Over the Garden Wall (2014)
Born out of the inspiration that Adventure Time brought to Cartoon Network, Over the Garden Wall is a mini-series following two brothers wandering through a mysterious forest and encountering strange people. The series was created by Patrick McCale, who had previously worked on Adventure Time and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. Over the Garden Wall is a deep dive into the Americana aesthetic of the 19th & early 20th centuries. Many musical numbers consist of pre-1950s phonograph recordings. You’ll be reminded of early animation from the 1920s & 30s in many of these episodes. There’s such a remarkable charm to this show that few animated series possess. It’s funny while being genuinely terrifying at moments, enigmatic and wistful. It’s a program that understands what nostalgia actually is and how that feeling is different from reality. Our protagonists drift through abstract forest landscapes emerging into the dreams and fantasies of others, interacting for a while before being pulled into another story.
The Leftovers (2014 – 2017)
In the wake of Lost, followed by the abysmal Alien reboot Prometheus, you could read anything about Damon Lindelof without a chorus of voices wanting to rant about how much they hated him. I kept the faith in Lindelof understand that your opinion on Lost was a matter of taste and that the list of names behind the Prometheus script was much longer than one person. I think Lindelof proved to us all that he is one of the great writer/showrunner/producers working in television right now with the epic and staggering Leftovers. The premise of the series is a world where 2% (140 million people) of the world’s population vanished with no explanation in a single moment. For some people, they lost no one, for other an individual family member, and for others, they lost everybody. Lindelof was clear in the press tour for the show that it was not about the mystery of where people went but focused on how the people who remained processes this event. While the first season is good, it’s a definite slow burn, and it’s the second season where the show finds its real footing. What was most fascinating were the strange ways people coped, forming cults, adapting their religion to fit the new reality, or simply breaking down and withdrawing completely. By the show’s end, we still never get a clear answer about where everyone went, but that’s okay because the profoundly human stories we had the pleasure of viewing are more than enough.
Broad City (2014 – 2019)
I drifted away from Comedy Central in the 2010s, save for two shows. One of them was Broad City, the brainchild of comedians Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Based on a web series that was based on their real-life friendship, Broad City follows Abbi & Ilana as they try to live their best life in New York City, a place that isn’t easy to exist in when you don’t have much money. Abbi is an aspiring artist who works as a janitor at a gym while Ilana has trouble holding down any job and has adopted a carefree attitude about the whole thing. The show establishes the characters and then manages to flip our expectations on their heads as it progresses. Ilana may seem happy, but certain relationships or things trigger deep anxiety. Abbi is extremely by the book until she has had enough and does something outrageous. Add a cast of fantastic supporting characters, and you have a significant evolution of the traditional sitcom format, made relevant for twentysomethings today.
Review (2014 – 2017)
Here is another show that debuted around the same time on Comedy Central. Review is a mockumentary series following professional critic Forrest Macneill (Andy Daly). Forrest has decided that instead of reviewing art and media, he’s going to focus his talents on real-life experiences. These will come from viewer requests, and a camera crew will follow Forrest as he attempts to live out these things. The first episode, for example, has him reviewing Stealing, Drug Addiction and Going to Prom. As the series went on, there was a fallout from the things Forrest was doing that eventually broke his family apart and sent his personal life into chaos. The magic of this show came from the acting of Andy Daly, who knows how to embed himself into a character and explore every aspect of that role’s personality. Forrest Macneill is one of my favorite television characters of all time, right up there with Don Draper or Walter White. Review is a criminally underrated show that deserves to be revisited.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015 – 2019)
How do you follow up a success like 30 Rock? Well, Tina Fey and her creative partner Robert Carlock decided to make a Netflix original series. This one would be lightly based on news reports about a man in the midwest who had imprisoned a group of women for years. Great fodder for a comedy, right? Inspired by the innocence actress Ellie Kemper could exude, so naturally, the duo created the character of Kimmy Schmidt. Kimmy was trapped in the bunker of religious nut Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne since she was 14. Now she’s 29 and freed by authorities, attempting to make her life in New York City. She becomes roommates with the vain & pouty Titus Andromedon, her landlady is the tough-talking Lillian, and Kimmy gets a job as a nanny for the spoiled NYC housewife Jacqueline. Fey & Carlock kept the cartoonish gags and humor of 30 Rock just in a new context. In many ways, Kimmy was a male Kenneth, a little more worldly-wise but still full of that endearing “Aw, shucks” nature. Much like 30 Rock, the world of Kimmy Schmidt is expanded and complicated with each season with the series finale delivering a sweet and beautiful endnote.
