It’s a cliché at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less true: We live in a golden age of television. More networks add more original scripted series each year. By the law of averages, some of them have to be pretty good. And a few of them have to be pretty great. The pile up is enough to crash even the most powerful of DVRs.
But with each new show, it gets a little bit harder to keep up with all the good TV that keeps coming—and it’s even harder to catch up. Sure, critical hits like FX’s The Americans and HBO’s Game of Thrones are well worth the investment (seriously, watch them both), but they also require a mountain of time before you’ll get anywhere near the new seasons. So, we’ve put together a list of 10 terrific shows that are still young enough (in other words, have a small enough episode count) that you can actually catch up in early 2017. No months-long commitment required. Happy viewing!
10. Life in Pieces
It seems like a few dozen family-focused sitcoms hit network TV each year, but this one is actually worth catching up on. Life in Pieces follows the members of one extended family, and uses each act to tell a smaller story that weaves into the wider narrative. It’s funny, touching, and heartfelt—and the storytelling approach provides just enough novelty to shake up the formula. It gives the expansive cast room to breathe, and opens things up for stories that follow everyone from the grandparents to the pre-teens. Currently on winter hiatus, Life in Pieces has evolved into the perfect sweet spot between Parenthood and Modern Family, tackling real drama with real humor, from the joy and exhaustion of parenthood to the doldrums that sometimes occur in married life. And even when the story gets painful, you can still feel the love shine through.
9. Master of None
Aziz Ansari’s acclaimed Netflix series dropped in late 2015, but if you missed it then, now is the perfect time to catch up on the all-too-brief first season—before the show returns with new episodes in 2017. It’s a quiet type of funny, as Ansari’s Dev channels what you loved about his alter ego from Parks and Recreation into a more naturalistic performance, crafting a compelling character study in the process. He populates Dev’s world with a diverse cast of supporting players, telling a messy story about love, family and trying to find one’s self.
This AMC series is reminiscent of both Ex Machina and Westworld, and you only have to watch the eight-episode debut season to catch up before it returns in February. The story is framed around the invention of “synths,” anthropomorphic robots, and the impact they have on the human world. Humans tackles some heavy themes, including memory, personhood, human (and non-human) rights and the fear of things we may not understand. Some of it is well-mined sci-fi territory, but Humans puts a fresh spin on the themes you might remember from old Twilight Zone re-runs. It also features an impeccable cast, led by Gemma Chan, William Hurt and a few others, who turn in some of the most human (and sometimes spooky) performances you’ll see anywhere on TV. The show is actually a remake of a Swedish series, and is one of the few remakes that manage to meet (and sometimes exceed) the quality of the original.
7. The Last Ship
Don’t let the fact that explosion maestro Michael Bay is a producer scare you away—this action-adventure series is far better than your typical summer fare. Based on William Brinkley’s novel of the same name, The Last Ship digs into the political and social ramifications of a deadly virus that ravages the planet. The story is told through the lens of the crew aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer tasked with finding a cure for the virus, and eventually follows them as they take on roles in the new-look America. Does it get a bit hokey and ham-fisted? Sure. But as it chronicles the efforts to rebuild the country and the world, The Last Ship is telling one of the most ambitious stories on television—all hidden inside an action-packed distraction on TNT’s summer scheduling block. The network has already ordered two more seasons, and the fourth doesn’t premiere until the summer of 2017, so you have plenty of time to catch up.
6. Black Mirror
If you haven’t gone down the near-future rabbit hole of Black Mirror, the time is now. Put simply, it’s the modern day equivalent of The Twilight Zone, telling anthologized stories about the potential perils of technology and the way it changes our lives—from the isolating influence of social media to executive producer Charlie Brooker’s distinctive spin on the very idea of “gotcha!” twists. The one-off approach has allows the creative team to attract top talent, including Jon Hamm, Hayley Atwell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Alice Eve, Toby Kebbell and Mackenzie Davis, among others. There are only 13 episodes spread across three brief seasons, so you can easily knock it out, time-wise, in a weekend of binging. (Whether it’s prudent to do so, content-wise, is another story.) Even better? Since every episode is self-contained, you can put it on the shelf and come back when you have time without losing your place.
