Presidents’ Day doesn’t provide a very long holiday weekend—most people don’t even have it off from work. So this latest installment of A.V. Club binge-watching recommendations skews a little shorter and focuses on 18 one-season shows. Though one series has a whopping 39 episodes, most are in the easy-to-consume range of nine to 15 installments, and the entries are roughly organized from shortest to longest. With this guide, we’ve placed the focus on shows that are beyond the obvious choices—no Firefly, no My So-Called Life, no Freaks And Geeks, no The Cape. Instead, here are legally available single-seasoners that are a bit more under the radar. Not interested in these? We also cover one-season shows with our new feature, One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes.
(2012; six episodes)
What it’s about: An opposites-attract romantic comedy made for TV, where uptight lawyer Alex (Amanda Peet) hires laid-back contractor Pete (David Walton) to renovate her kitchen and finds it’s hard to keep him from getting involved with the rest of her life.
Why you should watch it: Of all the NBC shows to fail over the last decade, this might be the most regrettable. Shelved for midseason and burned off over three weeks when no one was looking, this was one of the most endearing comedies that’s been tried in years, thanks to well-written dialogue and a genuine chemistry between Peet and Walton. Jeffrey Tambor, as Pete’s unemployed actor father, also livened things up. Bent was not unique, but it was remarkably well executed.
Who it’s for: Romantic-comedy fans; anyone considering a home-renovation project and looking for worst-case scenarios; people who only have two hours to spare.
Availability: All six episodes are streaming on Amazon.
Andy Barker, P.I. (2007; six episodes)
What it’s about: A strip-mall accountant who’s mistaken for the previous tenant—a private detective—starts taking cases anyway with help from the old detective and the neighboring video-store manager.
Why you should watch it: Conan O’Brien and Jonathan Groff’s private-eye spoof was canceled after just six episodes, but that’s not an indication of quality. Co-written by Jane Espenson and Alex Herschlag, “Fairway, My Lovely” is as fully formed as a series gets, an engaging mystery with funny gags—and it’s just the second episode. As with the title homages, series director Jason Ensler marries detective-novel stories with a goofy comic universe that feels noir-ish without overloading on obvious shadows and angles. Andy Richter leads an ensemble of ninjas: Tony Hale and Harve Presnell make hilarious sidekicks, and Nicole Randall Johnson might have the highest batting average in the cast as Andy’s self-appointed secretary.
Who it’s for: Anyone who misses Bored To Death; Arrested Development fans on the lookout for Andy Richter’s stunt double; Paul Auster.
Availability: The complete series is available on DVD and is streaming on Amazon and Hulu.
Police Squad! (1982; six episodes)
What it’s about: A spoof of cop shows that faithfully sent up the specifics of the genre while cramming as many jokes as possible into every minute of airtime.
Why you should watch it: It’s a groundbreaking comedy that’s still riotously funny 30 years later. Even if the cop-show conventions it sends up have changed, the clever, absurdist humor and fast pace remain ahead of its time. When the show originally aired, ABC canceled it after six episodes because it thought people wouldn’t be able to keep up with the onslaught of jokes, or, as network president Tony Thomopoulos elegantly put it, “The viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” Undaunted, creators David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams adapted the show for the big screen as The Naked Gun and its sequels. People got the jokes. Even more so than those films, however, Police Squad! has Leslie Nielsen at his absolute best, remarkably committed to remaining totally straight-faced, no matter how absurd his surroundings get.
Who it’s for: Anyone who’s disappointed by incredibly lazy Epic Movie-style spoofs; anyone who loved The Naked Gun.
Availability: None of the major streaming services carry the show, but every episode is available on YouTube.
The Tick (2001; nine episodes)
What it’s about: A delusional, nigh-indestructible superhero and his meek sidekick navigate a city overrun by heroes and villains with questionably useful powers. Based on the 1994-96 animated series of the same name, which was itself based on the comic book of the same name.
