Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Four Incredibly Great Obscure TV Shows

Many tens of billions of dollars are spent annually on TV content creation right now. It's insane. But, per Sturgeon's law, 90% of it is crap.

Of the remaining 10%, even with all this expenditure, and even though we're in a zeitgeist - the golden age of "Peak TV" - you still must search far and wide for devastating greatness. And, when you find it, you will inevitably discover that only a few thousand others are watching. Or even noticing. Because there's so much TV that, as with restaurants circa 1997, gleaming gems are neglected amid the vast field of contenders. Cream, alas, does not always float.

In 2016 I offered a survey of recent TV series divided into four buckets:
  • You'll Never Be Whole Until You View
  • Excellent; Well Worth Watching
  • Acquired Pleasures
  • Bitter Disappointment
Back then, the three series I filed under "You'll Never Be Whole Until You View" were "The Leftovers" (HBO), "Fargo" (free on Hulu, but well worth buying), and "Rectify"(season 1 free on Amazon Prime Video; the rest you've got to buy, and it's well worth it). Since then, I'd add "Atlanta".

I've been pointing out fresh treasure via the "Television" tag/label (view all such postings in reverse chronological order). But let me now lop four huge fish onto your deck for consideration in the YNBWUYV category. All are fairly recent (one's still unfolding), and you've probably never heard of any of them. Critics mostly ignored them, nobody watched them, and even social media like Reddit gathered only a few lonely fans to discuss them. But you'll never be whole until you view them. These treasures have been lost amid a torrent of TV content, none of it nearly as good.

I mostly won't tell you what they're about, because....well, I'll explain via italicized riff:
I'd make a terrible movie/tv critic, because there's nothing I'd less rather do than recap a storyline. Not out of spoiler concern, but because it's so beside the point. "That sounds like the sort of story I'd like to watch!" presupposes you're in it for genre - the most superficial level. Who does that now?

When I was five, I Iiked cowboy stories. Now that I've grown up (kinda), I like stories that are well-crafted, shot, acted, and directed, which draw me viscerally into a world, respect my intelligence, and leave me with a shifted perspective. I couldn't care less if they're cowboys or astronauts or if they're hunting for a murderer or a diagnosis or a super robot or a big pile of dope. I'm not looking for iterations of stuff I previously liked. In fact, I'd prefer a great iteration of something I previously didn't like (I recently wrote a whole post on the sublime pleasure of a great version of a disliked thing).
These all transcend genre, so I won't describe the genre. They're about what happens "along the way" rather than about the overarching story, so I won't tell you the overarching story (aside from a grudging effort re: "Patriot", the first one below). I'll mostly just rave like a lunatic and hope you trust my taste; that I won't send you to watch dumb crap. Ok, here goes.


"Patriot" (free on Amazon Prime Video) was created by Steven Conrad, my new hero. I'll flock to anything he does. As I noted back in March, before I'd reached the latter half of season 1, where it shifts into high gear, this show is uniquely quirky and bursting with thoughtfulness and small subtle touches and rich imagination and creativity and laughs even though it's a dark show about a spy pushed way (no, way) beyond all limits by his handler...who's his dad.

Before the tale of mayhem and mishap (theme: intelligence services are just as messed up and poorly-run as other government functions) even gets going, this decent, competent, devoted, patriotic guy, trying to live up to his dad and country's impossible demands, wound up, due to a blunder by the incompetent hacks he works for, in an Iranian dungeon, subjected to personality-erasing "white torture", cooped up in a tiny cage with bright lights and "American Pie" blasted at top volume 24 hrs/day for months. Coming right out of that horror, he's sent, foggily, into the travail of unimaginable aggravation and futility that is this show.

He does his best, which is actually impressive. The poor shmoe is so devoted, and so well-trained, that he just keeps going and going, long past any point of wondering why. And the people he meets along the way - mostly in his cover as a consultant for a midwest piping firm run by the pompous jargon-spitting poobah of American piping - eventually form a family-like band of support, which makes zero sense explained like this, but I'll be damned if Conrad doesn't sell it as near-realism. Oh, and his sole outlet is to sing hilariously earnest original folk songs at open mic nights about the necks he's been forced to slit, etc. He’s even got a small following.

Perpetual Grace, LTD

With Patriot cancelled after two seasons due to a profound lack of interest from viewers or critics, Conrad went on to create "Perpetual Grace, LTD" (you have to pay for it via Apple or Amazon) with the same actors (in different roles and different genre), salted with inside jokes and plot references from "Patriot" which are offered as generous easter eggs for the 35 souls who've stuck with. And this one adds BEN FUCKING KINGSLEY, who is magnificent.

