You may have noticed that there’s a lot of TV on right now. As a TV critic whose job it is to review as much of that television as I can, even I’m overwhelmed by what is out there. Sometimes months go by before I can catch up on interesting debuts and buzzed-about series. But the great thing about streaming TV — which is now a booming platform with dozens of services — is that the shows that debut there, stay there. Chances are you already subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video. But as those streaming services keep adding more shows — either new originals, like Netflix, or libraries of older shows, like Hulu — unique, strange, and innovative new shows can get buried.
The following five shows are all 2017 debuts that might have escaped your notice. Most were reviewed by fewer than 20 professional critics, according to Metacritic; few star well-known actors; and some barely had ad campaigns. And yet each in its own way impressed me. All are currently available on their respective platforms.
1. “American Vandal” (Netflix)
This eight-part parody docuseries is one of the more genuinely surprising shows you’ll see in 2017 — a combination of satire, high-school drama, criminal profiling, and investigative journalism that evolves from hilarious and overly faithful parody into a sincere commentary on pigeonholing anyone based on what they look like on paper. “American Vandal” follows two high school students trying to learn who spray-painted 47 crudely drawn penises on practically every car in a parking lot. It’s a largely harmless crime, which is why Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund’s (Griffin Gluck) absurdly detailed investigation is at first so funny. But as the story continues, Peter and Sam end up learning more about the unfairness built into high school discipline than they bargained for. The show is elevated by extraordinarily lived-in and convincing performances of teen geekery from Alvarez and Gluck — and a late-season interrogation of high school stereotype that is much more relevant than “American Vandal” first appears.
2. “Harlots” (Hulu)
This frothy historical drama, which also aired in the United Kingdom on ITV, tells the story of several professional prostitutes in the late 1700s London with a healthy dash of melodrama. It stars “Downton Abbey” actress Jessica Brown-Findlay, which just serves to underscore what a different kind of period piece “Harlots” is from your average costume drama. The world it creates is totally different from the genteel drawing rooms and bustling servants’ halls of “Downton”; it’s closer to “Game of Thrones” than Jane Austen. Especially for those fond of untold historical perspectives, “Harlots” is a unique gem. And though it is both soapy and silly, it manages to have its fun with a sense of atmosphere that populates Covent Garden with the historically accurate patchwork of humanity often erased from stodgier histories.
3. “The Tick” (Amazon)
Ben Edlund’s hero the Tick has been revived before, but the half-hour that came to Amazon in August might well be the most successful; it’s an odd, sweet story less about the Tick (Peter Serafinowicz) than it is about super-neurotic super-fan Arthur (Griffin Newman, who is a friend of this critic). The success of the show comes down entirely to how much slightly detached grandstanding amuses you; my colleague Maureen Ryan wasn’t as captivated as I ended up being. “The Tick” is a self-conscious superhero story, with perspective that feels badly lacking in the rest of the genre. Serafinowicz’s performance is a study in subtle ironies, while Arthur is one of the most relatable (and most unlikely) heroes of the modern superhero era. Sure, other superheroes start out as nerds. But Arthur starts out a superfan — making “The Tick” a smart, fascinating exploration of one of the defining elements of modern geekdom.
4. “Comrade Detective” (Amazon)
Like “American Vandal,” “Comrade Detective” is a parody, but that’s about where the comparisons end. “Comrade Detective” presents itself as a “lost” piece of Soviet propaganda now unearthed for the American viewer, although it is of course no such thing. The illusion is convincing, though. The entire six-part series is filmed in Romania, stars Romanian actors Florin Piersic Jr. and Corneliu Ulici, and is in Romanian — which is then dubbed over, purposefully quite badly, by English-speaking actors (and bona fide stars) Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Just American TV shows sometimes opt for cheesy patriotism, “Comrade Detective” offers up its version of cheesy Soviet patriotism, in a way that is weird, funny, and at times very thought-provoking. “Comrade Detective” encourages the viewer to watch the show as if it is a puzzle to dissect — and in the process of interpreting propaganda, it offers a lot of commentary on what propaganda is.
5. “Dear White People” (Netflix)
Chances are you’ve either seen every episode of this show or have no idea what all the fuss is about. “Dear White People” has exploded within some viewing niches and is sadly absent outside of them. The Netflix series is both an adaptation and an extension of Justin Simien’s 2014 film; both tell the story of black students at a fictional Ivy League institution, trying to come to grips with the fact that a blackface party happened on campus. The film is fantastic, and features some performers that had to be replaced for the series. But ultimately, the Netflix show comes out stronger; it spends a little more time with each character, and switches perspectives slightly with each episode, telling an overlapping story of student life that is both brilliantly constructed and beautifully directed. It’s a stylized, frank, wordy show — both very sharp about racial difference in America, especially among well-meaning liberals, as well as genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. At 10 snappily edited and sharply paced half-hour episodes, it’s also a breeze to marathon-watch.