Top 10 Surreal Modern TV Series
Jane Campion's TOP OF THE LAKE opens with a haunting, mysterious scene: a young girl wading into a lake, surrounded by mists. Things only get stranger from there in this surreal, stark, modern miniseries that feels so mysterious that at times, it's like you've been transported into another world, beyond even that of the insular town where it's set. It's one among a long lineage of works that explore the human condition so intensely, and so well, that you're left scrabbling for words when you try to explain how good they are to your friends. Let's take a look at some of the best of the bunch, no mean feat in a delightfully diverse genre.
10. The Killing (AMC, 2011-present)
Here’s the thing about the Danes: they get seriously dark and twisty. It’s because of all the long winter nights up there. Some of the best detective fiction and drama comes from the Scandinavian region, so famous for it that it has its own appellation, Nordic Noir. And every now and then, a US adaptation is equally compelling and amazing. Female-led The Killing takes viewers on a tense, thrilling rollercoaster ride in the naturally creepy and somewhat dreamy setting of the Pacific Northwest. It refuses to let us go as we follow Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) in her quest to find the truth: who killed Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay)?
9. Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991)
Any time David Lynch is involved, you know you’re in for a totally wild ride, and he didn’t disappoint with Twin Peaks, which is still a classic more than 20 years after it aired. It’s a murder mystery wrapped within small town drama as seen through the lens of Lynch’s totally bizarre mind. Opening with the discovery of murdered prom queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Twin Peaks is darkly humorous and it has more plot twists than a tangled-up phone cord, which means you’ll want to watch the whole thing, and you’ll still be left panting for more.
8. Sherlock (BBC, 2010-present)
You can always count on the Beeb to serve up amazing television: they have some serious years of experience under their belts. But Sherlock is a standout, from its outstanding tilt-shift opening titles to its tightly-woven psychological plotlines and complex human relationships. With Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, Sherlock has amassed a ferociously loyal fan base with good reason; it’s artful, elegant, and sometimes just a little bit chilling. You never know quite what to expect from Sherlock, and that makes for a delicious viewing experience.
7. Red Riding Trilogy (Revolution Films/IFC, 2009)
While the landscape of Yorkshire might seem idyllic, these three feature-length television episodes, aired originally in the UK, are most decidedly not. They twist around and through each other in a fractured narrative that feels a bit like looking into a broken mirror, dragging viewers deep into a dark, tangled world of police corruption, organized crime, and violence. Adapted from David Pearce’s novels inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper murders, this series doesn’t wrap anything up in a tidy bow, and its distinctive stark style is totally visually compelling.
6. Dexter (Showtime, 2006-present)
Everybody’s favorite lovable serial killer, based on the Dexter novels by Jeff Lindsay, has been mesmerizing audiences since he first appeared on screen in 2006. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is just your ordinary blood splatter analyst with the Miami-Dade PD, but he’s got a little secret: he’s a serial killer on the side. Dexter artfully uses the muggy, humid, brassy setting of Florida to draw viewers deep into Dexter’s world, a place where all your notions of good and evil are going to get thrown out the window and you’ll never look at plastic bags the same way again.
5. Wallander (BBC, 2008-present)
Here we go with the Nordic Noir again. We can’t help ourselves. It’s just that good. Based on the Kurt Wallander novels by Swedish author Henning Mankell, Wallander, with Kenneth Branagh (I know, right, do you need any further excuses to watch?) in the title role, is an unsettling, creepy, mysterious meditation on the life of a socially isolated police officer faced with bizarre and hideous crimes. As he struggles with the loss of his humanity in the course of his work, Wallander becomes a fascinating character study set against an amazing backdrop.
4. Homeland (Showtime, 2011)
Further evidence that US adaptations of overseas productions don’t have to be terrible, Homeland, starring Claire Danes as CIA agent Carrie Mathison and Damien Lewis as Marine Nicholas Brody, is a tight psychological thriller set in an achingly modern landscape. In a world where the US fears terrorism more than anything else, the thought of a Marine-turned-mole during his time in al-Qaeda captivity is the worse thing Mathison can imagine, and she’s out to discover the truth at any cost. Even if that means breaking the law.
3. Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-2005)
Why hello again, Michael C. Hall! Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under has become another masterpiece of the modern surreal genre, and with good reason; you’d think a show about a funeral home wouldn’t be that outstanding, yet it is. Six Feet Under deftly blends dark humor, dysfunctional families, and straight up surrealism in a seamless montage that’s nothing short of breathtaking. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and, at times, it will make you wonder what the writers were on and if they’ll share.
2. Fringe (Fox, 2008-2013)
What if all the conspiracy theories you dismissed were real? What if those unexplained things really did have explanations, but they were so weird that you’d have trouble wrapping your mind around them even with the evidence right in front of you? Welcome to Fringe, where a “Fringe Division” (Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham, Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop, and John Noble as Walter Bishop) investigates strange, mysterious, and unearthly happenings. Fringe wasn’t all parallel universes, alternate timelines, and cow jokes, though—it was also about the fascinating relationships between the characters, and was rightly heralded as an X-Files for the new generation.
1. Top of the Lake (Sundance, 2013)
TOP OF THE LAKE wowed critics when it debuted at this year’s Sundance Festival, and no wonder, because Jane Campion may have outdone herself this time. Starring Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin and Holly Hunter as mystic/cult leader/truth-talker GJ, TOP OF THE LAKE revolves around the mystery of 12-year-old Tui Mitcham’s pregnancy and disappearance, all against the majestic environment of New Zealand’s South Island. Dysfunctional families, incestuous small town politics, ex-boyfriends, and more conspire to create an atmospheric thriller that will make you cancel social appointments to catch the next episode.