There are TV shows everyone knows and watches. And then there are some you may not have even heard of, but are worth checking out. Here are some of those shows.
Comedy Bang Bang
Netflix, Season one recently added
IFC has spent the last few years cultivating a reputation for oddball comedy shows, and that’s gotten it a minor hit in the form of Portlandia. If Comedy Bang Bang (IFC 2012-Present) hasn’t crossed over into the zeitgeist the way Portlandia has, it’s probably because while it’s just as funny, Comedy Bang Bang is far far stranger than anything else on IFC—stranger in fact than almost anything on TV. Best described as a parody of talk shows, Comedy Bang Bang follows host Scott Aukerman as he interviews famous comedians and movie stars along with random visitors and figures who’ve recently made headlines in local papers. Those interviews, however, are just an excuse for what’s effectively a really high-concept sketch show. Aukerman asks nonsensical questions (“Take me through an unusual day in the life of Jon Hamm”) and even when guests do attempt to give a straight answer, they’re cut off by segments like “Surprise a Fan” where Aukerman attempts to visit a viewer only to find that Andy Richter has gotten there first. The show is based off of Aukerman’s podcast of the same name, but the show jettisons the long burn of the podcast, which would often let guests explore a ridiculous premise for the better part of an hour, and adds Reggie Watts as a hilarious “bandleader” and foil/friend for Aukerman to play off of.
Hell on Wheels
Netflix, season one recently added
Hell on Wheels (AMC 2011-Present) is the AMC show you probably aren’t watching. It doesn’t have the ratings of Walking Dead or the critical acclaim of Mad Men or Breaking Bad, and that’s made it the network’s red-headed stepchild—which is a shame because while it isn’t quite up to the quality of AMC’s other dramas, it’s still quite good. Set in 1865, the show follows a confederate solider seeking revenge for the murder of his wife. Wheels mostly just uses that quest as a way to explore Reconstruction, the rise of the railroads, and other effects of industrialization in American history. People who’ve finished off Deadwood and are looking for a 19th century drama are especially likely to find something to enjoy here.
Amazon, full series available free for Prime members
It’s likely you’ve already had a friend harass you to watch Pushing Daisies (ABC 2007–2008; at top), but even if you have it’s a good enough show for me to harass you about it again. The show follows a pie maker (Ned) with the power to bring dead things back to life by touching them—and who also takes that gift away by touching them a second time. The show’s other lead is Chuck, Ned’s childhood crush whom he’s re-animated but whom he can also never touch without accidentally killing her again. Did I mention the show’s a comedy? A musical comedy actually once Kristin Chenoweth starts singing in the fourth episode. Somehow that combination comes together to form a show that’s not just good but great, and creates the closest thing to a modern day fairy tale that I’ve seen on network TV. The show was probably slightly too strange to survive long on network television regardless, but the odd airing schedule (necessitated by the 2008 writer’s strike) certainly didn’t help matters, so you’ll have to be satisfied with just two short seasons.
Jon Benjamin Has a Van
Hulu plus, season one available
You probably don’t know Jon Benjamin’s face but, if you’re a fan of animated comedy you know his voice. Benjamin voiced Coach McGurk on Home Movies along with guest voices on Adult Swim shows like The Venture Brothers before settling into his most recent and well known role as the title character on Archer. Comedy Central decided to give him a live-action outlet last year with Jon Benjamin has a Van (Comedy Central, 2012-Present) a show that starts off as a parody of investigative reporting shows and then drifts quickly off into the surreal. Benjamin’s long had a gift for committing to a joke to milk the most humor out of it, and Van shows that gift early and often. In what may be the show’s most inspired bit, an early episode features a long sequence without any audio after the show’s sound guy is kidnapped, until they manage to find and rescue him.
Amazon, first three seasons free for Prime members
Calling Justified (FX, 2010-Present) underwatched at this point is a bit of a stretch. It’s fast becoming an anchor of FX’s schedule and is certainly the network’s most critically acclaimed drama. It’s also probably the hardest FX show to find online, however, which means a lot of people I know who’ve ditched cable have never seen it. Luckily, Amazon’s recently added the show to its Prime streaming, which should make it much easier to watch the adventures of U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. Based on an Elmore Leonard story, the show follows Givens (Timothy Olyphant) who’s forced to return to his hated hometown of Harlan, Kentucky and face off with criminals he has a long history with—including lifelong friends and his own father. The show starts off like a typical Leonard adaptation with the strange criminals taking center stage far more often than the good guys, but it soon learns to interweave individual criminal plots with an overarching story that ties more deeply into the lives of Givens and the other Kentucky Marshals the show follows. It’s also a second show this week that should appeal to Deadwood fans, as Timothy Olyphant back in a cowboy hat shooting down criminals should warm the hearts of anybody who watched HBO’s late lamented western.
Netflix, full series available now
If you want an FX show that was underwatched on television as well as online, try Terriers, (FX, 2010) FX’s last real ratings flop and a recent addition to the canon of brilliant but canceled TV. The show follows Hank Dolworth, an ex-cop and alcoholic who ends up starting a private detective agency with his friend who’s spent most of his time on the wrong side of the law. The show was smart in its mysteries, but even smarter in its exploration of Hank and his pal Britt as characters. It’s not hard to see why Terriers didn’t make it though. The show’s appeal was as a brilliant character study hiding inside what looked like just another PI show, which didn’t give it much of a hook to grab viewers. Add in a confusing title and an even more odd advertising campaign (FX seemed determined to let you know the show would have a dog and a beat-up old truck while rarely mentioning the characters or what they would be doing) and you’ve got a recipe for a one-season wonder.
David Daw has studied the history and future of television and has a master's in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts from San Francisco State University along with a BA in genre fiction from NYU.