Why you should watch it: This much weirdness rarely makes it onto a major network, which is why most fans of The Tick’s previous incarnations were happy the show got even this many episodes. While the Saturday morning cartoon saw the hero fighting an increasingly bizarre assortment of supervillains from week to week, the live-action version was equally likely to focus on real-life concerns like love, death, and professional jealousy. And there was no shortage of off-the-wall villains—including a Soviet robot still on a decades-old mission to destroy Jimmy Carter, a hero who’s abusive toward his sidekick, and a terrorist who keeps nuclear weapons in the back of his car. Patrick Warburton, fresh off of playing Puddy on Seinfeld, is perfectly cast as a similarly unflappable lunkhead, except one who’s bright blue and has superpowers.
Who it’s for: Anyone who was a fan of the animated series; anyone tired of the latest run of self-serious superhero films.
Availability: Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix all have the full series available for streaming.
Clone High (2002; 13 episodes)
What it’s about: It’s all in Abandoned Pools’ early-’00s theme song: In the ’80s, shadowy operatives pulled a Jurassic Park with genetic material from history’s great leaders, thinkers, and creators. Those clones are now teens ruled by hormones, prone to very-special-episode plots, and voiced by the combined casts of Scrubs and MADtv.
Why you should watch it: Fitting for its subject matter, Clone High was simply out of sync with the times: Too late to take part in MTV’s earlier wave of smartass, pop-culture-savvy cartoons, too early to do the same within the confines of an Adult Swim lineup. The historical humor never reaches beyond the broad strokes of the characters’ biographies: Abe Lincoln, Joan Of Arc, Gandhi, Cleopatra, and John F. Kennedy are largely vessels for TV tropes that co-creator Bill Lawrence couldn’t riff on in his flagship live-action cartoon—the type of stuff his collaborators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller now lace into big-screen fare like the Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs franchise.
Who it’s for: Adults seeking an excuse for seeing The Lego Movie; presidential scholars seeking to settle the “Lincoln vs. Kennedy” debate; members of The Guy Who Plays Mr. Belvedere Fan Club.
Availability: Canadian broadcaster Teletoon footed the bill for a two-disc DVD set that’s readily available online—though most of the series is easily found via YouTube search.
Traffic Light (2011; 13 episodes)
What it’s about: The spring of 2011 brought three separate comedies about couples in different stages of their relationships to three different networks. The best was Happy Endings, but this Fox trifle wasn’t bad either. Traffic Light followed a married couple with a kid, a couple that just moved in together, and a single dude.
Why you should watch it: No one’s going to mistake this for one of the great sitcoms of all time, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion for a lazy day off, particularly in the scenes featuring David Denman and Liza Lapira as the married couple. Lapira’s been waiting for a show to use her as well as this one did, and Denman gets to play a character other than Vaguely Sleazy Guy with his upstanding husband who just wants a little peace and quiet. You know all of these notes by heart, but the actors playing them find new riffs throughout.
Who it’s for: People who have been married for a long time; people who have just moved in together; single people; anyone wanting to know more about Aya Cash, that woman who kept yelling “JORDAN!” in The Wolf Of Wall Street.
Availability: The complete series is available to stream on Netflix. Episodes are for sale on Amazon.
Harsh Realm (1999-2000; 9 episodes)
What it’s about: Chris Carter followed up The X-Files and Millennium with this short-lived comic book adaptation that bears more than a little resemblance to a cyberpunk Heart Of Darkness. Mostly ignored and poorly reviewed at the time, the series now seems weirdly prescient.
Why you should watch it: There have been many great one-season science-fiction shows, but Harsh Realm has been slightly lost in the midst of all of them. It doesn’t deserve to be. With its story of a soldier sent into a virtual-reality scenario in order to track down a brutal, dictatorial general (played by Terry O’Quinn), the series managed to come up with a setting where everything was taking place in a computer that didn’t feel especially derivative of The Matrix. Plus, its mythology is pleasingly complex.
