TV for every occasion: 2017 update
Looking for a new TV show to watch tonight, at the gym or with your family? The Wall Street Journal has just published my list of the Seven TV Shows Every Executive Should Watch, so this seems like a good moment to update the list of shows I shared in my previous Journal article, So Much Great TV: How Do you Choose?
If you’re looking for a show to watch tonight, it’s an easy choice: watch Falsettos on Live from Lincoln Center. It’s my favorite musical of all time, and it’s being broadcast on PBS. (Do not watch their 2:27 teaser video unless you want a lot of spoilers.) No cable? No problem. It’s streaming here.
But let’s imagine that watching a funny, smart musical about a man who leaves his wife for another man isn’t what you’re in the mood for. I’ve got options!
For an explanation of my different viewing categories, you can read the post that went with my original infographic. One update: Now that our eldest is officially a teen, more and more of my viewing lands in the “family viewing” category: that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for younger or more sensitive kids, so I highly recommend cross-checking my family recommendations on Common Sense Media to see if a show is right for your family.
Here’s my full spread of recommended shows. Capsule descriptions of the new additions are below.
New on the list
Anne with an E: An updated version of Anne of Green Gables that portrays Anne as an abuse survivor, but still delights in her ever-optimistic soul. I watched this with my kid, who despite being a Canadian, has never read the books…and we both loved it.
The Baroness von Sketch Show: This Canadian sketch comedy show is driven by a group of amazingly funny women. Unlike most sketch comedy, BVS doesn’t flog a dead horse: a sketch might be four minutes long, or forty seconds long, depending on how much material there is to work with. The sketches are funny and viral and speak directly to very specific women’s experiences — on which note, folks, you can stop sending me links to the BVS sketch about nudity in the over-40 women’s locker room. I saw it, and I love it.
Better Things: It’s hard to find shows that are both funny and profound, but this comedy about a single mom (and comedian) living in L.A. manages to achieve both. A must-watch for parents (and especially, parents of daughters) but I’ve road tested this one with friends who don’t have kids, and they’ve loved it too.
Bloodline: Half crime drama, half family melodrama, this Netflix show follows the increasingly sordid struggles of a well-established family in the Florida Keys. When the black sheep brother returns to town, much trouble ensues. Watch it for the Keys, and for Kyle Chandler, because Friday Night Lights isn’t on anymore.
Continuum: This sci-fi show has two ingredients that put it at the top of my list: a time travel premise and a kick-ass female protagonist. The first two seasons are good fun, but the third season felt downright profound: it’s a surprisingly subtle take on how a democracy can turn towards authoritarianism. I’d tell you to jump in at Season 3, except I think the power of the season rests on the characters and back story developed in the first two — and they’re no hardship! This is also a show that mostly works well as a family show (if you let your kids watch action shows): there’s virtually no sex, and the violence is rarely intense.
The Crown: This series about a young Queen Elizabeth is classic binge fare. Everyone I know who watched it loved it. I’ve included it in my “Politics” category because the most interesting part of the show was its political dimension, and it would make terrific side-by-side viewing with Borgen, which deals with similar themes around the balancing act faced by women in leadership.
Difficult People: I’ve watched just enough episodes of this catty BFF comedy to love it. Any woman with a gay best friend — or any gay man with a female bestie — has to check this show out.
Doctor Thorne: This mini-series isn’t going to rock your world, but if you’ve been suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal, it will scratch that itch.
Extant: Halle Berry as an astronaut who returns home to her husband and a robot kid: what’s not to love? Well, the robot kid plot line is pretty compelling, even if it does make me a bit resentful that my kids don’t have an off switch. But I’m most of the way through season one, and I’ve lost interest in the whole meta-conspiracy plot that purports to explain how Halle returned from her last space mission with a space embryo. So mark this one hard-core sci-fi geeks only, and maybe not even us.
