This past TV season offered an embarrassment of riches — so much so that we’re celebrating it all week! And with all these gems to choose from, it’s easy to overlook some stuff that’s worth watching. Many of the best shows of the last year seem to have escaped either critical or popular notice, or both, and that’s why we’ve put together this handy list of shows a lot of people seem to have missed. Kudos if you’re already onboard! But for the rest of you, here are a few programs you’d do well to check out, ranked by how urgent it is that you watch them.
Top of the Lake, Sundance Channel (available on iTunes and Netflix streaming)
Elisabeth Moss kills it on Mad Men as the ambitious, thoughtful Peggy. But she’s unbelievable in this New Zealand–set drama written and directed by Jane Campion. Moss plays a detective who’s investigating a statutory rape in her odd hometown, but the mini-series soars way past standard-issue whodunit fare. Campion — thanks to some truly astounding cinematography — allows for some of the magical thinking and superstition that often accompanies trauma, setting up an aesthetic that flips from dreamy to nightmarish in an instant. Warning: It’s tempting to watch all eight episodes as quickly as possible, but this is a terrible idea. Pace yourself. (I say this as someone who spent two awful days in a “the whole world is about rape!” fog after binge-watching a few months back.) Top of the Lake is immersive and mesmerizing, but it’s also deeply violent and disturbing.
Southland, TNT (available on Amazon streaming)
Even though the recently canceled Southland technically lasted for five seasons, there are only 43 episodes of the show. (Compare it to, say, Parks and Recreation, which has churned out 90 in its five seasons.) Watch them! Watch them all, and bask in the intensity of the most understated, riveting cop show in recent years! There are no fancy CSI glow-lights or elaborate, cockamamy murder high jinks to wade through here, just an aggressively paced, naturalistic drama that harkens back to the gripping, emotional early ER episodes.
Face Off, SyFy (available on iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu)
Face Off is to special-effects makeup as Top Chef is to cooking and Project Runway is to fashion. But unlike its fellow reality-contest shows, Face Off just does not give a single shit about interpersonal drama or hyped-up “back at the house” shenanigans. It’s about feats of skill! Legitimately! And in the glut of cooking shows, real-estate shows, wedding shows, and deeply phony workplace reality shows, Face Off stands out just for its subject matter, covering the ins and outs of special-effects makeup and also creature and character design. The show returns for its fifth season August 27.
NY Med, ABC (available on Amazon Instant and iTunes)
TV documentaries: They’re not just made by Ken Burns. This eight-part series, set within New York Presbyterian Hospitals, follows doctors, nurses, patients, and a few standers-by, and nimbly covers both tragic and silly circumstances. It’s just as good as its fantastic forerunners, 2000’s Hopkins 24/7 (my personal favorite) and 2010’s Boston Med.
The L.A. Complex, the CW (available on Google Play and Vudu)
A Canadian import soap about a bunch of twentysomethings living in a dingy L.A. apartment complex had no right to be this good. But there it was! Smart, daring, and surprisingly authentic — particularly the parts about the sometimes brutal stand-up comedy scene. The first season aired too early to qualify for this story, but the show’s second season — which aired on the CW last summer, starting in July — covered love, drugs, ambition, deception, artistic integrity, and financial despair in a sweet spot somewhere between Gossip Girl and Girls.
Billy on the Street, Fuse (available online)
Part game show, part viral video, part man-on-the-street interview, part celebrity-obsessed mania: Oh, Billy on the Street, we love you. Host Billy Eichner runs down the street, camera in tow, confronting people with ludicrous questions (“For a dollar, name three white people!”) and weird would-you-rather pop-culture quizzes. But he also has Rachel Dratch do a Julia Roberts–themed Double Dare–style obstacle course. A lot of alt comedy today is strenuously weird, but Eichner’s style is more joyous than ironic; it’s his personality, not his persona. (Full disclosure: Vulture contributor Julie Klausner is a writer for the show.)
Switched at Birth, ABC Family (available on Netflix streaming and iTunes)
If you ever tire of shows about rape and murder, or dark dramas about antiheroes, or screechy reality shows about horrendous piles of human garbage, or reference-laden comedies, take a break with Switched at Birth, a family-set drama that, while occasionally sort of corny, does not shy away from strong — yet not outrageous! — human emotions. Bay and Daphne discovered at age 16 that they had been accidentally switched at birth, and it throws their lives and the lives of their respective families into a surprising new normal. Daphne is deaf, and she attends a school for the deaf and has lots of friends who are deaf, so much of the show’s dialogue is signed, or signed and spoken simultaneously. Much of adolescence consists of feeling like you don’t belong, and SaB heightens that experience with characters who feel like they don’t belong with their families — neither the biological or sociological ones — or within hearing culture or within deaf culture. The second half of the second season just started, and it’s not too late to jump in.
Adventure Time, Cartoon Network (some seasons available on Netflix streaming and DVD)
This charmingly buoyant cartoon is ostensibly for children, but it contains so much sage wisdom it could moonlight as the world’s most delightful self-help book. “Dude, sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something,” quoth the very wise Jake the Dog. Words to live by.
The Glee Project, Oxygen (not yet available online)
Like Face Off, TGP is about talented people being talented — and yeah, it’s a little distressing that that feels like such a rarity. But we come not to bury trash but to praise treasures. While the histrionics of Glee have become almost unbearable, TGP is still bright and engaging. There’s inherent drama in any audition process — the show is one big audition to win a role on Glee, but several runners-up have also appeared on the show — and these kids really can sing and dance, but the judges are refreshingly brutal and uncompromising. Like its scripted network sister show, TGP is inclusive, with cast members who are blind, disabled, gay, gender non-conforming, and overweight, along with super drama queens, hunky jocks with surprising dance juju, and your run-of-the-mill theater types.
Killer Karaoke, TruTV (available online and On Demand)
Soooooo, this is clearly one of the dumbest shows in the history of television. But it’s also amazing. Contestants sing karaoke while enduring bizarre physical feats — like serving drinks while being (lightly) shocked with an electrical collar, or while being dipped into a vat of freezing water, or while having their body hair waxed off. It’s brilliantly debased, and it perfectly activates that part of your lizard brain that causes hysterical laughter. This show is so wonderfully ridiculous that my family watched it on Christmas. Christmas.