Who it’s for: People still trolling Compuserve’s X-Files section; anyone dissatisfied by how Oculus Rift just isn’t real enough, man; D.B. Sweeney aficionados.
Availability: The complete series is available on DVD.
Luck (2012; 9 episodes)
What it’s about: Gangsters and gamblers, trainers and degenerates—they all congregate around a Southern California horseracing track and aim for the next big score in Michael Mann and David Milch’s mesmerizing look at an American subculture on the edge.
Why you should watch it: Luck was famously canceled after being renewed for a second season—because the series was unable to provide absolute safety to the retired racehorses that were its raison d’être. (The second-season premiere was produced but then shelved after the cancellation.) This was too bad because, despite low ratings, Luck was Milch’s return to the effortless poetry he had created on NYPD Blue and Deadwood. The series takes a bit to get going, but by its fourth episode, it settles into a high gear and never lets up. Plus, it tells a complete story, though parts of its finale will leave you sad there was never more.
Who it’s for: Anyone watching their life circle the drain in a seedy motel room; fans of Miami Vice looking for a second hit; anyone needing a cleansing tonic after Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.
Availability: The complete series is on DVD and Blu-ray. Episodes can also be purchased on iTunes and Amazon.
Tell Me You Love Me (2007; 10 episodes)
What it’s about: A prelude to its even better In Treatment, here’s HBO’s original attempt to build a series around therapy (in this case, couples’ sex counseling) without the intrusions of mob life that made The Sopranos so successful.
Why you should watch it: Here’s another series HBO renewed before pulling the plug, this time because creator Cynthia Mort was unable to find a direction for season two. That’s probably because season one tells such a self-contained story, one that can try the patience but ends beautifully—particularly when it comes to Ally Walker and Tim DeKay as middle-aged parents who haven’t had sex in over a year. Their story alone is worth watching the show for, as is Jane Alexander’s performance as the therapist.
Who it’s for: Anybody who’s into “watching paint fuck,” as the old commenter meme would have it; people who would like to see sex depicted on television in highly clinical fashion; anyone who wondered what it would be like if Penny from Lost and Ben Wyatt slept together.
Availability: The complete series is on DVD. Episodes can also be purchased on iTunes and Amazon, and it’s currently streaming on HBO Go.
(2012; 13 episodes)
What it’s about: Following a lethal car accident, Detective Michael Britten finds himself caught between two realities: He goes to sleep in a world where his wife survived the crash, then wakes up in a world where his son survived. In the space between these realities lies an explanation for the crash and the key to moving on with his life.
Why you should watch it: It’s an example of how even the most compelling premises have difficulty sustaining 13 hours of television. (See also: the second and third seasons of Homeland, which came out of the same development cycle as Awake.) Picking up on the themes of duality and truth that creator Kyle Killen previously explored in the swiftly canceled Lone Star, Awake bit off more than it could chew, but did so with style (the color-coded realities) and bravery (the meditation on loss disguised as a primetime cop show). It also boasts Jason Isaacs’ stirring portrayal of Britten, a grounding force amid the preposterous conspiracy-plotting of later episodes.
Who it’s for: Aspiring TV writers; penguin enthusiasts; Harry Potter fans who wonder what Lucius Malfoy would look like without that hair; Lost fans looking to take the sting out of that series’ twists and turns.
Availability: In our reality, Awake is available for streaming from Netflix and Amazon—though in an alternate reality, it’s entering its third season.
Terriers (2010; 13 episodes)
What’s it about: A recovering alcoholic and ex-cop, still reeling from a divorce, teams up with his best friend (and former criminal) to become unlicensed private detectives in Ocean Beach, California.
Why you should watch it: Look, this one still stings. Terriers had the misfortune of falling through the cracks at FX despite enormous critical acclaim, in a development era right before incubating promising series that struggled with ratings became standard practice at the network. Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James give career-best performances, and it has one of the all-time great theme songs, Rob Duncan’s “Gunfight Epiphany.”
