The Newsroom has received it’s fair share of flack for a number of reasons (misogyny, plagiarism, self-positioning, manipulative use of Coldplay), and when you boil all this unrest down you get one thing: pride. In today’s post-Sopranos world, the TV elite have high expectations for their shows, especially from networks — nay, institutions — like HBO. AMC has joined the ranks with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and recent hits like Homeland and Louie have put Showtime and FX on a similar playing field. Broadcast networks continue to be game players, but finding their best shows requires some sifting, and then of course there’s an array of web platforms, like Hulu, that are serving up new series or exclusives that are actually good, if not great.
The point being, watching TV is now a great balancing act, one in which “the little guys” sometimes get overlooked. And understandably so, because y’all have actual lives in the living breathing world and important things to do. We, on the other hand, don’t, and therefore found the return of STARZ’s Boss to be the perfect pretext to highlight the networks that often get ignored in elite circles, or simply forgotten because they don’t stream their content for free. Not every show on this list is for everyone, and some are certainly more of an acquired taste, but perhaps you’ll find something to fill that tiny sliver of space you have in your nearly booked TV calendar.
Boss on STARZ
Any lingering associations to Dr. Frasier Crane will be purged from your memory after watching this dark and increasingly fantastical political drama about a ruthless Chicago mayor with a degenerative brain disease, fighting to keep a grip on both his power and sanity. Not a STARZ subscriber? The premium channel is currently streaming the first episode of Season 2, which brings some promising talent on board in the form of Kane’s new inner circle, including Broadway alum Jonathan Groff, who we are excited to see cut his teeth in something a bit grittier than Glee.
Strike Back on Cinemax
When we say “go for the cinematography” we actually mean it. After a successful run in the UK, the channel otherwise known as Skinemax partnered with Sky to produce a second and now third series of this explosive terrorist takedown romp, largely filmed across the diverse South African terrain. To give you a better idea of the show’s speed, we refer you to a recent interview with leading man Philip Winchester (Sgt. Michael Stonebridge): “We were driving around the main streets in Cape Town without a lock-off, and stuff blowing up, and shooting guns out the window, and you’re flying around in helicopters — I don’t think you’d be allowed to do that anywhere else in the world.” Or, just check out the teaser above.
That said, we’d be remiss not to note that the show does live up to channel standards, specifically the skin and sex variety. If any of this sounds mildly appealing, check out the season premiere over at Cinemax right now.
Drop Dead Diva on Lifetime
After the last two on this list, it’s time to lighten things up. Yes, the premise of this show is a bit daffy (the spirit of a vapid model is reincarnated in the body of plus-size lawyer Jane Bingum), but that’s just part of its charm. The roundelay of snappy work banter and a “brains over bod” message that actually sticks to its guns, not to mention intermittent musical sequences (see above), make this campy legal procedural perfect couchside material for low-key kickback that may or may not involve cocktails and the color pink.
Those men who wouldn’t be caught dead watching Lifetime might be swayed by the impending return of Ben Feldman, i.e. Mad Men‘s Michael Ginsberg, on the Season 4 finale (September 9th).
Suits on USA
Here’s another legal procedural with another wacky premise, albeit one a little more believable than reincarnated models. The story of high-powered NYC lawyer Harvey Specter and his college drop-out protégé Mike Ross, seems at first glance like your standard, please don’t curse us for using the word, “bromedy.” But this show has got heart and wit, not to mention a cast of badass female characters, including fan favorite Donna Paulsen, who has turned the hollow-gossipy-secretary archetype on its head. Sure, the barbs and casual office confab are close to impeccable, not to mention littered with an enviable amount of effortless film quoting and pop-culture references. But these people are lawyers (or fake lawyers with a photographic memory), so it’s somewhat believable. This Thursday marks the conclusion of the show’s strong second season, which has done a stand-up job fleshing out its incredibly likable cast while revving up the drama.
