting scenes. The technology is often strangely grounded, built on ideas of actual tech so it feels much more like actually imagining a future than just throwing ideas at a wall which is pretty rare for a show on a major network. It’s also one of the better shot shows from this time and its blended use of CGI and real effects is noticeably better than other shows, which probably helped put the nail in its coffin as it looks like it genuinely wasn’t cheap to make.
This is a show that deserved better than what it got and it deserves more people who appreciate it even if we’re entering the time frame where I have to let it go gracefully, at least we got 13 fantastic episodes, all of which you could be watching right now!
Bonus: Bojack Horseman
I could spill a lot of ink about Bojack Horseman. This is the only show on the list that is currently running. I don’t like to suggest shows to people that aren’t finished because you never know when a show will fail to stick the landing and you’ll need to tell people “don’t watch after season 7, it’s awful!” or whatever.
Bojack Horseman is a show I didn’t want to like but it slowly crept into my brain and made a nest. Dealing with a variety of issues including exploitation, political discourse, and personal idealism its true strength is in its storytelling mechanics. Bojack Horseman takes the complex and distressing world of a narcissistic horseman who used to be famous and makes him a flawed allegory for human traits we might see in ourselves: dissatisfaction, depression, loneliness, and disconnection.
It’s true that it’s a comedy. It certainly contains puns you’ll laugh at, jokes and lines you’ll repeat endlessly, but more than that it is a show that asks the audience to stop and consider itself.
Again I think you could just read any modern think piece about the show to get a way better idea of what it is but Bojack Horseman will break your heart and not put you back together even though it is only a show about a horse who used to have a Full House-like TV show back in the 90s.
I’m sure there’s plenty I left off this list and there’s shows that end up in the “well I really liked it but is anyone else going to actually see value in it?” like FlashForward or Dollhouse which are both just good and not life-changing shows. I’m positive I’ve forgotten some but I think this is a pretty good selection of mostly modern shows that might interest people who have run out their Netflix queue or who are watching Great British Bake Off for the 6th time and wondering if there’s anything good out there. Happy viewings folks!