Troy Patterson: Hi, Doreen! Our original brief was to contrive a list of “forty underrated TV shows to stream,” but this isn’t quite that. What is it?
Doreen St. Félix: I’ve found myself balking at the suggestion that TV watching should be escapist or transportive; I find that I can’t focus on series that require the sort of oppressive immersion that I usually enjoy. So I looked for shorter series that felt like jaunts rather than commitments. What about you?
T.P.: I notice that I also have privileged brevity. This was perhaps less a conscious choice than the natural reflex of a damaged attention span. But also it seems connected to my apparent affection for sitcoms so absurd as to meet a quick cancellation.
D.S.F.: I had a couple of cancelled shows on my list, too. “Enlightened,” “Sweet/Vicious.” I also thought about including “How to Make It in America.” I guess we are both drawn to that which is too good to last. Are you a “list person,” would you say?
T.P.: I like to argue about lists. I like to be provoked by them. I have bookmarked Robert Christgau’s accounting of the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop polls. I enjoy them as games and puzzles and expressions of personae, but I am unwilling to take them very seriously, lest I develop a case of, what would you call it? “High Fidelity”–itis? A list is always a self-portrait but never an identity. And you?
D.S.F.: Decidedly not. I can never commit to hierarchies or to organizing logic. Actually, I’m realizing that my selections reflect the chaos of my roving, distracted mind. Among beat critics, television critics, in some ways, have been the least affected by the pandemic, but this won’t last forever, of course. Dozens of shows have had to halt production, and we have no idea when filming can resume. Our font may turn to a trickle. Are you thinking about that?
T.P.: No, I am not thinking about that. I ought to be, but I am paralyzed by existential despair. In the event that my television stops playing reviewable things, I will pivot to writing detailed responses to old cooking shows and noting where to substitute ingredients common to survivalists’ pantries. And you?
D.S.F.: I’ll wish for an early senescence. Many years of rest and relaxation, à la the unnamed narrator from the Moshfegh novel, interrupted intermittently to watch “The Golden Girls.” Until that time, which hopefully never comes, here’s our list.
The “120 Minutes” Archive: Here, assembled with obsessive love and exhaustive YouTube links, is a near-complete, completely unofficial playlist of the MTV show that, beginning in 1986, documented the metamorphosis of alternative rock. To play along and sequence your viewing as the network did, with Simple Minds giving way to Throwing Muses, say, or New Order to Pere Ubu, is to discover wonderful juxtapositions, while admiring a variety of lo-fi visual styles developed under low-budget constraints.—T.P.
“Andy Barker, P.I.” (various via NBC): If Jeff Lebowski were not a shaggy stoner of uncertain employment but rather a C.P.A. with a round head and square personality, he would be Barker, played by Andy Richter in this 2007 sitcom. An accountant is mistaken for a detective, and punctiliously begins working cases. Its noirish comedy of errors is like a spore of a James M. Cain story blown into a strip-mall road verge and grown into a weird flowering weed.—T.P.
“The Brady Bunch” (various): It is already stale to observe the graphic similarity between the gallery view of a Zoom meeting and the title sequence of this vintage blended-family sitcom. But “The Brady Bunch” itself, suffused with the preservatives of high-fructose corniness and processed cheese, remains entirely palatable as family viewing, forty-five years after the conclusion of its initial run. The gags and tidy lessons are shelf-stable, and contemporary children will eat them up.—T.P.
“Call the Midwife” (Netflix via BBC): I’ve only just started watching this British medical drama, which is set in impoverished East London in the nineteen-fifties, but I’ve already been stunned by its wholesome story lines of sororal connection and its acute critique of social inequality; this is a show that does not sanitize the labor, physical and psychological, that is required of its subjects. The dogged warmth of “Call the Midwife” suspended my natural cynicism toward feminist television, and for that I am grateful.—D.S.F.
