This is not just a list of TV series you should have seen, because you’ve probably seen most of those already. Or at least, know of them and are fed up of people telling you that you should really watch them. The Wire, The Sopranos, The West Wing, The Larry Sanders Show, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, Carnivale, Fargo, Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and so on. If there were any there you haven’t heard of then start there.
This, however, is a list of series that came and went largely unnoticed, or perhaps ran for a while but never got the credit or exposure that they deserved. Or are new, but as yet not getting the coverage. Sure, some of them you’ll think, “surely everyone knows about that?” but you’d be surprised. Only yesterday someone shrugged and said they’d never heard of The Larry Sanders Show. (We unfriended them on Facebook soon after)
Some you’ll find on Netflix, some have episodes on YouTube, some on DVD, others you’ll have to go online to dig out, but they’re all more than worthy of your attention. So here, in no particular order, are 30 series recommendations.
1. Dream On (1990-1996)
Episodes: 120 over six seasons
Cast: Brian Benben, Wendie Malick, Michael McKean
Premise: Martin Tupper, a divorced book editor living in New York dealing with work and dating, but the hook from this 1990 HBO sitcom is how it frequently cuts to black and white clips from old movies and TV shows to illustrate the subtext of what Martin’s thinking. Being HBO there is regular swearing and occasional nudity (you’ve been warned) while Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean joins the cast in series two. It was created by Marta Kauffman and David Crane who would all go on to create Friends a few years later, and there are early guest roles here for Courteney Cox and Matthew Perry.
2. The Hollowmen (2008)
Episodes: 12 over two seasons
Cast: Rob Sitch, Lachy Hulme, Merrick Watts, Neil Melville
Premise: Essentially, this is the Australian version of The Thick of It or VEEP, this mockumentary set in a fictional political advisory unit personally set up by the Prime Minister to help him get re-elected. You don’t need to know a single thing about Australian politics to enjoy this, it’s really just about bumbling bureaucracy, office politics and naked self-interest.
3. Better Off Ted (2009-2010)
Episodes: 26 over two seasons
Cast: Jay Harrington, Portia de Rossi, Andrea Anders, Jonathan Slavin, Malcolm Barrett
Premise: Ted is the head of a research and development department at the soulless conglomerate of Veridian Dynamics. He narrates the series’ events (and regularly breaks the fourth wall to address the audience) as we follow the petty squabbles, ridiculous corporate policies and capitalism run wild. It’s a smart and original series and played with the conventions of network television. They would have their own fake adverts for Veridian Dynamics’ medical products, but would put that bit in the show at just the right point so they would merge into the read adverts. If you liked Arrested Development or the smarter jokes in 30 Rock then this should appeal to you.
4. Huff (2004-2006)
Episodes: 26 over two seasons
Cast: Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt, Paget Brewster, Anton Yelchin, Blyth Danner
Premise: This one briefly did the rounds in the GCC at the tail end of the days of the DVD lady visiting your house. (Remember her?). Hank Azaria is a psychiatrist dealing with issues at work and home but synopsis don’t really do this series justice. The cast and performances are staggeringly good with the ever-brilliant Oliver Platt as his unhinged lawyer friend, Paget Brewster in career-best role, a young Anton Yelchin, and Blyth Danner as Huff’s mother who has lived in the apartment above the garage. By season two Platt’s character is more like an unhinged Hunter S Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and then Anjelica Houston and a brilliant Sharon Stone joins the already superb cast. Consistently funny and occasionally touching.
5. Reaper (2008-2009)
Episodes: 31 over two seasons
Cast: Bret Harrison, Tyler Labine, Missy Peregrym, Ray Wise, Rick Gonzalez
Premise: When Sam turns 21, he discovers that his parents sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his father recovering from an illness. Now Sam, a slacker who works in a hardware store, has to work for the Devil (a brilliant Ray Wise) as his bounty hunter (or Reaper), tracking down souls that have escaped from Hell and sending them back. It’s original, funny, and the escaped-soul-of-the-week format works well in a sitcom. Tyler Labine steals the show as his best friend with a performance that should have seen him go on to much bigger things. You can watch the first episode here.
6. Happyish (2015)
Episodes: 10 over one season
Cast: Steve Coogan, Kathryn Hahn, Bradley Whitford, Ellen Barkin
Premise: An advertising executive (Steve Coogan) has to deal with the slings and arrows of a younger boss and changing work-world and begins to ponder the meaning of working life with inspiration from some of the great philosophers. If you’ve ever looked at you Twitter feed and wondered, as he does, “Who the f*** wants to follow Pepto-Bismol on Twitter?” then this dramedy about selling happiness while trying to find your own should appeal.
