It happens quite often that I end up loving a show that I won’t recommend to everyone. Because it is particularly gory, explicit, or just plain weird, or really heavy in one genre (esp sci-fi or fantasy) that some people just don’t like. But then again, these shows are also often incredibly original, fascinating, creative, and entertaining. And so I offer this list of shows that I highly recommend, with the caveat that they may not be for you. But maybe, try them anyway, give them a shot, and try to appreciate them for what they are uniquely trying to do. Or….don’t. 🙂
10 Shows That Aren’t For Everyone but Might Be For You
- Pen15 (Hulu, 2 Seasons, 10-15 episodes/season, 25-35 mins) This Hulu gem is nonstop cringy comedy. Mostly because the (adult) actors – Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle – are all in for a real and hard telling of middle school life in the late 90s/early 2000s, which is incredibly cringe-worthy. Just look at the title of the series as one example – middle school cringe! And still, Erskine is so fearless in her acting I can’t look away. This is one of the best stories of tween/teen best friends and how so much can be survived if you just have someone who will be there for you, no matter what. I should also mention that all the other actors who are not Erskine and Konkle are age appropriate (i.e. mostly actual middle schoolers), which only underscores what a strange, awkward, and often painful time middle school is for all of us.
- Jessica Jones (Netflix, 3 Seasons, 13 episodes/seasons, 45-55 mins) This show is on this list because its entire premise needs a trigger warning. While it is a show about (baddie) superhero Jessica Jones, it is also a show about a woman who has been forced to do thing against her will by a truly horrendous villain. With that said, I had been waiting for Krysten Ritter to get a successful show of her own for a long time after admiring her work in Breaking Bad and The B in Apartment 23, and so I was immediately taken in by this series about a superhero who doesn’t want to be a superhero – and it does not disappoint. The storyline is (as I said) dark, dark, dark, but the ride is fast and surprising and often gloriously entertaining. Special bonus to see Mike Colter out of his drug-kingpin-role from The Good Wife and show up as the super-hottie Luke Cage. The series, on the whole, probably went a little long (funny to say for just three seasons), but ultimately became an incredible exploration of what it means to be a hero, the quest (and problems) of power, and the desire to control. It is a story of trauma, and healing, and the possibility of doing better.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Hulu, 7 Seasons, 22 episodes/season, 44 mins) and 4. Angel (Hulu, 5 Seasons, 22 episodes/season, 44 mins) I put these together because if you haven’t watched them, then you probably batch them together in your mind as shows you won’t watch because vampires….which is legitimate. Buffy, and its spinoff Angel, are both set in worlds where vampires exist, as do vampire slayers. And so, if that’s a deal breaker for you….let me see if I can convince you to give it a shot anyway. Twenty-five years after it first premiered, Buffy remains a funny, tragic, brilliant tv show exploring the idea that high school is literally hell. Buffy (despite what you might think given her name…and that’s part of the show’s feminist commentary where the young blonde is not killed by the monster as per usual horror tropes, but is instead the enduring heroine) is a powerful, strong, complex hero, and friend, who is actually just trying to grow up, despite being the hope for humanity’s salvation. Buffy is helped by her friends Willow, Xander, Oz, Anya, and her lover/vampire-with-a-soul Angel (he of the spinoff). Over the course of seven seasons, the core friendships grow and shift; there is love, there is loss, and there is grief, and occasionally there is glory, as the world is saved by Buffy and her friends, over and over. As the characters grow up, the storyline becomes progressively darker, and more ambitious, and more complex – just like adulthood often feels as you try to find your way. A number of its episodes are singularly brilliant – including one where everyone in town loses their voices, so the entire episode is silent, and another where a spell forces everyone to sing their feelings, resulting in an entirely musical episode. Angel, the LA-based spinoff centered on Buffy’s doomed vampire lover, is even more oriented towards friendship, as Angel finds his own circle of vampire-fighting outcasts, including Buffy’s once-nemesis, Cordelia. While this show starts as a pretty straightforward crime-solving detective agency show, each of the seasons shakes things up so thoroughly that by the last season, it feels like a workplace drama set in a law firm. Along the way, Angel and his friends end up getting co-opted by the very system they originally intended to undo and upend. This arc makes Angel a pretty compelling critique of capitalism, in addition to its central strength as an ensemble show of friendship, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. I don’t know if I convinced you to check out these shows if you haven’t before, but for everyone who has already seen them, maybe it’s time to watch them again?!