“Chewing Gum.”Photograph by Mark Johnson / Netflix
“Chewing Gum” (Netflix): Tracey Gordon, created and played by Michaela Coel, is supposed to be twenty-four years old, but her energy is strictly pubescent, much to the credit of the series and its strong comedic voice. Tracey is a Londoner devoted to the Pentecostal God of her Ghanaian parents. She is a virgin, and her devotion to the Lord is at odds with the demands of her libido. The series, which débuted on Netflix in 2016, charts her hapless quest for sex by way of many inventively rude not-quite-sex scenes and tangy monologues. It’s a one-woman bedroom farce.—T.P.
“Clean House” (various): “Clean House,” which aired from 2003 to 2011, is a true relic—Style, its original network, no longer exists. For nine of its ten seasons, the marvellous Niecy Nash captained a team of designers in the soulful work of decluttering the homes and decongesting the souls of their sad charges. The tenor of contemporary home-improvement television can be too woo-woo for me, so, if you like to pair kitchen renovation with light castigation, “Clean House” is the kind of binge that cleanses.—D.S.F.
“Cowboy Bebop” (Hulu via Sunrise): Once a fishing trawler, the Bebop now hauls Jet Black, Faye Valentine, and Spike Spiegel, a motley crew of intergalactic bounty hunters, across the galaxy. Earth is dead and the phlegmatic Spiegel never feels as alive as when he is broaching oblivion. The anime “Cowboy Bebop” is a masterwork sci-fi Western, a classic noir thrust into the shadowy atmosphere of a future apocalypse. Choose subtitles over English dubbing; the native vocal performances, in Japanese, convey a hypnotizing malaise.—D.S.F.
“Danger Mouse” (various): From 1981 through 1992, this merry British cartoon followed the rodent analogue of James Bond. (His sidekick is a hamster, the M figure a chinchilla, the gloating archenemy a toad who strokes a white caterpillar like Ernst Blofeld petting his cat.) Each installment finds the hero running a maze of international intrigue while nibbling on cheese cubes of political satire.—T.P.
“Dead to Me” (Netflix): Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini gulp wine with hypnotizing vigor in “Dead to Me,” a saucy soap on the extreme sport of trauma bonding. As Jen, a recently widowed real-estate agent, Applegate is nasty but sweet, an ideal partner to Cardellini’s Judy, a pathological people-pleaser. They lie to each other, but sometimes friendship requires deception (not to mention murder). Applegate and Cardellini are as heavenly a pairing as Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin on “Grace and Frankie.” I’ve already watched the second season, which premières in May, and it’s perfect.—D.S.F.
“Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23” (various): The sitcom’s titular B—-, played by Krysten Ritter, is a riotous nihilist, a party-girl grifter initiating her country mouse of a roommate to the particular frustrations of New York City and the general torments of a hilariously uncaring world. She is as mean as the show, created by Nahnatchka Khan, in 2012, is sharp. The tone of the jokes converts everyday despair into sublime foolishness.—T.P.
“Elite” (Netflix): If you can find it in your heart to consider another murderous teen soap, I’d suggest you check out the Spanish show “Elite,” which recently put out its third season. The scholarship kids Christian, Nadia, and Samuel puncture the sanctum of Las Encinas, a school that is really a den for the humid machinations of Spain’s upper class. It’s twisty and sexy, teeming with clandestine crimes and clandestine rendezvous, but the show is also genuinely interested in the psyche of the ambitious teen-ager.—D.S.F.
“Enlightened” (HBO): What is the adjective for that which pertains to Laura Dern? Dernian? Dernesque? We are in happy need of such a descriptor, for Dern is now a ubiquitous star of big productions, on screens large and small. This was not always the case. I don’t care to know what metric resulted in the cancellation of “Enlightened,” the HBO comedy starring Dern, which premièred in 2011 and ran for two seasons. The character of Amy Jellicoe, an executive ground down to bones and nerve after a mental breakdown, could have been a sort of spiritual successor to Tony Soprano. It is a critical text in Dern studies.—D.S.F.
“Fargo” (FX): Crime anthologies like “True Detective” and “Fargo,” with their potent but contained arcs, have been particularly attractive to me in the last few weeks. Noah Hawley’s adaptation converts the drollery of the Coen brothers film into a mood much more noirish and grotesque.—D.S.F.
