The Best Under-Appreciated TV Shows of 2016 - Culture | MERRY JANE
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The Best Under-Appreciated TV Shows of 2016

These slept-on gems are well worth watching.

by Brenden Gallagher

by Brenden Gallagher

With each passing year, more platforms means more shows produced means more great television. From Westworld to Atlanta, from Queen Sugar to Silicon Valley, this year seemed to have something for everyone. There was so much television in 2016 that a lot of great TV fell through the cracks. Here are some of the shows that have been inexplicably missing from watercooler chatter, awards races, and meme culture. If you have some spare time this holiday and you’ve caught up on all of your favorites, you should take some time to dive into these under-appreciated gems.

Better Things

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This was the year when Louie CK’s influence took over the FX comedy brand. Louie created a blueprint for personal expression on TV, and a number of artists ran with it in 2016. Atlanta is a certified hit, and Baskets’ offbeat brilliance captured a cult following. We also shouldn’t discount Pamela Adlon’s ode to single motherhood, Better Things.

As the show follows Adlon’s attempts to balance career, motherhood, and personal fulfillment, the series itself balances its creative ambitions with the tried and true “single mom sitcom” form. More often than not, the show succeeds, and even when it is messy—as was the case with Louie, which Adlon co-wrote and co-produced for years—Better Things is worth the trip.

London Spy

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In a year where people went wild for British imports like The Night Manager, The Crown, and Fleabag, the most underrated was London Spy. Since the show received its American premiere in January (and Britain got the show at the tail end of last year), many have overlooked or forgotten this brilliant miniseries.

The show lures you in by being ostensibly about two young lovers, one of whom goes mysteriously missing. Ultimately, the show is really about the relationship between the bereaved partner (Ben Wishaw) and his older friend Scottie (Jim Broadbent). Through Scottie, who was drummed out of government service for being gay years ago, we explore how far the LGBTQ community has come in England and how far it has yet to go. Though the five episode miniseries is brief, it takes you on an emotional journey that many shows couldn’t muster in a full 22-episode order.

Underground

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It has often been said that white culture only has the bandwidth for so many pieces of art about POC in a calendar year. Just as Moonlight has been designated this year’s “black movie,” it seems that Queen Sugar and Atlanta are this year’s “black drama” and “black sitcom,” respectively. This is too bad, because WGN’s Underground deserved far more year-end love than it is getting.

Like Manhattan before it, Underground’s critical acclaim has not translated into mainstream buzz. The series, which follows a group of slaves on their journey along the underground railroad, documents an important part of our nation’s history while creating a compelling dramatic world.

Documentary Now!

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Documentary Now! is the most unique show on television. Each week, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader create a loving, thoughtful parody of a famous documentary, often accurate down to the film stock and verbal tics of their subjects. In their second season, the series stretched past its previous creative high watermark, often creating a product that was, oddly, as emotionally affecting as the film they’re sending up.

The great pains they go to to recreate the worlds of these films result in some of the most complicated jokes on TV. Whether they are writing an entire Stop Making Sense-inspired rock show or literally travelling to Colombia to create an authentic culinary world in a tribute to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, each episode of Documentary Now! is crazier, funnier, and more ambitious than the last.

One Mississippi

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In a year with many female-driven comedies, some of them invariably get a little less coverage. It makes sense that Tig Notaro’s melancholy tragicomic One Mississippi didn’t get the play of some other shows, but that doesn’t make it fair that the show has been somewhat left in the dust.

From the first moments of the pilot, we know that this show is going to be about laughing through the pain, and crying when we would rather just feel numb. Inspired by real-life events, the series follows Notaro as she goes home to Mississippi to bury her mother shortly after finishing cancer treatment herself. No, it doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, but that’s the beauty of the show and Notaro’s comic charm.

Catastrophe

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Despite earning an Emmy nomination for comedy writing, this show continues to have an unfairly low profile. Twitter celebrity and author Rob Delaney teamed up with British sitcom veteran Sharon Horgan to create one of the funniest shows on TV in Catastrophe.

The first season revolved around a one-night stand that turned into a relationship following an unplanned pregnancy. In the second, Rob and Sharon (their characters are named after themselves) manage their friends, careers, and relatives as they start a family. The show is mature, thoughtful, and honest, but most important, it is consistently one of the funniest on TV.

Penny Dreadful

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Given the size and scope of Penny Dreadful, you would think more people would be talking about it. Alas, the show was so committed to being exactly what it set out to be that it may have been too pure for this ratings-driven world. The Showtime series came to a fulfilling, painful conclusion after three seasons this year, completing one of the most strange and interesting arcs on television.

Penny Dreadful followed Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a woman haunted by demons and marked by the devil, as she ran from her destiny and crossed paths with werewolves (Josh Hartnett), Frankenstein’s Monster (Rorey Kinnear, above), and even Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney). It all sounds so campy, and at some points it was. But, the show was also lyrical, philosophical, artful, and lovely. Penny Dreadful certainly isn’t for everyone, but even if it’s not for you, you won’t be able to say you’ve seen a TV show quite like it.

Rectify

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Despite having the highest Metacritic rating of the year (even higher than American Crime Story), when you mention Rectify, most people don’t know what you’re talking about. When most people get out of prison on TV or in film, the result is usually a mad dash for revenge. Over the last four years, Rectify has offered something different. The series has taken a measured, careful, understated look at life after life on death row. As Variety’s Maureen Ryan put it in her lovely assessment of the series finale, “It’s always been a show with its very own quiet vibe; one of the things that makes it distinctive is an expertly calibrated tone that never goes too big or too broad.”

If that isn’t enough incentive to start streaming ASAP, you should know that unlike many shows with a cult following, Rectify was allowed to tell a full story over four seasons, so you can jump in without worrying you’ll be left with unfinished business.


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Brenden Gallagher

Brenden Gallagher works in television and writing in Los Angeles. He worked on Revenge, Heartbeat, and Famous in Love. His writing has appeared at Complex, VH1, and MERRY JANE. Follow him on Twitter @muddycreekU



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