Perpetual Grace, LTD is even better than Patriot, and was even less successful, cancelled after its first splendid year. Oh well. Next from Conrad: "Ultra City Smiths", due to premiere any moment now on AMC. One day everyone will claim to have followed Steven Conrad all along. Get in now (remember, I told you about Breaking Bad in 2009 when no one had heard of it)!

Oh, and if you do watch Patriot and Perpetual Grace, LTD, before showering me with tearful thanks and homemade brownies, also check out Steven Conrad's ultimate futility, a podcast devoted to fake impenetrable piping jargon (plus some stories that presumably would have occupied Patriot's non-existent third season) hosted by the fictional - though perhaps not to Conrad anymore - grandfather of American piping, Leslie Claret. I may be the only listener. I'm not kidding.

Get Shorty

"Get Shorty" (free on Amazon Prime Video) has nothing to do with the movie, aside from the broad arc of mob muscle finding himself suddenly in the filmmaking business...and finding he's good at it because it uses the same skillset.

Which is trite. However not one episode - not one moment - is the least bit trite. My eyes grew lazy from non-rolling. The show consumes more plot per hour than you'd have imagined possible, yet it's all both swallowable and surprising, quite a feat. No predictability and precious few false turns. You'll watch as toddlers do, perpetually surprised and delighted. Not because you're too young to spot the tropes and bullshit, but because the writers are geniuses from a higher plane of existence, and they never wink at you (sole exception: notice the final shot of each season). They never drop the ball or cut corners or call attention to their own cleverness, so you just watch and grin and love it in a buttery cocoon with hardly any loose strings, clumsy contrivances, plot holes, suspensions of disbelief, or pacing hiccups to interrupt your immersive fiction injection.

On top of that, there are some microdots of tremendous subtlety. The show functions as a well-shot, well-written, well-acted ripping yarn, ala "Justified", but, if you look deeper, there's depth and subtlety, snuck in for those few who feast on nuance.

Also, oh yeah, just in passing, the cinematography is astonishing. And did I mention that Alan Arkin's son, Adam, arguably the greatest current TV director, directs many of the episodes? Of course it was cancelled after three seasons (2-1/2, really).

Mr. In-Between

"Mr In-Between" (free on Hulu. Amazon has the first two seasons - the third season, currently playing, is spectacular, and you can record it - and catch up on demand - if you get FX channel. Remember, though, that Hulu has a 30 day trial period, and this show, alone, is well worth paying for a couple months @$6-$12) is one I've written about before (see below), and it's improbably as good as the three gigantic monsters of creative excellence above. This humble no-budget Australian show is about thug Ray (essentially the Aussie version of the guy in Get Shorty), played by series creator/writer Scott Ryan who nobody had previously heard of and who has risen to the occasion and then some.

Ray is a 3-D person with a family and an inner life, not painted as a monster (though Jesus F Christ does he ever do monstrous things), but just a bloke trying to make a buck with the skills he has. It's crime as job, totally unglamorized. But, as with any job, you need skills and smarts to do it well. Watching Ray skillfully do his thing, you see neither an omniscient cackling psychopath nor a tormented soul desperate to exit The Life. He's just a bloke trying to pay bills, and every moment feels probable. For the first time since the novels of Donald Westlake, you feel like the writers themselves are petty criminals, revealing what it's really like.

The third season just started and it's fantastic so far, though I hope Ryan doesn't start Hawkeye-ing his character too much.

Here's what I wrote after last year's second season finale:
People aren't cartoons. People can be lots of things at the same time. The guards at Auschwitz went home every night to their families, and some were surely loving and lovely spouses and parents. The Sopranos felt fresh because never before had we seen villains as just people. But even the Sopranos was light brushstrokes and heightened drama and a bit broad. Show biz. So the creator/star of Mr. Inbetween tried to go all the way and produced a dead-realistic, thoughtful, non-judgmental portrait of a hit man who's a real human being (and great dad) who - like all of us - isn't entirely defined by his day job. It's not some cheap manipulative play of making us like/dislike the guy. And, no, he's not "trying to get out", because he's good at it. The whole thing is subtly superb and hugely entertaining. I can't recommend it enough.


There's another show (this one vastly better known) that is, impossibly, even better than these four. It's the only TV show ever that I'd describe as "Shakespearian," a word I normally avoid. In this case, the Bard himself would watch squeezing his head in his hands, giggling excitedly about the cleverness, the keen insight, and the language subtlety. "Succession", on HBO, is due back for its third season late this year, and I can't wait. If you haven't seen it, run, don't walk. If you have seen it, watch it again. I'm now on my third rewatch, and finding tons of delicious nuggets I'd previously missed. Succession is so dense (yet easily watchable) and subtle that you could mine it for years. It's an Everlasting Gobstopper.

It's a great time to watch TV. I've enjoyed the hell out of this pandemic. But, like with food in the 90's, you do need to mine for grandeur and eschew the shinier options. It takes work! Be careful out there!

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