“Food Party” (various via IFC): The creator and hostess Thu Tran makes food, as assisted by puppets, and performance art, as guided by ludicrous fancy. In the pilot, Tran, disappointed in her dating life, proposes to herself and prepares a wedding cake from buffalo wings and cornbread. The sets suggest a D.I.Y. “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” the humor chimes with that of Amy Sedaris’s absurdist school of homemaking, and the love of food has the light sweetness and bitter edge of a Cibo Matto song about snack time.—T.P.
“Forever” (Amazon Prime): I want to suppose that this comedy, from 2018, about the married life of a couple played by Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, never saw a second season because spoiler etiquette forbade the proper discussion of its conceit, which is that it’s about the couple’s afterlife. They live together and die alone—Rudolph’s character, in a bravura scene, chokes on a macadamia nut—and review their unhappiness in the hereafter. The show finds a funny way to explore the purgatory of other people and the hell of one’s own self.—T.P.
“Giri/Haji.”Photograph Courtesy Netflix
“Giri/Haji” (BBC via Netflix): Violently stylish, and also plain violent, “Giri/Haji” is a filial drama crossed with a sprawling, sexy police thriller. The Tokyo detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) boards a plane to London, intending to bring his wayward brother, Yuto (Yōsuke Kubozuka) to a kind of justice. Mori would like to not leave a trace, but a slick-tongued sex worker, a lonely constable, and his own teen-age daughter trail him.—D.S.F.
“Halt and Catch Fire” (various via AMC): Obsolescence is the subject of “Halt and Catch Fire,” a beautiful deconstruction of the Silicon Valley myth. The period piece, set in the early nineteen-eighties and nineties, questions the human toll that attends the disruptive act of creation; its protagonists are coders developing the tools of the future, only to have their intentions reprogrammed by bigger corporate machines. The humanity of its final season is stunning.—D.S.F.
“The Hot Ones” (YouTube): Sean Evans lures his famous targets—everyone from Halle Berry to Gordon Ramsay—to a blacked-out studio, where they answer his offbeat questions as they dine on chicken wings. The inquiries get deeper as the chicken gets spicier. Unusually, the stunt aspect of “The Hot Ones” does not hinder the depth of the interviews; the menschy Evans is as prepared as James Lipton was for “Inside the Actors Studio.”—D.S.F.
“I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” (Netflix): Sitting with any one of these comedy sketches is something like watching a rocket shudder and launch. The six episodes of the first season are short—eighteen minutes at most—and each piece is viciously quick to move from tempting premise to aggressive payoff. Abrupt escalations of lunacy! Cascading displays of embarrassment! A firm jolt of absurdity and we’re onto the next. See also: “Detroiters,” a warmly weird Comedy Central show starring Robinson and Sam Richardson as low-end admen stalled in the Motor City.—T.P.
“Joe Pera Talks with You” (Adult Swim): The premise sounds twee: a meek middle-school choir teacher (the comedian Joe Pera) narrates to the viewer his quaint enthusiasms, which include growing beans, grocery shopping, packing lunches, and revering the rock formations of Marquette, Michigan, where he leads his comely life. I’d summarize its aesthetic as stoner, surreal-ish public-access television; in the second season, a nervous romance blooms between Pera and Jo Firestone, a survivalist with a bunker in her basement. Each episode is just shy of twelve minutes—perfect for quarantine attention spans. No second is wasted. Incrementally, Pera reveals himself to be a fragile yet towering philosopher of the everyday.—D.S.F.
“Justified” (FX): Next to Chester Himes, Elmore Leonard may have been the last century’s most original crime writer. Leonard hung out on the set of “Justified,” the FX crime story inspired by his books; he thought the show “got the characters better than I put them on paper.” Guns are slung and hats are tipped in this Appalachian pulp fiction, which features Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a marshal who darts around Harlan County like a cinema cowboy. Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett, in the second season, is an explosion and a whisper, a matriarch who would go so far as to injure her son to protect the family name.—D.S.F.
“Living Single” (Hulu): This is the show that likely inspired “Friends.” It’s better than “Friends.”—D.S.F.