The Fosters: If you are one of the many folks who miss the late, great Parenthood, this is the show you’ve been looking for. Season 1 is particularly terrific, because even though there is a lot of melodrama, it’s the kind of melodrama that flows organically from the show’s set-up (lesbian couple with five children, four of whom are adopted/fostered from care). The melodrama has become harder to believe as the show goes on, but I’m now invested, so I don’t care. And this is a great show to watch with tweens/teens: there’s scarcely an episode where Sweetie and I haven’t paused to discuss an important issue.
Frequency: A new wrinkle on the time-travel genre, or maybe, a new wrinkle on the cop procedural. A police officer who lost her cop dad when she was still a kid magically connects with him across time, using the family’s ham radio. Together, they fight crime. (Yes, really.) My 13-year-old and I enjoyed watching this together, though do note that the crime they are fighting is creepy, though never crossed over into showing sexual assault. It was cancelled after the season ended but we enjoyed it while it lasted.
The Gifted: This X-Men spin-off is set in a near or parallel futures in which mutants are persecuted and hidden. When a prosecutor discovers that his own teen children are mutants, he gets a new perspective on the mutants he’s been pursuing, and helps his family go into hiding instead. For those of us who can longer quite tolerate the goofiness of The Flash and Supergirl, this new makes for satisfying (if not stellar) family viewing.
Glow: The first season of this Netflix series introduced us to an eclectic group of women as they are trained up to be the stars of a new women’s wrestling TV show. Great characters and relationships, a wonderful cast, crazy and fascinating context — it all makes for a fun yet satisfying show.
The Good Fight: If the end of The Good Wife has left your children bereft of legal instruction, The Good Fight will keep them warm until they’re ready to write the LSAT. So far we’ve been enjoying it at least as much as we enjoyed The Good Wife.
The Good Place: We all devoured this comedy about the afterlife, the rare show that was actually elevated by its season-ending cliffhanger…and season 2 is off to an even more promising start. It’s funny, it’s insightful, and it’s fundamentally kind-hearted.
Graves: What would happen if George W. Bush grew a conscience — and a personality — in his retirement? Hilarity, brought to live by Nick Nolte and Sela Ward.
Greenleaf: This high-caliber melodrama focuses on the African-American family behind a large evangelical church. It’s got all the soapy intrigue you could want, but it also offers a surprisingly nuanced take on both the hypocrisy and the spiritual power of corporatized religion. Note that the core drama of the season revolves around themes of sexual abuse; I was able to handle it but I did fast forward through a few scenes.
Houdini & Doyle: The title notwithstanding, this show has a very strong female protagonist. Arthur Conan Doyle (played by Episodes’ Stephen Mangan) teams up with Harry Houdini to investigate allegedly supernatural crimes, all under the supervision of London’s first female police officer. Excellent family viewing, though it will be occasionally scary for younger kids.
Imposters: We greatly enjoyed this clever, fast-paced new show about a female con artist and her various exes (aka victims). It’s a “dramedy” — a mix of humor and intrigue — and just when we think it’s going to follow a predictable arc, it changes course.
Incorporated: It was a huge mistake for me to watch this engrossing drama about a dystopian, corporatized future during the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. Sure, it’s a little predictable, but it’s very well done, and full of intriguing and well-thought out details.
Insecure: If truth be told, I should put this in “Family viewing”, because I watched with my 13-year-old and she loved it. But even I think it’s inappropriate for kids, particularly if you aren’t comfortable with your child rapping “Broken Pussy”.
Legion: I enjoyed this brain-bending superhero show, though it’s occasionally a bit disturbing. It’s the kind of show I’d like to multitask, but I can barely follow what is going on when I give it my full attention.
Lovesick: I loved the first season of this Netflix comedy about a young man who needs to notify all his exes about an STD. I thought this was a setup for a series of awkward encounters, but instead it’s more like a series of tiny romantic comedy gems. Funny and surprisingly sweet.
The Magicians: This TV show about a boarding school for magicians is fun, but definitely on the spooky side — my 13-year-old found it too creepy at times, so after wrapping up season 1, we’ve yet to jump back in for season 2. If you’ve got teens who loved Harry Potter, you’ll enjoy watching this together.
