It seems like the only TV that anyone has talked about in the past 5ish years has been Game of Thrones. And I get it, despite my own negative opinions of the later seasons of the show, it’s become a well-deserved cultural phenomenon. But in the meantime, while “Thrones” has taken up all the limelight, there have been a lot of fantastic shows fly under the radar. Some have been cancelled to great uproar, and a scant lucky few have ended on their own terms. Here’s a couple you should give a shot, and where you can do it.
Black Sails, Hulu
If I were to oversimplify things, I’d say that Black Sails is Game of Thrones, but with pirates. After all, there are certainly some similarities. It’s got morally ambiguous characters locked in a power struggle with plenty of literal and metaphorical backstabbing to fill everything out. On top of that there’s plenty of shocking deaths and spectacle too. So what’s so oversimplifying about calling it Game of Thrones with pirates? Even so, that’s not even a bad thing, right? If you watch the show, you’ll see that Black Sails is far more than that.
Black Sails primarily tells the story of Captain James Flint, working as a mixture of prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and historical fiction. So characters from that book like Long John Silver (seen here as a two legged rogue with Kit Harington hair) or Billy Bones will interact with real life pirates like Charles Vane or Anne Bonny. Strong character dynamics are forged throughout the 4 season run on the series.
Toby Stephens makes for an utterly fantastic lead in the role of Flint, being one of the most complex television protagonists in recent memory. He’s simultaneously noble and tyrannical, ruthless and vulnerable. Flint is driven by a motivation of turning the island of Nassau into a free republic for the pirates it inhabits. But to do so he must liberate it from the clutches of the British Empire, this makes for the primary conflict of the series; first starting as a clash of ideology between Flint and his fellow pirates, and later on a full blown war against the Crown.
Black Sails truly excels in character development. The growth seen from the all the characters, both fictional and historic is incredibly well written. Whether it be one character gradually developing a moral center, or another losing their own and falling into a bloodlust, every bit of development feels natural. It all culminates in a mesmerizing final season that is action packed, character driven, and satisfying.
Banshee, Amazon Prime
Hailing from the blood soaked, lube drenched depths of Cinemax, Banshee is the bastard lovechild of an ultra-saturated Neo-Noir and the nastiest Grindhouse action flicks of the 70’s and 80’s. This show has it all; punching, head shots, Neo-Nazi cannon fodder, love triangles, Neo-Nazi cannon fodder getting punched, Amish crime lords, graphic sex, graphic-er violence, small town drama, and a hulking monster named Chayton Littlestone.
Banshee weaves the tale of a nameless former convict who steals the identity of a recently deceased Cop named Lucas Hood. Hood (the real Hood, not our Hood) was transferred to the small Pennsylvania town of Banshee. On the way into town, Real Hood stops at a local bar for a quick bite to eat, he manages to stumble in at the same time as Fake Hood and a group of men attempting to strong arm the quiet little dive. Fake Hood has mysterious reasons for coming into the town himself, and finds himself in the perfect position to ingratiate himself into the town when Real Hood ends up dead along with the attempted burglars after one of the goriest bar fights ever put on screen.
From his position as the new sheriff, Fake Hood finds himself in a series of over the top hijinks in the town of Banshee. Life in Banshee is not as idyllic as it seems, as it is also the home of several gangs and a particularly poverty stricken Indian Reservation dealing with its own internal strife. The series balances Fake Hood’s bottle episdoe adventures and its longer story lines well. It’s not exactly high art, but Banshee is fun as all get out. And our nameless hero is one of the most badass TV lawmen this side of Raylan Givens or Cordell Walker.
Ash vs. Evil Dead, Netflix
For those not familiar with the Evil Dead franchise, it started as intense low budget horror and transformed into a low budget blend of intense horror and The Three Stooges. It’s one of the wackiest things you’ll ever see and it launched the careers of Sam Raime and Bruce “God” Campbell. Among their own careers, Raimi and Campbell would create one of the most iconic characters in Horror; the one line spitting, chainsaw handed, giant chin having Ash Williams.
Before the series began, we last see Ash in a moment of triumph at the end of Army of Darkness, just having gunned down a possessed old lady and dramatically kissing Lauran Holly before declaring himself a king (this also happens in a supermarket. Ash has a thing for working at supermarkets.). Cut to some 30ish years later and the now middle aged Ash is still working at the supermarket in a perpetual state of immaturity. It’s only after he accidentally lets loose a slew of demons by reading from the Sumerian Book of the Dead in attempt to woo a lady (this series is weird) that Ash has to wield his chainsaw for the forces of good once again. Along the way he finds sidekicks in the form of the good natured Pablo and the angst-ridden Kelly, as
well as an adversary in Lucy Lawless’ unkillable Ruby Knowby.
Almost exclusively utilizing practical effects, Ash vs. Evil Dead masterfully straddles the line between slapstick comedy and horror like its predecessors before it. Ash and Co.’s battles with the Deadites (demon possessed corpses) fall under a spectrum of hilarious or horrifying, and always gross. The aforementioned practical effects lend a sense of authenticity to the monsters our heroes face, leading to some of the most gag-inducing sequences that I’ve ever seen.
Like the next and final entry on this list, Ash was cancelled before its time after an amazing third season. However, this shouldn’t ward off any potential viewers. Despite the cancellation, the series wraps up almost all of its ongoing storylines. While the ending we get teases a wild new status-quo, the story concluding without us ever getting it is very Evil Dead and very Ash. (It should be noted that Season 3 has yet to drop on Netflix, but is available to buy on Blu-Ray or DVD.)
Hannibal, Amazon Prime
Oh, man. What a show. There has never been anything else like Hannibal to ever air on TV. I know that’s a bold statement, but it’s one I’ll go down to my grave screaming.
Hannibal is (shocker) an adaption of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter series. Yes, that Hannibal Lecter. Charming, hyper intelligent Psychiatrist that also happens to be a convicted serial killer, cannibal, and icon of the screen. The series takes place before he is discovered and captured, chronicling his time as a working psychiatrist and socialite in Baltimore. Played to perfection by Mads Mikkelsen, this is a different take on the character than what we’re used to. There’s a sophisticated sense of cool about him, he’s suave as hell and his characterization is far more complex than any other iteration of the character. You can’t help but like him, even when he’s eating people or stalking around like a slasher movie villain.
Working as the shows true lead and matching Mikkelsen’s performance in every way is Hugh Dancy. Dancy portrays Will Graham, a fragile and neurotic FBI profiler and patient of our good doctor. Graham has an almost supernatural ability to empathize with others, particularly killers. The dynamic between Graham and Hannibal is riveting, with Lecter doing his best to manipulate Graham into giving in to his inner darkness. Laurence Fishburne, Gillian Anderson, and Caroline Dhavernas round out the supporting cast; each and every one of them giving fantastic performances.
The series takes a deep dive into the psychologies of all of its characters, everyone from the main cast to the deranged killers of the week that find their way into the story from time to time. Helmed under delightfully weird showrunner Bryan Fuller, the series has some of the strongest writing and imagery that’s ever been on Network television. The show’s aesthetic somehow manages to be abstract, macabre, and beautiful all at once. As the show was in the cancellation bubble the entire time it was on the air, every season was filmed with an ending that would work as a series finale.
So viewers should have no fear about starting a show with no ending, as it has three.
Is Hannibal a pretentious show? Yeah. Is it a weird show? YEAH. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a truly unique viewing experience that I would advise everyone to try at least once.