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Why I made the list: I’m writing a continuation of my underrated TV shows from 2020-2020. Not just because it’s become my most popular post so far, but also because there were many, many possible titles that I didn’t include on that relatively short list, and I realized it was ripe for expansion.
While I included a full 20 on my list of underrated films of the last couple of decades, I didn’t get that far with my first list of TV shows just because I had so much to say about each one, and it was getting pretty lengthy already.
I later realized that there were at least 10 other shows from the 2000s and 2010s that I felt deserved a shout-out, whether they placed higher or lower on the original list. Some of them, like AHS: Roanoke and Kingdom Hospital would be closer to 20, but others such as The Leftovers and Undone, would be closer to No.1.
10 More Underrated Series from the Last 20 years
Criteria: Like my first list, I’ve included both underrated series that have flown completely under the radar, and ones that split audiences but that I think are still worth a look. Also, series that got decent ratings and significant awards attention at the time of their release but have become somewhat forgotten in the years since.
Again, as I don’t think enough time has passed for them to become underrated, I’ve left out anything that was just released in 2021. So, in rough order of quality, let’s dig into the list.
10. American Horror Story: Roanoke (2016)
After a couple of solid first seasons, the consensus is that American Horror Story has become increasingly hit-and-miss. Some of its anthology-style seasons prove to be far more successful than others, and even the installments that get more right than wrong tend to wobble in logic and narrative momentum as they enter their final stretch.
Many onetime fans of the show have had various jumping-off points, and some have grown so frustrated with the varying quality that they abandoned the series years ago and have vowed never to go back.
I have stuck with AHS, however, as even when I don’t particularly like the story a season is trying to tell, I still always admire individual elements of the show like the production design and photography, and of course the acting. Plus, it is usually always stylish and even fun, even if the narrative begins to completely fall apart.
AHS almost lost me completely with the back half of Freak Show, the 4th season, which I thought was unnecessarily drawn out and sort of in search of a plot. As with most installments, it started off strong with an intriguing setting and characters but seemingly abandoned any cohesive story in lieu of random subplots and scenes included for shock value.
The same problem affected the next season, Hotel, and arguably only got worse, with any logical character development or sense of sustained tension jettisoned in favor of elaborate death scenes and things that would look cool.
Seemingly sensing that the series had got a bit too campy and opulent and was sort of losing the true horror factor promised by its title, the showrunners decided to scale back the next season and get back to basics with a less extravagant, more down-and-dirty production.
The marketing the show used that year, which instead of giving away the theme asked fans to guess, only fueled speculation and anticipation for the subject of the season. The ads threw a slew of possible scenarios at the audience, including a retro swamp-monster romp, a Hills Have Eyes-style cannibal family slasher, and a return to the alien narrative previously tackled in season 2, Asylum.
However, the “rogue” faux-documentary approach to a haunted house story the show finally aired was puzzling to some. For others, it was a complete letdown, failing to live up to the many wild possibilities teased in the marketing campaign. Even long-time leading lady Sarah Paulson recently admitted that she is not a fan of Roanoke and would have rather sat it out to later return for a stronger season.
For me, however, I thought this experiment with the format was fascinating, and that it worked pretty well, particularly in the wild turn of the second half of the season, which allowed the show to get more meta than it ever had before.
Although the season definitely had its weak points – including pretty much wasting Paulson in thinly conceived dual roles – I thought it was pretty good at building intrigue and genuine dread. It also boasts Katy Bates’ best performance in the show in my opinion: as the terrifying ‘Butcher’ in the first few episodes, and as the equally unsettling obsessive actress Agnes in the second half. The chance to see her madly swinging a cleaver while shouting ‘This is my land!’ makes Roanoke a must-watch alone.
9. Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block (2018)
Another individual installment of a horror anthology that switches stories between seasons, Channel Zero (2016-2018) is far less long.-running than American Horror Story but it does include a couple of very decent seasons. For me, Butcher’s Block, the third story, is the best of them.
I think the less you know about Butcher’s Block going in the better, so I won’t say too much and allow you to discover its weird and unsettling narrative, bizarre twists, and wealth of impactful, surreal imagery for yourself.
