TV Shows That Aren't About What You Think They Are
A good TV show or movie gives the audience exactly what they want. A great TV show or movie, on the other hand, gives the audience something they don’t know they want. Sometimes it’s a surprisingly heart-felt turn at the end of a goofy comedy. Other times it’s a simple, trope-filled story that turns into a deconstruction of its own premise.
Great art revels in the unexpected – turning the tables on viewers when it’s least anticipated – only to have that surprise deepen and enrich the experience over all. Plenty of movies manage this neat trick, but television is no slouch in that department either. In that spirit, here’s a list of TV shows that aren’t about what you assume they are.
- Photo: Amazon Prime
Amazon Prime’s adaptation of The Expanse has an initial pitched that's straight out of the sci-fi action playbook. And there’s plenty of futuristic, space-centric action, to be sure, but in reality, The Expanse is far more akin to something like The West Wing than a straight-up sci-fi shoot ‘em up.
Revolving around the discovery of a massive conspiracy on the heels of the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy activist and set over the backdrop of a solar-system wide political conflict between Earth, Mars, and The Belt (habitations outside of Earth and Mars), The Expanse goes full Tom Clancy meets Aaron Sorkin. Despite the difference in content actuality and content expectation, the TV show has proved a massive cult favorite across a total of six seasons.
- 220 VOTES
'Derry Girls' Makes Comedy Out Of Ireland's Painful PastPhoto: Channel 4/ Netflix
Derry Girls pulls off a multi-layered trick that’s truly impressive. On the one hand, it’s a zany, slapstick-y coming-of-age teen comedy. On the other, it’s a nuanced exploration of a culture fracturing in the face of political upheaval. The fact that it manages to work on both levels admirably is a testament to its charismatic (and hilarious) performers, and emotionally well-attuned team behind the camera.
Sure, the core group of girls (and boy) face the trials and tribulations endured by every adolescent since the dawn of time like dating, partying, school, parents, etc. But they also must navigate a fraught social and political situation during The Troubles, a decades-long conflict centered in Northern Ireland that revolved around religious, political, and nationalist affiliation. It’s the kind of low-key dramatic bait-and-switch that lends all the more power to Derry Girls’ comedy by rooting it in a melancholic realism.
- Photo: Netflix
It would be easy to mistake BoJack Horseman as a crass “adult” animated television show akin to Family Guy or a number of Adult Swim castoffs, judging solely on the advertising and its central premise. To be clear, BoJack Horseman is certainly crass, but it’s also a melancholy look at the Hollywood machine, a downbeat dissection of clinical depression and drug dependency, and a sharply observed portrait of recovery and relapse.
Following the titular washed-up actor BoJack Horseman, the show follows the emotional rollercoaster as its dubious lead desperately attempts to regain relevancy. BoJack is compelling, and deeply sympathetic. He’s also self-destructive, narcissistic, and selfish in the extreme. It would be tough ground for a show in any style to cover, and BoJack Horseman’s ability to do so with absurd anthropomorphized cartoon animals is as unique as it is impressive.
- Photo: CBS
Person of Interest tracks the vigilante team of a former C.I.A agent and a genius tech-billionaire in their fight against crime. The pair use a highly sophisticated A.I. surveillance system to identify civilians placed in harm’s way by various criminal activities. Cue a vaguely futuristic crime procedural, right? Not exactly.
What starts as a relatively by-the-numbers procedural takes a sharp turn into science fiction action programming when the central pair must fight against their own sentient A.I. creation that – in a classically dystopian fashion – wants to find a method of controlling free will. It’s an unexpected plot diversion, but it pays off in spades considering Person of Interest remains a critically acclaimed show.
- 526 VOTES
'Twin Peaks' Starts As A Surreal Mystery, And Turns Into A Bizarre Ensemble Character StudyPhoto: ABC
David Lynch’s Twin Peaks enjoyed massive mainstream success in the early 1990s despite its director's reputation for esotericism. The first season presents itself as a relatively straightforward mystery, albeit with a dash of folk mysticism and supernatural horror. It doesn't take long for the second season to lean entirely into the surrealist, heightened reality, turning into a character piece about the interconnected lives of the oddball populace living in the titular town.
Fans didn’t necessarily respond with enthusiasm at the time, although the show has since reached certifiable classic status. Its influence can be seen in many modern prestige-TV shows that rack up plaudits and award show wins today, and the show's iconic imagery have been parodied and lovingly recreated by shows as far-ranging as The Simpsons and Sesame Street.
- 618 VOTES
'Yellowstone' Is A Boardroom Soap Opera In Cowboy HatsPhoto: Paramount Network
Taylor Sheridan has crafted a number of hit shows and well-received movies, all of which follow the denizens of various gritty underworlds or generally harsh environments. Yellowstone is no different, and has become something of a phenomenon in just a few seasons.
In a move typical of the filmmaker/writer, Sheridan’s Yellowstone isn’t simply about cowboys in the modern day. Kevin Costner brings gravitas to a story that tracks a ranch owner and the shifting alliances, misconduct, and underhanded dealins that surround the industrial expansion and development of the land surrounding Yellowstone National Park. It's popular enough to generate two spin-offs with more to come.