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The first 2 decades of the 21st century are widely considered to be a true golden age for TV, and the insane wealth of appealing long-form stories told in high-quality series certainly backs that up.
But for all the undeniably great dramatic series that have captured the zeitgeist and turned into cultural phenomenons, like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, there are many overlooked gems that have gotten a bit lost amid the ever-expanding sea of content. This article is my attempt to bring these Ones That Got Away a little bit more attention and give them some of the love they deserve.
The Most Underrated TV Shows of the 21st Century So Far
Criteria: I’m sticking to TV series and mini-series released between 2000 and 2020, so I’ve excluded great under-appreciated shows that came out a little bit before the cut-off, like Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), or American Gothic (1995). Also, anything that has come out in 2021 since I don’t think enough time has passed for them to become underrated.
I’ve also included some series that may have got decent ratings and even significant awards attention at the time of their release but, for whatever reason, have become somewhat forgotten in the years since. So, let’s dig into the list.
If you don’t find a series on here you think deserves a place, check out the second part of my most underrated TV shows from 2000-2020 to see if it made the list!
11. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)
I have to say that I wasn’t a huge fan of the original series of Penny Dreadful ( 2014-2016). I fully expected its mash-up of classic characters from Victorian literature with a supernatural procedural to win me over, but it never did. I only got a couple of episodes in before I grew tired of its overwrought melodrama.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I decided to give its spiritual successor, City of Angels, a look. While the name-only follow-up irked fans who expected something closer to its predecessor, this supernaturally-infused noir detective story set in 1930’s LA was much more up my alley.
City of Angels shares quite a few elements of the even more underrated Carnivàle which places further down my list. For example, there’s a similar period setting, a hidden battle between good and evil, and actress Amy Madigan playing a brittle yet fearsome older lady. This mix of offbeat elements, and the evidently pricey production budget, made me a bit nervous for the series’ prospects from the start, and, unsurprisingly, it was canceled after just one season.
Nevertheless, I’d still highly recommend giving the single series produced a try. The period production design is impressively lush and epic in scale, and the various plot threads are largely nicely woven together and paid off (it didn’t really need a second season to be completely honest). Best of all, Natalie Dormer gives a scene-stealing performance as Magda, a shape-shifting demon who insidiously manipulates those she targets into giving in to their worst impulses.
10. The Plot Against America (2020)
I was a big fan of Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle when I was younger. It depicted a world where Axis powers won in WW11 and the US is divided up into Nazi and Japanese-controlled areas, and the set-up and world-building were undeniably intriguing, even if the story was a bit of a quasi-philosophical muddle of interesting ideas left fully unexplored.
When Amazon released a series adaptation of Man in the High Castle (2015-2019), I felt like it successfully fixed some of the problems with the story and crafted an immersive and surprising narrative during its first season. After that, however, I thought the story got both unnaturally stretched out and increasingly ludicrous, and I was ultimately left disappointed.
I can’t say the same for HBO’S excellent adaptation of The Plot Against America, the Philip Roth novel which explores a different alternate history story around the events of the Second World War, which takes a much less flashy approach to world-changing events than the adaptation of Dick’s work. The narrative follows the members of a working-class Jewish family in early 940s New Jersey whose lives begin to change in disturbing ways when the US elects fascist sympathizer Charles Lindbergh as president, instead of the historically accurate Franklin Roosevelt.
Although the story is somewhat of a slow burn at times and requires some perseverance, the grounded approach to the material pays off dividends. Instead of overtly exploring the political fallout and wider implications of Lindbergh’s actions, we experience the subtle and insidious obstacles the Finkel family come up against through their eyes with an increasing sense of dread, and the series is even more haunting and vital for it.
9. Veronica Mars (2004-2019)
A staple of most lists of underrated TV shows from the first 20 years of the 21st century, and for good reason, Veronica Mars has had a strange journey over the past couple of decades. Initially canceled after its first 3 seasons due to low ratings, this ingenious gene hybrid gained enough of a cult following and fan support to get a kick-starter-backed film in 2014 before being revived as a Hulu limited series in 2019.
Yet it still remains criminally underrated, so I’m taking the opportunity to include it on the list. Deftly combining a high-school setting with sharp satire and noir story tropes, the series starts out following teen detective Veronica as she investigates the death of her best friend and takes little bullshit from anyone along the way.
While the film and revival didn’t satisfy every fan, Veronica has me fully on board whenever she reappears. Even if the quality dips a little in the later seasons, I’d still recommend sticking with Veronica Mars for its witty dialogue, deft subversion of expectations, and, of course, for Kirsten Bell as the smart, sassy detective herself.
8. Taken (2002)
I had the urge to rewatch this mostly forgotten Steven Spielberg-produced mini-series recently. And I found that it still held up to my memory of an ambitiously plotted. epically mounted, and sometimes downright scary narrative about alien abductions affecting several generations of intertwined families.