Who it’s for: Fans of Justified (which could be construed as the Southern-fried version of what Ted Griffin and Shawn Ryan were attempting with Terriers); anyone watching True Detective while wishing for less suffocating darkness and a bit more levity.
Availability: The entire series is streaming on Netflix.
Swingtown (2008; 13 episodes)
What it’s about: If the title didn’t give it away, Swingtown is about the sexual revolution of the ’70s. Specifically, it follows the story of a swing-curious couple and their first foray into this sexual adventure after moving to an affluent Chicago suburb in 1976—where their new neighbors are in an open relationship. Cue the key parties.
Why you should watch it: Sure it was canceled, but the fashion and music alone are enough to to warrant dropping in for an episode. Pair that with top-notch casting and the characters’ trials and tribulations, and it’s more than enough to sustain that interest. The double entendres—“If you want to share, why don’t you bring it to our party tomorrow night”—are so blatant, they somehow avoid being annoying, instead adding to the charming camp that characterize the era.
Who it’s for: Anyone interested in key parties but too nervous to attend; people who are suckers for teacher-student relationships à la Pretty Little Liars; aficionados of watered-down sexual experiences.
Availability: It’s available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video.
Wonderfalls (2004; 13 episodes)
What it’s about: Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas), a sullen clerk at a Niagara Falls gift shop, has her life turned upside down when she starts hearing voices emanating from various animal-shaped trinkets. By following their cryptic instructions, she finds herself both improving the lives of those around her and rebuilding ties with her estranged family.
Why you should watch it: Badly mistreated by Fox when it aired—largely because they had no idea how to market it—Wonderfalls is a show that’s impossible to categorize, thanks to the mix of genres and tones it draws from. Despite that, it’s expertly guided by the hands of showrunners Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland to be a surreal-yet-grounded story of young adulthood. Dhavernas is fantastic as the ultra-sarcastic yet ultimately sympathetic Jaye, the supporting cast (particularly Lee Pace and Katie Finneran as Jaye’s siblings) turns out memorably fun performances, and there’s a definite charm and personality to all the “muses” that interrupt Jaye’s daily life.
Who it’s for: Retail employees familiar with bored flights of fancy; viewers who found Pushing Daisies too assertively bright or Twin Peaks too assertively weird.
Availability: Most of the episodes are available in parts on YouTube, and the complete series has been collected on DVD.
The Comeback (2005; 13 episodes)
What it’s about: A fading TV star is cast on a new sitcom on the condition she take part in a reality series about her comeback, which is only the beginning of the indignities she’ll suffer for fame in Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow’s satire of shamelessness.
Why you should watch it: A defining series of the decade, The Comeback takes the form of reality television to show how it’s made a sport of self-abasement. Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish stands alongside Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe in terms of her fullness and delusion. She has more self-awareness than David Brent, which only enhances the cringe comedy, but mostly she inspires sympathy as an understandable human being with a single, overriding flaw. As her sitcom develops, her character is reduced to a line and her show to tacky desperation, and the series becomes a chronicle of people sacrificing their bodies, emotions, and morals for whatever spotlight they can find.
Who it’s for: Wacky aunts; A Shot At Love 3 contestants; anyone considering a catchphrase.
Availability: Every episode is currently available on YouTube, and the series is also available on DVD and streaming on HBO Go.
The Prisoner (1967-1968; 17 episodes)
What’s it about: Patrick McGoohan stars as a never-named secret agent who, at the start of the series, resigns from his position for reasons that are never made explicit. A mysterious organization kidnaps McGoohan from his home and brings him to The Village, a sort of open-air prison community where ex-spies and intelligence operatives are held captive. Assigned the number six in place of his name, McGoohan faces down a series of aggressive, cunning, and potentially deadly seconds-in-command, all of whom are desperate to unlock his secrets.
