There’s an entire world of television outside of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Netflix original series (or Preacher, later this month), but too much of it goes unrecognized and unheralded on the internet. All our bandwidth is devoted to a handful of shows, while others have to struggle to sneak through the cracks. None of the five series below have the plot twists of Game of Thrones or the body count of The Walking Dead, but each deserve to be seen for being exceptional, funny, well-acted, engrossing, and mysterious.
If you’re looking for something to enrich the hours between Sunday nights on HBO and AMC, try one (or all) of these five great under-the-radar TV shows.
The Last Panthers
The Last Panthers is getting next-to-no buzz here in the United States. In fact, many of my colleagues in the critical community haven’t heard of it. It is, however, seriously worth tracking down. Currently airing on Sundance TV, the six-part series from Jack Thorne (Skins, The Fades) and stylishly directed by Bo Johan Renck (Breaking Bad) is inspired by the infamous Balkan jewel thieves called the Pink Panthers. The series itself kicks off with a Pink-Panther inspired jewel heist, which takes us into the seedy, criminal underground of Europe, where a Balkan jewel thief (Goran Bogdan) tries to unload the diamonds. Meanwhile, a French-Algerian police officer (Tahar Rahim) is pursuing him on homicide charges because a little girl was killed in the aftermath of the heist, and a British insurance adjuster (Samantha Morton) is trying to track down the diamonds. The insurance adjuster is racing to capture the criminal before the police do, lest her company (run by a man played by John Hurt) lose the $200 million diamonds.
Buoyed by strong performances and bleak cinematography, it’s a grim cat-and-mouse series peppered with violence, but it offers a fascinating glimpse into Europe’s criminal underground. It also admirably humanizes the thief, the cop, and the insurance adjuster — each a unwilling victim of circumstances in their own way — as the viewer’s empathy is pulled into several directions. Do we pull for the insurance investigator, under the thumb of her boss; the police officer, who risks the lives of others to track down a man accused of homicide; or the thief himself, who was only trying to better his life and that of his brother?
Samantha Bee’s brilliant new TBS talk show, Full Frontal, is rightfully receiving a lot of attention, but the other TBS series developed by Bee and her husband, Jason Jones (who also stars), is sadly being overlooked. It is hilarious. Best described as a television series version of National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Detour follows Nate (Jason Jones), his wife Robin (Natalie Zea) and their two children (Ashley Gerasimovich) and (Liam Carroll) as they take a long and circuitous road trip to Florida that takes them through — among other things — a theme restaurant that gives them food poisoning; a strip club where the daughter gets her first period, and a bed-and-breakfast owned by a wealthy pedophile. It’s filled with low comedy, but the approach to it is high-minded. The unexpected force behind the series, however, may be Justified‘s Natalie Zea — channeling Samantha Bee in this semi-autobiographical series — who is a natural comedic talent and a perfect companion to the bumbling, well-intentioned Nate.
Now in its second season, the British sitcom airing on Amazon Prime is even more under-the-radar than the cable series it most resembles, You’re the Worst on FX. Like the FX series, it’s another anti-romcom romcom, although this one involves pregnancy, children, and culture clash (he’s an American wanker, she’s an acerbic, potty-mouthed British school teacher). However, the constant bickering and sexual disagreements between Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) are what makes Catastrophe so exhilarating. A more apt name for the series would be Amazon’s other series, Transparent, because the relationship between Sharon and Rob — warts and all — is the most open and honest in television, and maybe the funniest. The only downside to Catastrophe is that its two seasons are each only six half-hour episodes long.
The Night Manager
While The Night Manager, based on a John le Carré novel of the same name was a huge hit in England (and it’s been sold to 180 countries), it’s been little-seen here in the United States on AMC, where it’s been viewed by less than one million television watchers each week. The espionage thriller follows Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddelston), a former British soldier turned hotel manager who is recruited by an intelligence agency run by Angela Burr (Olivia Colmann) to infiltrate the entourage of an evil international arms dealer, Richard Roper, played deliciously by Hugh Laurie. It’s been described by some as James Bond-esque because of the cool, charismatic Hiddleston character and the gorgeously-shot European locations, but it strikes me more as a European Donnie Brasco that sees a spy infiltrate so deeply into an organization that his alliances start to blur. The real stand-out of The Night Manager, however, is the otherworldly Elizabeth Debicki, who plays the young wife of the arms dealer and dangerous love interest for Pine. She may also be playing both sides, and the real intrigue of the series is trying to figure out which side she’s really on. It hasn’t received as much attention as it should, but The Night Manager may catch on when it airs on Amazon Prime later this year.
The Girlfriend Experience
Starring Riley Keough (the granddaughter of Elvis Presley), the Starz series based on the Steven Soderbergh film is both more accessible and less obtuse than Soderbergh’s original. Keogh plays Christine Reade, a law student who has landed a prestigious unpaid internship with a corporate law firm. To make ends meet, she takes a job as a high-paid escort. Christine is ambitious, smart, and enigmatic, and it’s impossible to get a good read on her because she is so adept at being whatever others want her to be. She doesn’t lack agency, however: She uses her sexuality to drive her ambition, and though she is being paid to have sex with wealthy men, she maintains most of the power. Keogh is exceptional in the role, playing a woman who loves sex but has no patience for relationships. “Am I a sociopath?” she asks herself at one point in the series, and that’s the uncomfortable question with which viewers have to wrestle as she navigates the legal profession with knowledge she gains about men from her work in the high-end sex industry.