When our crack editorial staff announced this recap series, I got a bit queasy. I knew I'd draw television. I freebase the stuff. It's the natural choice. Yet, I was overcome with apprehension. Your average musicnik will have little problem rattling off a hundred albums you never knew existed. But TV? Unfortunately there aren't throngs of bearded savants in Williamsburg recording their own television series for broadcast on locally pressed neon plastic satellites. What constitutes 'under the radar' television? Does Hannibal qualify? Had people been watching it, it'd still exist, right? How about relatively low-rated critical darlings like The Americans and Fargo? Even if you haven't bothered to binge the latest season just yet, I'm sure you've already seen them featured on every other critic's best of list. You can see the bind I'm in. I need a metric.
So, I've devised a system to determine what might have escaped the grasp of the average prestige-inclined viewer. In order to be considered, an episode must:
- Have been viewed by fewer than 2 million people (sorry Hannibal).
- Have received fewer than 20 reviews on Metacritic. (Fargo had 33, for example.)
- Pass the uncle test. Meaning, if you were to ask your Uncle Jim what he thought of last week's _____, would he have any idea what you're talking about? If he does, it shouldn't be on my list. Or you have a weird uncle.
By harnessing the power of arbitrary restrictions, I was able to whittle my list down to... The Five:
BoJack Horseman: Escape From L.A.
Season 2 Episode 11
Audience: Shrouded in mystery
Metacritic Reviews: 7
BoJack Horseman is kind of the outlier on my list. Netflix doesn't lend itself to anything resembling standard Nielsen ratings, so perhaps I'm wildly underestimating its popularity. However, it seems to fit nicely with this group considering its paltry quantity of reviews and seeming also-ran status in the grand scheme of Netflix original programming.
BoJack Horseman emerged in 2014, an uneven show that struggled to strike a balance between low-tier Adult Swim humor and genuine pathos. The show was, like its protagonist, an ungainly beast. Early struggles aside, BoJack matured, pushing the 'Look! The head of Penguin Books is an actual penguin!' jokes to the backburner and focusing on BoJack's perpetual existential crisis.
It was a bit of a trend for comedies to examine depression this year. I'm not going to tell you that BoJack did it best, but I will say that it most closely resembles my personal experience with that nasty business. Wondering if you're even capable of experiencing happiness. Letting anxiety grind your life to a halt. Fixating on forks in the road you didn't take. In "Escape From L.A.", BoJack tries to reverse course and take one of those forks, picking up his life and taking up residence with The One Who Got Away. Problem is, she's long since married and had children of her own. Considering BoJack is essentially a sardonic riff on a Bob Saget type, it's fun to see him playing Uncle Jesse to a family in rural New Mexico. Until it's not fun. At all.
Netflix may insist on propping up the sagging Orange is the New Black and a D.O.A. Kevin Spacey vehicle come awards season, but nothing in their slate manages to be nearly as cutting, incisive, and wonderful as the cartoon about the anthropomorphic horse. Why aren't you watching it?
Season 3 Episode 5
Audience: 0.583 million
Metacritic Reviews: 2
To understand why "Tribal" works so well, it's important to understand the way Banshee works. Banshee isn't like other television shows. It burns through plot at an insane and seemingly unsustainable pace. The show tells the story of Lucas Hood. Not really, though. Lucas Hood is actually the name of the dead sheriff whose uniform our nameless protagonist has co-opted. Said nameless protagonist also happens to be an amoral, violent, and indestructible force of nature. Banshee follows the town's reluctant lawman as he wades through a comical amount of criminal factions, spearheaded in season three by an Amish crime lord and a group of violent Native American separatists. Yes, that's as ridiculous as it sounds.
Let's look back at the third episode of season three to get some idea of the pace I'm talking about. The episode opens with Nola, a character who'd been set up for over a season as a major player in the Native/Amish conflict (and a major badass) picking a fight with one of the show's major heavies. The resulting five minutes of ultraviolence are as brutal and unflinching as anything this side of The Raid, culminating in Nola's throat being torn out. Yikes. There's one plot thread summarily dispatched. Meanwhile, Hood is apprehended by a federal agent who's pieced together his mysterious past. On any other show, this would be a season long arc, but in Banshee, it's quickly resolved when both men are abducted by a 500 lb Paul Giamatti look-alike, and interrogated in a custom-built semi as it hurtles down the highway to destinations unknown. Meanwhile (again), the Native separatists attack a strip club owned by Kai Proctor (our Amish Godfather), and a bloody shootout ensues. All of these disparate plots are wrapped up in a tidy 58 minutes, including credits. Welcome to Banshee.