Episodes: 17 over one season
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel
Premise: Judd Apatow’s short-lived sitcom about a group of college freshmen at a University was his follow up to the excellent Freaks & Geeks. It’s a good solid sitcom and if you liked Freaks & Geeks then this has much of the same tone, but it’s also worth watching for the huge number of soon-to-be-a-lot-more-famous actors who make minor appearances, including Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Simon Helberg, Tom Welling, Lizzy Caplan, Jenna Fischer, Martin Starr, Busy Philipps and Greg Mottola.
8. Between the Lines (1992-1994)
Episodes: 35 over three seasons
Cast: Neil Pearson, Tom Georgeson, Siobhan Redmond, Tony Doyle
Premise: Police drama that ran for three series in the early 1990s and set among an internal organisation that investigates corruptions in the London Metropolitan Police. Neil Pearson is ever-watchable in the lead as Detective Superintendent Tony Clark caught up in corruption on all sides, while Tom Georgeson and Mo Connell are both great as his no-nonsense working-class sidekicks. It won the BAFTA for Best Drama in 1994 and would stand up to any of the modern dramas if it were screened today – lack of smartphone use notwithstanding.
9. Back (2017 – present)
Episodes: 12 over two seasons
Cast: David Mitchel, Robert Webb, Penny Downie
Premise: When Stephen’s (Mitchel) father dies he plans to take over the family’s pub, but at the funeral a man (Webb) turns up claiming to be Stephen’s foster brother for a time in the 1980s, and proceeds to charm everyone else in the family and inveigle his way into the business. Mitchel pretty much reprises the character of Mark from Peep Show (that’s a good thing) and the wider cast of countryside misfits is just the right side of quirky. Back’s creator is Simon Blackwell who worked on The Thick of It, In The Loop, Peep Show and Veep and despite the low viewing figures in the UK this was a little gem and a second series has just started in the UK.
10. Roadies (2016)
Episodes: 10 over one season
Cast: Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino, Imogen Poots, Rafe Spall
Premise: From Cameron Crowe, who gave us the excellent film Almost Famous, this dramedy follows the “unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll” in the shape of a motley crew of roadies, managers and engineers who are traveling the country with the fictional The Staton-House Band. Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino and the excellent Imogen Poots lead the cast. It was criticized for not having enough dramatic tension but that misses the point – this is just a nice, fun, group of people to hang out with for ten episodes and if you like Almost Famous then this is for you.
11.The Comeback (2005 & 2014)
Episodes: 21 over two seasons
Cast: Lisa Kudrow, Malin Åkerman, Robert Bagnell, Lance Barber
Premise: It ran for two seasons, one in 2005 and one in 2014 and never threatened to be anything more than a cult favourite, but The Comeback is a little insider gem. We follow Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), a veteran B-list sitcom actress who had one hit and is now struggling to find work a decade on. The mockumentary is set in modern-day Hollywood with requisite cameos and Kudrow is on top form with set ups and observations that make for some of the best industry satire out there.
12. Pushing Daisies (2007-2009)
Episodes: 22 over two seasons
Cast: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride, Swoosie Kurtz, Kristin Chenoweth
Premise: Fantasy comedy-drama about a pie-maker with the ability to bring dead things back to life with his touch. Like the film Amelie if Tim Burton had directed, it’s visually brilliant and the narration from Jim Dale gives it a storytelling feel that make it unlike many other things you will have seen on the telly. Bahrain-born Pace and the ever-watchable Friel put in career best TV performances and the supporting cast make this an engaging fairy tale for adults.
13. Hello Ladies (2013)
Episodes: Eight over one season.
Cast: Stephen Merchant, Christine Woods, Nate Torrence
Premise: HBO series with Stephen Merchant a British I.T. worker who has moved to Los Angeles and is trying to meet women. Episodes were written by Merchant with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg who did the US version of The Office. From the 1970s soft-rock soundtrack to the odd flashes of warmth it’s far more than just moments of embarrassment, and being HBO they get to do far more risqué (and funnier) jokes than his previous series. Canceled after one season, (Americans apparently found it too cringe inducing) it concluded with a TV film, and if you liked The Office or Extras then we highly recommend this.
