Seven Underrated Shows to Watch This Winter

Cult shows and soon-to-be new favorites return to small screen this season.

Jan. 22, 2009 — -- Given up on getting a new job? Lost the will to lose the love handles?

Here's a resolution that's easy to keep:

Watch better TV in 2009.

While a host of tried-and-true favorites returns to the small screen this winter ("American Idol," "Lost," "24"), there's also a batch of not-so-well-known shows deserving of Tivo time. These are the cult hits that lend themselves to marathons via late-night Blockbuster runs, On Demand abuse, online streaming and sometimes all of the above.

Below, check out seven underdogs debuting or returning to television this season:


Even if gavel-banging and courtroom-pacing don't usually push you to the edge of your La-Z-Boy, don't discount "Damages." The FX drama starring Glenn Close, Ted Danson and, this second season, William Hurt, thrills like few other shows on TV. Close won an Emmy in 2007 for her portrayal of ruthless, backstabbing (literally -- knife, blood and all) attorney Patty Hewes. During "Damages'" second season, Hewes may finally meet her match in junior lawyer Ellen Parsons (played by Rose Byrne) -- but of course, neither woman will go down without a fight. Think of it as "24," with narcissists instead of terrorists. FX, Wednesday, 9 p.m. (All times EST.)

The City

It's a tale as old as time, or at least as old as 1998: single girl searches for herself, her true friends and her soul mate under the bright lights of the big city. But MTV's latest iteration of the tried-and-true "Sex and the City" formula manages to be more engaging than ones past. "The City" follows "Hills" co-star Whitney Port as she leaves Los Angeles and attempts to make it in Manhattan, following her from cushy fashion PR job to tony 30th floor apartment to party after party after party. Recession? Not in this cinematographically brilliant portrait of New York City. It's all miniskirts, pretty boys and pure escapism. MTV, Monday, 10 p.m.

Flight of the Conchords

After a long, writers strike-induced hiatus, HBO's little series that could returns for a second season this month. New Zealand natives Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement built a cult following as a comedy/acoustic guitar duo before scoring their own HBO series in 2007. They pretty much play themselves in "Flight of the Conchords" -- as foreigners fumbling through New York's music and dating scenes, trying to make sense of it all with a couple of chords and couplets. It's bizarre, hilarious musical fun. HBO, Sunday, 10 p.m.

Gossip Girl

High school: What better subject to mine for drama? In the grand tradition of "Beverly Hills, 90210" (the first version) and "The O.C.," "Gossip Girl" has become the trend-setting series du jour for a generation of high schoolers and anyone juvenile enough to revel in the hook ups and mishaps of rich teens run amok in New York City (this reporter included). Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Ed Westwick, Chace Crawford -- the series' stars are fast becoming magazine and blog staples, the soon-to-be kings and queens of young Hollywood. Though the show may not be a ratings powerhouse, its fan base is devout and all about the Web -- episodes consistently show up on iTunes' most-downloaded list. CW, Monday, 9 p.m.

Big Love

HBO is bringing back "Big Love" in a big way this month, promising a hearty helping of intrigue in the Mormon fundamentalist home shared by one husband and three wives. Season three may manifest wife No. 4 for Bill (played by Bill Paxton), who tries to spearhead the creation of a Mormon-friendly casino while courting a fourth mate through unconventional means. Don't expect Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicolette (Chloë Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) to take their husband's shake up lying down. HBO, Sunday, 9 p.m.

The United States of Tara

Talk about a stacked deck. With Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated actress Toni Colette starring, Oscar-winning "Juno" brainchild Diablo Cody writing and needs-no-introduction Steven Spielberg behind the whole shebang, "The United States of Tara" is a new series set to make waves this winter. Colette plays Tara, a suburban mother with dissociative identity disorder. Her multiple personalities include Buck, a male motorcycle fanatic who has a habit of starting bar fights and T, a teen girl who loves shopping almost as much as she loves smoking pot -- both less-than-ideal role models for her adolescent children. Showtime, Sunday, 10 p.m.

Friday Night Lights

Few other shows have garnered as much support as "Friday Night Lights." The NBC drama about a Middle America football team and the personal struggles of its players won acclaim from audiences and critics when it premiered in fall 2006, but fell into limbo when the writers strike hit Hollywood the following year. Despite picking up Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody honors, "FNL" struggled to gain a large viewership because of multiple time slot changes. Speculation that the show would be canceled hit a fever pitch when NBC released the portion of season two episodes produced prior to the strike on DVD. But listening to fans' online protests, NBC renewed for a third season and cut a deal with DirecTV that let the channel run the episodes first. This month, finally, season three will premiere on NBC -- so for those who didn't see it on satellite TV, the football favorite is on broadcast TV now. NBC, Friday, 9 p.m.