It is a sad fact of this modern world, and my work in it, that there is too much television. Too much good television, in fact, which only makes the situation worse.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when it felt like little of worth (and, for that matter little of little worth) escaped this paper’s collective critical gaze. It was normal for us to review second and third and fourth seasons of shows that were not “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones.” Now there are 5 million channels – something like that – competing for attention. Things get left out. Guilt happens.
Though some critics seem to specialize in raking bad shows over the coals, what makes the job worthwhile for me is the chance to lift up the deserving underdog, both for the sake of a show that might last a little longer with promotion, but also for the sake of the world the show might make a little better.
Some series dear to me have recently returned – less recently than when I started writing this, see above. They fly at least a little under the radar, although each has managed multiple seasons and been among the best shows on all the platforms that can conceivably be called television. Here are four that merit your attention.
“Schitt’s Creek” seems to be finding an American audience, an impression based solely on the number of people who mention it to me. That the first three seasons are available on Netflix may have something to do with this. In Canada, whence it hails, the series wins awards. (Here, it is on Pop, formerly the TV Guide Channel.) Stars Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, whom you might know from the movies of Christopher Guest – or “American Pie” or “Home Alone,” at least – first entered this country by way of “SCTV,” the Canadian “Saturday Night Live.” (Countryman Bruce McCulloch, from “Kids in the Hall,” directed the season opener.) They are national treasures; it doesn’t matter that it is not this nation.
Co-created by Levy and his son and costar Dan Levy, the series began as a kind of “Beverly Hillbillies” in reverse: Rich family loses money, moves to wacky backwater town. Early episodes emphasized cultural antagonism, economic frustration and the torture of close quarters for a family whose members could previously afford to ignore each other. But over the years the Rose family has softened; they are still fish out of water, but they are learning to breathe new air.
The new season, which began in late January, took up its story right on the heels of the last. Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy) and Stevie (Emily Hampshire) are now partners in the motel where the Roses live in two adjacent rooms; town mayor Roland Schitt (the divine Chris Elliott), once vaguely threatening, has attached himself to the motel as a kind of man-of-no-work. Wife Moira (O’Hara), a former soap opera star, is feeling less confidently a diva this year.
David Rose (Dan Levy) is working out the romantic implications of a kiss with Patrick (Noah Reid), his partner in a curated boutique whose presence in town is, after all, no less strange than almost everything in “Northern Exposure.” And daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy), having belatedly graduated high school, is looking for something or someone to hold on to. It’s a show about family and community and baby-steps growth that is neither cynical nor sentimental; it is crazy, and crazy sweet.
“The Detour,” whose third year on TBS also began in late January, hits some similar points. Created by star Jason Jones with wife and fellow “Daily Show” alum Samantha Bee, it too concerns a family, the Parkers, displaced this season to a strange place, small-town Alaska, on the run from the United States Postal Inspection Service – or, to be precise, from one Javert-like agent played by Laura Benanti. (The first season, which played like a kind of even darker “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” took place on the road from Syracuse, N.Y., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; the second found them mostly in New York.)
What I’ve just written prompts me to suggest you watch the seasons in order; the first two seasons can be streamed from Hulu. (Current season episodes are also archived on TBS.com.)
Where the Roses tread tentatively through their no-longer-new world – Moira and the kids often speak in something just above a whisper – the Parkers go about crashing into things. Simply put, Jones’ Nate Parker is a straight guy with a wild streak; partner Robin (Natalie Zea) is a wild girl who can play straight when necessary, if she remembers to; and their odd-couple twins Delilah and Jared, a.k.a Jareb (Ashley Gerasimovich and Liam Carroll), my favorite TV kids, are like feral children from the suburbs. The series is a sort of cartoon, loud and physical, sometimes violently physical – though not physically violent, if you see the distinction – but there is real commitment in the performances.
The animated “Bravest Warriors,” currently available via the multi-platform streaming service VRV (the Cartoon Hangover Select channel) with earlier seasons up on Cartoon Hangover’s YouTube channel, began with a sketch by Pen Ward of “Adventure Time” and was turned into a series mostly through the work of Breehn Burns (now writing the “Invader Zim” movie). It has much in common with “Adventure Time,” though it is more “grown-up” – the characters, a gang of semi-super space heroes from Neo-Mars who go about the galaxy and beyond righting wrongs, began as teenagers with a hormonal agenda. Archetypally, they are arranged vaguely on the Riverdale plan with an Archie; Betty; Veronica; Moose, who is also a Jughead; and a Reggie, who is also a Jughead.
Like “Adventure Time,” it implies wild worlds with minimal gestures, set against the weird and poetical backdrop of the Space Time Calliope, the See-Through Zone, the Parasox Pub and the Holo John (a restroom-cum-holodeck). Besides the Warriors there are Impossibear, with his gas-powered stick, an all-seeing paralyzed horse (“frozen in my knowledge of forever”) and the wildly adorable Catbug, a cat with ladybug wings and the voice of a small child (an actual child, Sam Lavagnino, audibly aging).
This is the first season without input from Burns, and it shows a little. Now made under the wing of the Canadian animation house Nelvana, the series has become marginally less marvelous, a little too on point and digestible, with explanatory opening titles heretofore considered unnecessary. Still, there’s some good writing talent, including Kate Leth, who has written for the “Bravest Warriors” comic series and penned “Adventure Time” graphic novels. One hopes that the producers will remember that the biggest favor you can do your audience is not to do them any favors.
“Detectorists,” whose third season is available to stream via Acorn TV (the first two seasons are available from Netflix), is the most beautiful of these shows, a pastoral comedy set among metal-detecting hobbyists about failure and success and letting go of those ideas in order to live. Written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, the sunken-eyed string bean from the original British version of “The Office” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, it’s given the actor the opportunity to play the sort of leading role in which he would not usually be cast.
Crook is Andy, a temp worker when we met him in Season 1, and a temp worker again after he quits his job providing archaeological oversight when a development company destroys a Roman mosaic in order to get on with building; Toby Jones plays Lance, his philosophical friend, a forklift driver. It offers a full set of oddball characters – the members of the detecting club Lance and Andy belong to, rival detectorists who are called Paul and Artie for their resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel – but there are well-developed domestic story lines surrounding Andy who has a girlfriend (Rachel Stirling) and a child, and Lance, who has a late-discovered daughter living in his house. The series is quiet and lovely, with deep things to show and tell about the land and history. This season, the series’ last, is generous even to old enemies.
Now I have given you four more shows you will need to make time to watch. I am sorry, but I’m not sorry.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd