TV series like literary novels
November 28, 2016 4:57 PM   Subscribe

I recently inhaled The Crown. My all time favorite TV show is Mad Men. What should I watch next?

I love how both shows have a slow, literary approach and deal with female characters and the power politics of their relationships. A historical gloss is bonus but not necessary. I like stuff that's on the edge of soapy without quite going over the edge. I adored the miniseries of Olive Kitteridge and was a big fan of Six Feet Under. I like Game of Thrones and enjoyed the first few seasons of Boardwalk Empire but both feel a little weak, writing-wise, at times. Character-driven scifi or fantasy is good (I loved Fringe, but not LOST). Good writing is paramount and I like stories that are true to their premises but not necessarily predictable. Drama, not comedy. I don't mind unlikable characters or unhappy endings. They might even be a bonus.

What should I watch next?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi to Media & Arts (59 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
You watched Downton Abbey, of course?
posted by janey47 at 5:01 PM on November 28, 2016

Have you been watching Orphan Black? Tremendous exploration of feminist issues of control over one's body, technology, and sisterhood, and a truly tour-de-force performance by Tatiana Maslany as numerous clones, each entirely individual.
posted by gateau at 5:03 PM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

I've watched Downtown Abbey but gave up after season 3. I found the characters unrealistic. I've tried to watch Orphan Black but found it boring (?!) though I'd be up for trying again. Thinking more about it, I think it's important to say that I like Girls but generally don't like shows with clever characters or clever dialogue (Gilmore Girls, Joss Whedon). Quiet hyperrealism is more my bag.

(This question was prompted by watching the first episode of Wolf Hall and finding it a snooze, and trying to pinpoint why I liked The Crown but not this...)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:08 PM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Oop, the mention of Orphan Black reminded me of The Americans, which is very intense, very plot driven, and with a multi-season arc, startlingly believable and addictive.
posted by janey47 at 5:10 PM on November 28, 2016 [14 favorites]

I think The Hour would fit. It's a drama set in a 1950s BBC newsroom, and has much of a Mad Men historical feel to it, but with much less unpleasant characters, although prickly and with lots of depth.
posted by ambrosen at 5:15 PM on November 28, 2016 [11 favorites]

Justified is one of my all-time faves, the writing is amazing, and I consider it to be a feminist show. Lots of women navigating the power politics of their relationships. In many ways that's what the show is about.
posted by lalex at 5:18 PM on November 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

You'll like The Americans. It's EXCELLENT, plus a period piece, plus sort of fascinating office logistics (sincerely) in the way that Mad Men did so well, except spies. It's really, really really good. It's like ALL power politics in relationships. Like basically constantly.

The Americans, times a million. (I also think Orphan Black is boring, FWIW, and The Americans is MY JAM.)
posted by Countess Sandwich at 5:32 PM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

I like this stuff too. In the past few years I've started recording Masterpiece Classics on PBS and found that nearly all of them work very well for me. Recently: Home Fires and The Durrells in Corfu for great female characters and relationships. Also Poldark, but my affinity might be partially based upon this.
posted by something something at 5:49 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

So you like sci-fi. Have you watched Battlestar Galactica? It's basically the definition of character-driven sci-fi. Some of the religion stuff in it is pretty eyerolly, but it's so worth it for the characters and the plot. It has a slight soapy quality to it. Lots of interesting power politics stuff going on, and the president is a woman.
posted by mekily at 5:55 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Better Call Saul is a well-written character driven show. It moves slowly and gracefully and I'm excited for the next season to start.
posted by migurski at 5:57 PM on November 28, 2016 [9 favorites]

Unless I'm missing something, no one's mentioned "Breaking Bad." It's more life-&-death scenarios than "Mad Men," (also my favorite of all time), but it's right up there with not-necessarily likable characters; ditto on the " true to their premises but not necessarily predictable"; on top of that, it's not what most would call a feminist show, if that matters to you.
posted by kimota at 5:58 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Slings and Arrows seems right up your alley.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 6:03 PM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Hi! We have much the same taste! Ahh let me think - so hard to recall these little gems after I binge them. You will like:

