If TV industry observers can concur on one thing, it’s the challenge of finding a consensus on anything. Ratings only tell part of the story, and they themselves have been subjected to a mercenary formula. Social-media buzz can often be the net effect of a calculated marketing campaign, and episodic recaps tend to heighten the perception of a show’s broader reach.
What, then, qualifies any series as “overlooked”? In the modern, multi-platform television landscape, it can be boiled down to a feeling—the sense that a worthy scripted drama or comedy hasn’t quite inspired the sort of breathless (if, at times, insulated) meta-analysis of, say, Stranger Things or American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. We’ll leave the “why?” of that conundrum for another time, but here’s our list of 10 TV shows that should have had more people buzzing in 2016.
Fans of Sundance’s meditative, mysterious Rectify tend to evangelize on its behalf. Maybe that inspires contrarianism from skeptics. Or perhaps—like virtually all SundanceTV series that don’t star former Mad Men principals (i.e. Top of the Lake)—creator/writer Ray McKinnon’s moving and compelling insight into the life of former death-row inmate Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is, prevailingly, an understated show on an understated network. But from its opening moments outside the Georgia prison where Daniel spent nearly two decades to its phenomenal farewell season, Rectify has merited fervor. (Paste included the series on its list of the 25 Best TV Shows of 2016.) As moving as Six Feet Under and, just as often, as taut and unpredictable as Breaking Bad, McKinnon and company’s 30 carefully considered episodes are destined for revisionist due. But much as with Daniel himself, it’s too bad redemption didn’t come sooner.
While we’re at it, three cheers for Sundance’s other stealthy 2016 offering, Hap and Leonard, adapted from Joe R. Lansdale’s novels and set to air Season Two starting March 1. As a self-contained sextet of episodes, its first season stands on its own as wild, weird and massively entertaining. It may not feel that way when we’re introduced to the show’s title characters—Hap (James Purefoy), a conscientious Vietnam objector and day laborer, and Leonard (Michael K. Williams), a gay Vietnam vet prone to rage—or even during their early misadventures salvaging some storied loot from the bottom of a swamp. But once they and their misfit co-conspirators (led by Hap’s ex, played by Christina Hendricks) cross paths with joyriding lunatics Soldier (Westworlds Jimmi Simpson, in a career-best bit of mania) and Angel (the fearsome Pollyanna McIntosh), Hap and Leonard escalates, rapidly reaching surreal heights of Mad Maxworthy mayhem, all set among the swamps of late‘80s Texas. And with plenty of Eurodancing.
Now’s the time to catch up with father-and-son duo Eugene and Daniel Levy’s winning sitcom (Season Two is currently On Demand) before it returns on January 11. This year’s sophomore slate was, like the family it follows (the Levy men, along with Catherine O’Hara and Annie Murphy, as bankrupt millionaires the Roses), far more comfortable in its surroundings. Season One mined plenty of laughs out of its fish-out-of-water conceit, with the Roses transplanted to a poor, rural town run by Chris Elliott’s slovenly Mayor Roland Schitt, but its successive half hours go that much further beyond the title’s slapstick wordplay. The Roses, despite themselves, are assimilating to life outside La La Land, and incrementally coming to appreciate each other’s company. Schitt’s Creek isn’t particularly trenchant, nor is it simple or sentimental. Rather, it hits a sweet spot of ensemble humor that happens to offer a satisfying answer to post-presidential election rhetorical grousing about what would happen if middle and bicoastal Americans really could get along.
Mike O’Malley’s canny, provocative comedy about a middle-class black family that joins basketball star son/brother/cousin/nephew, Cam Calloway, when he moves to Atlanta has picked up converts. And, thankfully, it will continue rewarding viewers’ commitment when Season Four premieres in 2017—though the lack of awards talk and comparatively scant hot-take buzz generated by Survivor’s Remorse is, indeed, regrettable. O’Malley and his diverse, take-no-prisoners team of writers (including Allen Maldonado, Ali Leroi, Tracy Oliver and Victor Levin) continue exploiting their appealing premise to dig deeper into racial and gender politics than any show on television. And despite navigating some fairly heavy material in recent episodes—sudden death, sexual assault, etc.—Survivor’s Remorse, true to form, never moralizes, consistently finding the funny in knockout satire, wry observations and adolescent stoner gags. RonReaco Lee (as Cam’s cousin, Reggie), Teyonah Parris (Reggie’s wife, Missy) and Tichina Arnold (Cam’s mom, Cassie) all deliver Emmy-worthy performances, and the show has more than merited tuning in.
We know what you’re thinking: A debut season of yet another new anthology series, this one inspired by a noted creepypasta tale, aired by a network better known for Sharknado and WWE. Well, firstly, there’s nothing wrong with WWE. Moreover, every network is owed a chance to reinvent itself. Ditto for actors. And Paul Schneider, who was hastily exiled from a key role in Parks and Recreation, is the heart and soul of Candle Cove. He plays Mike Painter, a child psychologist traumatized by a terrifying public-access show from his youth that drove his twin brother to homicide and, eventually, a grisly death. Still taunted and haunted, Painter returns to his rust belt Ohio town, and sure enough things get spooky and murderous right quick. It will be worth staying tuned to see if Channel Zero can keep up the good-bad vibes when its follow-up tale—No End House—comes to life next year, but Season One, Candle Cove, is a textbook demonstration of how to build low-key suspense and dread, messing with our own memories of monsters real and imagined.
