For every critically-acclaimed hit like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, or commercial smash like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, there are tens of others shows like Parks and Recreation and Grimm, that are modest successes with cult followings, but are not nearly as popular as they probably should be. But I’m looking at the even further marginalized shows on the TV landscape, the ones that have either been completely ignored by audiences, or which are thriving solely on the loyal viewership of a small sector of the TV audience. In all but one case, it’s not too late to hop on the bandwagon and start watching these excellent series. These are my six recommendations for series you might have missed in 2012. As a side note, I will be awarding gold stars and homemade cookies to anyone who actually watches any of these shows (not really, but I did think about it):
(In no particular order)
It’s a series that is routinely among TV’s funniest half-hours, even while its stock in trade is the “exuberant twentysomethings in the city” conceit that is used to prop up romantic comedies and TV series alike, from How I Met Your Mother to The Big Bang Theory. Yet Happy Endings is less concerned with telling a serialized narrative (or, really, any kind of narrative at all), and instead focuses solely on putting the characters in situations of escalating comedic reward. What works about the show’s comedy is how rooted in character the setups tend to be: you’d be surprised how much mileage the series gets out of overachieving Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) and control freak Jane (Eliza Coupe); or happy-go-lucky goofball Alex (Elisha Cuthbert), and her pretentious, on-again/off-again romantic interest Dave (Zachary Knighton). And then there are the two characters who serve as the show’s comedic anchors: Max (Adam Pally), the immature slacker who’s not only gay but insatiably horny (something that’s surprisingly rare on TV, given how mores have changed over the last decade, with regard to depictions of homosexuality on TV). Then there’s the perpetually-single Penny (Casey Wilson), who can’t seem to hold down a relationship any better than Max can, due to her own quirky, well-meaning neuroses.
The cast has effortless chemistry, which imbues Brad and Jane’s marriage with a Laurel and Hardy style of comedic energy, while Alex and Dave feed off of one another’s empty-headed optimism. Max and Penny, meanwhile, as played by Pally and Wilson, bring a sad-sack sensibility to the series that is equal parts poignant and uproariously funny. Sure, the characters never change or grow, and there are only the occasional hints at larger, overarching stories (such as the potential for a Dave/Penny pairing), but this is that rare series that easily overcomes its lack of traditional sitcom structure by being one of TV’s funniest series. Happy Endings airs Tuesdays at 9:00 PM on ABC.
While technically one of the higher-rated shows to premiere in 2012, and probably the highest-rated debut series ABC Family has had in a good long while, Bunheads hasn’t reached the zeitgeist proportions of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s best-known series, Gilmore Girls. Not that creating Gilmore Girls 2.0 was ever the intention, but it’s somewhat hard to deny the similarities, if only the broader ones – as your enjoyment of Bunheads will largely depend on whether or not Gilmore Girls was your cup of tea. The series stars Sutton Foster as Vegas showgirl Michelle Simms, and if she seems to be a direct facsimile of Lorelei Gilmore, that’s just Palladino’s style. They’re both quick-witted brunettes who speak almost exclusively in whip-smart, fast-paced dialogue, with an almost-supernatural knowledge of esoteric pop culture references. Both also have trouble in love. The series is catalyzed by Michelle marrying one of her admirers on a drunken whim, and moving with him to his idyllic California hometown. However, when the man is suddenly, tragically killed in a car accident, Michelle has to piece together her life in this paradisaical town called Paradise. Much of the series (which is only ten episodes deep, at the moment) centers on Michelle’s attempts to fit into the quirky, Stars Hollow-esque town, while frequently butting heads with her mother-in-law, Fanny (Kelly Bishop), who runs a dance studio, which serves to remind Michelle both of her inveterate love of dance, and also her own failures in making a proper career of it.
Sutton Foster is outstanding in the lead, which provides ample opportunity to showcase the gifts that made her an accomplished, Tony winning star of the Broadway stage. But the show’s heart is in the titular “bunheads”, the students who make up Fanny’s dance studio, from alpha girl Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles) to shy, lovable “Boo” (Kaitlyn Jenkins). The show is at its best when it explores the developing friendships between the girls and Michelle, and how friendships change and grow among the girls themselves. It’s one of the breezier hours on TV, but it’s also a show that luxuriates in its setting and in its characters. What makes the show so rich and enjoyable is in how it allows us an opportunity to simply hang out with characters we like, in a setting that provides a fitting escape to the excesses of modern living. Bunheads returns on Monday, January 7 at 9:00 PM on ABC Family.
This was largely my biggest surprise of the TV season. Not necessarily because I ever thought it was a bad show, but because I’d given Bob’s Burgers a look, here and there. And many of those early episodes I saw seemed to lack teeth. Maybe it’s because I’ve been preconditioned to expect edginess out of animated fare these days, even though some of the best animated series in recent years are ostensibly presented as children’s shows (Hey there, Adventure Time and Regular Show!). Yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that there was something missing from the show, even while I couldn’t quite put a finger on what that was. If I had to guess now what had been missing, I would probably say “chaos”, as the Belcher family would often get into fairly standard animated sitcom debacles from week-to-week, but none with the manic energy or rapid-fire wit that Bob’s Burgers now employs. I don’t know when it happened, but this became one of the best shows on TV, full-stop.
