If you’re like a lot of pop culture fans these days, you probably have heard that television has reached its creative peak. But even if you’re all caught up on your favorites—and/or are working through more critically acclaimed shows—the sheer amount of quality network, cable and subscription service shows can make it difficult to decide what to watch next. Netflix and Hulu’s recommendation algorithms, meanwhile, are far from perfect, but never fear—we’ve got some more obscure recommendations to sate your desire for quality TV.
Murder and mayhem
Netflix’s searing, controversial documentary program Making A Murderer has been met with both praise and criticism from various media outlets; despite the series’ flaws, directors Moira Demos and Laura Riccardi’s intense work has struck a chord with viewers (even to the point of the show getting its own fan-run subreddit). Any true crime aficionado would do well to check out prolific German director and writer Werner Herzog’s stunning 2011 documentary film Into the Abyss, which profiles two young men convicted of three murders in Texas, and are serving prison time for those murders. One of the men, Michael Perry, is slated for death row, while the other, Jason Burkett, is serving a life sentence.
Both Into the Abyss and Making A Murderer work from individual case studies to question how just the U.S. “justice system” really is, and both explicitly reveal that justice is not so fairly meted out for some. Neither documentary takes a “just the facts” approach, but both succeed in their social aims in questioning how concepts like justice and punishment can brutally affect the already disenfranchised.
Unexpectedly cutting thoughts about life
On a purely surface level, these two Comedy Central shows could not be more different—one follows the misadventures of two underachieving women trying to navigate their mid-twenties, and the other chronicles the ongoing disastrous results of a naïve man’s attempt to review all sorts of life experiences. The adventures of Broad City’s leads Abbi Jacobsen and Illana Glazer tend to follow the classic sitcom trope of getting into some sort of awkward situation that the characters must then solve—or weasel out of—so that things can go back to the way they were by the episode’s end. This does not mean that the characters don’t grow, necessarily, but when you watch an episode of Broad City, you pretty much know what you’re going to get.
Review’s brilliantly dark humor relies on a very different tack: each decision that its lead character, “life reviewer” Forrest MacNeil (comedian Andy Daly) makes has consequences—often unforeseen—that carry over into the next episode, and ultimately affect the rest of the season. The show’s central conceit is that its main character is the host of a show, entitled Review, where he reviews life experiences suggested by viewers, and these experiences can range from the mundane (“What’s it like to go to prom?”) to the absurd and (usually) dangerous (“What’s it like to get into a brawl?”).
Daly’s nerdy likability as Forrest balances the character’s more intense qualities, chief among them his willingness to do whatever it takes for his show. Even when the show has started to ruin Forrest’s life due to his own inability to say no to some of the more risky review ideas, he is committed to reviewing whatever his viewers want to see. Like Broad City, however, Review finds comedy in both the humanity of its characters and the weird, often dark situations in which they find themselves.
Weird and edgy comedy
If you’re a fan of the late, great HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show (which ran from 1995-1998), you have probably seen its sequel series, W/Bob and David, which reunited David Cross and Bob Odenkirk with some of the writing staff and cast members of the dearly departed HBO show. However, you may not have seen comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s extremely weird Adult Swim sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (for which Odenkirk served as both Executive Producer and an occasional guest star).
From its creepy opening sequence featuring cats, wriggling tongues, and 1990s-style internet graphics, to some of its recurring sketches (particularly the CINCO company’s products), Awesome Show is a fast-paced, sometimes downright strange mash-up of internet meme-worthy phrases, public access television, zero-budget advertisements, and the odd musical number. It is as close to an early-2000s version of Mr. Show as one could get—and successfully takes the surreal and dark humor for which Mr. Show laid the groundwork into the 21st century.
Animated shows are all grown up
Netflix’s animated series BoJack Horseman was a surprise hit for the streaming service in 2014; critics and fans alike praised the show’s inventiveness, humor, and depiction of protagonist Bojack’s depression. For a Hollywood satire that features anthropomorphic animals as lead characters, its humor can be surprisingly subtle and affecting, especially when the show deals with issues such as substance abuse, childhood trauma, fame, and unrequited love.
Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, is not subtle in its humor in any way, shape or form; however, a show that follows the (mis)adventures of a misanthropic scientist and his overly-anxious grandson across the galaxy and into different realities and timelines does not have to be subtle to be great. And it is great, once you get past the initially broad strokes with which the characters seem to be painted—there’s the uncaring, alcoholic lout who happens to be a brilliant scientist (Rick), his anxiety-prone teenage grandson (Morty), his snarky older sister (Summer), their Type A-mom who is an accomplished horse surgeon (Beth), and their dim-bulb dad who is probably dumber than Homer Simpson but is equally naive (Jerry).
What makes Rick and Morty worth watching is its commitment to world building. Each race of aliens, alternate timeline, and/or planet—in almost every episode—has a wealth of visual details and background gags that, like the best episodes of BoJack Horseman, reward repeated viewings. The show’s celebrity guest spots are also smartly executed—besides featuring luminaries such as Stephen Colbert and Christina Hendricks, there is a short but incredibly funny Werner Herzog cameo in season two that must be heard to be believed. If Rick and Morty’s initial plot seems generic, the rest of its production, voice work, and writing tends to fall on the side of surprisingly original.