One season (currently):
Fleabag (Amazon)
Search Party (TBS)
River (Netflix)
One Mississippi (Amazon)
Atlanta (HBO)
Insecure (HBO)

Multi seasons:
The Americans yes but I had a hard time getting into it because of how dense a show it is and how MUCH of it there is to get through
Better Call Saul (AMC)

That's all I can remember for now
posted by bleep at 6:09 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by Sassyfras at 6:10 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Outlander and Big Love both come to mind.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:11 PM on November 28, 2016

Something I think you'll enjoy is Halt and Catch Fire. Now, I should mention that the first season is kind of a pale imitation of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but the second and third seasons are among the greatest seasons of television ever made, and seems to fit what you're looking for.

And echoing above with 100%, definitely, all-in, The Americans.
posted by General Malaise at 6:18 PM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

I feel like I say this in every thread looking for TV recommendations, but: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", "Smiley's People" and "Brideshead Revisited". They are all unusually literary for TV. None have strong female characters, although Brideshead Revisited is much less conventionally ... masculine. You should definitely stick with Wolf Hall by the way, although if you don't know the period well you'll probably enjoy it more if you read the book first.
posted by caek at 6:29 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've watched Downtown Abbey but gave up after season 3. I found the characters unrealistic.

The remedy for this is The Forsyte Saga.
posted by bcwinters at 6:30 PM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Top of the Lake (originally just a one-off mini series, but there's a second season coming in 2017!)
posted by mannequito at 6:33 PM on November 28, 2016 [9 favorites]

I have a big problem with unlikable characters, too.
It doesn't exactly fit all criteria but you might like Miss Fisher's Murder mysteries. (It's light and fun)
I liked Top of the Lake, the Canadian series Intelligence, Fargo, Deadwood, Rome.
posted by ReluctantViking at 6:33 PM on November 28, 2016

Saving Grace (Netflix) is my favorite. So many types of strong women characters. The premise is a last-chance angel for Grace, but it is not preachy.
posted by jillithd at 6:34 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

caek, Brideshead (the Jeremy Irons-starring BBC version) follows the book extremely closely, so it would make sense to call it "literary". One of my favorites.
posted by transient at 6:36 PM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Treme and The Wire are two of my favorites - David Simon is really great at the slow-burning drama. Plus both shows do a really good job (I think) of portraying the cultures of the cities they are set in (New Orleans and Baltimore, respectively). Season 1 of The Wire may be one of my all-time favorite things on television.....
posted by tryniti at 6:46 PM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Jewel in the Crown! It takes a little patience to get in to, but the characters are exquisite.

n-thing Brideshead, the Americans, Outlander, Saving Grace, Forsyte, and adding the following as well (all on Netflix):

Foyle's War -- 1940s police detective series about the Home Front. Main character is a man but it has a very female sensibility, I think.
Wish Me Luck -- another WWII series, this one about female agents who go behind the lines in occupied France.
Broadchurch -- contemporary mystery set in a small English seaside town.
The Bletchley Circle -- about the women of Bletchley Park
posted by basalganglia at 6:46 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

transient: right! The only thing it has in common with Downton Abbey and some of the other — frankly rather trashy — British TV being recommended in this thread is the setting. (Although it was ITV not BBC.)
posted by caek at 6:49 PM on November 28, 2016

Babylon 5 (less women-focused but hits your other criteria), Call the Midwife, Halt & Catch Fire, The Good Wife

Jane the Virgin is a serious female character show wrapped in a telenovela wrapper. It may or may not suit your literary tastes. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:50 PM on November 28, 2016

Rectify, Halt & Catch Fire, Rubicon, The Hour, Good Behavior.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:56 PM on November 28, 2016

Have you tried Mr. Robot? It's one of the shows on television where I have no idea what will happen next.

