14 underrated TV shows from 2015 that you (probably) didn’t see
Ivan Radford | On 31, Dec 2015
It’s official: there is too much TV. Between streaming sites and Freeview, let alone the pay-TV services snapping up shows as exclusively, there are hundreds of programmes available to watch each week, making it almost impossible to keep up with all of them. While you’re busy bingeing Jessica Jones on Netflix, others are enjoying The Man in the High Castle on Amazon – and both of you are missing out on the original content on BBC iPlayer.
But luckily, video on-demand means just that: you can watch whenever you like. You don’t have to stream the latest titles immediately. You can catch up on something in several months’ time, or even the following year. Not everyone, you know, has seen all of Game of Thrones. And that’s why online video is so revolutionary, not because it adds hundreds of extra shows to your watch list, but because it adds hundreds of new opportunities to see them. Where once things would disappear off the air and that would be it, unless you happened to have a VHS to hand, things are now sitting their on subscription or pay-per-view services waiting to be clicked.
Sadly, that’s not always good news for the TV industry, part of which still relies upon old-fashioned ratings systems to determine whether to renew or cancel something. But as 2015 ends and 2016 begins, we look back over the last 12 months to pick out the shows you may have missed. These may not be classics or perfect – see our list of the best TV shows of 2015 – but they all have one thing in common: they didn’t get enough love the first time around.
From computers and martial arts to superheroes and horror, here are the 14 most underrated TV series of 2015.
The Leftovers: Season 2 (HBO)
There are some TV shows that are so good, everyone starts talking about them as soon as they’re released. Not so for The Leftovers. Snapped up by Sky Atlantic, as part of its ongoing deal with HBO, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s show was unavailable to many – despite the existence of VOD service NOW, which offers streaming access to Sky TV without the ball-and-chain of a contract – and for those who did tune in, Season 1 may well have put them off.
Depicting a world where 2 per cent of the population mysteriously disappeared, that uneven first run emerged as a powerful study of grief and forgiveness. But the relocation of events to Texas for this season outing, to a town where nobody vanished at all, turns out to be exactly what the series needed to find its mojo: Season 2 of The Leftovers is a stunning – and stunningly consistent – examination of loss, faith and despair, as the impeccable cast (notably Christopher Eccleston’s devoted priest) and beautifully complex scripts combine to make the kind of TV that simply doesn’t come along very often. The finale emphasises just how unique the whole affair is, reaching heights of philosophical discussion without losing its unique humour and wit – only The Leftovers could cover terrorism, resurrection and cults and still find time for karaoke.
Halt and Catch Fire: Season 2 (AMC)
While the world went mad for Mr. Robot – available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in the UK – AMC’s accomplished drama (also on Amazon Prime Video) went largely unnoticed when it premiered halfway through the year, just days after its US broadcast. Following the tale of fictional computer company Cardiff Electric in the 1980s, and their failed attempt to rival IBM (and Apple’s Macintosh), Season 1 was story of Salieri to everyone else’s Mozart. Season 2, though, shifts the tale from male inventors to the online gaming start-up created by their partners, giving the whole thing a sudden burst of power: a celebration of creative talent and innovation that buzzes with potential.
It’s acted by a flawless ensemble – Lee Pace as salesman Joe, Scott McNairy as obsessive engineer Gordon, Kerry Bishé as smart programmer Donna and Mackenzie Davis as tech prodigy Cameron Poe – and directed by a talented team of men and women. The result is a marvellous piece of TV that takes the way we live now, with Apple devices in hand, all the way back to the early days of simply connecting to other people. Like Mad Men, it’s a group piece that only works because all the parts fit seamlessly together, but its period workplace dramatics are all of its own. This is a show everyone should know about, whether they’ve heard of Salieri or not.
