12 series you should watch if you’re bored with the usual hollywood formatted stuff
My definitive not-your-usual-series guide for 2015
I watch a ton a series. I mean, in the past years I probably have watched 50 or 60 different series from first to last episode. The number doesn’t seem like a lot but it is. I’ve finished most of them, even the shitty ones, because I can’t help doing so. I am a maniac and I hate unfinished business.
What it taught me is that 90% of those shows are following the same rules and not conveying any surprises. Like for videogames, a vast majority never tries anything new. You can even anticipate half of the dialogues. ‘50 minutes length’ american series are the worst. At least most of them. They’re always following the “Revelation — Boredom — Cliffhanger” (later referred in this article as RBC) time pattern. Each episode follows this rule.
It starts with some revelation that was hanging from previous episode. Or not, if the screenwriters decided to make the wait even more boring. In this case — quite often — you face pure boredom from the very start of the episode.
Then you have 30 to 45 minutes filled with nothing. Meaningless stuff happens. You hope that it’s put there for building a better story later, but it’s actually just to fill the void of the boring scenario — remember the number of things that happened in Lost and that were never explained ? As a 32 years old IT guy living in a small town and working for a big company, I don’t need TV to get bored. I watched to fill MY voids, so it would be nice to see something a bit surprising happen.
After those never ending 45 minutes an incredible scene finally takes place, and it’s cut right in the middle, to make you wait for the next episode.
And so on…
For multi-seasons shows, the RBC pattern can sometimes even be observed over the whole seasons of the show.
First season is dynamite (or so it tries). It becomes a commercial success and the producers sign a big contract for 5 seasons. They fill 3 seasons with boring stuff. And then the last season is full of twists and action. But often screenwriters have forgotten where they wanted to end and the end is very disappointing, or at least confusing. They try to camouflage that under a lot of different “pseudo-endings” that fool no one. Did you ever try to dilute your work in an hardcore manner during 3 years and do some genius stuff all of a sudden ? Id did. It rarely works.
On the morality / ideas / personalities side it’s also very boring most of the time. Good sentiments everywhere, heroes never die, manichean personalities. Some shows, like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, changed the deal on those aspects. And it’s a good thing. But then they’re so much affected by the RBC pattern that they end up as boring as the other ones — at least the ending of Breaking Bad was good. I kept watching them, because I decided they were good shows during first seasons. But they clearly have the RBC issue all over a lot of their episodes / seasons. Tell me the best Breaking Bad season was one of the middle ones.
I guess that’s why I prefer english shows. They’re usually really short, like one or two seasons of 6 episodes, so the screenwriters don’t fuck around. They want to put all their ideas in there, and they are less prone to follow the RBC pattern.
I also like shows that don’t try to prove anything. They just tell a simple story or depict some situations in a simple manner, but in a previously unseen and pleasant way. That’s why I’m sensitive to some comedy shows or “documentary” shows I’ll quote in this article.
That being said, here is the list of the few shows that retained my attention in the last 10–15 years. Almost all of them have — to my taste anyway — some particularities that make them remarkable. Some of them are not even REALLY good. But I like the fact that they exist and I enjoyed watching them anyway. In one way or another most of them subvert expectations.
Enough blabber. Let’s get started. I’ll try to sort them by order of preference and put in perspective what makes them special to me.
1. Utopia // 2013 // 2 seasons
GENRE : Sci-fi Drama under LSD with an english touch
This one might well be my personal favorite. Not very well known, this show is something else on many levels. The pitch is pretty childish, some unrelated guys figure a comic book they own might well have a very powerful hidden message in it, and they start encountering strange and dangerous situations. The mix between a very colorful (an incredibly gorgeous) photography and very dark situations makes its ambiance very unique. Soundtrack is something else too, you never heard an OST as unique as this one. Characters are complex and actors are very good and disturbing (you might recognize some from Misfits and other english tv series). How often do you see a retarded cold blooded killer ? Or a 40 kilos girl who terrifies an entire international crime organisation ? The story is not the best ever written but the rythm is pretty straightforward (as they know how in england).
