Under The Radar: The Best TV Shows of 2010 (That You Probably Didn’t Watch)

Every year, dozens of new TV series assault the airwaves in hopes of maintaining the attention of your eyeballs, and perhaps even your brains, as they strive for both ratings success and that coveted multi-season run. A sad fact of life, though, is that while a few genuinely great shows attract the love they deserve from critics and viewers alike, equally fantastic or simply incredibly entertaining shows often go unnoticed by audiences, doomed to a swift cancellation or maybe scraping by with enough Nielsen numbers to barely earn a second season.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, 2010 was no different, and while great new shows Justified, Sherlock and Boardwalk Empire all managed to nab the two-fer of ratings and critical love, a handful of shows barely dodged the axe or suffered an untimely death despite being just as wonderful or entertaining as anything in their respective genres. Here’s a few superb new shows you might’ve missed in 2010:

The Show: Terriers (FX)

What’s it about? Toss a copy of Fletch, a stack of Shane Black scripts and the first season of Veronica Mars in a blender, and you’ll be somewhere close to Terriers.

Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) is a recovering alcoholic ex-cop who teams up with best friend and reformed thief Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James) as the two start an unlicensed P.I. business in Ocean Beach, California. The two low-rent beachfront gumshoes will take on any case, however small, and will probably let you pay them in free dry cleaning.

When an old drinking buddy of Hank’s turns up dead, the two scrappy underdogs who can barely keep their lives together will have to pool every ounce of wit and ingenuity they have to stay alive and bring those responsible to justice as they uncover a major conspiracy behind the murder.

What’s so great about it? Where to begin! Terriers blends a pitch-perfect neo-noir spirit and the crackerjack dialogue you’d expect from the genre with impressively layered, fundamentally flawed three-dimensional characters. It’s show that can turn on a dime from making you laugh your ass off with a tremendous one-liner to slugging you with an emotional gut punch of amazing character work, all with a tonal dexterity that most comedy-dramas pray for. Above all though, it’s an incredibly sharp buddy comedy that’s driven by two fantastic and overwhelmingly loveable lead performances.

Donal Logue has always been an effortlessly likeable and funny comedic everyman who elevates anything he shows up in, but here he gives a pretty revelatory dramatic performance that’s above and beyond anything he’s ever done. Michael Raymond-James is like the missing link between Robert Downey Jr. and James Franco, which puts him squarely in man-crush territory. The two of them have a natural, dynamite chemistry that’d make a show featuring them just watching TV and shooting the breeze a joy to sit though. That the series around them is one of the most consistently superb and sharply-written P.I. shows ever is just the icing on the cake.

I need visual aids! Okey dokey! Sadly there’s no promo material that truly gives a sense of what makes Terriers work so perfectly (half the blame levelled at the show’s inability to find an audience was aimed at a botched marketing campaign that focused on a troublesome dog that never appears in the series). But here’s the one trailer that sells the premise well enough:

Okay, I’m sold. What’re my viewing options? Terriers was tragically cancelled this month, proving that the world is a fundamentally backwards, broken place and taking new episodes off the table. Still, what we’re left with is 13 episodes of perfection that wraps up its season-long arc in the finale, so there’s no need to feel gun-shy about catching up.

If you’re in the US, the last 5 episodes are available to watch free at FX’s website or at Hulu.com. The full series is available to buy digitally via Amazon.com VOD in standard definition or HD or on the US iTunes Store.

UK folks will unfortunately have to hope that FX UK decides to air the show in the new year.

The Show: Community (NBC US/Viva UK)

Okay, so if you’re in the US, you probably did catch this, and it’s not quite a 2010 show for you guys and gals, having kicked off in ’09. However, here in the barren plains of the United Kingdom, the first season of Community first started airing in October. Don’t feel bad for not noticing – it was unceremoniously buried on MTV’s sister channel Viva amidst reality TV reruns and with zero marketing.

What’s it about? Fast-talking, self-absorbed lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has a problem: Unbeknownst to him, his law degree isn’t quite real, and he’s soon disbarred and forced to attend community college to earn a new, more authentic degree. After meeting gorgeous student Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), he pretends to be a skilled Spanish tutor in order to spend time with her.

His plan backfires when his tutor session becomes a study group of mis-matched oddballs: Former jock Troy (Donald Glover); divorcee, mother and devout Christian Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown); Abed (Danny Pudi), the socially robotic pop culture junkie; neurotic academic Annie (Alison Brie) and wealthy, bigoted retiree Pierce (Chevy Chase). Despite their overt differences, the group becomes a makeshift family and hilarity, naturally, ensues.

What’s so great about it? It’s like the US version of Spaced – an incredibly clever, achingly funny show that’s overflowing with note-perfect pop culture references and not adverse to streaks of sly self-reference and sublime parodies that’d make Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers proud. Episodes like Goodfellas pastiche ‘Contemporary American Poultry’, for example, or ‘Modern Warfare’, which plays out like the paintball episode of Spaced dialled up to a hundred and eleven, resulting in one of the most astonishingly great 22 minutes in TV history.