The Honourable Woman had one self-contained season and was an excellent espionage soap.

The Leftovers is insanely unpredictable, and I love the writing plus it has several strong female characters.

I second The Americans, The Hour, Better Call Saul, and Halt & Catch Fire -- Halt especially has a female friendship at its core that is one my favorite things I've seen on television.
posted by gladly at 7:16 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mildred Pierce on HBO. A five episode miniseries based on the James M. Cain novel, with sumptuous period decor and direction by Todd Haynes, and a great cast led by Kate Winslet.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 7:16 PM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

The White Queen.
posted by Sukey Says at 7:39 PM on November 28, 2016

I didn't see anyone suggest Indian Summers. I didn't love it, but it does fit your parameters and it was super popular.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:40 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Knick! A turn of the century medical procedural before surgery was particularly likely to succeed, beautifully directed/shot/edited by Steven Soderbergh and with a weird, dreamlike, love-it-or-hate-it synth score (I love it).
posted by lousywiththespirit at 8:12 PM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

I, Claudius is an adaptation of a Robert Graves novel about ancient Rome, which is about as literary novel as a series gets, probably. An almost unbelievable number of named characters. Might be hard to find, however.

Friday Night Lights is often great. Certainly the pilot sets the bar for sheer drama as high as any series I've ever seen. I'm a big Mad Men fan, too, and FNL's world of Texas high school football offers a kind of polar balance to Madison Avenue. You'd think the stakes would feel smaller, but in a way they can seem, legitimately, bigger. No knowledge of or fondness for football is required, and may in some ways be a liability.
posted by Caxton1476 at 8:15 PM on November 28, 2016

2nd-ing: The Knick, Mildred Pierce, Halt & Catch Fire, Good Behavior.

Also: Quarry, The Affair, Narco.
posted by xammerboy at 8:23 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wolf Hall!
posted by incountrysleep at 8:24 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Borgias, and Lilies, on Netflix!
posted by soakimbo at 9:50 PM on November 28, 2016

What I'd definitely try: Borgen (Danish series about a female prime minister with lots of character development and political nuts-and-bolts) and Treme (already mentioned).

What you might also like: The Wire (already mentioned), House of Cards (both the US version and the British original) and Once Upon a Time (not exactly 'literary' but there are lots of strong female characters and character development).
posted by rjs at 10:31 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'll second Saving Grace and throw in American Horror Story: Coven.
posted by elsietheeel at 11:40 PM on November 28, 2016

The Detectorists.
posted by stromatolite at 11:53 PM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Slowly unfolding like a literary novel? You definitely want Wolf Hall as incountrysleep suggests.
posted by pharm at 1:12 AM on November 29, 2016

If you're open to a police procedural about the search for a brutal sadistic killer, Gillian Anderson is fantastic in "The Fall." 17 episodes that tell a complete, feminist story about power politics in many modern forms. It fits your "quietly hyperrealistic" requirement well, with lots of sharp detail, smart dialogue and well-drawn female characters. There's some horrible violence but it serves the story, which is primarily character-driven.
posted by mediareport at 3:58 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also thirding The Knick, Soderberg's early-1900s hospital drama, which has a ton of fascinating period detail and some great women-centered storylines. It really is beautifully shot and edited, too.
posted by mediareport at 4:02 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Affair
Big Love
Halt and Catch Fire
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 4:23 AM on November 29, 2016

I like the same types of shows and really enjoyed Call the Midwife.
posted by cabingirl at 4:34 AM on November 29, 2016

I think you will like Wolf Hall very much.
posted by Dolley at 5:37 AM on November 29, 2016

From the poster's first comment:

(This question was prompted by watching the first episode of Wolf Hall and finding it a snooze, and trying to pinpoint why I likedThe Crown but not this...)
posted by mediareport at 6:47 AM on November 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm surprising myself by enjoying Peaky Blinders. It revolves entirely around power politics and class identity, and is set in 1920s England. Most of the main characters are men, but there's one key woman, and it's been interesting to see how her leadership style differs from that of the men's.
posted by Liesl at 6:51 AM on November 29, 2016

(This question was prompted by watching the first episode of Wolf Hall and finding it a snooze, and trying to pinpoint why I likedThe Crown but not this...)