I’d argue that not since The Simpsons, in its Golden Age, has an animated series on a major network had such heart, as the dynamic of the Belcher family is very much something that only its fellow members could ever understand. Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) is as exasperated by his children’s quirks as he is by those of his wife, Linda (John Roberts), yet he doesn’t love them any less for it. He’s trying to teach his family, his kids in particular, the value of work from an early age, as they all work at the titular restaurant. Tina (Dan Mintz), Bob’s eldest daughter, is introverted to a fault, yet the deadpan humor that revolves around her generates some of the best laughs of each episode. Meanwhile the baby of the family, Louise (Kristen Schaal), is her sister’s polar opposite, as fearless and outgoing as any animated character in recent memory. And then there’s Gene (Eugene Mirman), the middle child, who’s off-the-wall, but always delivering pithy one-liners with a keen, incisive wit (“As you know, sir, we have several loans with your institutions,” says Bob in one memorable episode, “all ‘past due’. But what does ‘past due’ even mean, you know?” To which Gene quips, “It’s brilliant! There’s no such thing as time!”). The stories have grown more colorful and engagingly unorthodox as well, from a recent episode paying homage to Jaws, and a genius Christmas episode that acts as a twisted send-up of the movie Mannequin. Bob’s Burgers is one of the most unique shows on TV, a series that is, by turns, both uproarious and immensely endearing.
NBC’s half-hour community college sitcom has amassed a cult following that rivals even the handful of “Bennifer” diehards who actually liked Gigli. And while Community is, in many ways, preceded by its reputation, it’s a hell of a well-earned reputation. I’ve read a lot of divergent opinions about the series, with some labeling the show as “inaccessible” to the casual viewer, yet I hardly feel that’s the case at all. Maybe it’s not as accessible as Happy Endings (truly TV’s easiest comedy to pick up and start watching, sight-unseen), but it’s not at all the impenetrable morass of pop culture references that people keep saying it is. Sure, Abed (Danny Pudi) is a character that skirts with breaking the fourth wall, as he seems to recognize he’s in a TV show, or at least portray his life as though it’s one big sitcom. But Abed is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever seen on a sitcom, as his indexical pop culture references mask an inability to fully cope with the problems in his life (from a father who doesn’t accept his choice of career, to his own long-standing at interacting with others without the context of pop culture to serve as a Rosetta Stone). His relationships with the others in the “study group” around which the series is based is also touching, from his friendship with popular quarterback Troy (Donald Glover) to his occasionally-combative relationship with borderline racist Pierce (Chevy Chase). It tells excellent serialized stories, but beyond all that, it’s also simply hilarious: Joel McHale kills it as Jeff Winger, rattling off razor-sharp quips and maintaining an almost Clark Gable-esque level of combative sexual tension with his two romantic interests in the group, self-important Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and doe-eyed Annie (Alison Brie).
The entire cast of Greendale Community College is among TV’s most well-rounded ensemble, with Ken Jeong as Ben Chang, the fly in the group’s oinment; and Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley, a devoutly religious single mom who serves as the heart of the “study group” itself. NBC caught a lot of flack when it bumped Community from its schedule last season without setting a return date for the rest of its episodes, and it’s caught similar flack this season when bumping its October premiere to an unspecified date in 2013. With news that Chevy Chase will be leaving the show at the end of this season (following in the footsteps of controversial showrunner Dan Harmon, who exited at the end of last season), it seems NBC is intent on killing the show off. Given the four-year story being told, it’s probably a logical endpoint. But this is a series that deserves as many seasons as it can get. Whether it’s an episode dramatizing a game of paintball as a Wild West movie, or turning a pizza night into an exploration of what happens when timelines splinter in six different directions, or even making an entire episode serving as a Ken Burns-type documentary on a school-wide pillow fight war, Community is one of TV’s most daring, ambitious comedies. It’s impossible to go wrong by giving it a shot. Community will return Thursday, February 7 at 8:00 PM on NBC.
Call the Midwife
Call the Midwife was one of BBC’s highest-premiering new dramas when it debuted early in 2012. It was considerably less successful upon its autumn premiere here in the states, on PBS. But there’s no denying that the series, adapted from the memoirs of midwife Jennifer Worth, was among TV’s most intriguing new entries into the fall season. The plot follows midwife Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), newly-qualified and assigned to the nursing convent of Nonnatus House, as she copes with the cycle of life and death in the slums of East London circa the 1950s, alongside fellow midwives and nuns with stories of their own. The first season is only six episodes, but it’s absolutely worth every minute. The premiere, in particular, is slow in getting started, but it’s among the most compelling, wholly absorbing television I’ve seen all year, and it only gets better as the season goes on and Jenny must come face-to-face with her own prejudices regarding how the poor live, and how life and death aren’t always fair in their passage.