I will say that the story gets intensely strange in a pleasing, original way. Also, the way that it weaves in the impending threat of the main character’s budding mental illness is genuinely downright terrifying.
Although I felt the other seasons in Channel Zero didn’t reach the same heights as Butcher’s Block, they all told interesting stories that took provocative turns and still held the attention as much as or even more so than the average season of AHS. Creator Nick Antosca’s follow-up project, Netflix series Brand New Cherry Flavor (2021), is another impressively ambitious – and downright crazy – horror narrative that I would also strongly recommend.
8. Tucker (2000-2001)
Although this early 2000s sitcom boasts many of the same winning qualities that made Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006) a hit, you’d be forgiven for having never heard about this almost uncannily similar effort that came out the same year.
After the first 4 episodes were shown on NBC, the series was pulled from broadcast and never actually aired all of its produced episodes in the US during its original run.
However, the entire 13-episode first season was shown on the Nickelodeon channel in the UK around the same time, meaning that I was exposed to it as an influential pre-teen, and still remember it fondly.
Tucker revolves around a young boy -played by Stifler’s little brother in American Pie, Eli Marienthal – who is forced to move in with his domineering aunt and her family with his mother after her divorce.
As he is on the cusp of puberty, however, young Tucker’s eye can’t help to be drawn (pretty obsessively, it must be said) to the ‘perfect’ girl next door, McKenna, played by future Drag me to Hell star Allison Lohman.
He spends most of his time trying to win over his boyhood crush, which is easier said than done when his rival suitor happens to be the actor Seth Green, bizarrely playing himself at the height of his cool-geek icon status after appearing in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Austin Powers films.
For me though, the series stood out for its relatable depiction of the issues of a child whose parents are going through a separation, and the charmingly dysfunctional family dynamic on display, especially that between Tucker and his prickly aunt. This charm is almost entirely down to the always-welcome Katey Segal as the permanently frazzled Aunt Claire.
I also remember the music sticking out, which didn’t surprise me that much when realized it was composed by Mark Mosthersburg, later responsible for the sublime score of Enlightened (2011-2013), which I included on my first list.
If the Malcolm-inspired episode of WandaVision left you feeling nostalgic for this era of family sitcom, I’d definitely consider giving the single season of Tucker produced a look. While it doesn’t quite match the quality of its sister series, it has some of the same manic energy, strong characters, and bittersweet humor that makes Malcolm in the Middle such a fondly remembered show.
7. Party Down (2009-2010)
The main reason to watch this quirky comedy about a bunch of wannabe actors moonlighting as catering staff is to see the masterful deadpan comedy styling of Adam Scott and Lizzy Caplan go up against the incessantly chirpy and optimistic likes of Megan Mulally and Jane Lynch.
Other than the stellar and consistently hilarious cast though, this series produced by Veronica Mars creator Rob is a sweet look at a bunch of people struggling towards their dreams that has a lot of empathy towards its underdog protagonists. If that sounds appealing, go check it out and then rejoice at the news that a revival is in the works!
6. Kingdom Hospital (2004)
I often bemoan lackluster American do-overs of great foreign shows, but occasionally the finished project has enough of a pedigree to make it stand out, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original. In this case, the inspiration was Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994-1997), a typically surreal and obtuse effort from the Danish auteur that was inevitably going to be altered quite a bit for the American market.
However, the fact that this adaptation was spearheaded by Stephen King immediately gave it an edge, as did the excellent and pleasingly eclectic cast including the great Diane Ladd, former brat-packer Andrew McCarthy, and Six Feet Under’s Peter Krause.
And while much more conventional than its source material, this story of a haunted hospital features enough unique creative elements to recommend it, starting with the haunting opening credit sequence. Several insanely unnerving set pieces, the game cast, and the presence of a benign spirit who takes the form of a monstrous anteater also make it worth a watch in my opinion.
And if the very concept of a remake immediately turns you off, you can just check out the original and take further solace in the fact that Von Trier is currently working on a follow-up to the original show
5. Years and Years (2019)
Russel T. Davies has achieved some incredible things in his long career as a television writer, including creating a groundbreaking series about modern gay life in Queer as Folk (1999-2000) and rebooting Doctor Who for a new generation in the early 2000s.