Documentary Now! (2015 – present)
I’ve wondered how someone who doesn’t get the straightforward references in Documentary Now! feels about the show. I am enough of a film nerd to have seen almost every doc being cited in the show that it has some beautiful uncanny qualities. The opening episode “Sandy Passage” is an obvious parody of the Maysles Brothers’ “Grey Gardens.” In the first season, comedians Fred Armisen and Bill Hader would be in every episode, and here they portray the arguing mother-daughter duo living in an isolated house in Martha’s Vineyard. Bill Hader is exceptional in this episode playing the Little Edie analog to such perfection. Later episodes would parody VICE news docs, The Thin Blue Line, The War Room, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and my personal favorite the Company original cast recording documentary. Each season presents tons of surprises as every episode is a shift in tone & style. Documentary Now! always feels fresh and exciting.
Search Party (2015 – present)
This is a show I would file under ‘pleasant surprises.’ Originally airing on TBS for its third season Search Party will part of HBO Max. The show follows Dory (Alia Shawkat), an NYC resident going about life alongside her boyfriend and self-absorbed friends. Things change when Dory learns that Chantal Winterbottom, a college acquaintance, has gone missing. Dory wasn’t that close to her, but this blip of excitement in her life sends the woman down a rabbit hole. Search Party starts out feeling like a fluffy inconsequential basic cable comedy-drama, but by the end of season one, it’s clear this is an entirely different animal. The second season is one of the most stressful episode runs I’ve seen in a long time. It will be three years since season 2 aired by the time the third makes it to HBO Max, and I am chomping at the bit to see where Dory ends up. Search Party is a deeply engrossing mystery series that knows exactly how to balance humor with horror.
Atlanta (2016 – present)
This is one of the crown jewels of the decade’s television. Donald Glover came along after Community, after establishing himself as rapper Childish Gambino and delivered one of the most robust television programs to have hit the air in a long time. Atlanta follows Earn, a thirtysomething college dropout who is trying to get his ex-girlfriend & mother of his child to see him as a competent father. His cousin Alfred is starting to gain prominence as a local rapper under the name of “Paper Boi” and Earn sees that he could help manage his cousin’s money as a way to increase his own status. It all sounds simple enough, but Glover and company have created a world that highlights the disparity in the economic classes of the city and even evoke mystic elements about Atlanta. Season two managed to blow the first one out of the water with episodes like “Helen,” “Barbershop,” “Woods,” and the mindblowing “Teddy Perkins.” “Teddy Perkins” is a strong contender for the best episode of a television series ever, delivering a disconcerting narrative in under thirty minutes.
Vice Principals (2016 – 2017)
Yet another show from Danny McBride and Jody Hill, I was a little lukewarm to season one. However, season two turned things around in a big way, and Vice Principals has one of the most shocking series finales I’ve ever seen in a comedy. There was a moment where I literally burst out, “Holy shit!” during those final thirty minutes. The series follows Neal Gamby & Lee Russell, the vice-principals at North Jackson High School. Their principal has retired, and his replacement, Dr. Belinda Brown, can see through the brown-nosing of Russell and the overly tough persona of Gamby. The two men can’t stand the changes she’s making and decide to sabotage her. By the end of the series, there has been a house fire, multiple shootings, a tiger on the loose, and more signature over the top hijinks. If you saw Eastbound & Down, McBride & Hill’s previous HBO venture, then you know the style of humor being offered up here. However, I would argue that the story is a bit more grounded but still willing to shock the audience.
Channel Zero (2016 – 2018)
Horror saw a pretty decent boom and slight bust on television in the 2010s. My favorite program of them all was this SyFy program. Creator Nick Antosca decided to take creepypasta/NoSleep, horror stories written and shared online, and develop them into mini-series seasons. Season one opens with Candle Cove, and the entire tone of the show is pitch-perfect. Instead of going after jumpscares, Antosca hired directors who would focus on building atmosphere and creating slow-burn horror. This is an ideal fit for the stories being told, and season two was even better than the first. Season two used “No End House” as its jumping-off point, while season three took the basics from a NoSleep story to create “Butcher’s Block.” The second and third seasons are my favorites, and they both have very different tones and creative choices. Season four was good, titled “The Dream Door,” but by that time, the series was canceled. As of now, there are no plans to continue the show in a different venue, but I highly recommend you check out a season or two.
The O.A. (2016 – 2019)
The O.A. left us too soon, as is Netflix’s bizarre policy of ending most shows after a second season because internals show third seasons and on don’t garner new subscribers. The OA begins with Prairie Johnson, a blind woman who has been missing for seven years. She shows up in a viral video online and is returned to the parents who adopted her when she was a little girl. But, she’s no longer blind, and doctors can’t seem to find an explanation for this. As Prairie adjusts to life back in her Michigan suburb, she befriends some local high school students and eventually tells them her story. What unfolds is a cosmic, transcendent narrative that has these kids and one of their teachers questioning the very fabric of reality. Season two got even wilder and promised to go to deeper and more profound places…but then Netflix canceled the show. It’s still there, incomplete, but as we learned with Twin Peaks, unfinished things that are very good are still worth your time and examination.