The 40 Most Underrated TV Shows Of All Time; the most obscure, unsung, and forgotten television masterpieces worth rediscovering.
Television is now better than cinema. Premium Cable’s lack of censorship has allowed for audacious and morally complex dramas like Homeland and Game of Thrones, just to name a few. This in turn has pushed network and basic cable to be more daring, making for a more diverse programming landscape.
But it wasn’t always this way. Network television execs have killed many great shows, be it for low ratings or censorship issues. Even cable has made bad calls in ending shows abruptly.
But many cancelled treasures paved the way for todays’ classics without reaping reward or legacy.
So here are the most underrated television shows from past til present. I’m covering all genres, including comedies and animated series.
Here’s my criteria for what shows I consider underrated:
- It was cancelled due to low ratings or controversial subject matter, despite critical acclaim.
- It was ahead of its time and never gets full credit for influencing more popular shows.
- It was a moderate success at the time, but has since faded from memory.
- It was popular abroad, but largely ignored in America.
- It’s currently airing, but low rated, or under-the-radar.
I’ll have Amazon links where available.
So without further ado, here are 40 TV gems worth rediscovering:
40. Tv 101 (1988-1989-CBS)
A high school journalism teacher vents his students adolescent angst by letting them run their own news show instead of a school newspaper. It had an John Hughes-esque authenticity which was missing from many teenage shows at the time.
It was cancelled due to low ratings and a controversial episode where a student gets an abortion. The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?
39. Carnivale (2003-2005-HBO)
[amazon_image id=”B009RYXSNQ” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Carnivale: The Complete Seasons 1-2[/amazon_image]
This HBO depression-era drama about a traveling freak show was too weird for many. And the slow converging plot lines could test one’s patience. But it cast a unique spell.
So it was all the more frustrating that it got the axe right when it was about to pay off with a climax between a carny kid and an evil minister who each possess supernatural powers.
38. Robbery Homicide Division (2002-2003-CBS)
Director Michael Mann (Heat), produced this gritty, intense drama, which provided an authentic portrayal of the LAPD crime unit. But the combination of low ratings, and star Tom Sizemore’s burgeoning drug addiction hastened its demise.
37. The Young Ones (1982-1984-BBC)
[amazon_image id=”B00006AUH9″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Young Ones: Every Stoopid Episode[/amazon_image]
This british comedy about four in-fighting undergrad students mixed surrealism and punk culture. It was one of the earliest examples of alternative comedy, influencing many comedians and comedy troupe’s in its wake.
36. The Flash (1990-1991-CBS)
[amazon_image id=”B004EXWGJW” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Flash: The Complete Series[/amazon_image]
The Flash was a solid TV comic book adaptation. It had decent effects, took the subject matter seriously, and made the case for a second-tier DC superhero to have his own tv show. Unfortunately it cost CBS too much to make in proportion to its meager ratings.
35. Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (1987-1988-CBS)/Galaxy High (1986-CBS)
[amazon_image id=”B002RS7ND0″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures – The Complete Series[/amazon_image][amazon_image id=”B000EWBNX2″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Galaxy High School, Vol. 1[/amazon_image]
Both cartoons were perfect companions to Pee Wee’s Playhouse, which they aired alongside Saturday mornings. And both played to adults as much as kids. But censors balked at a Mighty Mouse sequence they thought suggested drug use, and it got the boot.
Galaxy High was a clever take on high school life, outer space style. It gained cult status, but on a smaller scale, and aired for less than a year.
Of course we all know what happened to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. CBS Saturday mornings were an unforgiving place!
*Mighty Mouse launched the careers of Batman The Animated Series creator Bruce Timm and Ren and Stimpy creator Jon Kricfalusi.
34. Homicide: Life On The Street (1993-1999-NBC)
[amazon_image id=”B002BLNGTS” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Homicide: Life on the Street – The Complete Series (Repackaged)[/amazon_image]
This gritty drama took a more sobering look at police work than typical cop shows. It boasted stellar cast members (Ned Beatty, Andre Braugher) and guest stars including Steve Buscemi and Chris Rock. While it garnered critical acclaim, ratings were sparse.
The show was adapted by writer David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. He would later create The Wire.
[amazon_image id=”B005NFJAWG” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Wire: The Complete Series[/amazon_image]
Speaking of; The Wire is NOT on this list. I know it’s supposed to be amazing. But I lost interest after Season One. Apparently, it got great in Season Two (of course). It’s on my Netflix binge-watch list in the near future.
33. News Radio (1995-1999-NBC)
[amazon_image id=”B001DSNEM4″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Newsradio: The Complete Series (Slim Packaging)[/amazon_image]
Next to Seinfeld, News Radio was NBC’s best 90’s comedy. But the network kept changing its time slot which hurt the show finding an audience. But the final blow came after Phil Hartman’s tragic death. It never recovered after his passing.
32. Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee (2012-present-Crackle)
Jerry Seinfeld picks up a different comedian each episode in a car he deems fitting their personality. They grab coffee, and talk comedy. Hearing him talk shop with the likes of David Letterman, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and Joel Hodgson, is as addictive as caffeine.
This is slowly gaining an audience, but still under the radar given it’s an online-only show. Click here to check out webisodes.
31. Lookwell (1991-NBC)/Police Squad (1982-ABC)
[amazon_image id=”B000H7JCFK” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Police Squad! The Complete Series[/amazon_image]
Two great cop comedies that got screwed over.
Lookwell was a hilarious comedy developed by Conan O’Brien that sadly died with the pilot episode. Adam West played a washed-up action star who was ceremonially deputized by the local law enforcement. He becomes delusional and thinks he’s a real cop. Its become semi-legendary over the years.
You can watch the episode on YouTube:
Police Squad was another lost classic, starring Leslie Nielsen, produced by the makers of Airplane. It shared the same great sight gags and wordplay, but only lasted 6 episodes. In 1990, the concept was resurrected for The Naked Gun film series. But few knew its TV origin.
30. The Ricky Gervais Show (2010-2012-HBO)
[amazon_image id=”B0049AF6UG” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Ricky Gervais Show: Complete First Season[/amazon_image][amazon_image id=”B00652FG6K” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Ricky Gervais Show: The Complete Second Season (3 Discs)[/amazon_image][amazon_image id=”B00CA4S416″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Ricky Gervais Show: The Complete Third Season[/amazon_image]
Gervais has top billing, but the little round-headed buffoon Karl Pilkington is the star of the show. His bizarre theories and worldview are as hilarious as they are head scratching. The animation is the icing on the cake.
Sadly, it wrapped up its final season. Given hardly anyone I know is familiar with this show, I feel compelled to sing its praises.
Thus concludes part 1 of the 40 most underrated TV shows of all time!
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