While I’ve always admired his ambitions and intentions, I’ve been less enamored by the incredibly over-earnest monologues he tends to give to his characters, a major reason I bailed on his Doctor Who not long into David Tennant’s run. So I was a bit wary of committing to Years and Years, an original BBC/HBO mini-series created by Davies, despite the heaps of critical acclaim it got when it aired in 2019.
The series takes place over the course of 15 years starting in the same year it debuted and offers a somewhat terrifying and disturbingly plausible look into the future through the eyes of one normal extended family affected by political upheaval and global events in an increasingly troubled world.
When I finally did decide to give it ago, I was pleasantly surprised: Davies hasn’t totally left his love of somewhat stagey monologues behind, but the characters and the alarming developments in their lives over the vast timespan are all incredibly well-drawn and plausible. Plus Emma Thompson is fantastic as the populist politician in the Trump or Johnson mold who will pretty much say anything to create turmoil and keep herself in the spotlight.
Davies’ next effort, It’s a Sin (2021), which follows a group of young gay men navigating the AIDS crisis in 80s London, was even better.
4. The Leftovers (2014-2017)
By the time The Leftovers aired its third and final season, it had become a critical darling and had no shortage of rave reviews, but most people I know had either never heard of it or gave up on it early on. I can completely understand why some people didn’t stick with the series: the first season was so unrelentingly gloomy and cynical that I almost couldn’t get through it myself.
But I’m glad I did: this story about a world rocked by a mass disappearance seemingly caused by a rapture-like event only gets better as it goes on, although I would argue that the deliciously twisty second season remains my favorite. The realistic approach to the story, the uniquely unsettling atmosphere, and the fact that no easy answers are provided make The Leftovers a mesmerizing watch to the end.
Although frustratingly withholding at times, those who stick with the story are in for a wild, twisty narrative that feels incredibly spiritual and moving in its best moments. To say too much more about the story would spoil the experience of watching it, so just go check it out!
3. Borgen (2010-)
Political drama is not a genre that I’m naturally drawn to, and I never imagined that one of my absolute favorite series of the past 20 years would be a story set in the corridors of power of Denmark, of all places. But here we are.
What makes Borgen stand out in my opinion, is that it is absolutely packed with great characters who go through surprising yet satisfying developments throughout its narrative, and the way it shows how politicians and the media are engaged in an almost interchangeably symbiotic relationship.
The real ace in the hole of Borgen, though, is the beyond-charming Sidse Babett Knudsen’s central performance as unexpected president Birgitte Nyborg, a loveable, emphatic idealist who remains true to herself and her goals in the face of turmoil both in the workplace and at home.
Birgitte is without a doubt one of the all-time great characters, one you want to see succeed against the considerable odds no matter how flawed her decisions may be at times, as she always has her heart in the right place.
And, as you can never keep a good man (or woman) down, Borgen will return for a new season in 2022 (fanboy squeal!).
2. Patria (2020)
This HBO España mini-series has not gained much traction outside its native Spain, and that’s a crying sham: Patria is an excellently produced and incredibly moving narrative about the human cost of extreme ideology. It’s also universally accessible even if you don’t know the first thing about the Basque separatist conflict at its center.
Check out my full review of Patria to read more of my thoughts on this excellent series.
1. Undone (2019)
Rotoscope animation, the process of painting on top of and embellishing footage of live-action actors, can produce some stunning results. But with the possible exception of Richard Linklater’s Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006), this incredible art form hadn’t really ever been married to a film or TV narrative that lived up to its visual splendor.
However, that changed with the release of Undone, an 8-part Amazon series that uses the animation style as a genius complement to its trippy story about a woman who experiences an extreme change of perception following a car accident. The psychedelic, ever-changing animation perfectly reflects the main character’s fragile mental state and allows for some gorgeous surreal elements to gradually bleed into her once-boring life.
Another great thing about rotoscoping is that it fully allows the actors beneath the gloss to shine through, and in many cases, it even enhances them. This is certainly the case with Undone, as it puts the talented Roza Salazar (Brand New Cherry Flavor) and her soulful eyes to great use and creates a performance that is just as impressive as the jaw-dropping animation.
So what did you think of the list? Strongly agree/disagree? Any glaring omissions? Let me know in the comments?