The Mayor: An aspiring rapper runs for mayor of his small California town, strictly as a PR student…only to win. New this fall, a political comedy that shows some hope of actually saying something interesting while being pretty damn funny.
Mozart in the Jungle: I’m not sure how I omitted this lovely comedy about the classical music world from last year’s list, because I’ve been watching it for several seasons. Season 3 is a whole new level of great, however — and while you could jump in there, I’d highly recommend watching the first two (also excellent seasons) first, since it will make you love season 3 even more.
Making History: A goofball comedy about a not-too-bright fellow who owns a duffel bag that can travel back to the American revolution. Leighton Meester (yes, of Gossip Girl fame) steals the show as Paul Revere’s time-traveling daughter. It’s funny, and it’s already been cancelled.
People of Earth: Wyatt Cenac (formerly of The Daily Show) plays a reporter who joins a group for people who’ve been abducted by aliens. Super funny, and likely to appeal to people who aren’t sci-fi nerds — especially anyone who’s ever been in a support group.
Pitch: Now sadly cancelled, the single season of Pitch is still worth watching. This show imagines the personal, social and business impact of Major League Baseball getting its first female pitcher, a young African-American woman. I watched this during the early fall, when the challenges of being a first female something felt especially resonant (sigh). It’s a really smart show, and an enjoyable one — and I don’t even like baseball. Highly recommend for family viewing, especially if you have a daughter.
The Quad: You’ve got to love a show in which the villains are the leaders of the marching band. Set at the fictional, historically black college of Georgia A&M (yes, the fake college has a fake website), this high-end soap from BET has the kind of writing and performances that make it eminently watchable. The setting makes the show more interesting than your average soap, and it’s got something for everyone: lots of football for sports fans, significant and smart engagement with race and gender for the activists, higher ed machinations for university folk, and of course, marching bands.
Riverdale: This show feels like it belongs in my “sci-fi and superheroes” category, because the vibe of the show has a lot more in common with The Arrow than with The Fosters. (A friend smartly described it as Twin Peaks for teens.) Your feelings about Archie comments should have zero bearing on whether you check this out: it’s just a fun, slightly creepy teen drama, and takes nothing from the comics other than the notional identities of the main characters.
A Series of Unfortunate Events: Based on the Lemony Snicket series, this delightfully surreal show has drama, humor and just a hint of menace (enough to make it too scary for my very sensitive 10-year-old). The first episode didn’t grab me, so I’m glad my daughter is now old and wise enough to have observed that you can’t judge anything based on a pilot. Mid-way through the second episode I was hooked.
Speechless: As the mom of a special needs’ kid, it’s hard for me to describe how much this show means to me. After laughing our way through the first episode, Rob and I were both in tears from the poignancy of seeing our family’s experience portrayed so effectively. My guess is that anyone (and especially any parent) will find this show funny, moving and insightful, but if your family includes atypical kids, it’s a must-watch.
Star Trek: Discovery: We’re now six episodes in, and the giant aching hole in my heart caused by a world without a Star Trek series is finally starting to heal. If you hate sci-fi, this isn’t your show…but if you like sci-fi, yet have never liked Star Trek (I am told such people exist) you should still give this series a try. After a couple of very un-Trek-like episodes, the series seems to have found a balance between being just Trek-like enough for us die-hards, but with the dark complexity you expect from contemporary sci-fi.
Stranger Things: Blame peer pressure for this one. I thought it would be too scary for me, but it’s all the rage among my 13-year-old’s classmates, so we were compelled to watch it — and thank goodness! It was smart, engrossing, and just this side of too scary. We can’t wait for season 2.
This is Us: A widely and deservedly praised family drama. The less you know about it, the more you’ll enjoy its truly spectacular first episode. You’ll be hooked.
Timeless: This time-travel adventure series is great family viewing, since it revisits real historical events. It’s not particularly smart or well done, but we enjoyed the first couple of episodes with the kids…who have subsequently refused to watch it again.
Transparent: I was very late to this party, but holy cow, did this show ever live up to the buzz. There is little for me to add to the many kudos that have been heaped upon it, except to say that Gaby Hoffman’s season 2 and 3 wardrobe is exactly how I would like to dress.