Filled with memorable imagery and well-drawn characters sketched in intriguing shades of grey, the decades-spanning story plays out like an inter-generational Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like that classic film, Taken also uses the plot device of alien contact to touch on the recognizably human themes of deep-rooted trauma and the universal longing to belong and find some kind of meaning in our lives.
7. Nighty Night (2004-2005)
This delightfully twisted dark comedy premiered on the UK’s BBC 3 channel back in 2004, and, despite gathering a cult fan base over the years, has generally gone overlooked by mainstream audiences. It’s not hard to see why, as the scathingly black humor and off-putting psychopath of a protagonist are certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.
Nevertheless, I’d completely recommend Julia Davis’ jaw-droppingly audacious work of comedic genius to anyone willing to spend some time with her monstrously manipulative and self-deluded hairstylist Jill Tyrell, and her attempts to drive a wedge between a mild-mannered couple. In my opinion, the delicate British sensibility has never been so deliciously skewered.
6. Olive Kitteridge (2014)
At this point, I think It’s fair to say I’d literally watch the great Frances McDormand in anything. Whether she’s playing a down-to-earth heavily-pregnant policewoman in Fargo (1996), a rightfully furious mother in Three Billboards (2017), or the sensible counterpart to Sean Penn’s eccentric ex-rocker in This Must Be The Place (2011), McDormand always brings a familiarity and relatability to her roles and constantly knocks it out of the park.
The 4-part HBO mini-series Olive Kitteridge in particular plays to MacDormand’s key strengths as an actress and gives her an amazing showcase for her talents. As Olive, a New England school teacher who struggles to carry on and make sense of her life over the span of 25 years through middle to old age, McDormand is alternatively misanthropic and warn, sharp-tongued and thoughtful, world-weary but hopeful. She fully succeeds in bringing a potentially unlikeable character to vivid, three-dimensional life and makes you invested in the plight of this prickly but sympathetic woman.
Make no mistake, the series can be quite heavy-going and painful to watch at times, dealing as it does with issues such as the stifling nature of small-town life, depression, mental illness, regret, and missed opportunities. This probably explains why, despite a lot of awards love for McDormand and the rest of the cast, the series never quite caught on as a mainstream hit. But following McDormand’s historic third Oscar win for Nomadland (2020), the time is right to go back and witness another superlative performance from the actress for yourself.
5. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Another HBO series that wasn’t exactly lacking in awards love at the time of its initial run, I’m nevertheless surprised at the number of people who haven’t seen this beyond excellent drama/dark comedy show about the lives (and frequent deaths) of a family who owns an LA-based funeral home, and the people in their orbit.
Endlessly creative, insightful, and entertaining, this poignant show is well worth watching in its entirety, Overall, it makes for an intensely satisfying journey that few other shows can only ever hope to live up to. It also has what many, myself included, consider to be one of the best final episodes in TV history.
4. Les Revenants (2012-2015)
There has been no shortage of high-quality French-language TV in recent years (see also L’Effondrement/The Collapse) but for me, Les Revenants/The Returned stands out above the pack for its uniquely thoughtful, effortlessly atmospheric, and quite emotional take on a tired old trope: zombies.
Well, the dead who return from the grave and attempt to resume their old lives in Les Revenants are not treated exactly as zombies, per sé, but as fully functional beings who have no memory of their demise and struggle to understand that the world has since moved on without them. The living in the small Alpine town they return to are presented as just as stuck in the past as they are, and the attempts between the two groups to reconcile this strange new situation produce a raft of expertly conveyed difficult moral questions and existential dread.
What sets Les Revenants apart from the many imitators that have sprung up in its wake (ABC’s Resurrection, Netlix’s Italian series Curon) is the mysterious atmosphere it manages to sustain throughout its run, the fantastic performances, and the pitch-perfect soundtrack by Mogwai. And while some might find the second season, and the bizarre explanations for the phenomenon it sort of offers up, a bit of a let-down, there’s no dying the emotional power of the satisfying conclusion to the characters’ arcs offered in the series finale.
A piece of advice: skip the lack-luster American retread, which lost much of the magic and atmosphere of the original in its transition to the English language, and go straight to the original instead.
3. Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
The original run of Twin Peaks (1990-91) marked a turning point in the television landscape: a wilfully weird small-town mystery that was more concerned with building a portrait of a quirky small town, strange metaphysical visions, and extolling the virtues of coffee and cherry pie than it was with solving the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer.
Some will recount how they got their first scare from the series as evil spirit Bob lunged out from under Laura’s bed, or were left unnerved by the sight of a little person taking backward in the iconic ‘Red Room’. However, most people came to associate Twin Peaks with nostalgia for its charming and unique characters, particularly Kyle Maclachlan’s wholesome FBI Agent Dale Cooper. It’s understandable, then, why many fans were frustrated and disappointed by this continuation, which came out over 25 years after the baffling and open-ended conclusion of the second season and prequel film Fire Walk with Me.
