One of the defining attributes of the recently ended Golden Age of Television was that the quality, while spectacular, was not matched by quantity. It was more than possible for a casual fan to deep-dive four or five key shows and still be able to feel like a part of the larger cultural conversation.1 In 2013 the highs might not be as high, but the depth and breadth are staggering. Suddenly, excellence is everywhere, on channels you had written off, channels you didn't know you had, and channels that aren't even channels at all. There is no longer an offseason, as the summer, traditionally a dead time, is now rife with premieres, returns, and revivals. Worthy international imports are flooding the markets like cheap hooch, and a nation of poor, swollen DVRs is listing under the strain. And with every one of these programs comes the gift and the curse of serialization, meaning cherry-picking episodes is as outdated as a laugh track. To start a show means investing the precious hours in finishing it. Savoring has been replaced with bingeing; checking something out has been replaced with barely keeping up. Watching TV is my job, but these days it can feel like work for anyone.
Last week I mentioned that we were currently adrift in the all-star break, a shallow trench between the end of Mad Men and the start of Breaking Bad. The tap of good TV is still flowing — it has just mercifully slowed to a temporary trickle. But does this mean we should turn off our sets and stagger out into cruel daylight, the better to indulge our collective TV hangovers? No! My friends, the time is right for a little hair of the dog. That's right: The best thing to do when there's less to watch is find a way to watch more. When everyone else is snoozing or lazily crushing candies while the day's 19th episode of Love It or List It plays in the background,2 the truly dedicated TV obsessives will be in the gym like Kobe, getting better while everyone else gets soft. Only in this case, the "gym" is the couch and "better" means having more shows to recommend to friends and family and getting more of Patton Oswalt's hashtag jokes on Twitter.
To that end, I humbly present the first — and surely not the last — great Grantland TV catch-up plan. All 10 shows below are (a) worth a shot, and (b) streaming in some capacity at this very moment. (Note: Two of the very best shows of the year, Top of the Lake and Orange Is the New Black, are also currently streaming on Netflix and well worth your time. I've just written about them already at length.)
So let's get it together, people! What else are you going to do with your remaining time this summer, after all? See a movie? Take in our national pastime? Go outside?!? Please. Get serious and grab the remote. There's work to be done.
THE SHOW: Orphan Black
STREAMING ON: BBC America On Demand; available for purchase on iTunes
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 10
IDEAL VIEWING: 4 a.m. inside a paint-flecked loft located in the arty part of Canada that looks kind of like New York but ends up looking like nowhere at all.
BBC America's sci-fi thriller isn't nearly as great as a recent groundswell of critical adulation would have you believe — but it is great fun. Orphan Black is the story of Sarah Manning, a con artist and single mom who, after witnessing an identical woman jump in front of a train, becomes enmeshed in a violent conspiracy revolving around clones. Eventually there are enough Sarahs to successfully field a regulation volleyball team.
I'll write more about the show once I've finished the season, but what's most compelling about Orphan Black is its complete, go-for-broke dedication to its particular brand of bonkers. In the central role(s), Tatiana Maslany swaps accents and wigs as easily as if she's trying on T-shirts, and the writers' room appears to have been run like a high-stakes improv exercise: The only answer to every idea is "yes." As in, "yes" Sarah should immediately steal the life of a cop and boff her boyfriend. "Yes," there should be stolen coke and bodies to bury. "Yes," Sarah's social circle — replete with rockers, mods, and a fey, usually shirtless quip machine named Felix — should be modeled on the background players in a mid-'90s Britpop video. Unnoticed when it debuted, this is the show people who like to talk about things have been talking about all summer. Get sorted before it returns for Season 2.
THE SHOW: Moone Boy
STREAMING ON: Hulu
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 6
RIYL: Family Tree, Malcolm in the Middle, Googling obscure Irish slang from the late '80s.
IDEAL VIEWING: On a lazy Saturday morning, with a steaming mug of Tetley in a snug cabin aboard Steve Zissou's exploratory vessel Belafonte.
In a relatively short time, Chris O'Dowd has become an in-demand avatar for some of America's leading comic minds, from Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham to Christopher Guest, who cast O'Dowd as the star of the gently satirical Family Tree.3 With Moone Boy, O'Dowd returns to his more humble roots. Writen by Dowd and Nick Vincent Murphy, Moone is a sweet and quite funny family sitcom based on O'Dowd's own bumpy childhood in rural Ireland. The lead character, Martin Moone, is a precocious but utterly clueless adolescent prone to suffering wet willies and losing himself in animated daydreams. (When asked about mysterious bruises, Martin claims he "fell into a tree." Twice.) Martin is generally and amusingly ignored by his distracted parents and cabal of cruel, The Cure–worshiping sisters; his only friend is imaginary, played with banjo-picking deadpan by O'Dowd. It's possible to overlook the forest for the twee, but there's some clever stuff here about parenting and bullying and the general unfairness of young life.
