The best “sleeper” I’ve seen in terms of TV Shows that address issues in a subversive way is something I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by: Malcolm in the Middle. The TL;DR explanation is that it’s really about working class life, and it’s really about how hard it is to get anyone to care about working class and lower middle-class Americans. This is obscured somewhat by the phenomenon where people are more affluent on television than their character backgrounds would indicate. Why is it all apartments in TV series set in NYC seem way too huge? (Side callout to @Donald_Petersen: I wonder what accounts for this lack of verisimilitude. Do you know?) It’s hard to pick up on this being a central theme in the series until you realize in the final episode that Malcolm is being groomed by his parents to be the first truly working-class president of the United States.
A More Detailed Explanation:
If you haven’t seen it, I’m about to describe it, but even if you have it seems really surprising because it’s mostly a slapstick comedy where a lot of the humor comes from the improbable misfortune and selfishness of the main characters. If there’s a rulebook for the humor of the series, it mostly goes, “The more the characters want something, the more they’re going to hilariously fail at getting it.” It’s the same formula applied to Wile E. Coyote and Wet Bandits in the Home Alone series. So it seems deeply unlikely that there’s anything subversive running through a series that is effectively a live-action cartoon.
The series centers around a dysfunctional American working class family with a middle child named Malcolm who is incredibly intellectually gifted. This prodigy gets things like differential calculus taught to him at a special school from an early age, but he’s set apart from his well-to-do, but socially maladjusted peers because he’s been grounded by his upbringing. He’s also set apart from the school he’s a student at, just like all of his gifted peers. His brothers, meanwhile are all mischievous trouble-makers. One was sent away to a military-style boarding school, while the two other left behind get up to incredible hijinks that fuel a lot of the humor in the series.
Here’s the secretly subversive bit: The series is full of conflict, but the struggles of being an American working class family isn’t a major source of it. It does source some of the conflict, especially in the later episodes and seasons, but it’s really a source of background. So you’re not thinking about what it means to have to take on extra shifts at the supermarket, because from the viewer’s perspective, it’s just a reason for the seemingly short-tempered mother not to be at home when her trouble-making kids are, it’s a device designed to product hijinks.
But as the series wears on, you get scenes like one of my absolute favorite scenes in all of television history, where Malcolm gets a job at his mother’s supermarket and had to break down and bale boxes. Malcolm is given a complicated procedure to accomplish a simple task. Being a prodigy, he does it his way, which is faster. This immediately gets him in trouble, and anyone who watched that scene and has ever worked the kind of minimum wage job where pointless procedures have to be followed at all costs immediately felt his pain. And the series is full of these little moments.
Here’s the thing though, you never piece it all together. It never comes into focus, and if you caught a couple of seasons or even most of the episodes, you might not pick up on these themes at all. Unless you watch the final episode. The final episode features a big break for Malcolm. He has a real chance to make serious money that will cover his tuition for university if he chooses to work for a wealthy businessman right out of high school. His parents turn the offer down for him. It seems inexplicable. Malcolm has a free ride to college in exchange for a few years of working for someone who will compensate him well. Now he will have to engage in some heavy work-study to make ends meet, and the viewer is left wondering what the hell just happened. Later in the episode, shenanigans happen, as they tend to in every episode, which leads to a spectacular clusterfuck where a stressed Malcolm confronts his family and demands an explanation. That’s when his whole family tells him it’s because he needs to be president. Not only does he need to be president, he needs to be the first president to truly care about working class Americans, and they didn’t want him to get a free ride or an easy way out, because the only way he would continue to care about his roots is if he refused to become more privileged.
This series predates the common use of the word “privilege” and so it doesn’t use that word at all, but so much of what happens in the series is really bound up in class dynamics. It’s very sneaky and I definitely never saw it coming.