Each episode has up to two different cases of midwifery that require attention, while also following Jenny’s love life, and the lives of her fellow nurses, such as Chummy (Miranda Hart), a tall, gangly, awkward woman who is teased by children for her appearance, and ridiculed by her own mother for her life choices, yet who finds strength and courage throughout the series. She’s also among the show’s funniest characters, and it’s not because we’re laughing at her, but rather because she so regularly finds the humor in a given situation, even if it’s awkward, or even perilous. But there are more serialized elements as well, particularly involving a young, troubled patient of Jenny’s who comes from a sordid sexual past, as well as the progressing dementia of Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), the oldest member of Nonnatus House, whose illness becomes a point of great intrigue as the season winds down. It’s a series that is as warm and tender as it is engaging and life-affirming. Part of it might be that I love British television, but by any objective standard, Call the Midwife is an excellent series, and well worth the mere six hour commitment it would require. It will return to British airwaves for a Holiday special, ahead of its eventual return for a second season in 2013, with Americans likely getting the new batch of episodes next fall. That’s more than enough time to catch up with the show, which is available now on DVD.
Alas, we come to the list’s one casualty. Last Resort was one of my favorite new shows of 2012, and it was the first (and only) series among them to be canceled (well, so far). On the plus side, the show is going to be allowed to finish airing its remaining episodes, which means we’re definitely going to get an ending to this drama which follows the crew of a nuclear submarine, the captain of which refuses a questionable firing order on Pakistan, which leads to the Colorado being nearly blown to smithereens by a fellow American vessel, on the orders of the shadowy figures that demanded action against Pakistan without cause. Feeling betrayed, Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) establishes a 200-mile “No Man’s Land” around the fictional island of Sainte Marina off the French coast in the Indian Ocean, and commandeering a NATO communications outpost and setting about the task of clearing their names, and proving who set them up. The show was often derided as being mostly for military buffs, but that’s hardly the case at all, as there’s plenty to dig into, whether you’re a military aficionado or not. Lieutenant Commander Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) has been separated from his beautiful young wife, Christine (Jessy Schram), as a necessity of his service in the Navy. Of the two years they’ve been married, they’ve only been together for roughly a hundred days, and much of the narrative is motivated, at least in part, by this love story that has subtle echoes of Homer’s Odyssey. There’s also the struggle of young Lieutenant Grace Shepard (Daisy Betts) struggling against the misogyny of many aboard the Colorado, while Navy SEAL James King (Daniel Lissing) engages in a romance with an island local (Dichen Lachman) and struggles with his involvement in the Pakistani debacle that set this entire, tragic enterprise into motion in the first place.
What set the show apart from other genre series of its ilk wasn’t the mysteries. Hell, the show gives you plenty of clues to figure out why the rogue officials in Washington wanted the Colorado to cover up with its nuclear missile fire. The show also doesn’t hold back on questioning Chaplin’s sanity, as he occasionally descends into questionable ethics, in the best of circumstances, and outright barbarism, in the worst. What made this show so great was that it’s simply the most intense, nail-biting action series on television. Granted, calling it an “action series” might constitute a bit of a misnomer, given that the action isn’t necessarily a weekly affair, but there are few shows that do action as well as this series does when an episode is action-oriented. But beyond that, there are plenty of situations that provide tense moments that don’t necessarily involve direct combat: from a hostage situation involving the Colorado’s loved ones, to a ticking time-bomb strapped to the body of a crew member that King must defuse. This is to say nothing of the governmental intrigue that landed the Colorado in hot water (pardon the pun) to begin with. The show is remarkably well-paced, and packed with terrific performances, as Braugher continues to be one of the pound-for-pound best actors on television, while Scott Speedman reveals a depth and range I honestly had no idea about before now. It’s one of the great disappointments of 2012 that this show won’t be sticking around, as even while there was potential for the series to easily go pear-shaped, there was just as much potential for this to develop into a truly great, noteworthy series. Now it’ll be noteworthy for the wrong reasons, as a potentially-great series with all the tools to become a hit, but which fell short of that goal. However, it’s not too late to get caught up before the series begins airing its final three episodes, starting on January 10, 2013 at 8:00 PM.
We’ve been given a lot of great TV in 2012, so it’s hard to really complain about anything. And hey, it’ll likely only get better in 2013, but there’s definitely plenty to check out from this year before writing it off once the ball drops. Give some of these a look. You might be surprised.
Also, what are some recommendations for your favorite series that audiences might have missed in 2012? Sound off in the comments!
Oh, and before I go forgetting, Happy Holidays to all of you! I hope it’s a spectacular (and most of all, safe) celebration for you.