THE SHOW: The Fall
STREAMING ON: Netflix
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 6
RIYL: Top of the Lake, The Bridge, The Killing, or any other of the three dozen contemporary shows in which a dogged female detective tracks down a vicious criminal.
IDEAL VIEWING: In a locked room, surrounded by friends and family and with your therapist on speed dial.
This BBC Two phenomenon, starring The X-Files' Gillian Anderson as a (passably) English cop called to Belfast to aid a murder investigation, is expertly crafted, impeccably shot, and wonderfully acted. Its air of creeping brutality and dread is tangible and suffocating; its devotion to demonstrating the humanity of its buff, woman-strangling monster (Once Upon a Time's Jamie Dornan) is both admirable and disturbing. If the goal was to make me want to call my mother and take an Aaron Sorkin number of showers afterward, mission accomplished. Of all the serial-murder shows on TV in 2013, the first season of The Fall may be the smartest, not to mention the most slithery and appalling. In a vacuum, that's a very good thing. But in the wake of female slaughterfests The Following and Hannibal, it's awfully tough to endure. There's no questioning The Fall's excellence, but it did make me question my ability to sit through many more hours of violence and dread, not to mention my ability to sleep without a nightlight.
THE SHOW: Spiral
STREAMING ON: Netflix
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 28
RIYL: Law & Order, Jerry Lewis, and gooey, runny cheeses.
IDEAL VIEWING: In a dimly lit jazz bar, sipping a mauresque and holding your cigarette the French way. At a safe distance from mimes.
This internationally popular French crime show debuted in 2005, but its grim, murdery worldview fits right into what's been an exceptionally dark year for television. Season 1 opens on the faceless face of a Romanian woman who's been savagely beaten into anonymity. It's up to tough French cop Laure Berthaud, her crack team of occasionally coke-sniffing underlings, and the handsome, berobed prosecutor Pierre Clément to identify the body and bring the killers to justice. This is a gripping, urban story set in a city more often used as a backdrop for dreamily romantic idylls; it's a fascinating glimpse of a Paris lined with grimy backstreets, not grand boulevards. Though the visual storytelling can get a little Dramatic Hamster at times, Spiral is a fine way to pass the temps before the more predictable network procedurals start up again in the fall.
THE SHOW: The Thick of It
STREAMING ON: Hulu
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 23
RIYL: Veep, In the Loop, using a thesaurus when you insult people.
IDEAL VIEWING: At Phil's, the fictional D.C. bar from Murphy Brown, sipping your fifth scotch-and-regret and boiling with resentment and ennui.
Bagging exclusive American rights to the fourth season of Veep creator Armando Iannucci's vicious British political satire was worth every pound; it's a typically savage slapfest centered on the real-life impossibilities of a coalition government. But even if you can't distinguish the Liberal Democrats from Ulster Unionists, it's still worth watching all of The Thick of It for one of modern television's most singular, terrifying, and certainly most profane creations: Malcolm Tucker. Tucker, brilliantly played by Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, is a spin doctor without borders — or limits, or compunction. He has dead eyes, shark fangs, and a dirty-bomb wit. He deploys profanity the way Picasso used paint, the way Paula Deen used butter. His insults are enough to make government ministers cry — and viewers, too, though thankfully for decidedly different reasons.
THE SHOW: The Shield
STREAMING ON: Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 89
RIYL: The Sopranos, Justified, pounding six Red Bulls and watching The Commish on fast-forward.
IDEAL VIEWING: Unshowered, at a gun range.
Shawn Ryan's The Shield is TV's Odessey and Oracle: an unjustly overlooked masterpiece from a creative golden age. The show put FX — and basic cable — on the road to respectability and pushed television cops all the way through the black hole first uncovered back in 1993 by NYPD Blue. But whether due to Tony Soprano gobbling up the spotlight or critics having a tougher time in a pre-DVR era when it was a lot harder to fast-forward through commercials, Shawn Ryan's landmark series is regularly left out of the conversation, at least among prestige snobs.4 The arrival of all seven seasons to Hulu Plus ought to help change that. Starring Michael Chiklis as a charismatically awful rogue cop, the show starts with a literal bang — it has one of the most effective and memorable pilots in television history — and ends just about the same way.
THE SHOW: Terriers
STREAMING ON: Netflix
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 13
RIYL: The Rockford Files, Ross Thomas novels, wishing the USA retro-fests had more weight behind their sunglasses.
IDEAL VIEWING: Over a Bloody Mary and a plate of huevos rancheros in a room featuring at least one adult wearing a baja.
