Juno is finally over and East Enders are back on the road, but it won’t be long before another winter storm puts us back in our homes with hours at our disposal. Why not catch up on some great television—after all, this is a Golden Age for the medium and a wealth of content is available on each of our favorite streaming services, be it Netflix, Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime.
Anyone who cares about watching good TV should already know about classics such as Downton Abbey, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos (all great choices, by the way), and for that reason, this list is all about those binge-worthy shows you may not have heard of, or never considered watching. So, grab a blanket and some popcorn and settle in for the long haul—you won’t be able to stop watching any of these excellent picks, presented here in no particular order.
Love/Hate – Seasons 1-3 (2010-2013) Hulu Plus [pictured above]
Set in Dublin’s gangland, this gritty Irish crime drama series is so good, you’ll be hard pressed to know why you’ve never seen it before. Tensions ignite in a small-time drug gang when a young member, just out of prison, is gunned down in the street. The tight-knit crew of young thugs seek revenge while also trying to advance their standing in the city’s criminal underworld. Sometimes it’s just about survival, and at others, the boys must look to their friends, family and associates—even within the gang’s own ranks—for those who might betray them. Love/Hate paints a grim picture of “post-boom” Ireland and Dublin’s squalid world of drugs, prostitution and violence. But it couldn’t be more entertaining. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Killian Scott, Robert Sheehan (of Misfits), Peter Coonan, Aoibhinn McGinnity, Charlie Murphy and Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones‘ Little Finger) lead the ensemble cast. Let’s hope Hulu picks up Seasons 4 and 5 soon.
The Forsyte Saga – Series I and II (2002, 2004) Netflix
Fans of posh British drama Downton Abbey will love this epic miniseries and fellow Masterpiece Theatre production, following three generations of the wealthy family Forsyte. Set in Victorian and later Edwardian England, the show tells the story of this fabulously flawed family and their scandals, successes, love affairs and losses. The endlessly watchable Damian Lewis (Homeland, Band of Brothers) plays the damaged Forsyte patriarch Soames, a buttoned up solicitor who is emotionally stunted and hopeless in his pursuit of his life’s great love Irene, who does not reciprocate his feelings. Meanwhile, artist Joylon Forsyte eschews societal expectations and leaves his wife to marry their children’s nanny—at great consequence to his finances and status. The lives of these men, their wives and children intersect over 30 years. Series 2 picks up in 1920, two decades after the first series ends. Based on author John Galsworthy’s books.
Wentworth – Seasons 1, 2 (2013-2014) Netflix
Everyone likes Orange Is the New Black, but a good binge-watcher can finish both seasons in no time. For those with a hankering for more women in prison, Australian hit Wentworth is far darker, but it will certainly deliver. Separated from her daughter and awaiting sentencing for the attempted murder of her abusive husband, first-time prisoner Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) must learn to make her way within the power structure of her new home. The show is full of many of the classic prison genre tropes, but it is done with humor and gripping drama that’s compelling and difficult to stop watching. Wentworth should be the topic of conversation at far more water coolers in this country. Season 3 airs in 2015.
The Assets (2014) Netflix
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This story of real life CIA counterintelligence expert Sandy Grimes (Jodie Whittaker) tells the tale of her mission to uncover a Soviet mole operating within her agency, while also following the life of the mole himself—CIA officer Aldrich Ames (played brilliantly by Paul Rhys)—who is responmsible for the deaths of multiple assets spying for the United States within the Soviet Union. While The Assets is eight episodes of smart, thrilling television, it is definitely not for those who require nonstop gunplay and action in their shows. ABC canceled the series after airing only two episodes, so it’s clearly not for everyone, but it’s genius if you give it a chance.
The Escape Artist (2014) Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus
Another gem from PBS and Masterpiece, The Escape Artist stars Britain’s beloved Dr. Who actor David Tennant as masterful defense lawyer Will Burton. After winning a long succession of cases, getting reprehensible characters out of jail, Burton finally defends, successfully, the wrong man, Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell). When this torture killer goes free, he turns his evil attentions on Burton and his family. Can Burton use his sharp mind and skills as a lawyer against this predatory murderer? The answer is worth the watch. Tennant is just now capturing the hearts of mainstream America, and this will be remembered at one of his breakthrough performances.
