Whether or not a television show can even be considered underrated anymore is debatable. There are as many critical sites as there are t.v. viewers, it seems, and unless a show is a universal stinker, the chances are good that someone will argue any given show’s virtues. Yet, a show can still be underappreciated by the at-large viewing public despite critical acclaim. The aim of this list is to highlight shows that never achieved the widespread commercial appeal that some of the “big” shows of the last decade – Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, etc. – garnered. In some cases, the setting or subject matter of the shows on this list was too esoteric for wide appeal but, with a new streaming service rolling out weekly, you’ve an excellent chance to see what you missed.
While the initial draw of Justified was Timothy Olyphant’s quietly-cool U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, it was often the supporting cast who added true character to the show. Margo Martindale won an Emmy for her portrayal of Dixie-Mob boss Mags Bennett and Jeremy Davies (Upham in Saving Private Ryan) took home hardware for playing Dickie Bennett, a longtime enemy of Olyphant’s Givens. The show’s viewership slid as the seasons progressed but the critical acclaim never slowed and creator Elmore Leonard praised the adaptation of his work. Called “hillbilly noir” by one critic, the series’ plot lines and characters could have easily been woven into a more urban, more traditional cops and robbers setting but it was the hills of Harlan, Kentucky that gave Justified its unique flavor.
[Character Actor Bonus Points: Stephen Root, Office Space’s Milton, appears throughout the first few seasons as Judge Mike Reardon. Root also had a recurring role in True Blood, on which The Killing’s Michelle Forbes starred as the main antagonist of season 2.]
4. The Killing
This show never ceased being exceptional in every way yet viewership and short-sighted critics lost interest at the end of season one because the murder of Rosie Larsen was not solved at the season’s conclusion. This was not a mistake by the writers as their intent was clearly to portray a realistic murder investigation, rather than one crime solved and adjudicated within an hour as is the formula for popular network cop shows. The Killing took an in-depth look at Detectives’ Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (fantastically played by Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman) lifelike investigation, complete with false leads, blind alleys and personal dramas all threatening to derail the case. Where the series truly showed its strength in season one was in the portrayal of a grieving family – Michelle Forbes won an Emmy for her role as Mitch Larsen, the bereaved mother – who is nearly destroyed by the murder of their oldest child. Viewers who left the show not only missed the solving of the Larsen murder but possibly one of the best seasons of television ever when season three investigated a serial murder, preying on Seattle’s ignored population of transient young people. Enos and Kinnaman got better and better as the show progressed and Enos’ Sarah Linden will remain one of the best television cops of all time. AMC cancelled the show after three seasons but Netflix resurrected it for a fourth mini-season, supplying closure to the cliffhanger ending of season three.
[Double Character Actor Bonus Points: Brian Markinson (Gil Sloan, season 1) appears as Jordan Duram, an agent for the Global Defense Department in Caprica alongside Paula Malcomson. Michelle Forbes played Admiral Helena Cain in Battlestar Galactica alongside Callum Keith Rennie, Linden’s fiancee in The Killing]
When people talk about past HBO series, the conversation is generally about The Sopranos or The Wire. Often left out of the discussion is Deadwood, a period drama about the titular South Dakota town set in the 1870s. The show was briefly popular among the viewing public, often for the wrong reasons. Deadwood’s record-setting usage of the words “fuck” and “cocksucker” made it popular comedic fodder for some, a point of non-realism for others. The show’s creator, David Milch, explained that the use of foul language was common in the old West but it was his artistic choice to use modern swear words as Al Swearengen saying the more historically accurate “goldarn” would have simply come across as comical, as denizens of the 19th century utilized blasphemous rather than scatological swears. Aside from that, the period setting itself and the sometimes stilted dialogue was not embraced by the at-large viewing public despite wonderful adaptations of historical events and characters, smart political allegories to American capitalism, and brilliant acting. Ian McShane’s turn as Al Swearengen rivals James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano and a smattering of other wonderful character actors turn in brilliant performances time and again. Robin Weigert’s portrayal of Calamity Jane, Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock, and W. Earl Brown’s Dan Dority provide some of the series’ most unforgettable moments.
