We’ve peered into the deep shadows cast by the most popular TV shows’ blinding spotlight to find the best shows now streaming on Netflix that you likely haven’t heard of. We’re giving the nod to foreign dramas, well-known in their own countries but hardly heard of in the U.S., as well as some homegrown shows that never really got the attention or ratings they deserved.
This delightfully twisted surreal dark comedy is relatively well-known compared with some of the other picks on this list but for some reason has never really taken off, despite how hilarious it is. Dark humor can be a bit niche, sure, but the show — a U.S remake of the original Aussie version — also creates laughs from its bizarre situation, with a healthy dash or two of juvenile humor thrown in for good measure. Add to that the weird existential conundrums (is Ryan actually dead? Is Wilfred real or is Ryan just crazy?) for a bit of intrigue and Elijah Wood’s wonderful embodiment of a neurotic nice guy who makes perhaps a few too many banal conclusions about how to be a better person living a more meaningful life through his relationship with a dog-that’s-a-human-in-a-dog-suit, and the experiment in ridiculousness is a win. You’ll soon be joining the camp of small but dedicated Wilfred fans constantly amazed that everyone he or she asks has never even heard of the show, let alone seen it.
Fans of Joss Whedon might be aware of his lesser known and shorter-aired (as compared to his Firefly) sci-fi drama Dollhouse but to most it remains as uncharted as deep space. The show is based around the premise of an illegal enterprise that rents out human beings, the natural memories of which have been wiped and replaced with downloaded personalities as per the customers’ requests. The show, by the nature of its content, serves as a vehicle for exploring the moral and social implications of coerced and supposedly non-coerced prostitution and the nature of identity. Whether that’s wittingly done by the show’s creators or not is a bit ambiguous but, regardless, it raises some interesting questions. Whedon’s touch is manifest in the show’s style (a little bit hokey but in a palatable way, some lines that just can’t be delivered in sincerity without seeming completely silly — no matter how accomplished the actor) and whether that’s a good thing or not is entirely dependent on your opinion of the Buffy creator. Three seasons ended this show before it’s sell-by date but in our opinion that kept it within the realm of “the good die young” rather than perpetuating it into the category of “please put this out of its misery.”
Comparisons of this Channel 4 series to The Wire are plentiful and not off-base. The show’s creators have admitted to wanting to emulate the highly regarded Baltimore drug drama. To say that Top Boys doesn’t rival its inspiration is definitely not to say that the show isn’t great because, well, really when aiming for such loft heights as The Wire, to fall a bit short is still to fall quite a bit higher than most (to paraphrase Bette Davis.) You might have to pull some Roland Pryzbylewskian stunts to be able to understand the Hackney accents replete with colloquialisms but don’t worry, a few episodes in and the phrases like “yo! wau’ gon?” and “this is some jol ting, bruv” will make complete sense to you. The main characters of this drama, set in a fictitious housing estate in East London called Summerhouse, are well-conceived and empathetic. Supposedly Drake loves the show so much he’s trying to get an American remake set in Chicago off the ground.
The eponymous main character of this series is what completely makes the show. It’s rare that we’re treated to such a realistic female character, crafted with such conscientious verisimilitude. Perhaps it’s because the Danish TV series is based on several of skilled journalist and writer Elsebeth Egholm’s crime fiction novels that Dicte succeeds where so many others have failed. The show follows an impassioned reporter as she sometimes gets pulled a bit too deep into the crimes she’s covering, resiliently and gracefully rebounds from her recent divorce, and cares for and takes refuge in the enviably strong relationships she has with her daughter and friends. Even the more minor characters in the show have the benefit of being well-rounded and the detective aspects of the show are on par with the best of its ilk. Added bonus: the main character is portrayed by Iben Hjejle of High Fidelity and Defiance renown.
What happens when a French film auteur with a background in philosophy, compared to Lars von Trier and known for his nihilistic “feel-bad” dramas, decides to make a comedy? A brilliant, dark horse absurdist farce is born. Li’l Quinquin, like many of Dumont’s films, takes place in rural Northern France and uses many actors who are completely untrained to tell his madcap crime comedy. Commandant Van der Weyden is a bumbling, inept detective, trying to solve the murder of a woman who’s dismembered body was found inside a cow – an actual bêtehumaine as Van der Weyden’s right hand, Lieutenant Carpentier remarks. He’s often foiled in his (albeit sub-par) crime-solving efforts by Quinquin, a darker Dennis the Menace — real malevolence tinging his mischief and complicating his innocence, illustrated by his tender relationship with his girlfriend, Eve. The series is a study of the futility of contemplating the incomprehensible, juxtaposed with reflections on very real French social issues manifest in little everyday actions. Whether Dumont is laughing at his characters and audience or with them is up for debate, but Van der Weyden says, “we’re not here to philosophize.”