It's rather jarring then, when things slow down and tighten up in "Tribal". Chayton Littlestone, the hulking monolith that's been looming over the series since his introduction in season two, has painted himself like some literal totem of death and descended on the Banshee PD. What ensues is the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 the world deserves, with nary an Ethan Hawke to be found. "Tribal" has an intensity and impact usually relegated to a season finale. But Banshee doesn't play by television's rules. It pits one of the medium's great Big Bads in direct, mortal conflict with our heroes in the season's fifth episode. Thankfully this isn't the last we see of Chayton Littlestone, but the same can't be said for everyone in the show's ensemble. Chayton may not have achieved what he set out to when he embarked on this unhinged siege, but by the end of "Tribal" he's done the impossible. He's managed to break the seemingly unbreakable Lucas Hood.
If you find yourself lamenting that they don't make films like Commando anymore, go ahead and queue up Banshee. It's a hell of a ride.
Rectify: Girl Jesus
Season 3 Episode 4
Audience: 0.177 million
Metacritic Reviews: 11
We're running a bit long here, folks, so I'll try to keep this brief. Rectify is sort of the anti-Banshee. This isn't a show concerned with plot and there's little in the way of driving action. Sundance's first original series is the brainchild of renowned character actor Ray McKinnon (Deadwood's Reverend H.W. Smith), and the network seems content to let him work at a Louie-esque pace, sporadically doling out content in varying blocks. Which undoubtedly contributes to its decidedly meditative feel.
Rectify is the story of Daniel Holden, a man wrongly convicted of murder, who's released after nearly two decades on death row into a home town that suspects, fears, and, in many cases, loathes him. The show is as contemplative as its protagonist, an inquisitive and intelligent man with no idea how to live in this world. There are no earth-shattering developments in "Girl Jesus". That's not the sort of story McKinnon is interested in telling. It's a portrait of life in this small southern town and the quiet lives of its residents. It's about a man discovering the beauty and tragedy in the everyday. "Girl Jesus" posits that while there may not be a savior living next door, we'll manage to survive the crises of today. It's a small show in the best possible way, able to make the image of a man knocking a can of paint into an empty pool among the year's most heart-wrenching.
Nathan For You: Smokers Allowed
Season 3 Episode 5
Network: Comedy Central
Audience: 0.37 million
Metacritic Reviews: n/a
Nothing on television has evolved as spectacularly over the course of three seasons as Nathan For You. If you dismissed it as an amusing, if mean-spirited, prank show a few years back, I couldn't blame you. I was instantly fascinated by the lengths Fielder was willing to go for a bit, but I never expected that in subsequent seasons I'd be watching the show sprout a gnarled, vulnerable heart.
I don't know that the show ever really underwent a tonal shift, so much as it just relentlessly wore me down. I was no longer able to think about the potentially disingenuous comedian behind the character of Nathan. Fielder is so committed to this character that the entire enterprise started to feel genuine. It suddenly was about a man trying to help small business owners flourish, no matter how misguided the scheme. It was about a man desperately striving to make a connection, to be appreciated. Nathan For You had become magical, and "Smokers Allowed" is the culmination of that magic.
Perhaps "Smokers Allowed" was intended to be a send-up of performance art and the theater world, but somewhere along the way it became what it was prodding. In staging a bar scene as a way to circumvent anti-smoking legislation, Nathan manages to highlight both the genuine and the artifice inherent in art. It's a true testament to the character building the show has done that a scene in which Nathan forces an actress to recite a declaration of love ad nauseum is one of the more absorbing things I've witnessed all year.
The Knick: This Is All We Are
Season 2 Episode 10
Audience: 0.275 million
Metacritic Reviews: 17
Leave it to Steven Soderbergh to drop an impromptu series finale on his audience. Perhaps we should have seen this coming after he literally burned down the show's future in the episode prior. Yet, the chatter leading up to the second season's finale largely centered around the future of The Knick. Would Cinemax even bother to bankroll another season of Soderbergh's woefully unseen experiment? And then he went ahead and tactfully detonated everything we knew about the show.
The Knick is an oddity of a show. A period piece stripped of any notion of romanticism and scored to Cliff Martinez's anachronistic electro-pulse. The result is an early-20th century world that feels remarkably lived in. We're plunged into a grimy, visceral landscape, brimming not only with danger and death, but with possibility and ingenuity. It also happens to be the best looking thing on television.
"This Is All We Are" artfully pays off all of the season's dangling plot threads, often in the most cruel way possible. The Knick seems to harbor a particular disdain for the language of television. It baits its audience into rooting for a couple to end up together, only to dip the denouement in the potent ipecac of manipulation. It prods at our tendency to root for self-destructive antiheroes by taking that trope far beyond the rational. There is no catharsis here. Not today.
Oddly enough, Cinemax has indeed commissioned an outline for a third season of The Knick, but I sincerely hope they pass. "This Is All We Are" is one of the most rewarding final hours a series could hope for. I'd even go so far as to say I preferred it to Don Draper's Coca-Cola fantasia.