The 25 most underrated TV shows on Netflix UK
Ivan Radford | On 17, Apr 2017
It’s the Bank Holiday weekend, which means two things: no work and more Netflix. But sometimes, it’s easy to think you’ve binged on everything worth watching. You’ve done Breaking Bad. Hung up House of Cards. You’re over Orange Is the New Black. What next?
There are loads of top TV series that will spring out at you, from Mad Men and 13 Reasons Why to Marvel’s group of Hell’s Kitchen heroes and, of course, Riverdale. But what about the stuff you haven’t seen? We rummaged through the streaming catalogue to find the programmes you might scroll past without a second glance.
Here are the most underrated TV shows on Netflix UK:
Five Came Back
“You guys have been looking for a war,” says Rick (Humphrey Bogart). “That’s right,” comes the reply. That’s the sound of Casablanca, the golden age of Hollywood. But that golden age was also part of another era of the movie business: a time of war, patriotism and propaganda. Netflix unpicks the passion, principles and compromises involved in its engrossing, informative and brilliant documentary series. Borrowing its title from a 1930s melodrama, Five Came Back charts the military service of five key Hollywood players: William Wyler, Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Ford and John Huston. All joining the armed forces and, signing up to make films for the war effort, they put their cinematic skills to work for the country. Each found their own challenges, inspiration and repercussions, as they left the traditional studio system for another, altogether more complex chain of command and responsibility. This is dense, rich material, and writer Mark Harris mines his own non-fiction book for every nugget of gold he can fit into three hour-long episodes. A must-see for cinephiles. Read our full review
The Last Kingdom
Another show about Vikings? After History and Amazon Prime Video’s accomplished series, you’d be forgiven for thinking another swords-and-shields drama is unnecessary, but The Last Kingdom is different – for starters, it’s not about vikings, but about England and King Alfred’s (David Dawson) attempts to get rid of his Norse nemesis and bring the country together. That means we don’t spend our time in Kattegat trying to sympathise with brutal warriors, instead hanging out in Wessex, which gives The Last Kingdom a welcome tone, voice and focus all of its own. And with Alfred already of age, the result is a show with ambitious scope and, once you get past the initial, sprawling wave of people, a surprisingly coherent theme – a study of national identity, unity, and what it means to be English that feels oddly pertinent in 2017.
How does a small screen adaptation of a movie succeed? 12 Monkeys has one answer: by not being the movie. The good news for those that have not seen Gilliam’s film is that you needn’t worry, because previous knowledge is unnecessary – in short, Bruce Willis is hairier, Brad Pitt’s now a woman and Madeleine Stowe is a virologist. The starting points are pretty much identical: in 2043, the earth is desolate. The population have been ravaged by a mutated virulent infection – 7 billion people are dead. The only survivors are underground. Society no longer exists. Most traded their humanity for survival. But a group of scientists have a plan – a reset button – involving a complicated method of time travel. Stop the virus, save the world.
“The result is an adaptation that really comes into its own when it leaves the source material behind. This is currently a fantastic era for sci-fi on TV and 12 Monkeys is at the forefront. Its dystopian vision may be bleak, but with Season 3 having just wrapped, stick with 12 Monkeys and you have a bright future to look forward to.” Read our full review.
It feels like only next week that time-travelling series Travelers premiered on Netflix UK. A Canadian sci-fi with Will and Grace’s Eric McCormack in the lead, it impresses from the off with its blend of quick pacing, trashy familiarity and talk of a dystopian future. While its opening episodes are slick enough to intrigue, the maiden run ultimately ropes you in through creator Brad Wright’s sheer commitment to his concept. That concept is simple: a group of time-travelling agents are sent back to the present day from the future to save humanity from destruction. But rather than time-hop themselves, they are transported into host bodies, inheriting lives, relationships, illnesses and other problems. Quantum Leap with guns? Travelers doubles down on that idea – and then some.
The first half of the season sees our team attempting to avoid mankind’s obliteration, by diverting an asteroid (Helios) from its collision path with the planet. But where the show could have based its entire run around that threat, it turns out to be only the warm-up act for a really strong second half. Because while the idea of case-of-the-week challenges are all well and good, Travelers’ real strength lies in the challenge of taking over someone else’s life, and that increasingly becomes the real enemy facing our heroes. Read our full review.
