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Earlier this month I created a new recurring series for The Hollywood Reporter called “TV Time,” which has a pretty basic principle: Recommending a handful of series that you can watch based on how much time you have.
You can find out what prompted this if you check out the first installment, but suffice it to say there have been three things in my eight years of being a TV critic here people seem to overwhelmingly ask for (other than, at varying times, my head chopped off): “The Power Rankings!,” another recent series called “Hidden Gems” and this one.
Granted, I started “The Power Rankings!” at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009, a year before starting here, but the other two are of fresh vintage, and I think that speaks directly to people being overwhelmed with too many choices.
Before FX’s John Landgraf even coined the term “Peak TV,” we were all drowning in it. Just look at the rapidly expanding year-end lists. At the end of my first year at THR, my best of 2010 list had 18 entries (and I snuck a tie in there because editors were not entirely on board with going past the proverbial top 10). Hilariously, there doesn’t appear to be a list for 2011 (was I boycotting lists then, or did they forget it?). I had 15 comedies and a separate 15 dramas on my 2012 list, totaling 30. In 2013 it was an even weirder amalgamation of 11 network dramas, 17 network and cable comedies and 20 cable dramas (48 total, if you’re counting at home). Thirty-one cable series and 17 network series in 2014 (48 again!), a full 46 cable series and 16 network series in 2015 (62!) — and that was with newly arrived TV critic Dan Fienberg adding a separate 10 of his own; a slimmer but still robust 38 cable series and 13 network shows in 2016 (51!) — with 11 more from Fienberg; and, finally, a combination of 46 last year, plus Dan also giving up trying to stick to a top 10 format and doing two separate lists of 10.
You don’t need to be told there’s been an avalanche. You’re under it.
As I argued in the inaugural TV Time column, lengthy year-end lists are fantastic and helpful, as are the periodic Power Rankings!, which usually mention about half the number of series as my year-end list — but more and more people have made it clear that even that amount can be overwhelming.
So … how about just five shows at a time? Would that cut your anxiety and motivative you to actually start watching instead of thinking about watching? Cool.
I dole out three kinds of lists — series with six episodes or fewer, series with between seven and 13 episodes, and, for those of you with no apparent time constraints, series worth watching in their entirety.
Here then, five series with between seven and 13 episodes which you can stream right now:
The End of the F***ing World (Netflix) A tour-de-force from England that astonishes due to how much it packs into so little time, with the average episode running about 20 minutes. This is not a dark comedy so much as a dark dramedy, meaning it’s not a drawn-out, bleak portrayal of two disaffected 17-year-olds running away because there’s a propulsive set of forward movement to it and an electric, thoroughly British sense of dour humor mixed with some flat-out depression and violence. See, if I said it was merely a black comedy you’d think, “Oh, well how hard can that be to shoehorn into 20 minutes” when, in fact, it’s preposterous how much dramatic storytelling, nuance, feeling and depth writer Charlie Covell (who is also an actress) conveys in what would normally be bumping up against a full hour. She nailed this. (And the two leads, Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther, are note perfect as outsiders looking for any kind of connection.) I will always be impressed by that achievement, but here’s the other thing to consider: When the eight episodes are over, it’s almost perfect. So perfect that there’s really no reason to bring it back for a second season — but that’s what Netflix does, so here’s hoping nothing gets broken as season two contorts itself to unravel the beautiful mess that was left at the end on season one.
Casual (Hulu) Now, there’s no reason that at some point in the future this series couldn’t just as well pop up in the one category I haven’t written about yet — full series you should consume — but let’s start simply and say that watching the first 10 episodes here will be a real joy. It’s a deceptively effortless half-hour comedy that consistently earns its dramatic hues. Series creator and writer Zander Lehmann and executive producer and director Jason Reitman gave Hulu a series that flew too far under the radar during its run, but I’m confident that eventually people will find it. You’re just going to find it first. Michaela Watkins stars as Valerie, a 39-year-old therapist with a 16-year-old daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr, quite the discovery). Valerie’s brother, Alex (Tommy Dewey, who provides a great deal of the comic firepower here) is kind of a man-child bachelor who creates a dating algorithm that the series loosely bases itself around. It’s a different kind of family and, eventually, their journey will go to some creatively ambitious places. And that’s really the neat trick — you think Casual is always going to be breezy until you glimpse the dramatic heart beating beneath the humor.
Orphan Black (Amazon) Originally on BBC America, Canadian series Orphan Black is most famous for one of the best out-of-nowhere actress discoveries on television, as Tatiana Maslany arrived fully formed and Emmy-worthy in 2013’s first season (finally winning best actress in 2016, though she could have easily won it several times). Created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, this is a very clever, funny and always interesting series about clones, shooting fresh ideas into the genre and allowing Maslany to play a number of standout roles. But even beyond her, the cast — mostly unknown at the time — really made it work. Fans of this show were almost all die-hards, and their relentless enthusiasm and some early-adopter critics (ahem) drove a larger audience to find and embrace it. The driving force with Orphan Black, as with Buffy the Vampire Slayer in earlier days, was that it was always entertaining and smart. That’s good to keep in mind because this is the first hourlong, 10 episode series on this list. Further proof that excellent television can come from anywhere.
SMILF (Showtime) Created, written, produced and directed by star Frankie Shaw, this was Showtime’s entry in the highly personal, rule-breaking world of auteurs with singular visions being given a chance to shine. Here Shaw plays Bridgette Bird, an exaggerated version of herself, and a single mom who’s trying, with great difficulty, to make it as an actress (or just anything, really) while living in South Boston. Funny, raw, honest and surprising at almost every turn (aren’t those shows the best?), SMILF gives us Bridgette, a victim of sexual abuse with an eating disorder and a mother (Rosie O’Donnell) with mental health issues, and as the struggles pile up you might ask where the comedy comes from, but it comes quite easily from everywhere. It’s the more subtle, sadder aspects that set the show apart and hint at where Shaw plans on taking this series (it returns in January so go binge these first eight episodes and be just as surprised as everyone else).
Archer (Hulu) This FX animated series is definitely one of those things you should know about and it’s probably both a little sad and a lot unjust if you don’t, but there’s no judgment here. Just this list. The first 10 episodes, all about 21 minutes, exploded on FX in 2009 and now, nine seasons and endless detours later, it’s a Hall of Fame first-ballot entry thanks to creator Adam Reed, legendary voice actor H. Jon Benjamin and a truly talented cast (Judy Greer, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, Amber Nash, Chris Parnell, Lucky Yates). Mostly a spy series, or spoof, just prepare for debauchery, hilarity and later in the run, whatever the hell it comes up with (which you will welcome; just go with it). In the meantime, that first season is really something, with Reed and Benjamin forming the dynamic duo that launched this cult hit to creative heights.
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