5. People of Earth
This high-concept comedy centers on a reporter (played by Daily Show alum Wyatt Cenac) who investigates a support group for people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens. It’s an ensemble TV show in the vein of Community, featuring a colorful cast of characters tied together by a premise that never gets stale. But where the easy set up would see the series poke fun at these folks, it instead takes a turn for the heartfelt (with a good bit of poking fun, too, but still). And, unlike a lot of comedies on TV that think they’re smart, People of Earth actually is smart. Cenac has capably made the transition into leading man, and creator David Jenkins is almost certainly going to move on to something else great. Until then, enjoy People of Earth: The network recently ordered a second season for 2017, so binge it now to get prepped.
4. Ash vs. Evil Dead
When word broke that Sam Raimi was reviving his cult hit horror franchise Evil Dead as a TV series, there was every chance he and his collaborators would get it wrong—the films struck such a strange, precise balance of scary, funny and bizarre. But surprisingly enough, the series did, too. Broken up into half-hour episodes, Ash vs. Evil Dead is basically two long film sequels segmented into short vignettes. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the format is perfect for binging. The second season went through a few creative ups and downs (though Ash’s fight against a colon is alone worth the price of admission), but it ended with a surreal cliffhanger that should be interesting to explore in Season Three. If you’re looking for a gore-filled romp you can mainline in a weekend, you could do far worse.
3. Luke Cage
Even if you’re not a fan of the Marvel machine, or the comic book genre more broadly, Luke Cage is well worth the weekend’s investment it takes to binge the 13-episode first season. It features a diverse, talented cast that actually represents the show’s Harlem setting—and has some of the best music you’ll find on just about any TV series. It’s framed in the sometimes-tired tropes of the comic book genre, but at its heart, this is the story of a city and the battle for what it will represent. The bad guys have nuance, and the good guys aren’t perfect. The superhero origin story does get a bit clunky at times, but Mike Colter’s take on Cage holds it together capably, with some welcome help from Rosario Dawson’s moonlighting nurse Claire Temple. Netflix has a full slate of Marvel shows already, so it might be as late as 2018 that Season Two of Luke Cage arrives. So, you have plenty of time to get this added to your watch list.
2. Vice Principals
This black comedy at HBO was one of the darkest, and funniest, shows of 2016. It borders on mean-spirited at times, but Danny McBride and Walton Goggins bring so much charisma to their roles as aspiring vice principals aiming to oust their new boss that it doesn’t really matter. Just when you think you know where it’s going, Vice Principals will take a left turn into both the hilarious and bizarre. It’s the story of two fairly terrible people trying to find the redeemable in the largely irredeemable. If not for this cast, it’s hard to imagine it actually working. But somehow, it does. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, and you’ll laugh a little more. HBO has already aired the nine-episode first season, and the second is in the can. It’s slated to return at some point in 2017, and you’d only really need a long afternoon to get all caught up.
1. Halt and Catch Fire
This is one of the best shows on television, and it’s criminally underrated. Thankfully, AMC has remained committed to keeping it on the air. (They have to use that Walking Dead money somewhere, right?). The pitch started out as a 1980s spin on Mad Men, swapping advertising for the birth of the PC era, but it quickly evolved into an ambitious series about breaking the glass ceiling and the heartbreak of showing up to the revolution a few years too early. It’s not just about having the right idea, it’s about having it at the right time. The first three seasons of Halt and Catch Fire feel almost like entries in an anthology series, with each adopting a new perspective on the same rotating cast of characters. It’s the story of damaged people living damaged lives, and with the final season airing in 2017, now is the time to catch up.
Trent Moore is an award-winning journalist and professional geek. You can read more of his stuff at Syfy Wire, and keep up with all his shenanigans @trentlmoore.