Locally Grown TV: Locally Grown TV, a project by the Los Angeles artists Jamil Baldwin and Tyler Bernard, is television as playlist, the Internet as archive. The Web site features stations, each transmitting twenty-four-hour broadcasts. The ephemera mashup here is surprising, and its breadth speaks to the tastes of its resident and guest curators, who have included Noname and the archivist Renata Cherlise. One day, I watched Shirley Clarke’s documentary “Portrait of Jason,” and then I watched some of Bernie Sanders’s eight-and-a-half-hour filibuster of a proposed tax cut for the wealthy, scored with a lo-fi beat. And then later, that evening, when I could not sleep, I self-soothed with grainy footage of Freaknik, the Atlanta party that attracted revellers who thought that the bash would never end.—D.S.F.
“Lodge 49” (various via AMC): I slide back and forth wondering whether to lament that a series this substantial lasted a mere two seasons or to celebrate that a series this odd lasted so long. The setting is a Pynchonian California of doughnut shops and lost dreams and gold light on the melancholy ocean. The hero (Wyatt Russell) is a downcast dude named Dud, a surfer bereft by the death of his father. His involvement with a shabby fraternal order and its membership of put-upon Joes, each stunned by the decline of an American dream, advances what is either a labyrinthine mystery or a touchingly meaningless intrigue. The show, created by Jim Gavin, giggles as it grieves.—T.P.
“Los Espookys” (various via HBO): Somewhere down south, in a mythical Latin America, a kid gets his pals together to monetize a passion for gore and genre fiction. Theirs is a service-industry startup; one might hire Los Espookys to fake an exorcism, say. But the group’s party-trick special effects are unfolding on the same level of reality as supernatural events, such as the abduction of a U.S. Ambassador, through a mirror, into a dimension beyond the looking glass. Exuberant with hot colors and dry absurdities, the show coheres as a kind of magic-realist farce.—T.P.
“Miami Vice.”Photograph from Alamy
“Miami Vice” (various via NBC): As done by Michael Mann, our great analyst of (and fantasist about) men in suits at work, this holds up better than most cop shows and many other existential queries after masculinity. Between 1984 and 1990, two slick detectives, managed by a lieutenant hewn from granite, chased drug dealers around a Florida done in blazes of neon, slabs of pastels, and waves of moonlit water.—T.P.
“Mindhunter” (Netflix): At first glance, this drama—based on an F.B.I. agent’s memoir, created by Joe Penhall, and frequently directed by David Fincher—was handsome, twisty, and punishingly blunt. But the after-image is richly unsettling. The agents trooping into prisons to study the behavior of murderers come to seem like authors not only of psychological profiles but of a contemporary mythology of evil.—T.P.
“Prime Suspect” (Hulu, various): Stick it in the time capsule as a document of Helen Mirren’s greatest performance. She began the seven-season crime procedural, in 1991, as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, a resolute cop whose incipient chemical dependency was attributable, partly, to the wearying sexism of London’s Metropolitan Police Service. She ended it, in 2006, with Tennison retiring as a Detective Superintendent and a blackout drunk. Throughout, her nuanced work plays wonderfully against the satisfying straightforwardness of the narrative’s investigation.—T.P.
“Schitt’s Creek” (various via CBC Television): A family affair from Eugene Levy and his son, Daniel. Bankruptcy lands the Roses, a family of snobs, in the small town of Schitt’s Creek, which the patriarch, Johnny (Eugene Levy), forgot that he even owned. The Canadian sitcom wrapped last month, after six seasons, and while it bordered on saccharine in the middle, its last couple of seasons were reinvigorated by the maturation of David (Daniel Levy), a hypebeast who learns to fall in love. The amazingly deranged diction of Catherine O’Hara, as the perpetually verklempt Moira, would make Billy Wilder weep.—D.S.F.
“Seven Worlds, One Planet” (BBC America): This recent documentary devotes one epic episode to each continent, starting with Antarctica, where the elephant seals, jostling for territory, hold their own against penguins as subjects of our love and contemplation. The resources (and drones) of the BBC Natural History Unit are deployed to full effect here, and there’s a sober sense of fortitude in its tone toward climate change. David Attenborough’s voice-over invites polite astonishment.—T.P.