Stand-up Maria Bamford may be an unknown name for UK audiences, but she has already appeared in Arrested Development and it’s that show’s creator, Mitch Hurwitz, who works with her to make this superb comedy series. Starring Bamford as herself, the end result is unashamedly self-aware, dizzyingly unpredictable and hilariously surreal. You’ve never seen a sitcom like this. Read our full review.
One Day at a Time
Reimagining Norman Lear’s 70s sitcom might sound like a terrible, especially after Fuller House, but Netflix’s reboot gives the show’s formula a slight tweak to make it surprisingly modern, as we follow a Cuban-American family. Our heroine is a recently separated, former military mom (Justina Machado), navigating a new single life, while raising her radical teenaged daughter and socially adept tween son, with the help of her old school Cuban-born mom (Rita Moreno) and a friends-without-benefits building manager, named Schneider.
“Full of wit and warmth, Netflix’s One Day at a Time is a joyous, fresh TV comedy that’s the perfect antidote to lazy reboots.” Read our full review.
“Imagine a world where disgruntled animals have had enough of centuries of human oppression and have decided to fight back… Glorious TV trash of the highest order.” Read our full review.
“‘In the 23rd Century, humans have colonised the solar system. The U.N. controls Earth. Mars is an independent military power. The inner planets depend on the resources of the Asteroid Belt. Belters live and work in space. In the Belt, air and water are more precious than gold. For decades, tensions have been rising. Earth, Mars and The Belt are now on the brink of war. All it will take is a single spark.’ So reads the pre-credit crawl of The Expanse, deftly laying out the show’s basic ground rules, before flinging the viewer head-first into its world(s). Agents unknown are trying to turn the Cold War between earth and Mars hot, and the key to who they are and what their game-changing plan is seems to be rich-girl-turned-revolutionary Julie Mao – now missing. Tasked with tracking her down is grizzled detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), who works for corporate law enforcement on dwarf planet Ceres. His investigation is expertly structured, with each episode ending on a stonking cliffhanger that’ll have you clicking onto the next instalment.” (Read our full review.)
“Ever since creepy French drama Les Revenants became a surprise global hit in 2012, producers have been drawn to its basic premise – people return from the dead, but not as zombies. The latest spin on the idea is Glitch, from Australia’s ABC, and the happy news is that it works far better than the po-faced American attempts. The core reason for its success is an elegant simplicity. We have a taut plot, told over six episodes, focusing on a small band of characters, thus avoiding the flailing narrative strands that brought down the other shows. The six episodes cover a lot of ground, but Glitch doesn’t feel rushed or crowded. As many questions are raised as answered – why are they back, for starters? – and the season ends with a fantastic, tantalising twist. Thank the Lord, then, that Netflix has stepped in to co-produce Season 2. Once you’ve watched Season 1, you’ll crawl out of your own grave to find out what happens next.” .
People Just Do Nothing
One of the best homegrown British comedies of recent years, this BBC Three series follows the vaguely inept owners of pirate station Kurupt FM. (They’re very big in the Brentford area.) Co-created by and starring Allan Mustafa as MC Grindah and co-starring Hugo Chegwin as DJ Beats, what started as a YouTube series has been nurtured by the Beeb into a comedy staple. There’s a hint of Alan Partridge to the mockumentary – “How far does Kurupt reach?” asks our filmmakers on a balcony overlooking a council estate. “As far as the eye can see,” comes the proud reply. “But not that bit on the left.” – but the setting, characters and knowingly bad music has its own rhythm, which the cast stick to with engaging chemistry. Scenes where we catch Beats out of his hat and in a business suit for a job interview bring a surprising sympathy to his useless existence – and even more sympathy for his girlfriend, Roche, who has to endure the worst birthday party for their daughter ever recorded on screen. Asim Chaudhry as their friend, who runs a string of incompetent and illegal businesses, is always a treat. (Watch out for his “Polish Vodka”, which isn’t from Poland, but is made with window cleaner.)
“Be it the likes of The Hunger Games, ELysium, Divergent on the big screen, or the likes of The 100 on TV, western mainstream viewers have gotten used to the planet’s resources being depleted, and straggly (yet handsome) survivors having to use their wits against (usually) a powerful and shady elite. Netflix dips its toes into the dystopian pool with 3%, a Brazilian series set in the future in which the world has been divided into two camps. Offshore is the little seen, yet idyllic utopia, in which the successful and affluent live out their days. Inland is for those who are less fortunate struggle to survive. 3%’s episodic structure (each episode focuses on one character) feels out of place in a world of grand, over-arching narratives. However, the show’s breezy pace, enjoyable performances and well-used arrangement of Brazil’s political landscape make for a brief but entertaining diversion. When you’re done with the Netflix shows that have been hogging the limelight, watch this.” Read our full review.