RBC does definitely not exist in this series. Shit happens all the time, and you’ll enjoy a full-length story lasting only 6 episodes. I mean, take a look at the trailer below. It’s just crazyness. Visual and mental crazyness. When I started this series I couldn’t believe it will be as good as the five first minutes were. But it was.
Season 2 is a prequel. It’s not as incredible as the first one, but remains very enjoyable (especially when you waited for something close to utopia to come out for some years …).
2. Black Mirror // 2011 // 2 seasons
This series by the director of Dead Set — which was both abizarre and fun show, but not unforgettable — is very conceptual. Each season is made of 3 episodes of 1 hour (+ a bonus christmas episode out last year). Each episode is an independent story. So you can see them more as 7 independent middle-length movies (no RBC here). They all present a certain idea of a close future, on the perspective of what strange behaviours and odd situations will technology / social media / mass media bring to our everyday life. It’s dark, and very well directed. And if you tend to be anxious about the future, it will certainly not cheer you up. The only downside is that episodes’ quality is not very homogenous (to my taste anyway). I’d say in each season there is one VERY GOOD episode, one quite good, and one a bit disappointing. The bonus white christmas episode is very good too (featuring a certain gentleman from Mad Men).
Did you ever wonder what the world would look like if the only way to socially evolve was to win The Voice ? Wonder no more…
3. True Detective // 2014 // 2 seasons
Occult police drama
Probably the most known series of this top, and probably the less inventive and the most prone to RBC but the ambiance works so well and the acting / realisation is so good that I could only love it. If you’re into dark ambiance / characters, beautiful sceneries, good police scenario and you’re sensitive to dark ritual murders and so on …, go watch it. It is so successful for a good reason. I mean, when everyone started to find it good, my underground elitist part tried not to like it, but I was still waiting anxiously for the next episode to come out, and I was never disappointed.
Matthew McConaughey is breathtaking as an alcoholic nihilist former cop badass. The show walks on a thin line between reality of a couple of desillusioned men and occult mythology in one of the strangest states of USA.
Curious about upcoming season 2 though, as it will be a whole new story with new actors.
For the anecdote, I read Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto (the mastermind behind this) and even if many ingredients of the series are in there, it is not as good and immersive as True Detective. And as a somehow active reader, I was quite surprised by that fact, because the opposite is a lot more frequent, so kudos to the realization team !
4. Louie // 2010 // 5 seasons
Comedy / Autobiography
This series is quite different than the previous ones, as it’s a comedy. Main actor is also its director, Louis CK. I love this man so much. It’s probably the stand up comedian I like the most. And it takes a lot to make me like a stand up comedian. I get bored by stand-up pretty quickly. This guy is both very intelligent and not politically correct — at least for an american — , in a very sutble way. He really is the everyday guy, but he somehow creates a great attention around him when he speaks, and you can easily really relate to him. Kind of a modernized and more accessible version of George Carlin / Billy Hicks. Anyway, this series is somehow a romanced self-autobiography of him. King of the stand up stage at night, divorced father and self-esteem deprived looser the day.
The result is a very fine comedy. I was somehow comforted to see a successful comedian living very awkward situations you usually keep to yourself (like the worst dates ever, or getting your ass kicked by a teenager). Seasons 3 and 4 are more dramatic than fun, but if you like intelligent humor, you have to give it a go !
5. The Wire // 2002 // 5 seasons
Police drama / documentary
This one is a huge piece.
When people asked me “What do you like so much about it ?” when I first tried to make them watch it, I was left empty-handed. Like “I don’t know, it’s a police series, but like so realistic that it’s very very good”. Which they seemed to not find very convincing. But it’s actually quite an accurate description of it. If you’re frustrated with shows where the police officers seem to pull magic tricks from their hats (or their computers) every now and then to resolve stuff instantaneously, go watch it. For once they seem to do actual police work. It sounds boring but it’s not. They have little means (forget about tapping cellphones over the night or making ADN tests every day), they face organized crime, they often lose, but they keep on going. They have to be smarter than the smart guys they fight. And the criminals they fight are veeeeeery smart, not the usual brutal but brainless guys.
