Since the Sopranos (1999) kicked off the “Golden Age of Television”, we’ve had great series come out pretty much every year, and many of them are still watched in large numbers today. In this article, as I did in my article last year, I’d like to show some love for some lesser known high-quality series that I think you might enjoy. Check it out!
1. Utopia (2013) – Dennis Kelly (12 episodes, 50 minutes)
“I suggest that from now on, no one googles anything.”
This one is for the thrill-seekers! The premise of Utopia is this: a small group of strangers regularly meets on an internet chatroom to discuss a cryptic, cult-hit graphic novel from the 80’s in which unspeakable disasters are depicted. When one of the group members claims to have the manuscript of the elusive, unpublished sequel, they are quickly targeted by a malevolent, powerful organization otherwise known as “The Network”.
While this may already sound hectic as is, where Utopia’s feeling of off-kilter menace really shines is in its visuals and its soundtrack. The strongly stylized cinematography and bright yellow-greenish coloring of every scene evoke a feeling of comic-bookery as well as one of weirdly distancing discomfort, which is supported by a soundtrack that somehow manages to be frantic, melancholy and somewhat unhinged all at once[i]. There’s an uncanny sense of unease that rarely lets up: the characters are rarely safe, and even when they are the temporariness of their safety is always evident. With eminently relatable main characters and a constantly looming Orwellian sense of dread infused into every acidically-shaded shot, Utopia is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.
[Warning: the series is both morbid and pretty gory right from the first episode; watch at your own peril.]
2. Fleabag (2016) – Phoebe Waller-Bridge (6 episodes, 30 minutes)
“I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
If you are not in the mood for heavy-handed thrillers, nor in the mood for overly chipper comedies, Fleabag’s laconic half-irony might be more for you. In Fleabag[ii], Waller-Bridge plays the eponymous main character, who is only ever referred to as “Fleabag”, and who likes to make snide, comradely quips at the viewer.
Carrying on the tradition of Girls (2012), the series follows the experiences of a young, struggling, café-owning woman in London[iii]. Her relationship with her parents is strained, she is simultaneously jealous of, annoyed with and worried about her high-powered sister, and she keeps breaking up and getting back together with her meek but sweet boyfriend, Harry. In the meantime, something else seems to be going on with her, but what that would be remains unclear[iv]
Meanwhile, Fleabag herself is a strong and wonderfully conflicted character: she’s often crude, jittery, and worried, yet at her core there’s part of her that’s calm, knowing and confident all the same. Though the series could – as many lesser series do – treat her troubles and worries as mere consequences of a supposed “hysterical womanly nature”, Fleabag takes its main character refreshingly seriously. For instance, when Fleabag responds to something in a way that would, in such a different series, be framed as an overreaction[v], Fleabag instead confidently presents it, without apologetically overexplaining it, in such a way that her perspective and her motivations simply make perfect sense.
I could rattle on about this show forever, but we sadly need to move on: in any case, Fleabag gets a strong recommendation from me!
3. Tremé (2010) – Eric Ellis Overmeyer, David Simon (59 episodes, 50-60 minutes)
“Won’t bow: don’t know how.”
For people who are looking for more of a slow-burn character-driven series with great music, Tremé (2010) is a strong recommendation. From the team behind the classic The Wire (2002), Tremé delves into the lives of the inhabitants of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005. Aside from the severe damage that category 3 hurricanes tend to cause in any given city, Katrina was particularly devastating because the hurricane surge protection failed, resulting in no less than fifty breaches in the levees and flooding the city and surrounding areas with water for weeks on end.
Tremé, then, explores the different ways in which people in the Tremé-neighourhood of New Orleans dealt with the aftermath of the storm: featuring a large ensemble cast of musicians, chefs, English teachers, lawyers, Mardi Gras Indians, politicians, policemen, drifting radio DJ’s and more, Tremé offers a diverse and engaging look at the cultures and (often corrupt) politics of a city in healing[vi].
[ii] Which is a television adaptation of Waller-Bridge’s own award-winning 2013 play.
[iii] Don’t let this comparison fool you into thinking that the series is merely an English adaptation of Girls or Broad City, for that matter.
[iv] Don’t ask me, I’ve suddenly forgotten everything. Guess you’ll have to watch to find out!
[v] Often to hilarious effect – Waller-Bridge frequently pitches great, subtle facial reactions towards the viewer about the absurdity around her.