“Shangri-La” (Showtime): We loiter and float around the Malibu music studio of the producer Rick Rubin, as artists attest to his genius and the waves on the beach splash with cosmic intimations. This four-part documentary, directed by Morgan Neville, is less a profile or biography than an evocation of a vibe and an exploration of a sensibility. It’s an invigorating ramble around a singular mind and a restorative meditation on creativity.—T.P.
“Six Feet Under” (HBO): Now is the time to raid the canon. Replace “Six Feet Under” with “The Wire” or whatever classic you’ve missed.—D.S.F.
“Sweet/Vicious” (various via MTV): A quasi-superhero teen noir about extrajudicial justice. At night, Ophelia (Taylor Dearden), a stoner hacker with turquoise hair, and Jules, a blonde sorority girl, mask up and stalk their college campus, bringing sexual offenders to heel. The rape-revenge plot is a hard one to master, and I hate that I didn’t get to see “Sweet/Vicious,” which was cancelled after only one season, figure it out.—D.S.F.
“Terrace House” (Netflix): The Japanese reality show proceeds from the elemental premise of “The Real World,” or, for that matter, college: a carefully curated selection of young strangers gather under one roof to flirt and fight with one another. But the pleasure of “Terrace House” is in its freedom from contrivance and its special placidity of its pace. Sometimes things happen so slowly; sometimes, nothing is happening. The camera cuts to the gallery of celebrities annotating the action, and they join us in unpacking the everything within the nothing. A great text of humdrum domesticity.—T.P.
“Top of the Lake” (various via Sundance): Tropes of the puzzle-box detective story are built and undone in Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake,” a moody, impressionistic portrait of a strange New Zealand town, starring Elisabeth Moss as the police officer Robin Griffin. The second season, “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” floundered, but why not watch the entire thing and decide for yourself? There’s nothing but time.—D.S.F.
“TV Party” (Vimeo): No disrespect to “The Robin Byrd Show,” but “TV Party” represents the highest achievement of New York City public-access cable programming. Between 1978 and 1982, the writer Glenn O’Brien hosted “the TV show that’s a cocktail party but which could be a political party,” according to his regular introduction to the show’s anti-Carson antics. Punks and painters and all manner of people with New Wave haircuts and downtown talents warmed its set with a droll and faintly dangerous energy.—T.P.
“Undone.”Photograph Courtesy Amazon Studios
“Undone” (Amazon Prime): Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s series “Undone” is created using rotoscoping, by which animation is traced over live-action footage. The uncanny-valley feel of the animation contributes to the affecting hyperreality of the series, which follows Alma, a young woman whose grief may have endowed her with a kind of clairvoyance. Its seventh episode, “The Wedding,” was one of my favorite episodes of television from last year.—D.S.F.
“Unorthodox” (Netflix): I am recommending the German miniseries “Unorthodox” despite the fact that I found the show structurally uneven. Loosely adapted from Deborah Feldman’s memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” the show tells the story of Esty (Shira Haas), a young wife living in the Satmar community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and her escape to a secular life in Berlin, Germany. The New York story line is wrought with anthropological specificity (these scenes are mostly in Yiddish); by comparison, the fairy-tale picture of Berlin chafes. I forgive this flaw, however, because of the peculiar intensity of Haas, an uncommonly bold performer.—D.S.F.
“Ways of Seeing” (YouTube): John Berger’s book of this title—a canonical bit of criticism from 1972—began as a two-hour BBC series. The show endures as an iconoclastic look at Western art and its traditions, which include centering the male gaze, speaking in mystifying pseudo-critical gibberish, and upholding the perspectives of power. The work intends to remake your mind’s eyeballs.—T.P.
“When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts” (various via HBO): This is Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary about Hurricane Katrina and the lives it destroyed in New Orleans. A story about a natural disaster compounded by an emergency-management disaster, it’s a self-consciously musical composition—a blues symphony of suffering. Lee’s camera also captures the composer of the actual score, Terence Blanchard, as he accompanies his mother to her wrecked house. Seeing her devastation, you maybe develop a deeper feeling for the mournful quality of Blanchard’s supple brass. Think of the film as a companion in mourning.—T.P.