Friday List: Television’s most undervalued series

If you’re a regular reader of TV Surveillance, you know I love a good list. Or a mediocre list. Or even a horrible list. The point is I have a lust for lists. This fall, I’d like to provide you folks with more lists than ever and hopefully that will result in a weekly or bi-weekly feature I’m going to christen the Friday List. Creative, right? Anyway, some of these lists will be very serious, others will be less so, but my hope is that they are all fun and also catalysts for some discussion either here on Twitter

Hello again! It has been a while since I’ve done a random Friday list for you folks and that’s unforgiveable. I always have solid ideas for lists, but never want to burn through them quickly in consecutive weeks. Hopefully today’s list will not only kick off discussion about the topic, but also jump-start my list-making mind.

ANYWAY, as I was watching this week’s season premiere of Psych and quite enjoying it, I thought to myself that it might be one of, if not the, most underrated series on television. Then I realized two other things: A.) There are a number of other underrated series out there and B.) The term underrated sucks. Let me interrogate that second one before we jump into discussing the first one. “Underrated” is such a difficult term to use today, for a number of reasons. With the internet and the fractured audiences and fandom that can be supported by it, basically every popular culture text has its fans and they’re rabid enough. Seriously, there were people crying about The Playboy Club’s cancellation. Fragmented viewership and fandom ideologies have made it possible to call basically anything underrated in 2011.

We could say that something like Community is underrated because it is literally under-rated by the Nielsen ratings, but dip your toe into the world of pop culture on the internet and it will feel like Community is as big as NCIS. Same goes for the likes of Fringe, Parks and Recreation, Breaking Bad or Supernatural. The traditional viewership isn’t there, but the fan passion and critical acclaim is. So instead of using underrated to describe the following series, I’m going with undervalued. In some way, these series have been disregarded, either by critics, people who talk about television on the internet or traditional viewers. Changing terms doesn’t necessarily make these designations less problematic and this is all relative. However, these are eight scripted series I wouldn’t mind talking about more often and giving more respect to.

The most undervalued scripted series, in no particular order are:

Psych (USA): Your mileage may very because of James Roday’s particular brand of comedy, but Psych is still a darn funny series that thrives on the cast’s tremendous chemistry. Dulé Hill, Timothy Omudson and Maggie Lawson all support Roday’s manic, sometimes annoying energy very well. Psych knows what it is and who its audience is and although its popular culture references and “theme” episodes aren’t as cunning or innovative as the kind of stuff Community does, it still works.

Happy Endings (ABC): This ABC comedy has one of the best casts with the most comfortable chemistry on television and it feels like Happy Endings improves with every new episode. The series is low on big plot movements, but thrives on throwing its characters into awkward situations and watching them fail miserably. Endings has an impressively rapid rhythm and has quickly learned how to integrate goofy catchphrases and pop culture references without it seeming too on-the-nose. This is the best “hang out” comedy on the air right now. The good news is that Happy Endings is quickly moving out of the undervalued arena early in its second season. People are waking up!

Southland (TNT): This gritty, raw police drama has faced all sorts of tribulations with jumping from NBC to TNT and I think that’s part of the reason many folks have missed it. That’s unfortunate. Southland is the best “cop show” on television right now. The naturalistic shooting style leads to compelling performances from a cast full of solid actors and actresses and the series knows how to balance meaningful ongoing personal arcs with the procedural, day-to-day workings of police work.

The League (FX): Critics warmed to this fantasy football-centric comedy in its second season and for good reason. The League doesn’t aim for the same kind of thematic or stylistic heights as some of our really great comedies, but it fills those voids with lots of running gags and ridiculous comic set pieces that shouldn’t really work yet are tremendously funny. They’re getting better with the actual fantasy football stuff, but don’t be turned off from The League if you don’t like football or fantasy, it’s not important. What is important? You will laugh. A lot.

Blue Bloods (CBS): This is a weird one and probably a shock to some of you who know me. I’m not the biggest fan of CBS’ brand of procedurals (though I’m not a full-on hater either) and yet, I find myself enjoying Blue Bloods every time I watch it – which is basically any time I go home and my parents are controlling the remote. Seriously though, I appreciate how Bloods balances the CBS-directed procedural stories with the family drama elements. The series tends to move towards the former than the latter, but Tom Selleck and the rest of the cast hold it together with better-than-expected work.

Nikita (CW): This series is dealing with a minor sophomore slump right now, but Nikita is a well-paced thriller that always seems to be able to pull out another unforeseen twist right as you’re getting comfortable with the current equilibrium. Even on a shoe-string CW budget, the action is well-executed and the big stories have yet to get overly convoluted or complicated. For those of you missing 24, this is a great replacement. Really, it’s better than 24 was in the later years. Maggie Q and (gulp) Shane West are really good.

How to Make it in America (HBO): Put those Entourage comparisons away for a moment. As I said in my review of the season two premiere, How to Make it is arguably already better than Entourage ever was, if only because there appear to be real, tangible stakes and somewhat likable characters populating this world. This isn’t a complex series and it still relies too much on the “Everything’s terrible! Oh wait, it’s fine!” structure, but How to Make it in America succeeds because of its solid atmosphere and more relatable characters/narrative.

Warehouse 13 (Syfy): Yes, the third season was borderline terrible at times and the finale pretended that it was amazing, only pointing out how terrible it probably was. But Warehouse 13 is still a fun, enjoyable and when it wants to be, emotionally moving series. Although the premise is goofy and the weekly cases are often even goofier, W13 works so well because the characters take things seriously and actually appear to love one another quite a bit. The lead performances aren’t Emmy-worthy, but they raise the material to a level it probably doesn’t even deserve to be at.

There you have it folks. What are series do you think are undervalued?

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