This musical series leaves trite nonsense like Glee in its wake, as it’s a much sharper, wittier show and even has its own original compositions, instead of auto-tuned covers. Familiar sitcom tropes, such as the impassive millennial (e.g. Aubrey Plaza in Parks and Rec) and the dumb-but-sweet guy (Andy Dwyer, Joey of Friends), are immediately elevated by self-aware and hilarious numbers. A clumsy set-up becomes a wonderfully comic premise, making each episode of this intelligently funny series a perfectly formed musical in its own right. Read our full review.
“You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series,” says Noah Foster (John Karna) at the start of MTV’s Scream. It’s par for the course for the franchise, at once undermining its own existence and yet staying faithful to the rules.
That’s the series’ inevitable weakness: Wes Craven’s original film was a smart re-imagining of the slasher genre, subverting expectations and traditions at every turn. But if self-awareness is no longer novel, the series introduces something more surprising to the formula: sincerity. Led by Willa Fitzgerald’s Emma and Bex Taylor-Klaus’s Audrey, the characters actually have time to reflect on the growing pile of corpses, bringing an unexpected depth to the trashy, entertaining scares. The show’s aim throughout is to make you forget it’s a horror story – and then let that fact creep up on you every episode. You might not scream, but for undemanding thrills, this TV series gets you every time.
What do you think of when you hear the word “residue”? The stuff at the bottom of a glass? That mouldy patch on your ceiling? You certainly don’t think of a sci-fi series starring people from Game of Thrones. Well, not until now. The sci-fi mini-series, which was shot mostly in Leeds, has the binge-watching hook of a show with 10 times its budget.
Natalia Tena stars as photo-journalist Jennifer, who is investigating a mysterious explosion that occurred one New Year’s Eve. With people starting to die in increasingly violent ways, and strange, dark material appearing on the death scenes, the centre of the town is cordoned off from the public. Jennifer’s gradual discovery of the weird truth behind events leaves you gripped, while director Alex Garcia (Channel 4’s Utopia) nails the sinister vibe with some eerie, excellent set pieces.
Tired of zombies? The Returned – or Les Revenants – will wake you right up. Telling the story of a group of dead people coming back to life in a small French village, it’s spooky, supernatural and, most of all, stylish. Directed with panache by creator Fabrice Gobert, the misty streets and eerie-eyed undead are perfectly matched by music from Mogwai: an uneasy, atmospheric piece of composition that seeps through the whole thing. Tragic and twisted as well as terrifying, it’s a near-flawless fantasy mini-series, made even better by the fact it only lasts eight hours.
Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig play Sean and Beverly, a pair of Brit writers whose award-winning sitcom is snapped up by US executives for an American remake. Gone is boarding school-set Lyman’s Boy and its old-fashioned dry humour. In its place? Pucks, a show about a hockey coach trying to get off with a librarian. Starring Matt LeBlanc. The actor, best known as Joey from FRIENDS, plays himself, a post-modern premise that sounds indulgent but is played with brutal cynicism; undercutting expectations and full of spiky barbs at the TV industry, the situation feels scathingly accurate, which makes the fish-out-of-water comedy even sharper.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Run out of funny shows to stream? You haven’t tried It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Dark, depraved and deliriously hysterical, it features a bunch of thirty-somethings who run a failing bar in the city, all of whom do terrible things to one another. Amazingly, because all of them are so dislikable, the cycle of screwing over doesn’t get awkward or painful to witness – only funnier. The show tackles serious themes, from gun violence to terrorism, but does so through the warped microcosm of heartless, sadistic idiots; a device that shouldn’t work, but rarely fails. Like early Arrested Development, its advert-free form on Netflix makes it zip along at a breathtaking pace. Literally: because once Danny DeVito is introduced in Season 2, you’ll frequently go 20 minutes without breathing. Never shown on UK TV, this just might be the funniest TV series on Netflix UK.
House of Cards (BBC)
Yes, we’ve all seen House of Cards, but have you seen the British original? The trilogy, broadcast from 1990 to 1995, is still on Netflix and while some of the overall plot may be similar, individual moments have a bitter Richard III-esque charm all of their own. If you thought Kevin Spacey was evil, wait until you see Ian Richardson.
Knights of Sidonia
As the months go by, Netflix continues to build its anime line-up, making big strides with this original-branded series, which arrived last year. Based on the popular manga, it follows Nagate, a low-born youth in a society of genetically engineered humans, refugees that escaped the destruction of Earth one thousand years earlier and now occupy the massive ship Sidonia. When Nagate’s talent as a pilot is revealed, he becomes one of Sidonia’s elite defenders against the Gauna, shapeshifting aliens bent on eliminating humans from existence.
Comedy Bang Bang!
“Expect the unexpected” sounds like a corny phrase, but it’s one that’s more than welcome when it comes to that most formulaic of TV programmes: talk shows. Based on Scott Aukerman’s podcast of the same name, this 2012 TV show follows the same format, with guests sitting down to chat – only to digress into silly conversation, improvised comedy and sketches.
“Rob can’t read poetry in his own voice because he lacks conviction.”
That’s Steve Coogan, playing Steve Coogan, talking about Rob Brydon, playing Rob Brydon. It’s par for the course for The Trip, which sees the pair journey around restaurants abroad, eating, drinking and seeing who can do the best Michael Caine impression. But it doesn’t stop there: they do Christian Bale’s Batman and Tom Hardy’s Bane as well.
Two middle-aged actors sitting around getting drunk? Michael Winterbottom’s series sounds so insufferably smug that it’s far from mainstream viewing, but the show plays its hand subtly; Coogan and Brydon send themselves up without mercy, their fictionalised personas cut so close to the bone that you swear they’re not fictional at all. “I’m an affable man, but not as affable as I am on-screen,” explains fictional Rob, dissecting factual Rob with a straight face. Coogan nods. “I’m affable,” Rob insists, aggressively. “I’m affable!”
Undermining and celebrating each other repeatedly, they poke at their co-star’s shortcomings with the kind of familiarity that can only – and, indeed, does – come from a genuine off-screen friendship. The stunning scenery, shot with a relaxed eye by Winterbottom, and mouth-watering cutaways to kitchen staff preparing dinner, are beautiful – but the thing to savour is the relationship between the couple taking it all in.
Impersonations of impersonations of people doing impersonations, that reliance upon pretending to be something they’re not is right at the heart of The Trip to Italy’s unique charm; a conviction as breathtaking as anything the natural landscape has to offer. Of course, that could just be the alcohol talking.
A nice surprise at the start of the month is the unannounced arrival of Season 1 and 2 of iZombie. The CW’s series, based on the Vertigo comic book series, follows Olivia, a medical resident on the fast track to a perfect life… until she’s turned into a zombie. Transferring to the city morgue to get access to human brains, she finds that chomping on them gives her flashes of the corpse’s memories – including, at times, clues as to how they were killed. Her boss, a brilliant but eccentric conspiracy theorist, encourages her to embrace this gift and to work with an eager, unproven homicide detective to help solve these murders.
This Canadian sci-fi series, created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett and produced by BBC America, has never had a wide enough release to build up a mainstream following – the show was aired on BBC Three in the UK, often buried in late-night slots and premiering on iPlayer without fanfare. Now, though, Netflix has snapped up the rights to the fourth season (premiering exclusively on the site each week) and has the first three runs to boot, which means it’s easier than ever to catch up with the tale of Sarah Manning, a con artist who discovers that she is the product of a cloning programme. Tatiana Maslay is superb in an ever-versatile lead role.
This Netflix original sitcom, starring Ashton Kutcher, looks like a bog-standard series with easy targets and low-brow gags, but this tale of a failed sports star who returns home to his family farm is a deceptively melancholic one – full of tiny glimpses of nuance and pathos. Sam Elliott’s grumpy, disapproving father alone is worth tuning in for.
Director David Gelb’s follow-up to Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the streaming service’s first original docu-series – and, alongside Making a Murderer and Marvel’s superhero action, it’s easy to see why a non-fiction programme about food would be overlooked, especially as it’s the kind of show you might find on a traditional TV channel. But that’s precisely what makes this a bold move for the streaming site, as it broadens its horizons. More importantly, it’s really good, as the diverse array of worldwide cooks and their personal stories of inspiration and technique – not to mention the endless shots of food porn – add up to one mouth-watering dish.
What TV shows would you recommend on Netflix UK? Share your suggestions below!