The producer / writer David Simon is a previous Police Reporter, and you can tell. It’s as real as it gets. Each season has a leading theme (drugs in projects, journalism, politics etc…), so many aspects of the city life of Baltimore are observed. I found season 2 and 3 a bit slow (was not so sold about the new characters and the environment in those ones), but the rest of the show really is genius.
Plus most bad guys have so much charisma that you can’t help but love them. Who would have guessed a badass gay black version of Robin Hood could even exist in the ghetto ? And make a whole projects neighboorhood fear him ?
6. The IT Crowd // 2006 // 4 seasons
Nerdy humor comedy
Another comedy, and a very specific one. It mixes IT nerds and crazy english humor. It always goes in all directions, but it’s always funny. The 2 (3 ? 4 ?) main characters are just perfect. It takes place in the basement of an obscure corporation, where two strange IT maintenance guys live a lot of funny situations. Maybe it’s because I somehow worked in companies where I’ve seen many of the IT hotline situations described happen (users calling and being asked if they tried to reboot their machines ….) that I find it so hilarious. But I don’t think so, as some non IT friends of mine love this show too. Or maybe it’s because it’s full of unforgettable cult quotes.
“I came here to drink milk and kick ass, and I just finished my milk.” — Maurice Moss
Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that the situations depicted are crazy nonsense (but like for real, like english crazy nonsense, not like The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother crazy) like when Moss ends up in the house of a cannibal because he misread an ad, or when their boss embraces a cult named Spaceology. This is the kind of series which marks people with nerdy humor, and I keep referring to it with a lot of my friends / colleagues all of the time.
Its only con might be the pre-recorded laughs, but you’ll get used to it.
7. Treme // 2010 // 4 seasons
New Orleans after Katrina / Documentary
By the creators of The Wire, you can feel the same documentary touch and the realistic expertise. This show takes place in New Orleans after Katrina. It follows the everyday life of a lot of different protagonists (indians, musicians, cooks, politicians and so on) while they try to reconstruct their lives and the city. And as they struggle with everyday issues. There is a lot of different characters, personified by a lot of good actors you’ll probably recognized (some of them did play in The Wire before, some others made bigger stuff since, like Game Of Thrones). It’s not highly scenario-based, there isn’t a lot of action, it’s quite slow, but it’s really good. As you’ll watch it you’ll feel like you know the city and its culture better and better. What makes its soul. No doubt you’ll be in love with it and wish you can spend time there during a carnaval.
And don’t get me started about the music. You’ll know all of classic New Orleans musicians and anthems in no time.
8. Boss // 2009 // 2 seasons
Chicago mayor’s twisted political games
The only big flaw of this show is to not have been known better before House Of Cards was out. The two shows are pretty close in term of situations depicted. House Of Cards has a lot more budget, bigger actors, a renowned director. But somehow, compared to Boss, it’s too much. Some situations depicted in HOC are really grotesque, especially in season two, the rythm slowed down, and it finally bored me. Boss is a little bit more intelligent. The greedy mayor of Chicago, affected by a growing mental illness, is to me more realistic and touching than Frank Underwood, even if he is a monster too. The show is less flashy than House Of Cards in its realization, but it’s also what makes it more attaching to me.
It’s also a bit prone to RBC to be honest, but still moves forward at a pretty good rate.
