You like your coffee black, your chocolate bittersweet and your nights sleepless and tormented. Well, maybe not. But you definitely like entertainment that embraces the dark side of human nature. Here is a list of complex, challenging, and criminally under-viewed TV series you might consider watching:
1. The Americans
They look like us. They sound like us. But the mom and dad next door are Soviet Union-raised spies with the KGB and it’s the early 1980s, the last gasp of the Cold War and what President Reagan called an “evil empire.” Keri Russell (Felicity) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers and Sisters) are masters of disguise who fight like ninjas, but they also are fully rounded characters caught between allegiance to the Motherland versus deepening bonds to the reviled United States; the dangers of their work and the need to protect their increasingly suspicious children; and their own wildly differing moral and emotional compasses as they try navigating these challenges as a couple. (FX; available on Amazon)
2. Bates Motel
What kind of mother could produce a Norman Bates? The minds behind Bates Motel gleefully embraced that challenge, and they found their perfect muse in Vera Farmiga, who commits heart, body and soul to her creation of Norma Bates. Her Norma is volatile, endearing, shrewd, devoted, vulnerable, seductive, witty and above all, unfiltered — just the kind of person you’d want in your book group. You can see why everyone falls in love with her, including her baby boy, who never stood a chance. As an actor, Freddie Highmore is completely up to the task. Close your eyes and imagine a young Tony Perkins (the show is posited as a prequel to the movie Psycho, though it is set in today’s world, on a gray, moody Oregon coast). Open them, and you’ll see Highmore. (A&E; available on Netflix)
3. Orphan Black
To witness jaw-dropping acting virtuosity, tune in to Orphan Black, a science fiction series in which lead actress Tatiana Maslany plays 10 different characters (and counting) who happen to be clones. Ah, but they are different, not only in personality, appearance and attire, but also in accent, speech and body language. They include a soccer mom, a dreadlocked hipster science geek, a sleek corporate climber, a punky British street grifter, and for good measure, a murderous Ukrainian religious fanatic. The “sestras” (the Ukrainian’s way of saying “sisters”) are frequently shown interacting with, and even impersonating, each other — and somehow Maslany makes it all clear. Fans around the world cheered when Maslany finally got nominated for an Emmy this year, overcoming an apparent Academy bias against sci fi. I urge you to overcome yours if you have one, at least for this show. It is smart, funny and thought-provoking. (BBC America; available on Amazon)
It’s a women’s prison, but the vibe at Wentworth is much more Oz than Orange. This tense, no-holds-barred show is more than a little soap operatic, replete with stabbings, drugs, contract hits, corrupt guards and a giantess warden nicknamed “The Freak.” I dare you to take your eyes off the transformation of lead inmate Bea, who enters Wentworth as a highly sympathetic near-innocent — she tried to kill her husband in response to repeated domestic abuse — and fights her way to the top of the brutal inmate hierarchy. The accents and language on this Australia-made show are a lot of fun. You might consider using the subtitles. (Netflix)
5. Mr. Robot
Here be millennials, and they are angry as hell. This show is a massive attack on a system personified by Evil Corp, a global conglomerate responsible for life-destroying personal debt loads and environmental devastation leading to the deaths of American workers. Wreaking havoc in a hoodie is lead character Elliot, a brilliant hacker who unites with others in a plot to bring down Evil Corp — but his psychological fragility makes him an unreliable narrator, and the viewer is swept with him down a rabbit hole into a world gone mad. (Huge kudos to actor Rami Malek.) It’s a thoroughly engrossing ride. (USA; available on Hulu)
Drawing from the Thomas Harris thriller canon, this is a nightmare of a show where even the most horrifying images— human organs sautéing, blood spraying from a slit throat, a person sprouting horns — convey a fluid, hypnotic beauty. Mads Mikkelsen gives us a debonair, sexy Hannibal Lecter, who, as a practicing psychiatrist, invades and manipulates his patients with satanic glee and a complete lack of morality. Hugh Dancy is superb as Will Graham, the tormented FBI profiler who seeks to expose Hannibal while falling under his spell. Did you know that “long pig” is the cannibal term for human flesh? The things we learn from this show … (NBC; available on Amazon)
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