Penny Dreadful: Season 2 (Showtime)
Penny Dreadful is another show that has struggled to break beyond the bubble of Sky customers it’s available to – again, despite the availability of NOW – but John Logan and Sam Mendes’ series is one of the best things on the small screen in recent years. Starring Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Timothy Dalton’s moustache, it’s a mash-up of classic characters from gothic literature that explores mortality, prejudice and embracing one’s own identity with astonishing subtlety – and frequently shocking horror. Directors such as Juan Antonio Bayona give events a classy gloss, but the scripts are sophisticated in their own right, combining high art and genre trash to produce something rare in modern TV: a series that is completely unpredictable. Where else would you see Helen McCrory bathing in a bath full of blood? Eva Green screaming and crawling on a table? Or Josh Hartnett shooting vampires?
The Affair: Season 2 (Showtime)
The Affair is a masterful exploration of the importance of perspective, with Season 1 jumping between the POV of Noah (Dominic West), a married writer with kids, and Alison (Ruth Wilson), the married waitress who serves him in a diner during a family holiday in Montauk, only for them both to fall passionately in love. The show has always dazzled with its playful shifts in appearance, rippling all the way down from its camerawork to its costume design and make-up, leaving us unsure who was telling the truth about how their affair unfolded – a deliberate back-and-forth of guilt, as their testimonies are being used to help the police solve the future death of Scotty, the brother of Alison’s husband, Cole. What makes Season 2 just as gripping is creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi’s decision to add two more perspectives to the mix: Helen’s and Cole’s. That extension forces us to spread our sympathy further, adding more shades of grey to the emotional palette. At this rate, we can’t wait for Season 3, where we get the perspective of the local bus driver. Or Season 4, where we find out what the postman makes of it all.
Bitter Lake (BBC iPlayer)
If you’ve ever wondered why the world today is so messed up, or why the news doesn’t include random clips from Carry On Up the Khyber, then Bitter Lake is for you. Adam Curtis’ documentary (an exclusive original for BBC iPlayer) first aired in a small, five-minute fragment during Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe – a burst of brain-melting filmmaking that questioned the way the world is presented to us.
The answer is dizzyingly complex, as Curtis takes us back 70 odd years to when a deal was struck on the titular lake (in the Suez Canal) between the US and Saudi Arabia. But this isn’t your typical documentary: half art installation and half non-fiction, this experimental TV programme is less about objective facts and more about provoking you to consider the way we perceive world events. It’s not tidy or easy to digest, but it doesn’t want to be. It’s all over the place, it’s challenging, and despite (or because of) that, it’s unlike anything else on the telly – a promising sign of the kind of content BBC iPlayer is willing to commission in the future.
Everyone loves superheroes, right? That apparently wasn’t the case with Constantine, which was released in the UK on Amazon Prime Video. Based on the DC Comics series Hellblazer, the show starred Matt Ryan as John Constantine, a magician turned occult detective who spends his days fighting off the forces of darkness from our world. Between the impressive effects and supernatural villains, the series introduced a welcome dark side to the comic book universe so omnipresent elsewhere – and provided a showcase for Ryan, whose portrayal of Constantine was as close to the original graphic novels as one could possibly get. (Ryan at least had the chance to reprise his role as a guest star in Season 4 of The CW’s Arrow.) Previously seen on the screen when played by Keanu Reeves in a misjudged film, this ambitious adaptation gradually found its feet and climaxed with a cliffhanger that got Hellblazer’s tone, themes of mortality and sacrifice, and dark humour just right. NBC, though, cancelled it before it could reach a second season. Gotham, meanwhile, continues to air.
Constantine is currently available to buy and download on Google Play.
Into the Badlands: Season 1 (AMC)
When was the last time you saw a martial arts TV show? Into the Badlands is a stunning argument for why there should be more. Starring Daniel Wu and set in a feudal, post-apocalyptic society, the result is smart, nuanced and full of jaw-dropping action. A slightly limp finale to a short first season may stop AMC from ordering more, but make no mistake: this is dazzlingly unique entertainment.
The Knick: Season 1 (Cinemax)
Steven Soderbergh has famously hung up his movie hat for TV land – and The Knick is a promising sign why. This period series, which stars Clive Owen as the head surgeon in the titular hospital, is a gripping tale of outdated ER practices, racial prejudices and drug addiction. Forget Grey’s Anatomy: this is where the real medical drama happens. With a soundtrack by Drive’s Cliff Martinez, it’s no wonder that Cinemax has renewed the show for a second season, starting in January.