Travelers: We recently started watching this sci-fi show about a mysterious group of people who time travel by jumping into other people’s bodies. It’s off to a promising start, but it’s been languishing while we watch all the other shows we’re way behind on.
Working Moms: A comedy about a group of…working moms! But these are not cuddly sitcom moms: they’re foul-mouthed, cynical indie-comedy moms. Super funny, and not family friendly in the slightest. I can’t wait for the next season.
The Young Pope: This super weird show stars Jude Law as a feisty, American — and yes, young — Pope. It’s dishy and unpredictable, and strangely, its streak of Christian mystery makes it feel more vaguely akin to all the TV shows that feature magic or supernatural characters. I really enjoyed it, but I was also quite confused by it.
Shows to skip
In addition to the shows recommended above, there are a couple of shows I’ve tried, but haven’t added because I didn’t like them:
Angie Tribeca: Rob and the kids enjoy this cop comedy, but it’s not my cup of tea.
American Housewife: I watched on episode of this well-reviewed comedy but it annoyed me.
DC Legends of Tomorrow: I suffered through the first season because my kid likes it, but even though I’m a fan of trashy DC superhero shows, this is fundamentally too terrible to tolerate, probably because there are too many characters to get invested in.
Designated Survivor: I gave this conspiracy-in-DC show much more time than it deserved: it took me four or five episodes to admit that it is just irredeemably bad. But a bunch of friends placed it in the so-bad-it’s-good camp, and the next thing you know, I’m bingeing the rest of season 1 on a long flight. But I doubt I’ll dive back in for season 2.
Love: I watched almost all of season 1 on Netflix, and while it had some wonderful moments, I was fundamentally irritated by the worn-out trope of nerdy good guy romances hot crazy chick. Enough already.
No Tomorrow: This romantic comedy has a charming premise: girl meets boy, boy is convinced the world is about to end, girl dates him anyhow. But it’s a little too self-consciously quirky in a Zoey Deschanel sorta way.
Notorious: I had three hours of happily multi-tasking to this show, and then I made the mistake of watching it without multi-tasking. Gosh, is it ever terrible.
Vinyl: I watched most of this HBO series and found it somewhat engrossing, but it is so grindingly bleak that as soon as I took a break from it, I couldn’t bear to resume viewing.
Next on my watch list
There are a number of shows I’ve queued up or “tasted”, but haven’t yet watched enough to recommend. In most cases, it’s because we have less and less opportunity for grownups-only viewing, so we rarely have a chance to watch shows that are neither kid-friendly nor multi-taskable. The shows I’m looking forward to catching up on are:
Atlanta: The first episode was good but didn’t make me desperate to keep watching. I’ve got to give it anther chance.
Atypical: I enjoyed the first episode of this Netflix series about an autistic teen, but it’s a loaded show for me as the mom of an autistic boy. I don’t know that I’ll be able to keep going.
Berlin Station: We watched the first fifteen minutes of the first episode, and it looks great — but too demanding to multi-task, which is why it’s gone back on hold.
Black Mirror: Yeah, I know, I’m going to love it. But it’s too scary to watch with the kids, and too scary to watch right before going to bed, so when the heck am I supposed to watch it?
Chance: You had me at “Hugh Laurie”. But we are waiting to start on this one until we’ve caught up on the shows we’re already watching.
Emerald City: I enjoyed the two episodes I’ve watched, but it is very dark — to dark for my kid’s tastes.
Humans: All the cyborg-y goodness of Westworld without the rape scenes. Can’t wait.
Outlander: I have heard great stuff about this show, but it’s too sexy to watch with kids — or to watch at the gym.
Search Party: We loved the first ten minutes of this comedy — until a very adult sex scene made us realize we couldn’t watch with the kids!
The Orville: We just started watching this Star Trek…parody? Descendant? I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I’m pretty sure it will only appeal to Star Trek fans.
See! For all the TV I watch, there are still shows I haven’t found time for. Clearly, I have to cut back on my work hours.