It’s one of the great injustices of the modern world. While the likes of Waterloo Road and Canada’s Next Top Model clog up the airwaves, far superior offerings such as Friday Night Lights, recently rescued by Sky Atlantic, are squeezed out. Cult classics are rarely repeated. Underground gems slip under the radar. They’re consigned to the hidden corners of DVD racks, Sky+ planners or the internet, leaving some of the finest TV shows unseen. These stay-in-the-warm-on-the-sofa months are ideal for correcting this error, starting with these…
‘The Australian Sopranos’ dramatises the Melbourne gangland wars, which claimed 30 lives in the Nineties. Broadcast in 2008, it’s a credible chronicle, based on the book Leadbelly: Inside Australia’s Underworld by two reporters from local broadsheet The Age. The equivalent of Tony’s wiseguys are The Carlton Crew: a coked-up, power-crazed crime syndicate of killers, bank robbers, loan sharks and drug dealers. The characters are compellingly grotesque and the bursts of violence viscerally thrilling.
Try it if you like: Top Boy, The Wire, The Sopranos
Underbelly: Complete Season 1 is out now on DVD and iTunes
Remember Eighties action romp The Equalizer? Well, Callan is the cult British spy series that is responsible for first establishing Edward Woodward’s hard-man reputation. This late-Sixties/early-Seventies ITV gem starred Woodward as antihero David Callan, a reluctant hitman for a shady government counter-intelligence department called ‘The Section’. He prowls Cold War-era London, grappling with his morals when faced with killing in cold blood, usually without knowing what his targets have done to deserve such a fate. Mean, moody and almost like the Bourne novels, if they had been written by John Le Carré. It’s a compelling neglected classic — right down to the sinister opening credits of a single bare lightbulb swinging to and fro in an interrogation room.
Try it if you like: Spooks, 24, The Shadow Line
Some episodes were sadly lost, but the rest can be found on DVD, and Series 1 is available on iTunes
Parks & Recreation
This smart ensemble satire is one of the most critically acclaimed comedies currently on US network TV — and it’s succeeding in getting stronger with each series. It lovingly portrays a group of loser local government workers in Indiana and their useless efforts to build a town playground in a bid to improve their city, overseen by idealistic civil servant Leslie Knope (played by ex-SNL star Amy Poehler). Written by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, responsible for comedy hit The Office: An American Workplace, it is also a mockumentary that is by turns hysterical and heart-warming.
Try it if you like: The Office, The Thick Of It, Arrested Development
Available now on Region 1 DVD and Netflix
A Very Peculiar Practice
Andrew Davies is now one of our top TV writers, but he scored his first success in the mid-Eighties with this cult comedy-drama based on his own experiences as a lecturer. It’s set on the campus of Lowlands University, where angsty academics desperately cling to their cushy jobs in the face of Thatcher’s cuts. Dippy doctor Stephen Daker (Peter Davison) takes over the student health clinic and soon discovers a hotbed of sex, drink, drugs and corruption. Darkly surreal and searingly satirical, its 15 episodes also feature early screen roles for Kathy Burke and Hugh Grant.
Try it if you like: Fresh Meat, Green Wing, Scrubs
Complete series is out now on DVD
Man To Man With Dean Learner
This spin-off from the equally-underrated Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace starred Richard Ayoade as the titular chatshow host — a dapper porn publisher-cum-PR man. The six episodes, which snuck out on late-night Channel 4 five years ago, see the sleazy Learner interview spoof characters, all played by co-writer Matthew Holness, including horror author Marenghi, folk singer Merriman Weir and racing driver Steve ‘The Accelerator’ Pising, complete with plugs for Dean’s autobiography I Have A Dean.
Try it if you like: The Mighty Boosh, Alan Partridge, Big Train
Out now on DVD and iTunes
As his hit Buffy The Vampire Slayer finished, creator Joss Whedon hatched this ‘space western’ about the crew of a renegade transport ship in the year 2517. Despite the show being cancelled before the end of its 2002 debut run, it is filled with witty dialogue and compelling characters.
Try it if you like: Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, Red Dwarf
Complete series is out now on DVD and iTunes
The Monocled Mutineer
This four-part BBC drama from the mid-Eighties tells the true story of criminal Percy Toplis, who led an army mutiny during the First World War. It was never repeated due to controversial claims that the Beeb has a “left-wing” bias.
Try it if you like: Band Of Brothers, Birdsong, Foyle’s War
Complete series is out now on DVD
Graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, created this fantasy series in the mid-Nineties. When a London businessman has a strange encounter with a homeless girl, he enters a world under the streets inhabited by vampires, murderers and monsters. Harvey Weinstein has optioned the rights for a film adaptation.
Try it if you like: Doctor Who, Fringe, Sherlock
Out now on DVD
Super-smart US sitcom that mixes up the traditional format. Disgraced lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is forced to attend a community college where he’s thrown into a group of misfits — including Chevy Chase (below) and Ken Jeong.
Try it if you like: 30 Rock, The Simpsons, Spaced
Community: Series 1 is out now on DVD and iTunes
Freaks & Geeks
Hollywood’s comedy king Judd Apatow made his name with this 1999 comedy-drama set in a Detroit high school during the Eighties era of soft rock, bad denim and Ataris. The focus flits between the stoned slacker freaks and the Dungeons & Dragons-playing geeks, often feeling more like a cool indie flick than a TV show. At the first production meeting, Apatow made the crew write down their most embarrassing teen experience. They were all used in the show. The fresh-faced cast includes long-time Apatow collaborators James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen. It was cancelled after 18 episodes, but has developed a cult following.
Try it if you like: Glee, The Inbetweeners, Ashes To Ashes
Available now on Region 1 DVD or download
This six-part futuristic horror series, which was shown on Channel 4 in 1998, follows a secret government vampire-hunting squad who use hi-tech weaponry and never refer to their targets as the v-word, but “Code Fives” or “leeches”. Created by This Life and Doctor Who alumnus Joe Ahearne, it boasted a cast of This Life’s Jack Davenport, True Blood’s Stephen Moyer and The Wire’s Idris Elba. A pilot for a potential US remake was also made, in which Elba would have reprised his role, but the series was never commissioned. Stylish, dark and witty, it still stands up 14 years after transmission.
Try it if you like: Being Human, The Walking Dead, True Blood
The complete series is available on DVD
Canadian TV was only known for Due South and The Littlest Hobo until this amusingly subversive 2008 adaptation of Douglas Coupland’s novel. Co-written by Coupland himself, it’s about five developers, whose surnames all begin with ‘J’, working in the basement at the Neotronic Arts in Vancouver, trying to create the most gory video game in history. They are frequently distracted by plots involving Chinese gangsters, swingers, marijuana-farming parents, cough syrup addiction and a lesbian commune. There were fan protests when it was cancelled after one series, yet it only made it to Virgin On-Demand in the UK.
Try it if you like: The IT Crowd, The Big Bang Theory, Black Books
Available now on Region 1 DVD or download