- Firefly (Hulu, 1 Season, 14 episodes, 42 mins) Speaking of Joss Whedon….this (unfortunately) short-run show has been billed as a western set in space…which is why it is on this list. Starring a pre-Castle (and much cooler IMHO) Nathan Fillion as Malcom Reynolds, Firefly is set 500 years in the future and follows the crew of the Serenity, which includes a preacher, a mechanic, a doctor, and a sex worker (they say “courtesan”), as they travel from planet to planet. They are bandits, mostly, but with a heart (again, mostly), as they seek to resist the corrupt and authoritarian government ruling the skies. Firefly is a relatively easy watch – it has a pretty easy-to-follow storyline, and the banter is typical Whedon wit and comedy. Although Fillion is clearly the lead, the female characters on this show are what really sell me – Zoe, the first mate, is a complete badass (Gina Torres), and Morena Baccarin’s strong and also vulnerable portrayal of sex worker Inara had me regularly watching for when her eventual breakout part would be – although I’m not sure it ever really happened. (Maybe her part in Homeland for which she was nominated for an Emmy?) Some parts of the show haven’t aged well – the mis- appropriation of the Chinese language, for example, or the way Mal repeatedly and often cruelly refers to Inara as a whore. But if you add in the movie Serenity, which was created as a way to thread together the storylines after it was shockingly canceled mid-season, Firefly continues to be a deeply satisfying, and highly imaginative, and entertaining show set in the future, but with plenty of resonance for our world today.
- Dollhouse (Hulu, 2 Seasons, 12-13 episodes/season, 60 mins) Rounding out the Joss Whedon batch in this list is Dollhouse, definitely the weirdest of the group and maybe the most problematic. Starring Eliza Dushku (who also starred on Buffy off and on, but as a different character) as Echo, Dollhouse takes the idea of prostitution to an entirely new level, wherein the person you are paying to “date” can literally become any person you want them to be, by way of super powerful mind wiping/re-programming devices (of course). Each “doll” consents to being a part of the dollhouse before undergoing the mind-wiping, or at least that is what we are told, and so you are left with questions of consent, not unlike the ones posed by the 2022 Apple TV series Severance. This is where this show definitely becomes not for everyone. The various “engagements” that the “actives” (both men and women, by the way) are assigned to often go wrong, which over time ends up connecting to Echo’s slow rediscovery of her past self. One of the biggest original criticisms of the show was that the lack of a central character to connect with made it hard to get into (because all of the characters are “wiped” clean every week). I wonder if we are used enough to unusual narratives now (almost 15 years later) that this would be less of an obstacle. Personally, I found that if you stuck with the show long enough, Echo’s story begins to emerge, and it is completely worth it. To me, it always felt like the show knew and was actively exploring its own moral ambiguity, and it is attempting to comment on our willingness to justify anything by way of “someone paid for it” and/or “it was their choice.” Like a number of other shows on this list, Dollhouse is dark and strange and not nearly as quippy and witty as Whideon’s other shows, but it is also bolder, more experimental, and still with some incredible supporting actors. Amy Acker (previously of Angel) and Enver Gjokaj (why won’t anyone give him a great part?!) are particular standouts, mixing tragic and funny, and subtle commentary. Ultimately this show asks some big, difficult questions about the human soul and what makes a person a person. It’s weird and sometimes really hard to watch (and sometimes slow), but I really recommend you give Dollhouse a chance. And let me know what you think.
- Orphan Black (Amazon Prime, 5 Seasons, 10 episodes/season, 43 mins) I put Orphan Black next on this list because there are some interesting connection points in its storyline. Except that instead of mind-wiping and personality replacement, Orphan Black brings us cloning – but in both cases, there remains a real question about consent and an ongoing critique of power and control. The background in Orphan Black begins with a genetics company, Neolution, which secretly perfected human cloning, made two projects (male and female), and then funneled the men into the military and the women into the world without any knowledge about any of this. The plot centers around one of the female clones, Sarah, who discovers to her own shock, that she is a clone, which starts her on a process of finding her “sisters” and uncovering the truth of their origin, as well as the bigger why behind Neoloution, including religious organizations and profit-seeking capitalists. I have now certainly revealed why this show isn’t for everyone, but let me tell you why it might be for you. Tatiana Maslany, the star of the show, is revolutionary. Watching her at work is constantly breathtaking and mind-bending. Equally worthwhile is the writing, which is nuanced and complex in its characterizations so that each clone is truly her own story that you feel compelled by and connected to. One of the sub-themes of the show is around motherhood, as Sarah and her brother Felix (the fabulous Jordan Gavaris) are foster/adopted siblings of the more-to-her-than-you-think Mrs. S (badass Maria Doyle Kennedy), and the fertility of the clones and their potential to be mothers is always in the background of the series, as is the ongoing question of nurture and nature, especially given how completely different each of these “clones” truly is. This show is also incredibly nerdy (more than just everything I’ve said so far) with references to Greek mythology, Charles Darwin, Francis Bacon, Margaret Thatcher’s government, feminist and scientist Donna Haraway, and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, to name just a few! Don’t let this nerdiness make you think this show is slow or not fun – it moves quickly and imaginatively across its whole run – it’s a brilliant, highly original powerhouse of a show, maybe a show just perfect for you. Or…not.