Awkward on MTV
MTV has never been considered a destination for scripted sitcoms (a notion further cemented by recent misfires Skins and I Just Want My Pants Back), but Awkward is a must for anyone looking for a high-school drama fix that actually doesn’t induce hate-watching. Sure, the plot might get a wee off-kilter at times, but at only 20 minutes an episode, this show is too short and too fun to ever hate with its whip-snap dialogue (minus Matty McKibben, aka tortured teenage window dressing) and an MTV score that we actually don’t mind being manipulated by. Facebook, blogs, and text messages are the vehicle for the usual teen drama, and anyone born pre-1990 need only look to Jenna Hamilton’s ever-sagacious BFF Tamara for guidance. Take, for instance, her advice on text messaging: “Ellipses are the sluts of punctuation.” The girl is genius.
You can blaze through Season 1 and Season 2 (now in progress) at MTV in about, one day, two tops (or watch the old-fashioned way on Thursday nights). Season 3, which will be comprised of 20 episodes, is expected in 2013. Huzzah!
Childrens Hospital on Adult Swim
Rob Corddry’s medical drama spoof has largely flown under the radar, save for a mini Party Down reunion and a recent Emmy nomination, which has garnered the show more mainstream attention. In case you don’t know the backstory, this entirely inappropriate yet charming production grew from a five-minute web series to its current 11-minute format on Adult Swim’s primetime block, and features some names you might have heard of, including Malin Åkerman, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Henry Winkler, Nick Offerman, and Lake Bell (the resident Meredith Grey). Also, if you tune in, listen up for Michael Cera, who makes regular appearances as the disembodied intercom. You can watch all five minutes of the first episode above, and check out Season 4 on Thursdays at midnight.
Portlandia on IFC
Here’s another decidedly niche network show that has only recently dipped its toes into the mainstream. Even if you haven’t seen this good-natured send-up of America’s last city-sized relic of the ’90s, you’ve probably come across a clip or two in the past year. You can catch this increasingly funny show in full form on IFC, where a third season begins this January. In the meantime, we recommend Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s interview at Fresh Air , where they discuss the inspiration behind some of the show’s best sketches, including one of our personal favorites: the allergy parade (see above).
Southland on TNT
What started as the Ben Sherman (i.e. The O.C.‘s Ryan Atwood) show evolved into a true ensemble drama thanks to some rescuing by TNT after NBC called it quits in 2009. High production values (the show is shot on the streets of LA) and strong character development have made Southland one of the most critically acclaimed cop dramas in recent history. The addition of Lucy Liu as Cooper’s partner (the small exchange above is a perfect microcosm of their chemistry), Lydia’s hidden pregnancy, and Ben’s moral unraveling, mixed things up last year, and the fifth season will pick up in January (albeit sans Liu).
Another pretty good show saved by a littler network? Check out Cougar Town on TBS in 2013.
Bunheads on ABC Family
Don’t let the “family” in ABC Family fool you. The teens are pretty chaste, but Paradise transplant and former Vegas showgirl Michelle Simms has a very adult sense of humor, one which we admit we can’t keep up with at times (as you might have heard, Amy Sherman-Palladino likes her characters to talk fast). And although the show has had a shaky start (namely for seemingly aimless plot lines and characters), it’s unafraid to be weird, and as we’ve noted before, the low-key dance numbers have been a treat, not to mention a nice turn after three years of Auto-Tuned yammering on some other musical shows you might have heard of.
For those reasons we’re staying tuned for tonight’s summer finale and next season, which has just been announced.
Misfits on Logo
“If you were suddenly granted superpowers, would you save the world, or just get laid?” With a tagline like that, how can you not watch this show? Technically Misfits is a UK import, but one we’re including on this list since Logo has taken it upon itself to roll out this BAFTA-winning series in style for its US network debut. Season 1 launched at the end of July, and the remaining three will air on Thursdays in the upcoming months. Cheaters, go to Hulu.