14. A Touch of Cloth (2012-2014)
Episodes: Six over three seasons
Cast: John Hannah, Suranne Jones, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Karen Gillan
Premise: The modern British version of Police Squad. John Hannah as DCI Jack Cloth in the Charlie Brooker-penned spoof of British crime series – Taggart, Prime Suspect and A Touch of Frost being the prime targets. It’s gag heavy, brilliantly puerile, occasionally absurdist (“You hacked him to bits like a marmalade bus!”) and the visual jokes that briefly appear in the background are great. That the cast play it so straight makes it all work as a perfectly silly bit of telly.
15. The Newsroom (2012-2014)
Episodes: 25 over three seasons
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Olivia Munn, John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Dev Patel
Premise: It’s a touch saccharine at times (but gets away with it) and the cast of this Aaron Sorkin series are every bit as sharp as CJ, Josh, Sam, Toby and co in The West Wing. The critics didn’t like this nearly as much, but that’s because they are – in their own way – journalists, and this series about journalists paints them in an idealistic way. Not bitter or cynical. It’s a Sorkin series after all, and just as he wrote the President in the West Wing as a moral crusader so the team at the news station here are equally smart, funny and talented and lots of journalists who aren’t those things hated it. But you’ll laugh, cry and feel good watching it.
16. Dead Like Me (2003-2004)
Episodes: 29 over two seasons
Cast: Ellen Muth, Laura Harris, Mandy Patinkin
Premise: Comedy-drama about an 18-year-old girl who dies when she’s hit by a toilet seat falling from the Mir space station. But rather than moving into the afterlife she become a grim reaper and joins other reapers as they go about their work in Seattle, Washington. Once she has her quota of souls she can move on, but until then it’s a fun teen treatise on the cold hand of death.
17. Oliver Beene (2003-2004)
Episodes: 24 over two seasons
Cast: Grant Rosenmeyer, Grant Shaud, Wendy Makkena
Premise: Set in New York of the early 1960s, this Kennedy era comedy has the feel of Malcolm in the Middle meets the Wonder Years, as we follow 11-year-old Oliver Beene as he deals with issues of the day. It all looks era perfect and it’s narrated by the adult Oliver who looks back on his time growing up to take us through Cold War paranoia, space age excitement and period jokes that include flash forwards. Fun fact: The theme tune is by a band called The Solids, and two members of the band (Carter Bays and Craig Thomas) wrote some of the episodes and later went on to create their own sitcom, How I Met Your Mother.
18. Episodes (2011-2017)
Episodes: 41 over five seasons
Cast: Matt LeBlanc, Stephen Mangan, Tamsin Greig, Kathleen Rose Perkins
Premise: British married couple Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) move to Hollywood to help remake their beloved sitcom for an American network but are told, against their wishes, that they have to have Matt LeBlanc in the lead role. LeBlanc, playing an exaggerated version of himself, is a riot as the idiot-A-lister and the send up of the creative process, while not totally original, makes for one of the most consistently funny sitcoms of the last decade.
19. Dirt (2007-2008)
Episodes: 20 over two seasons
Cast: Courteney Cox, Ian Hart, Laura Allen, Will McCormack
Premise: Something of a guilty pleasure that was ultimately killed off by the writers’ strike, but for 20 episodes Courteney Cox is great fun as the amoral editor of a celebrity gossip magazine. Ian Hart is her photographer right-hand man, and if you’re the sort of person who has ever had the slightest bit of interest in gossip mags this will probably appeal.
20. Wonderfalls (2004)
Episodes: 13 over one season
Cast: Caroline Dhavernas, Katie Finneran, Tyron Leitso, Lee Pace
Premise: Ivy-league educated Jaye is an underachieving retail employee at the Niagara Falls gift shop and begins hearing voices from the toy animals in the store, as they ask her to help various people. Series with an interesting premise often find that they run out of steam quickly, but this one only ran for 13 episodes and is a charming little gem that was beloved by critics but just never got the viewing figures to save it. You can watch the first episode here.
21. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-present)
Episodes: 154 over 14 seasons
Cast: Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito
Premise: We’re frequently amazed at the number of people who don’t watch this despite having so far run to 14 seasons and 154 episodes, which makes it one of the longest-running sitcoms of all time. The first season is by no means the strongest and it gets a lot better when Danny DeVito joins the cast at the start of season two. But do watch from the start as it pretty much sets the whole thing up. Frequently outrageous, it’s one of the funniest series about really horrible people that’s ever been made.