Maybe you’ve had enough docu-coverage of this presidential election. Or perhaps something more journalistic is what you’ve been after, given the spotty quality of political reporting this year. If it’s the latter, cycle back through Showtime/Bloomberg Politics’ weekly, non-partisan (sort of) tele-diary of the most bewildering political race that ever was, hosted by Bloomberg journalists and Game Change authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. There’s a certain, singular anxiety upon re-entering The Circus now that the outcome is writ, which is what will make it an enduring time capsule of how an unhinged primary campaign conceded to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s hellacious dogfight. Halperin and Heilemann may not always ingratiate themselves, but they emerged unwitting tour guides through a tragic-comic funhouse, and helped us get better acquainted with the saga’s roll call of breakout voices, like anti-Trump Republican firebrand Ana Navarro. It’s both too bad and essential that The Circus couldn’t ultimately be more fun.
Like Rectify, Hell on Wheels’ availability on Netflix gives it a fighting chance at wider, belated recognition. Not that it’s at Rectify’s level, or even in its time period. But this Western—which dramatized the lives of real and fictional players during the construction of competing, cross-country railroads after the Civil War—was never less than a richly sourced imagining of our nation’s great expansion West, with a few can’t-miss psychopaths and tortured heroes for good measure. Like its fourth season, this year’s fifth and final season was ostensibly buried on Saturday nights, but never relented until the final spike was driven into the last slat of Union Pacific track, detouring only to resolve longstanding conflicts and foreshadow the challenges America was then readying to stare down. Anson Mount, as Civil War vet-turned-vengeful gunslinger-turned unlikely tycoon Cullen Bohannon, carried the final episodes through their bloody, heat-stroked twists and turns. And there may never be as resilient and nightmarish a mortal villain as Christopher Heyerdahl’s Thor Gundersen. Just don’t call him The Swede.
The Walking Dead’s maligned season premiere reanimated discussions about gore for gore’s sake, but few cited Ash vs. Evil Dead, which puts on a carnival of carnage Sunday after Sunday that answers concerns about whether the grotesque can be good-natured with a resounding, “Fuck yeah.” To be fair, Season Two of this continuation of Sam Raimi’s beloved Evil Dead franchise can be utterly incoherent, and visibly strains to stretch out the story until it ultimately boomerangs back to the movies’ origins. But it’s there now, and that’s all that matters. That, and the fact that Bruce Campbell remains all-in as aging but still potent deadite slayer Ash Williams, plus some primo gross-out gags brought to life by the special effects, art and makeup crews. There’s nothing new about Ash vs. Evil Dead’s formula, and what you see is what you get, but what you get is 30 minutes of goofy horror that spares viewers from ponderous debates.
Adam F. Goldberg’s ripped-from-his-childhood odes to ‘80s movies, videogames and coming of age in suburbia aren’t the stuff of underdog legend. The Goldbergs acquits itself well in the ratings, but still falls short of favor among self-appointed tastemakers (i.e. TV snobs). Thing is, The Goldbergs is about mining gentle cringe comedy from a time in our lives when we were far less discerning about pop culture and could barely see above the steering wheel, let alone outside the bubble of our immediate family and community. It’s like a satire of Family Ties that, at the end of each episode, wants to reach out to its predecessors and—to quote matriarch Beverly Goldberg, played by the pitch-perfect Wendi McLendon-Covey—give them all snuggies. Season Four succumbs to rehashing familiar themes (we get it, everyone underappreciates each other and how lucky they are, and Erica likes to sing), but all the hallmarks that make it more than just Hallmark sappy—censored F-bombs, flirtations with the fourth wall, Troy Gentile’s big-hearted buffoon act as big brother Barry—deftly coarsen the edges. JTP 4eva.
So long, Fanshees (that’s what fans of the show called themselves, we swear). Showrunner Jonathan Tropper’s ultraviolent vision of a rural Pennsylvania town besieged by drug dealers and reliant on the heroics of an ex-con jewel thief posing under the assumed identity of a slain local sheriff barely made it across the finish line. The show weathered changes in shooting locations, broadcast delays and an abbreviated eight-episode order, but as aforementioned Fanshees would rightly attest, Banshee’s final season brought the house down with grim deaths, settled scores and fresh starts. Calling Banshee a guilty pleasure overlooks just how unpleasant it could often be, which is what made witnessing Lucas (Antony Starr, now of American Gothic), Carrie (Ivana Milicevic), Brock (Matt Servitto) and Job’s (Hoon Lee, who segued into a starring role in Broadway’s The King and I) survival so compelling. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but if you ever miss the days of straight-to-cable action flicks with more emphasis on kicking ass than taking names, binge your way through Seasons One, Two and Three via Amazon Prime, then take a necessary breather until its climactic chapters are released.