Every year, critics and fans alike love nothing more than to compile lists of the best shows on television, but what about all those shows that fly under the radar? These are the really, really good shows that never quite seem to become cultural phenomena. There aren’t people live-tweeting them every week or begging people not to spoil them, and they probably aren’t going to land on the covers of magazines. And that’s kind of a shame, because, really, the following shows all deserve it. Whether they just don’t get talked about that much, or whether not enough people watch them every week (which literally makes them underrated), the one thing they all have in common is that they are eight of the most underrated shows on TV today.
The Show: Steven Van Zandt of The Sopranos and Bruce Springsteen fame plays a mobster (I know, shocking…) who rats out his fellow Mafiosi and then goes into the Witness Protection Program in Lillehammer, Norway. (The title is a play on the name of his dog, Lily, and also his butchered pronunciation of the city of Lillehammer, Norway.)
Why It’s Underrated: It’s hard to know what to make of Lilyhammer at first. Is it a mob show? A comedy? But once you get used to its pace and its rhythm, you won’t really care. That’s because it’s got a unique Norwegian flavor to it that just sucks you in, but never loses its center, which is obviously Van Zandt, who’s basically playing a slight variation of his role in The Sopranos, and manages to carry everything by being insanely likable. It feels more like a quirky indie movie at times, and while it won’t blow you away like The Sopranos did, it’s just a nice, comfortable show that becomes sort of like an old friend, kind of like Norway itself.
7. ‘The Blacklist’
The Show: James Spader plays an ex-government agent – and current member of the FBI’s most wanted list – who comes out of hiding and offers to help the feds catch bad guys that not even the FBI knows about. The only catch? He wants to partner with a rookie agent with, uh, daddy issues.
Why It’s Underrated: Nobody cares about network TV shows anymore. They just don’t. And that’s kind of a shame because this is James Spader at his Spaderific best. There’s always something vaguely sinister about him that makes him perfect for this kind of role. And while the show itself could easily get bogged down in the usual procedural clichés, it manages to remain smart, with lots of little clever twists and turns throughout.
The Show: A gang of rejects meet and form a whacky bond at a local community college. Weekly hijinks ensue.
Why It’s Underrated: I was hesitant to even include Community because it’s fans are both passionate and loud. It gets plenty of attention, especially proportionate to its shitty ratings. So why is it on here? Well, because those ratings are perpetually lousy even though the show is really, really good. It went off the rails a bit when showrunner Dan Harmon was fired and Chevy Chase behaved like, well, like Chevy Chase, but now Harmon is back and the show seems to recovered a lot of its juice, which makes it especially underrated since a lot of people bailed when they figured it was done without Harmon. It’s funny, it’s weird and it’s smart without being smug. That’s a tough trick to pull off these days.
The Show: Superspy/degenerate Sterling Archer keeps the world safe with his dysfunctional team, all while dealing with his overbearing boss – his own mother.
Why It’s Underrated: It’s the funniest show on TV. It’s that simple. And while it gets plenty of praise, it still isn’t recognized quite as much as it should be. That’s probably because it’s really, really not safe for Ma and Pa Kansas out there. It’s not that it’s profane – I mean, it’s still on basic cable – it’s just that it goes places no other shows are really willing to go. It’s like a filthier animated version of Arrested Development, complete with tons of in-jokes and, yes, some cast cross-over. The best part is that every character is pitch-perfect. There are no weak spots, and in a perfect world this would win all the awards and be on the cover of all the magazines. It’s that awesome.
4. ‘Orange is the New Black’
The Show: A New York socialite gets hauled off to prison for an old crime – moving drug money for her girlfriend – where she’s reunited with her old partner (and partner in crime.) Women in prison hijinks ensue.
Why It’s Underrated: It’s smart and it’s funny, and while I mentioned those women in prison hijinks, it never gets bogged down in that whole cliché. That’s probably because it’s based on the memoir of the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, which lets it stay real and funny. And while it gets a decent amount of attention, it’s still nowhere near the amount that Netflix’s biggest hit, House of Cards, gets even though it’s almost just as good. I mean, it’s not like House of Cards superfan President Obama is tweeting about jailhouse sex scenes and bitching people out for spoiling Orange is the New Black, but let’s try to make that happen in the next two years, okay?
Network: Comedy Central
The Show: Three friends who met in college and now live together work as telemarketers, where they wallow in their own irreverent slackerism, refusing to grow up as they try to survive the monotony of the horrors of post-college life.
Why It’s Underrated: It’s funny, and it’s funny in a way that refuses to take anything seriously. It’s not pretending to have some complex point of view other than “Hey, work sucks, and so does growing up. Let’s just have fun.” It’s basically a more contemporary version of Office Space, only slightly more unhinged and tinged with degeneracy. It’s one of those shows that’s never really going to be a hit, but it’s always going to be very, very good. Its quality far, far outpaces its publicity, or lack thereof.
2. ‘Bates Motel’
The Show: It’s a prequel to Psycho, following the life of young Norman Bates as he tries to get through his teenage years (I’m guessing they don’t go so well) after his infamous mother purchases a new motel.
Why It’s Underrated: Let’s face it, a lot of you didn’t even know this show existed, did you? That’s because it’s on A&E. If it was on AMC or HBO everyone would be slobbering all over it. It stars Freddie Highmore and Vera Fermiga, both legit movie stars, and the quality is undeniable. It’s got that whole weird Twin Peaks aesthetic going for it, and the whole Psycho prequel angle is just naturally appealing. We all know how the story ends, but isn’t it cool to see how it gets there?
1. ‘The Americans’
The Show: A seemingly All-American couple in Ronald Reagan era America has a secret: they’re actually Soviet spies sent to live and work in America as model citizens.
Why It’s Underrated: It’s one of the best shows on TV. It inverts the whole evil Soviet spy thing and makes you realize that these are just people fighting for what they think is right, while at the same time trying to raise a family in a country that has been their home for virtually their entire adult lives. What happens when a Soviet spy becomes Americanized? That’s just one of the questions that this show tackles every week. It’s suspenseful, it’s stylish, and Kerri Russell is a total badass. And yet, nobody talks about it. Again, if it were on AMC or HBO, people would be riding this show’s jock all over the place. But even on FX it’s largely ignored in favor of shows like Sons of Anarchy or Justified, which is a shame because it might be better than both. I guess for now, The Americans has to be content with just being the most underrated show on TV.
Lilyhammer image: YouTube