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The Best Underappreciated Shows of the 21st Century (So Far)
Best-of lists are as prevalent this time of year as Elves on Shelves and trend pieces about how to get through the holidays without getting in political fights with your relatives. And in the last three years or so, another kind of best-of list has proliferated in a way it never has before: lists of the best TV series of the 21st century so far. (The Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, BBC, and Newsweek are among those who have weighed in.) The reason this feels so novel is that we could never do this sort of thing before; one hundred years ago, television was four years away from being even a basic technical reality, much less a prevalent cultural force. This is the first century we could document in real time.
Now that we can produce and peruse such lists less than a quarter of the way into a new century, the ones that have come out so far warrant some reflection. The Wire, Succession, The Sopranos, and Mad Men have gotten their well-deserved love. But plenty of other excellent series have either fallen off these mainstream radars or never made it there in the first place, which is where Peabody comes in.
Peabody loves a good watch, but considers other factors as well, most notably, a show’s relevance to the current moment and its social significance. Because of this, we’ve often recognized smaller, quieter series with something important to say, those made by emerging voices that don’t always make major lists.
Here are some of the best of this century so far that we think haven’t gotten their due.
‘Black Mirror’ (2011-present)
Black Mirror revived the TV anthology format, bringing us a new dystopian vision of the near future with each episode. The closer the stories seem to our current reality, the more grippingly worrisome they get: people rating each other in real time like Yelp reviews, with everyone’s ranking visible via eye implants; a penal system that works like a violent social media game; a device that records your every memory and can play them back at any moment, with, of course, unexpectedly devastating consequences; and a streaming service that co-opts its users’ lives for instant content and employs AI versions of actors to play them. If there’s any series that embodies the 21st century so far, it’s this one.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Dickinson kicked off the wave of anachronistic takes on historical pieces both “real” and fictional (from The Great to Bridgerton), telling the story of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), but telling it, as she’d say, slant. Recasting her life into a rollicking teen comedy, this show remixes her possibly romantic best-friendship with her brother’s wife and cameos from the likes of Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet) and Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney) with a sitcom-like home life, killer parties, a modern soundtrack and lingo, and, naturally, rapper Wiz Khalifain a recurring role as Death. It comes on strong, but mellows (sort-of) into an absolutely charming mix of satire and history unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
Hacks expertly combines screwball-comedy banter with an intergenerational mentorship, and maybe even friendship, between two very smart, funny women. Legendary 70-something standup Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) hires 20-something comedy writer Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), recently shamed out of the industry because of a social media gaffe. They begin their relationship with some caustic sparring worthy of Hepburn and Tracy, destined to mellow into a grudging respect and, eventually, growing affection. What’s quietly revolutionary about this set-up is its depiction of a woman in her 70s as vibrant and sexy as well as honestly troubled and flawed, and the across-the-decades dialogue that she has with a Gen Z-er who isn’t made to look merely silly or vapid, blowing right through the Bechdel test in the process.
Where to Watch: Max
‘Men of a Certain Age’ (2009-11)
This light drama about a group of middle-aged guys never got the attention it deserved even when it was on the air, so it’s even more in danger of being lost to history. That’s probably because it was ahead of its time, pioneering the positive masculinity we’ve only recently seen become more prominent on television with shows like Ted Lasso, Schitt’s Creek, and Shrinking. While their contemporaries on Mad Men and Breaking Bad got all the glory for battling their demons in spectacularly destructive ways, the guys of Men of a Certain Age—played by Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher (a versatile actor who died this week at the age of 61)—leaned on each other and muddled through their more mundane problems like divorce, gambling addiction, career dissatisfaction, commitmentphobia, and, you know, impending mortality. And they’re a joy to watch throughout.
Where to Watch: Max
This sketch show about hipsters in the mid-sized Northwest town might seem hyper-specific—and that is one of its strengths—but it’s also the perfect encapsulation of a major strand in 2010s culture, the twee-ization of everything. Americans have come to love everything artisanal, small-batch, personalized, raw, hand-made, pickled, free-range, grain-fed, and gluten-free, and the Portlandia team, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, nail this attitude perfectly. Please see: the Women and Women First bookstore, the raw milk craze, the pickle craze, the vegetable lobby, and, perhaps the most famous Portlandia sketch, the difficulties of ordering a properly raised chicken.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
It’s hard to believe Ramy hasn’t gotten more recognition. While it does build on the auteur-driven comedy form of FX’s Louie, Better Things, and Atlanta, the vision of this particular auteur and star, Ramy Youssef, makes for a singular work. In it, Youssef presents the specifically unique experience of a young man living with his Egyptian immigrant parents in New Jersey and struggling to reconcile his desire to live a Westernized life while maintaining his Muslim faith. He tells his story with a riveting combination of surrealism, humor, complexity, drama, and vulnerability, exploiting his character’s every fault on his way to bringing the story to a remarkably satisfying end.
Where to Watch: Hulu
‘Sort Of’ (2021-23)
This small Canadian dramedy stars Bilal Baig as Sabi Mehboob, a young, nonbinary child of Pakistani immigrant parents who works as a caregiver to the children of an affluent couple who’s left reeling after the wife, Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung), suffers a debilitating injury. The magic of Sort Of (co-created by Baig and Fab Filippo) comes from the grounded, everyday nature of its set-up—it’s The Nanny, with much more modern and interesting problems and identities at play. And, as the title denotes, Sabi is struggling with the in-between-ness, the non-binary-ness, of every part of their lives, from inhabiting their gender identity to being a first-generation Canadian and feeling stuck in their hazy role in someone else’s family.
Where to Watch: Max
‘Six Feet Under’ (2001-05)
Six Feet Under debuted as part of HBO’s imperial phase following the success of The Sopranos and Sex and the City. But it has gotten lost in the retrospective discussion of the era, buried beneath The Sopranos‘ flash and Sex and the City‘s glamor. Yet Alan Ball’s take on the genre, now newly available on Netflix, revolutionized the family drama in stealthier ways. It follows the Fisher family in the wake of patriarch Nathaniel’s surprising death as they struggle to keep the family business, a funeral home, afloat. Prodigal son Nate (Peter Krause) resists the responsibility, while the other adult son, David (Michael C. Hall), revels in it. Meanwhile, matriarch Ruth (Frances Conroy) is set adrift as she tries to find her own identity while also hoping to connect to rebellious teen daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose). In the process, the show confronts queer issues, mental health, infidelity, and the promise and poison of family bonds. It also, by its very nature, provides a refreshingly frank take on death rarely seen before or since on American television, confronting the heart of the human condition in the process. In related news, the finale is one of the best in TV history.
Where to Watch: Netflix
‘We Are Lady Parts’ (2021-present)
We Are Lady Parts combines two major feel-good genres—the behind-the-music narrative and the rom-com—to make one rousing series about the unlikely formation of a female, Muslim, punk band. The members (including standouts Anjana Vasanand Sarah Kameela) navigate romances, cultural differences, motherhood, bad online reviews, and crippling stage fright while performing truly stellar, original songs (co-written by creator Nida Manzoor with her siblings) such as “Bashir With the Good Beard” and “Voldemort Under My Headscarf.” A bright, serotonin-boost of a show that still has something important to say.
Where to Watch: Peacock