Yes, this brilliant-but-canceled series is a familiar hobbyhorse of mine. But it's my rodeo and I'll ride what I choose. Also on FX, also from Shawn Ryan — but dreamed up by Ocean's Eleven screenwriter Ted Griffin — Terriers was doomed by low ratings and a confusing name, which is a terrific shame because it remains my favorite show5 of the past few years. It's a mismatched bromance about two grubby chancers — brilliantly played by IRL pals Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James — running a detective agency in a beach town south of San Diego. Most big-ticket dramas these days center on corrupt institutions and the kingmakers bent on maintaining that corruption. But Terriers was about small-stakes guys crashing uncomfortably into the big machine. The show's first, and only, season started funny but got fiercer as it went along, a wonderful example of what can happen when good writers get a well-made car — OK, pickup truck — and aren't afraid to push the pedal out on the open road. And don't worry about lack of resolution: Terriers ends in the most perfect place imaginable, pitched between obligation and escape, between fantasy and reality.
THE SHOW: Scandal
STREAMING ON: Season 1 on Netflix; Season 2 on Hulu Plus and repeating on BET.
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 29
RIYL: Grey's Anatomy, industrial-strength cosmopolitans, and Muay Thai kickboxing.
IDEAL VIEWING: While French-kissing Wonder Woman at the top of the Washington Monument.
Scandal, from super-producer Shonda Rhimes, is that rarest of birds, a network drama that started modestly and blew up into a monster. What began as your run-of-the-mill hypersoap — about a high-priced Washington fixer (the exquisite Kerry Washington) who just happens to be carrying on an affair with the president — popped a molly in Year 2, tumbling into tawdry excess with a recklessness and brio unmatched on TV. There was an assassination attempt, a vote-rigging scandal, and Noel from Felicity as a naval officer/presidential spy. The show's Wikipedia page hints at the high nonsense you've been missing: "In season 2, [the president] is troubled by whether to invade East Sudan and his wife Mellie's pregnancy [sic]." Scandal treats logic and storytelling the way Gallagher treats watermelons: Yes, there's pulp flying everywhere, but the juice sure is tasty.
THE SHOW: The X-Files
STREAMING ON: Netflix
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 202 (but really we're talking about only one)
RIYL: Twin Peaks, "Coast to Coast" with Art Bell, the dream of the '90s.
IDEAL VIEWING: In Walter White's meth Winnebago, safely under the dome of a tinfoil hat.
I've been saying for awhile that The X-Files, one of the cultiest of cult shows, is in serious need of a critical reevaluation. Now that the sticky black oil of the overarching "conspiracy" plot has receded, what's left is a remarkably well-written anthology show of outré imagination. Chris Carter's storytelling family tree includes Howard Gordon (24, Homeland) and Frank Spotnitz (Hunted, Strike Back), but the most fascinating alum is Vince Gilligan, who credits his time with Mulder and Scully as instrumental in the creation of Breaking Bad.
Ahead of the latter's final season premiere on August 11, it's well worth checking out "Drive," a typically taut Gilligan-penned episode from The X-Files' sixth season. The hour represents the first collaboration of Gilligan with Bryan Cranston, the actor who would become his meth-dealing muse. In fact, Gilligan is on record saying that it was the way Cranston found empathy in the mutton-chopped visage of Patrick Crump, an anti-Semite with a sound wave bomb in his head, that helped convince a leery AMC that the dad from Malcolm in the Middle was the right guy to become Heisenberg. Check it out now and be transported to a faraway time when cell phones were a novelty and stand-alone episodes were the norm, not an all-too-rare exception.
THE SHOW: Undeclared
STREAMING ON: Netflix
NUMBER OF EPISODES: 17
RIYL: Freaks and Geeks, Girls, huffing the spines of your Norton Anthologies for the slightest whiff of nostalgia and/or cheap pot smoke.
IDEAL VIEWING: Holed up with the cast of This Is the End minus Emma Watson.
Burned from the heartbreak of Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow made his next project as broad as humanly possible: It was a half-hour comedy for Fox set in the hash-and-hookups-rich environment of a freshman dorm. What could possibly go wrong? The answer, of course, was everything, including premiering two weeks after 9/11 and having the network air episodes out of order. What was produced, though, was and is sparkling, a very funny ode to a very funny time in the life of young, otherwise serious-minded people. Plus, the bloodlines on this thing are insane: These 17 episodes were directed by folks like Greg Mottola (Superbad), John Hamburg (I Love You, Man), and Paul Feig (The Heat), and feature the first produced scripts by Girls co-showrunner Jenni Konner and Forgetting Sarah Marshall dude Nicholas Stoller. In front of the camera you'll find Seth Rogen perfecting his character of "Seth Rogen," Jenna Fischer's first acting gig, Jason Segel and Jay Baruchel jousting over Carla Gallo, and Charlie Hunnam melting hearts long before he bought a motorcycle or a giant, monster-crushing robot. And that's not even mentioning the Apatow-favor-cashing, Easter egg guest appearances by Ben Stiller, Fred Willard, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, and Adam Sandler. Undeclared may not teach you anything new, but, like college, it's really all about the people and the memories, man.