The 10 best streaming TV shows you probably aren’t watching
In Dr. Seuss’ seminal work “On Beyond Zebra,” we are led beyond the customary 26 letters of the alphabet to discover obscure new characters with particular uses. So it is with streaming television, where the big-box players that crowd the foreground may obscure smaller, more narrowly targeted services. And yet the niche streamers may be just the streamers you need.
Life is tenuous on the margins — see ya, Seeso; later, Yahoo Screen — even for enterprises owned, as most niche streamers are, by larger media brands. Indeed, some of the series recommended below have already been canceled, though they remain available to stream. If few get the media (or social media) heat granted Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, or, in anticipation, Disney+, Apple TV and HBO Max, by definition they bring you shows you won’t see anywhere else — some among the best that television has to offer. Catch them while you can.
‘Wayne’ (YouTube Premium). By providing an international video platform to anyone with a smartphone and a rudimentary command of the internet, YouTube changed the meaning of what constitutes television. Still, it was no surprise to find a pay-to-enter gated community erected within this vast democracy: YouTube Premium (originally YouTube Red). Programming skews young, as in the gig-economy comedy “Liza on Demand” and the teen telekinesis drama “Impulse.” Best of all is “Wayne,” which delicately balances comedy and drama, darkness and light, sweetness and violence as it follows working-class teenagers Mark McKenna and Ciara Bravo and their various pursuers on a quest to recover an inherited muscle car. Which is, of course, a quest for something bigger.
‘Doom Patrol’ (DC Universe). DC Universe is the definition of “niche.” Membership gets you access to movies and cartoons featuring DC comics characters, but also the comics themselves. “Doom Patrol,” its second original live-action series — from producer Greg Berlanti, inevitably — is a brilliant stew of a show, incorporating melodrama, comedy, pastiche and straight-up action concerning a semi-superhero team whose powers are more like afflictions. (Brendan Fraser plays a brain stuck in a clunky metal body.) It feels like room has been found for every throwaway idea and reference tossed out in the writers’ room — though many are taken from the comics, including the character Danny the Street, a teleporting sentient genderqueer city block. With Timothy Dalton as the Chief and Alan Tudyk as the villain of the piece and its ironic, meta-televisual narrator.
‘On Cinema at the Cinema'/'Decker’ (Adult Swim). Although it has occasionally seeped from the web onto cable, ordinary television is too small to contain the epic, multi-season serial (with extras) that is the Deckerverse — more like a living organism than a TV franchise. “On Cinema,” which recently began an 11th season on Adult Swim’s digital arm, is a Siskel-Ebert style show in which films are sometimes “reviewed,” but which serves primarily as a battlefield for codependent hosts Tim Heidecker (usually in some form of breakdown) and Gregg Turkington (full of facts). The pair also co-star in of “Decker,” the brilliantly ham-handed, flag-waving spy series directed by Heidecker’s “On Cinema” alter-ego, and featuring Martin Sheen’s less-famous brother Joe Estevez as the president of the United States.
‘Hold the Sunset’ (BritBox). A collaboration between the BBC and ITV, Britbox could not be any more on-brand than with this small-town, gray-haired romantic comedy, set upon three pillars of the British screen. John Cleese and Alison Steadman are pensioners in a romantic relationship, bedeviled by immature adult children; Anne Reid is their caustic housekeeper. Cleese’s habitual sardonicism notwithstanding, it’s a gentle sort of farce, tenderly played and set mostly to the speed at which the elder cast members perambulate.
‘Sorry for Your Loss’ (Facebook Watch). It’s surprising that a mature comedy-drama about depression, grief, addiction and toxic family dynamics would be the flagship series of Facebook’s (free) video arm — just press the icon “Videos on Watch” — but such is indeed the case. Elizabeth Olsen is impressive as a woman struggling to cope with the death of her husband and the questions and conflicts it raises. The dialogue can get a little literary (creator Kit Steinkellner has been a playwright) and the complications soapy, but the performances are deep and true, and the series, whose second season is underway, reliably swerves away from the clichés it sometimes seems to be steering toward.
‘Agatha Raisin’ (Acorn). Possibly as a bulwark against BritBox, Acorn, the original Anglocentric niche streamer, has looked farther afield for material, throughout the Commonwealth (as in the recently debuted Australian “My Life Is Murder,” with Lucy Lawless) and into foreign-language markets. It has also become a producer, bringing back “Foyle’s War” for its final seasons and taking over the knockabout, fish-out-of-water detective comedy “Agatha Raisin” from Sky One. Ashley Jensen, quite happy to look ridiculous, stars as a supericially glamorous London publicist semi-retired to one of those villages where murders are alarmingly frequent, and somehow fall to her to solve, as romantic subplots come and go.
‘No Activity’ (CBS All Access). While “The Good Fight” and “Star Trek: Discovery” are the exclusive-content workhorses that pulled CBS All Access into view, I’m an especial fan of this excellent dry comedy of cops and criminals in which, true to its title, nothing much occurs — except talk. A procedural by way of Beckett, played largely in seated groups of two or three, it’s also a meditation on loneliness and the need for connection. Patrick Brammall, on whose Australian original the series is based, plays a detective tired of waiting; Tim Meadows is his sunnier partner. A high-class cast also includes Amy Sedaris, Sunita Mani, Jason Mantzoukas, Jesse Plemons, Will Ferrell, Bob Odenkirk and J.K. Simmons.
‘Creepshow’ (Shudder). This subscription service, from AMC Networks, is mostly a bank of horror movies. As a sign perhaps of future ambition — original content is what dignifies a brand — the streamer has crafted a show of its own, based on the 1980s theatrical franchise created by Stephen King and George Romero, itself a throwback homage to 1950s comic books. The stories, which have nothing clever to say about How We Live Now but simply offer awful fun, come two-to-an-episode, clocking in at a lean, muscular half-hour; some show you gore, others just prey on your mind. Ironic final beats are standard.
‘Rubicon’ (AMC Premiere). AMC continues to put its money on zombies, but the compelling reason to sign up for this ad-free channel upgrade — it requires a TV provider — is access to this tense, stately, somewhat dreamy spy series from 2010. James Badge Dale plays an emotionally damaged intelligence analyst who takes the customary rabbit-hole tumble into a world of wheels behind wheels. (The great Arliss Howard plays his might-be-good-might-be-bad boss.) That the show only lasted an open-ended 13 episodes should not put you off. (Charles Dickens never finished “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and that thing is still in print.)
‘Exeter: A Podcast Experience’ (Sundance Now). This engaging detective series, starring Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ray McKinnon, is not full-blown television but an illustrated version of a Sundance-produced dramatic podcast — what once would have been called a radio serial. The visuals, which surround an animated script with images relevant to the scene, give you something to focus on while staring at a screen, but most of the pictures will take place in your head. Radical!
The years-old streaming skirmish has now become a pitched battle — for talent, for money, for your time and your eyes— as Apple, Disney, HBO and NBC to enter the fray with major subscription services.