Ripper Street: Season 3 (Amazon Studios / BBC)
Ripper Street was given the chop by the BBC in 2014, due to low ratings, but Amazon’s resurrection of show – winning a horde of new customers in the form of loyal fans – proved what a mistake that was. Given the freedom of longer running times, creator Richard Warlow took Inspector Reid, Bennett Drake and Homeer Jackson to surprisingly dark extremes, while also bumping up the roles of Long Susan and Rose Erskine, turning this Whitechapel crime series into a richer and more complex programme than its first two seasons. Amazon has since renewed it for another two, with Season 4 arriving in January.
Hannibal: Season 3 (NBC)
Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter was a tasty enough prospect to get people to tune in to Bryan Fuller’s take on Thomas Harris’ novels, but the rest of the production was just as mouth-watering, from Hugh Dancy as criminal profiler Will Graham and Gillian Anderson as Dr. Du Maurier to the costumes, music and stunning cinematography. NBC, though, famously cancelled the show after its third season – the ultimate sign of an under-appreciated TV series. On the plus side, it means that Bryan Fuller has the time to move on to an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for Starz.
My Jihad (BBC iPlayer)
After a pilot as one of the BBC’s Original Drama Shorts in 2014, My Jihad returned this year as a miniseries of three 15-minute films exclusively on BBC iPlayer. he first outing introduced us to Fahmida (Anjli Mohindra) and Nazir (Hamza Jeetooa), two single Muslims who crossed paths at an unsuccessful speed-dating night. “It’s hard to imagine how that could’ve gone worse,” Nazir joked, during a chance meeting on a bus. “Your flies could have been undone,” Fahmida retorted.
We pick things up one month later, as they prepare to go on their first official date. The first thing we see Nazir do? Check his trousers. It’s that attention to detail that makes My Jihad so sublime. Following a Muslim couple who are never defined by their religion, this is an accomplished and universal exploration of love in modern Britain that packs in twice as much warmth and wit as most 30-minute shows do in a whole season.
Fortitude: Season 1 (Sky)
Sky’s first original programme of the year – followed by The Last Panthers – Fortitude didn’t always win the highest praise from viewers and critics, but its bizarre blend of detective thriller and supernatural horror makes for a refreshing (if uneven) cocktail, as we see a gruesome murder committed in the tiny Arctic town. The icy location, with its frozen corpses and isolated community, adds to the eeriness, while The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl, Richard Dormer and a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci led an impeccable cast.
Sense8: Season 1 (Netflix)
One of Netflix’s most high-profile original series in 2015 was this sci-fi thriller, which sees a bunch of strangers around the world united by a shared, psychic vision – a moment that changes all of their lives and leaves them hunted by a mysterious force. Earnest and ambitious, the show didn’t win over many viewers immediately, but the sheer scale of the production as it unfolds makes it something special: given the freedom and budget of online TV, The Wachowskis create an outlandish, crazy sandbox that simply wouldn’t have existed 10 years ago.
Mozart in the Jungle: Season 2 (Amazon Studios)
We’ve raved about The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s latest success story following Transparent, but have you heard of Mozart in the Jungle? Amazon’s original comedy is by far its most unusual commission: a show about an orchestra, even starring Gael Garcia Bernal as a sexy conductor, is only destined for a relatively niche audience. For those who watched the slightly uneven first season, though, there was charm in the series’ unique subject matter – after all, when was the last time you heard a full symphony orchestra playing on the small screen? Season 2 walks back into the arena at the end of 2015 with its head held high. What once seemed like directionless writing is now comfortably casual in its approach, happy to hop between concerts and cocktail parties, from one bedroom to another. Shaking off Difficult Second Album Syndrome, the show breezes past in a light flurry of entertainment, never concerned with structure or narrative. That should be a problem, but miraculously, it isn’t.
What TV shows of 2015 do you think didn’t get the love they deserved?