It’s a sitcom that knows it’s a sitcom, with genre-savvy Abed (Danny Pudi) often poking the fourth wall while the writers subvert genre trappings with inventive glee. Embodying an increasingly rare quality in sitcoms, Community often not only instils the overwhelming urge to watch an episode again right the hell now, but rewards rewatching with some of the most ingenious easter eggs and layered continuity ever. Case in point: Season Two episode ‘The Psychology of Letting Go’ contains an entire sub-plot featuring a noticeably absent Abed covertly hidden in the background of scenes. But while great writing is the foundation for Community’s hilarity, it’s brought to life by a cast that’s comprised entirely of scene-stealing characters and actors, from the amazing Donald Glover to a career resurrecting turn from Chevy Chase as the group’s resident sexist bigot.

I need visual aids! How about mere glimpse of the awesomeness to be found in ‘Modern Warfare’?

Okay, I’m sold. What’re my viewing options? In the UK, you can catch a double bill of episodes on Viva on Tuesdays at 10pm. While you’ll certainly want to catch all the episodes you missed at some point, the plus side is that it’s a show that greatly welcomes jumping in at any time, too. And the kicker is that you haven’t missed the stand-out episode yet! “Modern Warfare” is due to air tonight.

The first season is also available on US DVD and is also available to buy digitally in the US via iTunes or on Amazon.com VOD in standard definition or HD.

The Show: Tower Prep (Cartoon Network)

What’s it about? It’s equal parts The Prisoner, Lost and X-Men as Ian Archer (Drew Van Acker) falls asleep in suburban America but wakes up at Tower Prep, a mysterious boarding school for teens with superpowers, with no idea how he got there. The campus is cut off from civilization with no links to the outside world, surrounded by impenetrable walls and dense forest filled with dangerous creatures.

Faced with teachers who impose rules but don’t answer questions, Ian teams up with his own Scooby Gang of superpowered students: C.J. (Elise Gatien), who can read the most imperceptible facial tics and body language like a book, Suki (Dyana Liu), who can perfectly imitate the voice of anyone, and Gabe (Ryan Pinkston), who has the ability to talk anyone into anything with Jedi-like skill. With the help of his new-found friends and his own supernatural reflexes, Ian must try to find a way to escape the school while attempting to figure out what Tower Prep is and why they were brought there.

What’s so great about it? Okay, so it’s a teen show on a kids’ cartoon channel, but don’t hold that against it – Tower Prep is smart, fun and one of the best teen-centric shows in ages, which just happens to boast impeccable pedigree: Creator Paul Dini is responsible for the superb Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited, and had a hand in the earliest, strongest seasons of Lost; writer/producer Glen Morgan is mostly to thank for The X-Files’ best years and his brother, screenwriter Darin Morgan (The X-Files’ ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’ and ‘War of the Coprophages’), has crafted a handful of the smartest, funniest, most hilariously subversive scripts in TV history.

It’s no surprise, then, that while Tower Prep is still inherently a teen show, it’s a well-crafted throwback to the days when TV aimed at younger viewers were less hesitant to smuggle in more intelligent, cerebral ideas and stories. The result is incredibly entertaining even for those too old to know who or what the hell an iCarly is. The central mystery is well-handled, engaging stuff, with an engrossing premise and clues and revelations unveiled at a steady pace. The cast are uncharacteristically likeable for a teen show, too, and the well-written camaraderie and substantial chemistry between the core group of characters make for an adventure mystery that’s endlessly entertaining.

I need visual aids! Sure thing, have a trailer:

Okay, I’m sold. What’re my viewing options? In the US, the show airs every Tuesday at 8/7 C. Sadly there are no reruns scheduled, but the episodes aired so far are available for download on the US iTunes Store.

In the UK, aside from the nefarious torrenty download options, Tower Prep will be airing here sometime in 2011.

The Show: How To Make It In America (HBO)

What’s it about? Twenty-something design school drop-out Ben Epstein (Bryan Greenberg) and small-time hustler Cam Calderon (Victor Rasuk), tired of working low-rent hustles and the nine-to-five grind while their friends become rich and successful, borrow a chunk of money from loan shark Rene (Luis Guzmán) with the hope of achieving the American Dream in the form of their own denim design company.

What’s so great about it? Remember when Entourage first started, back before it became bloated and stale and it was 22 minutes of light, infectious fun a week? Say hello to How To Make It In America, which recaptures that breezy tone and spirit perfectly. The Entourage similarities aren’t accidental – both shows come from HBO and producer crew Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Rob Weiss and Julian Farino, while How To Make It often borrows Entourage’s “…and then everything worked out perfectly in the last 60 seconds” formula.

But while the vicarious-living appeal of Entourage’s Hollywood glamour has lost its shine over time, the rags-to-riches underdog beginnings of How To Make It are immediately more engaging than Vinnie Chase’s latest rush to make yet another million. There’s an infectious fun to Ben and Cam’s hustles to make it big and each episode just flies by with style to spare. The theme song is phenomenally good, Victor Rasuk is great, Luis Guzmán is better (naturally) and finally someone put the laid-back, easygoing charm of Bryan Greenberg to perfect use. It’s not the deepest show you’ll find, but it’s immense fun and if you’re mourning Entourage’s swift downturn in quality, How To Make It In America is the perfect rebound.

I need visual aids! Would a trailer suffice?

Okay, I’m sold. What’re my viewing options? If you’re in the US, Season One re-airs on HBO Comedy starting on the 31st of December.

Sadly no plans have been announced to air the show in the UK.