Clearly questioner should try Wolf Hall again!

Detectorists was lovely, as I have opined elsewhere on MeFi, but not very woman centred (although the female character are at least real characters & not cardboard cutouts).
posted by pharm at 7:21 AM on November 29, 2016

Also came to suggest Better Call Saul. Give it a few episodes to introduce Kim Wexler, one of the most complex and kickass women characters on tv. And yes, The Americans!
posted by Room 641-A at 8:02 AM on November 29, 2016

Marked some best answers for shows that sound immediately interesting! I'd totally forgotten that I watched the first episode of The Hour and enjoyed it and meant to watch the rest (Ben Whishaw!!). And The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire sound awesome! And The Knick sounds promising, and I've always meant to watch Friday Night Lights.

A few of these I've seen and are a little soapy for my tastes. Big Love was sometimes great, sometimes not. Call the Midwife was good because of midwives but also felt contrived sometimes.

For whatever reason, I tend to get turned off by shows that are too . . . . masculine in perspective, or have too many guns. I've watched most of the first season of The Sopranos and it never really grabbed me and the premise of Breaking Bad likewise is a big meh for me. No women (or one woman) is pretty much a non-starter. I'll give Wolf Hall another try but was so meh on it. Might be that I oversaturated myself on Tudor stuff after reading Philippa Gregory and I much preferred that perspective on the proceedings. But I sometimes turn around on shows. Both Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire took several seasons to win me over.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:11 AM on November 29, 2016

as noted above, the first season of Half + Catch Fire has problems. Big ones. It started well then lost me completely when a key character more or less changed completely ...

But it seems that Season 2 amounted to a reboot, so here's hoping.
posted by philip-random at 8:40 AM on November 29, 2016

I'm quite looking forward to the upcoming second season of The Expanse. It's near-future sci-fi, post-colonization of Mars and Ceres (largest asteroid in the belt) and deals with both large-scale political intrigue and small-scale group dynamics and, to some extent so far, character development. Lots of class-warfare stuff, too, with blue-collar Belters being exploited by decadent Earthers and the insular, technologically advanced Mars folk maybe starting or maybe being drawn involuntarily into a war. It's based on a series of books by the same name.
posted by MoTLD at 9:00 AM on November 29, 2016

Has no one suggested Peaky Blinders yet? I find the story of the women in the gang to be the most compelling of the various storylines.
posted by MsMolly at 12:20 PM on November 29, 2016

Caveat: I haven't seen them, but Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies got a well regarded BBC adaptation
posted by juv3nal at 3:05 PM on November 29, 2016

Re :Halt and Catch Fire, Alan Sepinwall suggests watching the first ep and then skipping to ep 7 to get through the not-great first season and onto the much better second season.
posted by leesh at 7:26 PM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ooh War and Peace (BBC 2016). Only 6 episodes but they are beautifully done.
posted by Lucy_32 at 4:05 PM on November 30, 2016

If you enjoyed the British monarchy aspect of The Crown, Victoria is a natural followup.
posted by Pryde at 11:24 PM on November 30, 2016

Parade's End.
posted by riddley at 2:44 AM on December 1, 2016

I can't think of a better show for you than Deadwood.

"...female characters ... power politics ... historical gloss..." Check, check, check.
"Good writing ... unlikable characters ... unhappy endings" Check, check, and check.

Some would even say its writing is Shakespearean.
posted by booth at 7:23 AM on December 9, 2016

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