Over the past 15 years, the way we encounter television drama in the United States has radically changed. To my delight, it’s been in a way that I had advocated for years — mostly over beers with friends or email exchanges, but sometimes, when I got the chance, in a wider sphere.
First, I felt that the American model of 24 shows a season was an unavoidable disaster. The sheer girth of what was required dictated padding, which made even the best series uneven. That’s now changed, at least with a higher level of television — shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, whatever, have much smaller seasons, and the resulting quality proves this is a superior was of making serial fiction television.
Second, I felt that there were a lot of shows from England that would do well here if they were given the audience. I think that has come true as well, but unfortunately, that doesn’t mean every show gets picked up by an American outlet. Or if it does, it doesn’t mean anyone knows about it. Hype still dominates the attention of so many in the media. Also, television is a communal experience, and so the larger communities tend to also be the shows that succeed. Just like in real life, the oddballs don’t always get noticed — and some shows just weren’t in the right place of chronology during the 15-year stretch to be saved in time.
This is a list of my five favorite oddballs, shows that I think would have lasted much longer than they did if given the right chances with an American audience. All these shows were clipped to early, though each of them is strong enough to be satisfying even in that circumstance, which is why I recommend them, and they represent some of the most challenging and unique approaches to television story-telling I’ve encountered.
Dennis Kelly’s conspiracy thriller features dark comedy as its main tone and won lots of accolades from British critics, but never found an audience sizable enough to keep it giong. That’s a shame, because it’s one of the most inventive, stylish, hilarious, and jarring television series of the 21st Century, and manages to address some lofty themes in a way that alienates no one by providing some good bloody fun. The essential set-up is that a group of people obsessed with the world’s most rare comic book are drawn into a world-wide medical conspiracy that endangers all their lives, spans decades, and creeps into many levels of the government. At the center, though, is the hunt for Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) by the by the unsettling hit man Arby (Neil Maskell), whose manner is much like a discombobulated robot. Hyde herself doesn’t seem to have any idea of how to connect with other humans, and interacts with the dysfunctional fugitives, including the excellent Alexandra Roach as Becky, the brassy Welsh girl with a secret agenda, and Adeel Akhtar as Wilson Wilson, who’s not so sure he disagrees with the conspiracy’s goals. It’s all presented in brash colors and camera work, and unrelentingly stylish violence, fashioning a truly bizarre universe visually as well as within the plot.
Watch it on Youtube
If This Is England is one of the best television works about young people ever, The Fades is certainly one of the best horror shows about the same. No surprise as it is written by England co-scripter Jack Thorne, who brings a similar sensibility to the the horror show, as well as a wonderful level of tenderness and understanding in regard to its characters. Paul (Iain De Caestecker) is a geeky guy who hangs out a lot with his adrenaline-victim best friend, sci-fi dork Mac (Daniel Kaluuya). When Paul begins to exhibit new supernatural powers, things begin to change — like their friendship, for instance, which remains one of the central concerns of the show even as the spirits of the dead are returning and trying to take human form again, and the only thing standing against them are a clandestine group called Angelics who seek Paul’s help. Special bonus for casting the intense Johnny Harris, best known for his work in This Is England and Fortitude, as Paul’s disturbing mentor, Neil.
Streams on Hulu and Amazon
Based on the real life figure of William Garrow, this show at least got three years before it disappeared, enough to to lay out its themes and explore the drama it had to offer. Garrow was an important figure in Western Law, a British barrister who went onto become a judge and politician, known for ideas that at the time certainly mark him as a progressive, particularly in the area of criminal law, in which his efforts helped to dismantle a system that was stacked against the poor particularly. Garrow was the first to use the phrase “Innocent until proven guilty.” The series, which pulls from not only his life but real court cases, with dialogue often taken from historical court records. Among its chief thematic concerns is the idea of women as property and second class citizens. Along with the court cases, the series portrays Garrow’s real-life romance with the wife of an important British politician, here played by Lyndsey Marshal. Garrow himself is played with vigor by Andrew Buchan, recently seen in shows like Broadchurch and The Honourable Woman, but here he is on fire, the absolute center of attention who’s self-satisfied grin is deserved as he is literally changing the world.
Streams on Amazon
In The Flesh
With only nine episodes, In The Flesh did more for the strange combination of zombie fiction and same sex drama than any television show I’ve encountered. Set in a period after the zombie apocalypse, being a flesh-eating dead person has been isolated as a disease, and scientists have discovered a therapy to bring the human back from its zombie state. With a lot of former zombies undergoing treatment and returning to their former lives, that makes for a lot of uneasy reunions. People whose family members were victims of that neighbor who used to be a zombie want some kind of revenge. Work programs and clinics are set up to resettle them into society, but it doesn’t go easy. At the center of this is Kieran (Luke Newberry) a young gay man for whom life was awkward enough, never mind being a zombie, and the very tender dramas pertaining to Kieran’s emotional life. This is not a zombie show as you’ve ever seen it before, centering in on real human emotion and interaction as it sets out its supernatural premise.
DVD available through Netflix
Streams on Amazon
This Swedish science fiction show has been adapted into the rather excellent Humans, but the two aren’t so much alike that watching the remake precludes watching the original. In fact, I’d say that watching the remake demands watching the original for maximum enjoyment. Set in a Sweden that feature human-like robot servants called HuBots, Real Humans goes for a wider scope than its remake. Humans is a pretty gripping drama, but Real Humans ups the social commentary by including a good portion of satire with the suspense, sometimes elements that are absurd and cartoonish and work to counteract the grim central message while still being incredibly faithful to it, and also doing well to highlight the ridiculousness of human beings as well as the darkness. There are also standout characters who didn’t make it to the English language version, most notably regular guy Roger (Leif Andrée), who is enraged at the way HuBots are taking away most aspects of his life; Lennart (Sten Elfström) the cranky and insistent grandfather who clings to his HuBot Odie and tries to carve out a new human life for himself.
The first season is currently available to watch on Vimeo.