The notion that we’re currently living in a “Golden Age” of television has become a bit tired and overused, but it’s hard to argue with the sentiment. Viewers are absolutely spoiled by choice, and thanks to the rise of binge watching and the relative ease of access to a variety of on-demand services, finding what you want to watch has never been easier. Unfortunately, there are still so many programs that get lost in the shuffle. Some barely get noticed and are promptly cancelled, while others seem to flourish under the radar — successful in their own right, but largely ignored by audiences at large. Shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad aren’t the only significant shows of the last decade, even if popular media sometimes makes it feel that way. These 10 shows may be undervalued in pop culture, but they are all valuable contributors to the Golden Age in their own right.
10. Penny Dreadful
A macabre supernatural drama set in Victorian London, Penny Dreadful premiered last year and has a second season already underway, but despite an intriguing concept and stellar cast, the Showtime series doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash in the cultural zeitgeist. Perhaps the show was perceived as too similar to the maligned League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, another ensemble piece that also incorporates famous literary characters from the era like Dorian Grey and Frankenstein’s Monster (to be fair, the comic series by Alan Moore is vastly superior to the 2003 film). Or maybe fiction featuring vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings are going out of vogue and Penny Dreadful arrived too late. For whatever reason, this show, which features such talents as Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, and Timothy Dalton, deserves more credit (and viewers).
When it comes to TV series from the U.K., North American tastes seem to begin and end at Sherlock and Downton Abbey, with some Doctor Who thrown in for good measure. British television goes much deeper than just these series though, with a lot of excellent programming that seems to go largely unnoticed by American audiences. One such program is the murder mystery series Broadchurch, which Doctor Who fans should love considering former Doctor David Tenant is the star! The series focuses on the small coastal town of Broadchurch that is left devastated after the murder of a young local boy. Admitedly, the first season was a lot stronger than the second, but hopefully things will be ironed out for the confirmed third season.
8. Masters of Sex
This Showtime series, a critical darling over 2 seasons now, depicts the studies of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, 2 researchers who made major breakthroughs in the study of human sexuality in the 1950s and 60s. Starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in the title roles, Masters of Sex has done well enough to warrant a third season, but it is still woefully undervalued by the entertainment landscape at large. Garnering less than a million viewers per episode, the show simply doesn’t have the audience numbers it deserves. Despite its retro setting, Masters of Sex depicts sex and sexuality in a mature, realistic manner, and confronts topics that are still major taboos in our society, even half a century later. The show’s title isn’t doing it any favors, suggesting something filled with smut, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
7. Party Down
Destined to achieve the same cult status as other cancelled-too-soon comedic series such as Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, and Arrested Development (if it hasn’t already), Party Down was a critical success on the Starz network that unfortunately failed to find an audience and was cancelled after 2 seasons in 2010. Revolving around a catering company in Los Angeles staffed by a group of aspiring actors and writers, Party Down had a dizzying amount of talent behind it. The show was created by Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars, iZombie) and Paul Rudd, among others, and had a talented ensemble of comedic actors including Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, Ken Marino, and Martin Starr. With just the right mix of laughs and pathos, Party Down was a standout comedy series in a decade already stacked with stellar comedic creations. There are still rumors of a film resurrection in the works, but for now, this remains an unfortunate casualty of the early cancellation gun.
6. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
A Terminator spin-off show sounded like a terrible idea prior to the release of Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The Terminator franchise was a big budget science fiction movie franchise — how was it going to work on the small screen with a fraction of the budget? Somehow, TSCC turned out better than anyone could have expected, thanks to its emotional, thought-provoking narrative, and some great acting from the main cast (including future Game of Thrones star Lena Headey as Sarah Connor). Unfortunately, despite a significant fan campaign to save it, Fox pulled the plus on Terminator at the end of its second season due to low ratings.
One of the best police dramas in recent memory, Southland was given a raw deal in its early run that would irrevocably damage its future reach and impact. After completing its first season on NBC in 2009, the show was given the runaround by the network until finally being cancelled later that year right before its second season was about to begin. Luckily, TNT picked up the series and began airing the second season the following year. Southland went on to have 5 seasons, but it’s hard not to think the show would have had a bigger cultural impact if it had stayed on a larger network. Southland is considered by many critics to be a worthy successor to earlier gritty, realistic police dramas like The Shield and The Wire, but the show’s legacy doesn’t seem as secure as those more popular programs. With time and distance, perhaps Southland will gain the following it always deserved.
4. Happy Endings
Similarly to Party Down, Happy Endings was another half-hour comedy series that was beloved by a dedicated group of fans, but just couldn’t attract a big enough audience to stave off cancellation. The worst part is that the show’s network, ABC, aired the third season erratically with shifting time slots, which only hurt ratings more and practically made cancellation a guarantee. In its all-too-brief 3 season run though, Happy Endings made a name for itself as one of the most consistently entertaining hangout comedies on TV, thanks to its talented cast which included Elisha Cuthbert, SNL alum Casey Wilson and Damon Wayans, Jr., who thankfully returned to another popular hangout comedy, New Girl, after Happy Endings’ cancellation. Premature cancellation was probably not the happy ending this show’s staff would have desired, but at least they made a quality program with a devoted fanbase while they could.
One of the worst early cancellations of the last decade has to belong to HBO’s Enlightened, a comedic drama series that was regularly considered one of the best shows on TV during its too short 2011-2013 run, with the AV Club even going as far as to call it the “Best Show of 2013.” Created by Mike White (Freaks and Geeks, School of Rock) and series star Laura Dern of Jurassic Park-fame, Enlightened was a brilliant show with a relatable premise of a woman (Dern) who refuses to let her various hardships and struggles tear her down. Unfortunately, viewers just didn’t tune in, despite the presence of Dern, who won a Golden Globe for her role as Amy Jellicoe. The problem may have been that Enlightened wasn’t dark enough or was too earnest, but it’s hard to to shake the feeling that this show’s cancellation after only 2 seasons was a significant blow to anyone who appreciates progressive, well-crafted television.
2. The Americans
FX’s cold war era domestic spy drama just wrapped up its third season, so clearly enough people are watching it to justify its continued existence. Who these people are though is anyone’s guess, as you’d be hard-pressed to find someone you know who regularly tunes in. Starring Keri Russell of Felicity fame and Matthew Rhys as Soviet spies living in 1980s era Washington, D.C. disguised as an American married couple, The Americans presents a gritty, realistic take on espionage that runs counter to the glamorous romanticism typically associated with the profession. The show asks hard questions about loyalty, patriotism, and relationships, and is absolutely indicative of Golden Age television.
Ever the underdog of prestige dramas, FX’s Justified recently wrapped up 6 seasons worth of consistently high quality television in rather quiet fashion. Justified was never exactly hurting for fans: it carved out a nice niche of loyal followers who couldn’t get enough of the show’s unique brand of southern justice and criminality. For whatever reason, Justified just never gained mainstream significance, continually flying under the radar of other culturally-dominant shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. The complex relationship between Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and South Kentucky outlaw Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is one of the greatest on-screen conflicts of the last decade; fitting, considering that Justified is also one of the greatest crime dramas of that time period as well.