The Shield – Seasons 1–7 (2002-2008) Hulu Plus
Long before his show Sons of Anarchy became a bonafide hit, Kurt Sutter was refining his writing chops in one of the best shows ever on television. With a quick look, this may appear to be your standard bread-and-butter, “hard hitting” Los Angeles cop show, but The Shield is far from standard and anything but bread and butter. Thanks to the FX network’s permissive, anything goes stance toward his content, creator and showrunner Shawn Ryan’s dark world of corrupt cops, street gangs, dirty politics, drugs and murder took cable television to new depths of depravity. But The Shield truly excels because of the well-drawn and beautifully complex characters who inhabit its version of L.A. The show’s central figure—Dare we say protagonist?—Detective Vic Mackey leads a tough anti-gang task force, the “Strike Team,” out of a run down, underfunded precinct in the city’s (fictitious) Farmington district, and he’ll do anything to get his man, and get ahead. In the pilot episode, Mackey beats information out of a suspect with a phone book, agrees to take out a drug dealer’s competition for his own financial gain and kills a fellow detective and team member in cold blood—yet somehow the writers get us to root for him (most of the time) and the rest of his team through eight seasons of mayhem and treachery. Bread and butter this is not.
Durham County – Seasons 1–3 (2007-2010) Hulu Plus
This Canadian series is another walk on the dark side, but it’s incredibly good and far too many people know nothing about it. The story follows veteran homicide detective Mike Sweeney (Hugh Dillon), who moves back to his home town, Durham County, after his partner is killed in Toronto and his wife Audrey (Hélène Joy) is diagnosed with breast cancer. Sweeney is quickly wrapped up in a murder investigation and he begins to suspect his neighbor and childhood friend/rival Ray Prager (Louis Ferreira) may be the perpetrator. He’s right, sort of. Just as we see Sweeney getting his footing in the new job and his family adapting to their new home, we also see Prager developing into a brutal serial killer. In one of the most haunting and memorable scenes ever on television, Prager’s bloodlust is awakened when he secretly watches a man in the woods murder two young teen girls wearing very short schoolgirl kilts. Fascinated by what he’s witnessed, Prager returns to the scene and begins to molest and dance with the lifeless bodies. Things escalate from here as tension builds between Sweeney and Prager—many secrets are revealed and we learn the two share a grim past. Don’t forget, the original serial killer is still out there, too. Durham County is irresistible if you can stomach its more gruesome scenes. The show is a taut thriller dripping with atmosphere in a stark and eerie setting.
The Paradise – Seasons 1–2 (2012, 2013) Netflix, Amazon Prime
This costume drama by Masterpiece and BBC, adapting Émile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames, tells the story of Denise Lovett (Joanna Vanderham), a small-town Scottish girl who goes to work at London’s first massive department store, The Paradise, in 1875. She is quickly recognized by the store’s owner, widower John Moray (Emun Elliott), as a star among her fellow shop girls and Denise begins working more closely with him. Together, Denise and Moray create grand events and displays for the shop, developing concepts still used in stores today. Their affections for one another also begin to quietly blossom, but Moray is involved with Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy), whose father is vital to the keeping the store afloat financially. The mix of relationships and rivalries, along with Denise and Moray’s efforts promoting The Paradise, are a joy to watch. Sadly, the show was canceled after season two, thanks in part to the greater popularity of Mr. Selfridge (Seasons 1 and 2 are on Amazon Prime), a very similar Masterpiece series starring Jeremy Piven as Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American who opens Selfridge & Co. (the true life inspiration for The Paradise) in 1909 London. Both programs are excellent.
The Runaway (2010) Hulu Plus
Also starring Joanna Vanderham of The Paradise, this period story mostly takes place in London’s Soho district in the 1960s. Childhood pals Cathy Connor (Vanderham) and Eamonn Docherty, played by rising star Jack O’Connell (Unbroken), grow up together in rough East London, but are separated by violent circumstances. Their lives follow drastically different paths—Eamonn enters a life of crime and villainy, eventually joining the IRA, while Cathy is taken into an orphanage, where she suffers abuse and eventually runs away to the streets of Soho. Transvestite and popular Soho drag queen Desrae (Alan Cumming) kindly takes her in and introduces her to the swinging scene of Soho in the 1960s. Cathy begins to thrive, while Eamonn falls deeper into his dark world, until they meet again as adults. The six-episode series is perfect for a daylong binge and enjoyable all the way through.
Happy Valley – Season 1 (2014) Netflix
Despite its overarching story about murder and grief, Happy Valley is a surprisingly witty program that delivers as many laughs as it does tense, edge-of-your-seat thrills. Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine Cawood is an unforgettable, brash personality who is coping with the suicide of her daughter and struggling to raise the young son she left behind. After the man she blames for her daughter’s death, and the father of her grandson, is paroled, Catherine embarks on a mission to bring him down. Meanwhile, her target is plotting another heinous crime. A staged kidnapping spirals out of control, an officer is murdered and Catherine’s grandson is pushing her away. Did he meet his homicidal father? This is British police television at its best and with way more heart. A must-see.