- Euphoria (HBO/Max, 2 Seasons, 10 episodes/season, 45-60 mins) I started watching this show because my teenage daughter was watching this show, and I wanted to make sure we could talk about it together. It is theoretically a show about teenagers and being in high school, but it is also an incredibly adult show exploring addiction, grief, sexuality, and identity. One NPR article I read called it “a parent’s nightmare,” and in a lot of ways, that is true. Especially for the relationship between Rue (glorious, vulnerable, grief-stricken, drugged-out Zendaya) and her mom, Leslie (Nika King). And also for the dangerous, self-destructive, downright dumb choices that these teenagers make over and over when it comes to relationships, alcohol and drug use, sex, and their very casual relationship with the truth. Other than the drugs, most of these risky choices are made by characters other than Rue – her friends and classmates that make up the world of Euphoria that would make any of us wonder why we’d ever want to parent teenagers. And also, in most of these cases, the lack of parenting is often a major factor, as the adults are caught up in their own drama, and ego, and their own poor choices. Except for Rue, whose story is mostly one of grief, of losing her father to cancer when she was too young. And except for Jules (the luminous Hunter Shaffer), the (trans) girl who Rue loves and who is simply trying to find her way to self-confidence and self-actualization after her own mother’s addiction and poor choices. With all that said, the second season veers (for my taste) too often into self-indulgent soap opera tropes (i.e. predictable love triangles) and not enough into character development for Jules and Rue. Ultimately, in its portrayal of drug addiction and its impact on real lives, this show is often too painful, scary, and vulnerable – and not for everyone. And, in its brave and raw characters, yearning for joy and connection (even if by way of explicit/illicit attempts at getting high) it is also a show of singular creativity, bold imagination, and audacious beauty, and maybe for you.
- True Blood (HBO, 7 Seasons, 10-12 episodes/season, 52 mins) Here’s another show that may not be for you because vampires. But in this case, it’s more adult/drama vampires than witty teenage vampires, and may also not be for you because of lots of blood and, in some cases, pretty explicit sex. In this world, vampires live alongside the living due to the invention of a synthetic blood that allows them to “come out,” and yes, they do regularly work with the gay parallel/metaphor that this implies. This series centers around telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer, Paquin’s then real-life love). The first season of True Blood is genuinely great, mixing intentional camp with real romance with erotic thriller and mystery. A few seasons in, it isn’t quite as steady, but still mostly enjoyable for a while, especially given the presence of the beautiful Alexander Skarsgard as the deplorable and gorgeous vampire Eric.
- Bridgerton (Netflix, 2 Seasons, 8 episodes/season, 57-72 mins) Looking over this list, I realized I was a little too sci fi/fantasy/dark plots heavy. When really, just as many people will tell me how much they don’t like cheesy romance as will resist weird vampires. Which is what led me to include this pleasure romp as my number 10. Produced by tv mastermind Shonda Rhimes, Bridgerton is like Jane Austen meets Scandal in that it is both playing on the edges of what is acceptable and what is forbidden and also filled with formal dances, corsets, curtsies in front of Queens, as well as the potential of whole lives being destroyed if a man and a woman are seen kissing in public. Season two is slower and less explicit than season one, but still pretty good. Season one is delectable and also I’m going to just say now that no Bridgerton character will ever be as hot as Hot Duke Simon (Regé-Jean Page). While there is a little bit of commentary going on in this show, given that it offers an interracial monarchy (and aristocracy), it is mostly a show centered on pleasure for pleasure’s sake and downright escapism. Not for everyone, but a complete joy for the most devoted readers. IYKYK.