All this week, we’re taking a look at the past, present, and future of Peak TV, the current, overabundant TV golden age in which we live.
In the transition from the Golden Age of Television to the era of Peak TV, there hasn’t been a precipitous drop in quality. Shows like Fargo, The Americans, Mr. Robot, Better Call Saul, Silicon Valley, Master of None and Bojack Horseman can compete with the likes of The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. The problem with Peak TV is not a dearth of great shows; it’s that there are too many great shows. What among those great shows ultimately floats to the surface tends to be based less on the quality of the series and more on external factors: The time slot; the network; the marketing budget; and media coverage.
Unfortunately, many of the best TV series during the Peak TV era never manage to break through. Not enough critics champion them; they don’t gain cult followings on Netflix; and they seem destined to fade into television history. But let’s champion these under-seen series, some of them ongoing, some no longer with us but worth catching up with. Because in many cases, the shows you aren’t watching are just as good as the ones you are.
Rectify (SundanceTV, 2013 – )
Burbling quietly beneath the surface of Peak TV, the graceful Rectify heads into its fourth season later this fall despite having earned less than 200,000 overnight viewers a week. Skillfully avoiding the plot-chewing storylines, shocking deaths, and surprising twists that have characterized much of the Peak TV era, Rectify has nevertheless managed to survive thanks to a small but devoted audience committed to a lyrically written, small-scale human drama set in a backwoods Georgia town. The series comes from Ray McKinnon (Sons of Anarchy, Mud), who brings his laconic style of acting to the pace of Rectify, the story of a man named Daniel Holden (Aiden Young) who must put his life back together after newly discovered DNA evidence springs him from prison 19 years after being convicted for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. With a second chance at life, Daniel sees a world he never thought he’d see again with wide eyes and a new perspective, but the past — and the possibility of a retrial — continues to haunt him. Daniel is gentle and kind, but there’s a darkness underneath the surface, and his family and friends know neither whether to trust him nor whether he committed the crime of which he was originally accused. To the series’ credit, viewers don’t know whether Daniel is guilty or not, either, and we view Daniel’s actions with the same sense of hope and skepticism. Rectify is one of this decade’s best dramas, but thanks to Peak TV, it may never be recognized as such.
In the Flesh (BBC America, 2013 – 2014)
The massive popularity of The Walking Dead inspired a number of new zombie shows. Some (iZombie, The Returned) are better than others (Z Nation, Fear the Walking Dead), the BBC’s In the Flesh (airing on BBC America stateside) stands out as the best of the bunch. The brilliant twist: In the Flesh takes place in a world where a cure has been discovered for the zombie infection, but the cure doesn’t rid the zombies of their undead status, only of their symptoms. With a little make-up, however, they can continue to function as regular members of society, albeit ones who never need to eat, can survive physical traumas, and who often carry around wounds from their zombie days that will never heal. In the Flesh is not a typical zombie drama. It uses the zombie, always a versatile monster, to make a political statement. Here the undead have recovered their pre-outbreak personalities, but reintegrating them into society presents a challenge, particularly in small towns where the citizens continue to view the “partially dead” with fear and skepticism. The zombies are treated as outsiders, forced from one community to another, never finding acceptance. In the Flesh is a slow-burning drama, largely interested in exploring the prejudices of rural Britain — and tying them into the immigration debate. In the wake of the Brexit vote, the issues raised in the 2013 series have never been more prescient and, in 2016, more relevant to the ongoing immigration debate in the United States.