Why you should watch it: It’s no surprise that a show this aggressively odd only lasted a single season; in fact, McGoohan (who created as well as starred) originally planned to make only seven episodes. Fans of closure need not be too worried, as the two-part finale is designed to serve as a definitive, if baffling, conclusion. Trippy, grimly hilarious, ahead of its time, and consistently unexpected, The Prisoner is a sci-fi thriller designed to subvert expectations of what exactly that phrase means. Anchoring it all is McGoohan as quite possibly the angriest man in the world.
Who’s it for: People who found the “Star Child” ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey too straightforward; those who prefer their fascism whimsical; weather-balloon enthusiasts.
Availability: It’s streaming on Amazon Instant Video and has been released on DVD and Blu-ray.
(2001; 17 episodes)
What it’s about: A former high-school dweeb seeks to reinvent himself during his first year at college. He makes surprising headway in that effort, despite constant drop-ins from his newly divorced dad, his crush’s long-term boyfriend, a chick-magnet roommate, and the everyday obstacles of being a Judd Apatow protagonist.
Why you should watch it: The aforementioned creator, for a start: Undeclared was Apatow’s follow-up to the similarly beloved, similarly short-lived Freaks And Geeks, and it provides ample evidence that his work on Girls ought to lead to new TV ventures. Rather than trying to make a primetime Animal House, Apatow and crew—including the before-they-were-famous likes of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Charlie Hunnam, and Amy Poehler—depicted the college experience in relatable rites of passage and recognizably hilarious humiliations.
Who it’s for: Incoming freshman and outgoing seniors; anyone who’s used a dorm-room poster to make friends; Loudon Wainwright III completists; Monica Keena advocates.
Availability: It’s streaming alongside its spiritual predecessors on Netflix, though the time-capsule-within-a-time-capsule nature of the DVD set’s episode commentaries—recorded just as everything started coming up Apatow—are worth the price tag.
The Job (2001; 19 episodes)
What it’s about: The Job was Denis Leary’s first full-time foray into scripted TV, as troubled NYPD detective Mike McNeil. McNeil and his precinct (Bill Nunn, Adam Ferrara, Lenny Clarke, Diane Farr, John Ortiz) deal with various crimes around the city and their own personal issues—the latter of which frequently interfere with the former.
Why you should watch it: A mix of police procedural, black comedy, and antihero-centric cable drama, The Job is an interesting and often complicated show. Leary’s character was an alcoholic, adulterer and drug abuser, but he was also someone who regularly got himself in farcical misunderstandings and had to wriggle his way out of them. Matters that would be considered bleak on NYPD Blue or Law And Order were treated lightly—severed feet were used as a recurring practical joke in one instance—yet the show still mined genuine emotion out of how screwed-up its characters were. Unfortunately shelved after the events of 9/11, it remains an experiment with compelling results.
Who it’s for: People who like their cop shows cut with more humor than usual; Rescue Me fans turned off by how dark that show could be.
Availability: The complete series is streaming on Netflix and available on DVD.
(1955-56; 39 episodes)
What it’s about: The original one-season wonder, The Honeymooners is one of the foundational texts of the American sitcom. The stories are as elemental and basic as they come—immediately familiar even if you haven’t seen the show—yet they remain amazingly funny.
Why you should watch it: Jackie Gleason. Art Carney. Audrey Meadows. Joyce Randolph. There have been sitcom ensembles the equal of this one, but it’s entirely possible there’s never been one better, so perfectly calibrated. The Honeymooners brought a touch of working-class desperation to the sitcom format I Love Lucy had introduced, and in its 39 episodes, it created some of the most classic moments and lines in the genre’s history. Even more remarkable: There’s not a dud in this bunch. (Please note that doesn’t go for the so-called “Lost Episodes,” bits and pieces of old “Honeymooners” sketches from Gleason’s pre-existing comedy show that were cobbled together into “episodes” in the ’80s and should be avoided.)
Who it’s for: Anyone wanting to know more about sitcom history; anyone who’s been saying “To the moon!” without knowing where it came from; Art Carney fans (which we should all be).
Availability: The complete series is on DVD.