Critic's Notebook: A Guide to Hidden Gems in the Age of Peak TV

"I'll send you a link."

For a long while now, this has been what I tell people who ask me, "So, what should I be watching?" It's just easier. Plus, I've noticed a trend. When I tell them about a new show they get that tilted-dog-head look — you know, like a dog who hears a weird sonic pitch. "Counterpart, on Starz," I say. "It's great." A little twitch to the right, then a look of bemusement. I follow up with, "I also really like Killing Eve on BBC America." Nothing; the eyes narrow, a fog circles their heads.

As it turns out, lots of people are not even remotely up to date on TV.

You are, of course. Nobody would suggest otherwise. And I certainly don't judge friends and neighbors or anyone else giving me the tilted dog head of confusion. It's 2018, and television has been confusing for a number of years. I get it.

But I did recently get my favorite response to the "I'll send you a link" line: "Is that different from the last link you sent me?" I thought for a second and said, "I think the last link I sent you was the best shows of 2017." Response: "Yes!" Me: "Oh, Jesus. Yeah, it's going to be different." Them: A worrisome wince and "Oh," which has an ominous ring, like they can't imagine the hole they are in. 

I wonder if cable channels are getting similar data. "The good news is people really love the show. The bad news is, they really love season one. They don't know there's a season two that just ended."

I've written about how TV critics (and the outlets they work for) have to be open to changing the way they review or cover television, and I personally think there needs to be a much greater emphasis on acknowledging that most people are way, way behind the curve. So long as a series is still on the air and still getting discovered on a streaming channel (or, of course, it could have been created by a streaming channel), then that series is technically still in play and still relevant. I can't tell you how many people I've turned on to shows like Patriot, Humans, People of Earth, Get Shorty, Mr. Mercedes, American Vandal, Casual and Manhunt: Unabomber

I would consider those shows mostly well-known among plugged-in TV fans, but not very well-known in the general population. But there are definitely lots of layers to this. There are people who feel attuned to the TV zeitgeist because they know about The Deuce and Mindhunter, when they don't know about Guerrilla or Barry or The Looming Tower — which is fine; no judgment. Then there are others who are finally getting around to Master of None or Better Things or Atlanta. And you may judge them, but they are legion — and no, they've never seen Legion. Lastly, there are people who not only haven't started The Wire or Breaking Bad, but haven't even started Game of Thrones.  But they have seen Stranger Things (season one) and they want something "newer" like that.

It's important not only for critics, but also for content providers to understand that, given Peak TV, a lag is a drag, but also inevitable. And it's a good thing overall — people are still watching. They are watching frantically, trying to stay caught up, discovering all these joys at different times than you and you and you, but discovering them nonetheless.

Into this landscape I want to introduce a recurring feature that will spotlight hidden gems. They might not be hidden from you. But, on the other hand, savvy as you are, you haven't seen everything. This isn't about one-upping plugged-in viewers or even bringing remedial viewers up to speed; it's simply about discovery. One or two shows a month, depending on how busy I get. And, trust, me, I'm plenty busy enough to not have seen everything — not even close. So some of these hidden gems will be new discoveries for me as well.

I've been thinking about doing this for ages now and, well, you know what's happened since then: The knob fell off the TV spigot a few years ago. In that time, a number of shows have rattled around in my brain as the poster series for this idea. Let's jump-start things with three of my absolute favorite hidden gems:

Detectorists (Acorn/Netflix): I stumbled on this series precisely when I probably needed it the most — frazzled, scattered, looking at more of the same as the end of 2016 neared. It was exactly what I needed, a series that was lovely in its smallness, spot-on in its microscopic worldview. It revolves around two friends in rural England (played wonderfully by creator Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones) who are metal-detecting enthusiasts. The series is about friendships, relationships and personal happiness, but all of that seems unforced as the slice of life unfolds. What's magnificent for anyone who is frantic with day-to-day distractions is that Detectorists shows you what it might be like to live your life a little more slowly, a little less connected, a whole lot more simply and straightforwardly. It achieves so much more with its comedy and its good-spirited nourishment, but it absolutely achieves calmness. And it has managed to never lose it. The first two seasons are available on Netflix, and the third (current and last) season is available on the streaming service Acorn, which is the lovely little site where I discovered Detectorists.

The A Word (Sundance): In 2016, this was my No. 6 series of the year (out of 38). In 2017, it was my No. 2 series of the year (out of 46). I love it. It's one of those series that has multiple elements going for it — excellent characters, a pursuit of the human spirit in the face of autism, lots of love and comedy, a brilliant soundtrack, a little bit of absurdism and a remote location that brings it all together. The only drawback in season one is that there are almost too many strong storylines that creator and writer Peter Bowker has installed, and that's a very minor nitpick. In fact, one of the prime reasons that season two is so incredibly resonant is that Bowker can pick up some of those lesser evolved storylines and flesh them out. The A Word's two seasons are back-to-back slices of brilliance, with superb writing and acting, and a whole lot of what makes something like Detectorists work — a worldview that avoids getting trampled in copycat seasons. The freshness of the premise works wonders. Perhaps even more impressive, much of it hangs on the strength of a young actor's performance: Max Vento plays Joe, a boy with autism. Though Vento has less work to do in the second season, after his story is set up, the show continues to go off in heartwarming directions thanks to the work of Christopher Eccleston, Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby. You can read more in my reviews, but here are two essential aspects of the show: The soundtrack (Joe connects to music like no other) and the rural setting (the Lake District in England) are inspired choices; the series might not be as emotionally enriching and entertaining as it is if either element were significantly different.

Back (Sundance): Simon Blackwell (Veep, In the Loop, Thick of It, Peep Show) got Mitchell and Webb (that's the wonderful David Mitchell and Robert Webb, of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look) back together for one of the most hilariously clever new series of late 2017 (ranked No. 4 of 46 by me). I laughed so hard at some parts of this series (quotes are in the review) that I was crying tears. But ultimately, the most impressive thing about the show is how Blackwell constructed it to be both dramatically interesting and way more subtle than most comedies. The show follows Mitchell's character, Stephen, as he's about to take over a rural pub owned by his father. Webb's Andrew character shows up at the funeral for Dad, and all kinds of chaos about identity begins. Back is a different kind of comedy than Detectorists — less laid-back, more adventurously seeking ridiculous moments. And both are vastly different from the more serious A Word. But all three are definitively hidden gems that you should discover at once.