22. State of Play (2003)
Episodes: Six over one season
Cast: David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Bill Nighy, James McAvoy, Philip Glenister
Premise: A politician’s aid is killed and he’s suspected of murder but it turns out there’s a lot more to it as a team of broadsheet journalists investigate a conspiracy. The Best of British cast is spot on and this drama is still one of the best things the BBC has made post-Millennium. It was made into a film in 2009 with Russell Crowe, but the TV series if far better for having more time and space to pace the events.
23. I’m Dying Up Here (2017-2018)
Episodes: 20 over two seasons
Cast: Melissa Leo, Ari Graynor, Clark Duke, Michael Angarano
Premise: Set amid the Los Angeles stand-up scene of the early 1970s as a group of young comedians attempt to become successful at Goldie’s comedy club and get a shot at the Tonight Show and stardom. From the book of the same name, the whole thing is based on Comedy Store that was run by Mitzi Shore around that time and lots of the plotlines are based on things that actually happened to famous comedians in that era. It’s an excellent period piece and comedy fans will be able to figure out who the characters are based on.
24. Absolute Power (2003-2005)
Episodes: 12 over 2 seasons
Cast: Stephen Fry, John Bird, James Lance, Zoe Telford, Sally Bretton
Premise: Sitcom about an amoral public relations firm who are hired by different groups or individuals to spin bad news. It originally started as a radio series but transfers well to TV with Stephen Fry spot on as a slimy PR type as the satire of politics, shallow celebrity culture (with many cameo appearances) and the culture of spin is wryly lampooned.
25. Pacific (2010)
Episodes: Ten over one season
Cast: James Badge Dale, Jon Seda, Joseph Mazzello, Rami Malek
Premise: The follow up to the rightly-acclaimed Band of Brothers, this is set in the Pacific theatre with American troops – including an early role for Rami Malek – fighting the Japanese. It didn’t get the same levels of praise, but is brilliant in its own right covering the initial invasion and propaganda war right up to a “new bomb” that “vaporized an entire city in the blink of an eye”.
26. Terriers (2010)
Episodes: 13 over one season
Cast: Donal Logue, Michael Raymond-James, Laura Allen
Premise: A former criminal and ex-cop alcoholic start their own private investigation business in San Diego, California. It’s another one of those series that was brilliantly reviewed and even won awards but just didn’t get the viewing figures. Smart, very funny, with fun cases for them to investigate and great performances from the two leads as the lovable losers it’s worth tracking down, if only for the 13 episodes that were made.
27. Bored To Death (2009-2011)
Episodes: 24 over three seasons
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, Zach Galifianakis
Premise: Jason Schwartzman is a struggling Brooklyn writer who tries to emulate novelists Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler by posing as a private detective and offering his services through an online ad. Partly a satire of the film noire genre and partly a case-of-the-week mystery with hipster overtones it’s packed with cameos and guest stars and despite being a little too knowing at times, it’s largely what we imagine a TV detective series by Wes Anderson might have been.
28. Dollhouse (2009-2010)
Episodes: 26 over two seasons
Cast: Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, Tahmoh Penikett
Premise: High-concept drama from Joss Whedon. A secret facility in Los Angeles has erased the identity of lost people and now rents them out to wealthy people as dolls that have been imprinted with new skills and personalities. Assignment of the week stories are cut through with an overarching conspiracy as a detective tracks down one of the missing girls (Eliza Dushku) and all is not as it seems. Contemporary sci-fi fun with some nicely unsettling overtones.
29. AP Bio (2018-2020)
Episodes: 34 over three seasons
Cast: Glenn Howerton, Patton Oswalt, Paula Pell
Premise: Glenn Howerton is great as the disgraced Harvard philosophy who loses out on his dream job and is forced to return to Toledo, Ohio and work as an advanced placement biology teacher at a struggling high school, but it’s the kids he drags into his revenge schemes that make this. If you enjoyed School of Rock, but could do without the saccharine and music bits then this is probably going to be just your thing.
30. Person of Interest (2011-2016)
Episodes: 103 over five seasons
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Chapman, Michael Emerson
Premise: A former CIA agent (a gruff Jim Caviezel) works for a mysterious billionaire (Michael Emerson) who is trying to prevent violent crimes before they happen by using an advanced next-generation software surveillance system he created. The premise is that contemporary sci-fi that if you buy into works well. And while the first series is solid, from the second onwards more characters are introduced and it becomes a vast, sprawling conspiracy story with long arcs, twists and double-crosses as well as case-of-the-week outings.