Watch the trailer on IMDB (couldn’t find a good youtube link) : http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3748109337?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_4
9. Olive Kitteridge // 2014 // 1 season
Realistic psychological drama
I discovered this show recently while browsing SensCritique — a french cultural social website — , I never heard of it before, and I liked it. It’s definitely slow and not full of twists and action, but I liked it. I liked it because it develops real characters over time, and they are not there for us to love or hate, at a certain point in time. It’s one of the only series that gave me the impression that I was witnessing lives of real human beings, in their whole. They’re full of flaws and doubts. They’re lost. They hurt each other and themselves, most of the time unconsciously. Those injuries grow over the years to become burdens. Each character has grievance towards others, like often in families in real life, and it’s most of the time anybody’s and everybody’s fault. Characters are turn by turn crazy or really calm and sane. It might be boring to most people, but I liked this, because it made it more obvious to me that characters’ psychology in almost all series and movies is a caricature, a scratch on the surface of human psyche. And it shouldn’t always be (of course action blockbusters aren’t supposed to develop this. In fact the pseudo psychological scenes of Mad Max : Fury road were the only ones I disliked because it had nothing to do here). The characters are aging between each of the four episodes, a bit like in the movie Boyhood (even if it’s artificial here), but Boyhood had an “everything will be alright at the end” vibe, when this series definitely has not.
Somehow the absence of a proper intrigue makes it totally immune to RBC.
10. The booth at the end // 2011 // 2 seasons
Fantastic huis clos drama (so french, but I don’t know the english word)
This show is trying to do something new, and only for that, kudos. The format is very very short. It’s a succession of 1 or 2 minutes dialog scenes. No RBC here. The decor is more than simplist. A guy sitting in a booth in an american diner is visited by a lot of different protagonists. He makes deals with them. He can give them what they want, if they do something in return. Everything is kept simple. It’s almost only dialogs, budget seems to be really low, at least in first season (even if there are a lot of almost known actors). But it’s quite good, and you’ll keep wondering who the hell is this guy and how does any of this work. And the format itself makes this interesting.
11. Parks and recreation // 2009 // 7 seasons
Mockumentary / Comedy
I think most people already know this show, but it’s really good so it had to be in there anyway. Plus it’s quite unique, as it’s a mockumentary like its older brother The Office — US version. This means it’s a fiction that pretends to be a documentary observing a group of people. In the current case people who work at the Parks and Recreation service of the local government of the fictional city Pawnee. I was an unconditional fan of The Office, but somehow Parks & Rec is even better. Where The Office was totally hilarious and outrageous — especially due to the character of Michael — Parks & Rec is a little more refined. It takes more time for the characters to unchain their power, but when it does, it’s superb. I recently read an article about how perfect the character of Ron Swanson (Leslie’s machist meat-eater vegan-hater wood-crafter hunter ultraliberal tough boss — yes, all that, and even more) was. In all its rough entirety but underlying larger than life goodness and subtlety. And I could not agree more. And most of the characters are very laughable.
Plus if you’ve never seen this show, you should watch it only to see what Chris Pratt looked like before Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World ! And by that I mean a lovable teddy bear idiot.
Some of the middle seasons are a little bit less good, but there’s almost always laughable matter around the corner.
12. Girls // 2012 // 3 seasons
Realistic girly hipster dramatic comedy (more or less)
This is a bit of an alien in my top I guess. A girly series. But I liked it, because it’s based on a really natural writing. Most of the situations feel like they’ve been experienced in real life, even the most fucked up ones. Some actors are not the usual beauty standards of heroes and heroins in the business. Most of the characters are fucked-ups, experiencing fucked-up situations, in a very naive and natural way. It sure has a girly touch and a lot of “typical american hipster way of life” gloss to it but it still felt like a fresh and sincere show to me.
And I liked that.
Rythm and scenario are less and less good as seasons go by though… But the first one remains very nice to watch.
I just noticed how most of this shows (except maybe True Detective and Utopia, in some ways) lack heroes or heroins. Guess it tells something about me, but I have no idea what ?
Thanks to Adrien Gaboulaud, Arnaud Gransagne, Cristina Garrido and the website SensCritique for helping me acknowledge the existence of most of these series.