Original director David Lynch was eventually given complete creative control over the revival, free of any of the studio interference which arguably derailed the first run. Lynch set about creating a continuation completely based on his own vision of what exactly happened to those iconic characters in the two-plus decades since we last saw them. And. Lynch, being Lynch, was never going to make it easy for the audience to slip back into their nostalgia-fulled comfort zone.
This became immediately clear in the first few episodes of the revival. While a lot of people were looking forward to seeing Cooper sipping on a cup of joe, spouting sage wisdom, and potentially enjoying a happy life with love interest Audrey Horne, Lynch had no intention of giving people exactly what they wanted, at least at first.
Instead, the Cooper we knew and loved was nowhere to be seen, replaced by a sinister doppelganger hell-bent on wreaking havoc across the Pacific Northwest. And things weren’t exactly rosy for the other beloved inhabitants of the town, in the few glimpses we actually got to see of them.
Instead, Lynch set about creating an intense mosaic of small character moments among a huge ensemble, bizarre tangents, and breath-taking imagery that expanded the mythology of the original show and its theme of good vs. evil in a far more obtuse way. The very definition of a patience-trying slow-burn, Lynch threw in extended musical performances by his favorite bands, seemingly inconsequential celebrity cameos, and even a 5-minute sequence of someone sweeping a bar floor. Those not willing to get on board with his particular groove were firmly turned off.
However, if you’re willing to stick with Twin Peak: The Return through its 18-episode run, the series is an unforgettable and ultimately satisfying experience. Many of the characters you want to see come out on top eventually do, even though it takes almost a whole series of pain and struggle to get there. And there are plenty of pleasant surprises, such as the addition of Lynch favorites Naomi Watts and Laura Dern to the cast, the latter not disappointing as a character fans had been waiting decades to meet in the flesh.
And Lynch remains a master of crafting incredible dream-like imagery and individual sequences that are both unbearably sinister and tense. The mostly stand-alone eigth episode, which explores the orgin of the evil that came to affect the town and features a spectacular slow-mo nuclear explosion, mouth-invading bug monsters, and ghostly hobos, is a mini-masterpiece of surreal ‘cinema’ in itself.
2. Carnivàle (2003-2005)
Probably the most egregious case of a series unfairly canceled before its time in recent television history, HBO’s Carnivàle is a strange beast that combines the setting of a Depression-era traveling circus with the story of an epic supernatural battle between good and evil going on in the shadows. Strange and unsettling, yet somewhat hopeful and filled to the brim with fantastic characters and fascinating mythology, the show is rightly considered an epic feat in immersive production design and complicated world-building.
Nevertheless, Carnivàle‘s dense storytelling and slow-burn narrative, especially in the first few episodes, turned off casual viewers and it was never able to find its audience. The lack of ratings, coupled with the immense production budget, sadly led to its cancellation after the end of its second season.
But, although the series never got the proper send-off it deserved and left a lot of plot threads dangling after its final episode, the part of the story the creators did manage to get to the screen is a unique trip well worth the ride.
1. Enlightened (2011-2013)
The second Laura Dern-starring show on the list, Enlightened gave the actress the best role of her storied career so far in my opinion. Dern stars as Amy Jellicoe, a self-destructive businesswoman who suffers a mental breakdown after sleeping with her boss and getting demoted.
Sent away to a holistic retreat in Hawaii to recover, Amy returns with a new, ‘enlightened’ outlook on life, the will to be more compassionate and understanding, and the desire to make a real difference in the world. Unfortunately, the world isn’t quite ready for her to do so, and her own questionable decision-making and naivete often stand in the way of her reaching her goals.
Initially sold as an out-and-out farce about a sometimes painfully unself-aware woman attempting to start a new chapter in her life, it’s more a mix of painfully awkward comedy and beautifully observed drama. Creator (and co-star) Mike White creates a fascinating portrait of a woman who is not always likable and actually quite obnoxious in some situations, but who you can’t help but root for due to her irrepressible will and genuine desire to do the right thing.
Although I was already impressed with the first, the second season improved almost to the point of perfection. It focused more on Amy’s sometimes misguided attempt to bring down the ‘evil’ corporation she worked for and the difficult moral questions she was forced to contend with as a result of her actions. Nevertheless, it still allowed all the flawed, beautifully drawn characters their own moments to shine, especially Diane Ladd as Amy’s mother Helen, and (most surprisingly) Luke Wilson as her addict ex-husband.
Bolstered by talented creatives behind the scenes, such as guest directors Jonathan Demme, Phil Morrison, and Todd Haynes, as well as composer Mark Mothersbaugh’s perfect score, Enlightened is something more challenging, thoughtful, and, ultimately, moving than the quirky comedy it was advertised as. While this misconception probably led to its low ratings and ultimate cancellation, those who decide to check out the two seasons produced are in for a truly special, unforgettable journey.
So, those are my picks for most underrated TV Shows of the 21st Century so far! What do you think? Agree/strongly disagree? Let me know in the comments!