A British import starring an American star whose career is built on her penchant for playing challenging roles, Hit & Miss is, at its core, a family drama. Chloë Sevigny stars as Mia, a preoperative female transvestite hitwoman, which sounds on the surface like a spoofy premise destined for failure and much manhandling of an important and sensitive topic. However, the creators of this slow-paced, slightly brooding series use the genre mash-up to create something fresh and reflective — a transgender character whose entire story isn’t her transgender — for whom, as for all of us, gender is just one part of her life replete with many other struggles, joys, and questions. When Mia inherits a family of four kids, including one she never knew she’d fathered with an ex-girlfriend, the question of identity shifts gears. Instead of being mostly internal, it becomes relational — instead of being a question of “Am I who I want to be?” Mia’s identity takes on the additional question “Can I be who I need to be for my new family, who relies on me?” This series is surprisingly touching and Sevigny’s performance is praise-worthy.
This Aussie political thriller combines The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Rain Man. Two brothers, one a journalist, the other a brilliant hacker with Asperger’s and a criminal record, become entangled in a cover-up as epic in proportions as the Australian outback. When a school teacher leaks a damaged phone-recorded video of a mysterious accident involving two of her students to Ned, he enlists his brother Jesse to help him recover the video and post it online. What follows is a fast-paced series of events split between the metropolitan setting of Canberra and dense landscape of the online hacking world with the stark isolation of the outback. Corruption extends to the top tiers of parliament — politicians with too much to lose use the power they wield to prevent anyone from blowing their cover. The show has a high production value, interesting aesthetics and special effects that highlight the central theme (technology’s pervasiveness and capacity to turn political status quo on its head), and a strong crew of actors. More than anything, though, what really drives this show is the realistic, funny, sometimes strained relationship between brothers Jesse and Ned.
Vanilla Ice Goes Amish
It should really go without saying why this show is so amazing. The absurdity of Vanilla Ice learning “the lost art of hand craftmanship” whilst living in an Amish community grows old almost immediately, but, like a car crash, we can’t look away. How sad, lonely, and starved for another 15 minutes must Vanilla Ice (AKA Rob Van Winkle) be for his agent (presumably he still has one) to even suggest this to him? The question floats around in our peripheral vision as we wait for such priceless lines like, “I love poetry! It’s one of my passions that I’ve always had.” Every once in a while we’re treated to some impromptu rapping or a little dance break in the barn, just to show us Vanilla Ice has still got it (just in case this does turn into a full blown promotional build-up to a comeback album long awaited by precisely no one but heavily hinted at). Conversations about Vanilla Ice’s “design skills” are delivered straight. Almost as serious is his avowal that the show isn’t about to turn its tapes into the Amish mafia and that he would love to perform with Elvis (who is deceased, for the record). Better still is the riveting rivalry between Ice and his arch nemesis, a rooster.
A French crime and legal drama that’s received some lofty accolades from European critics, Spiral (or Engrenages — its French title) focuses on police captain Laure Berthaud. She’s a straightforward workaholic who’s unceasingly loyal to her homicide investigation team — even when they stray down dark paths. Each season revolves around one particular murder case that is parsed out a little more each episode, while concurrently weaving together other cases and subplots involving corruption in various branches of the French judicial system. Barthaud’s no-nonsense cop character is complex but with a certain innocence of purpose that makes her refreshing without ever drifting into naivete. Her crush on Pierre Clément, a handsome young prosecutor on the rise who’s a bit of bleeding heart but also capable of taking advantage of situations when the opportunity arises, is almost sweet in its directness. Joséphine Karlsson, a lawyer who is Clément’s equal in intelligence, is his superior in unscrupulousness and ruthlessness. The show can get messy, not in the sloppy way of bad writing, but in the way that real life often gets messy: relationships can become awkward and people make choices or take actions they later regret. Compared to The Killing, The Wire, and Law and Order, the key to enjoying Spiral is not comparing it to any of these shows, but allowing it to stand on it’s own.
We’re bookending this list with dark comedies. This Sky/Ovation miniseries, based on the collection of short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov, creates its humor through retaining the sardonic self-deprecating tone of the author. Bulgakov, who struggled with morphine addiction in real life, mercilessly throws himself under the bus through his character’s mistakes to create a larger hilarious commentary. The magic chemistry of Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliff in their surreal relationship is perfect. One gets the sense from the shows, as from the stories, that Bulgakov is so willing to exploit his real life addiction — aggrandizing it through his characters — to create humor as a means a purging himself from his guilt and shame. Paradoxically, that palpable heavy purpose makes the comedy stronger because almost everyone can relate to the attempt of trying to laugh off one’s regrets while at the same time still regretting them (it’s why a time travel machine ranks highest among desired future technologies). The author’s musings on his past are precisely so funny because they are so unflinching, and are doubly present through Hamm’s character of the older doctor, futilely trying to explain to his younger self exactly where he’s going wrong.
What do you think of our obscure Netflix TV shows list? Did we miss your favorite unheard-of series? Let us know in the comments below.
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