[Character Actor Bonus Points: Brad Dourif (nominated for an Emmy as Deadwood’s Doc Amos) is best known as the voice of the titular character, Chucky, in the movie franchise about the murderous doll. On Deadwood, he starred alongside Dayton Callie (Charlie Utter), with whom he would again share the screen in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II (2009) as Sheriff Brackett and Coroner Hooks, respectively.]
Despite good reviews, Caprica never achieved the level of popularity the show’s creators hoped it would. The biggest knock against it? It wasn’t Battlestar Galactica. Despite Ronald D. Moore’s continued assertions that “this show is not BSG,” the viewing public somehow missed the message. Caprica existed in the same universe as the phenomenal Battlestar Galactica and could be called a prequel, but really it was a futuristic portrayal of Rome before its colossal fall. While the show does give viewers a blueprint as to how the Cylons revolted, fought, retreated, and subsequently destroyed most of humanity fifty years later, the primary aim of Caprica was to show what happens when society becomes drunk on it’s own perceived success. Amidst political unrest, domestic terrorism, and ethnic struggles, Caprica offers that the truly powerful members of society are not politicians, but the heads of industry, i.e. Daniel Graystone (played by Eric Stoltz), CEO of Graystone Industries and creator of the Cylons. How his creation gained sentience is an intricate and major plot point of the show, but what can be said sans-spoiler is that there is no single catalyst for the ultimate revolt of the Cylons. The framework is carefully laid by a complex set of economic, political, and social circumstances which ultimately lead to the near extinction of humanity. Hmm…
[Character Actor Bonus Points: Paula Malcomson (Amanda Graystone) – best known as the put-upon Mrs. Everdeen in The Hunger Games series of films – stars as Trixie, Al Swerengen’s top lady, in Deadwood. Paula also guest-starred as Colleen Pickett in the season 4 episode of Lost, “Every Man For Himself,” in which fellow Deadwood co-star Kim Dickens, who played Sawyer’s brief partner in crime, Cassidy Phillips, also featured.]
An absolute gem of a show, Treme captured the soul of a city in ways that David Simon’s better-known creation, The Wire, did not. The city of New Orleans is resilient and charming and central character in and of itself as it tries to come back from the near-apocalyptic destruction of Hurricane Katrina, which left unheralded disaster and thousands displaced in its wake. Recapturing the spirited, New Orleans way of life is central to Treme’s plot, the music is fantastic, and the culture of the Crescent City is captured on screen in ways other films and shows have missed. What sets Treme apart is that its smooth writing is brought to life by some of the best character actors alive. Khandi Alexander (LaDonna), Clarke Peters (Albert “Big Chief” Lambraux), and Melissa Leo (Toni) deliver some of the finest, most grounded moments ever seen on the small screen. Rounded out by talent like the lovable Davis (Steve Zahn) and the incomparable character actor, Kim Dickens, Treme can make you laugh, cry, and shimmy your hips all within the span of moments.
[Triple Character Actor Bonus Points: Danai Gurira, The Walking Dead’s Michonne, appears in a small, recurring role as Jill. Kim Dickens (Jeanette Desautel) also stars as Joanie Stubbs in Deadwood along with Paula Malcomson, Brad Dourif, and Timothy Olyphant. Michiel Huisman, who plays the drug-addicted street musician, Sonny, is best known as Khaleesi’s paramour, Daario Naharis, on Game of Thrones but he also shares the screen with The Killing’s Michelle Forbes in Orphan Black, portraying father of Kira and ex-fling of Sarah (played by Tatiana Maslany), Cal Morrison.]
[Author’s Note: the cover image is courtesy of MorningMorning at deviantart.com]
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