Oh, hello! Would you like to be distracted from the extremely terrifying circumstances unfolding at the speeds of both light and molasses outside of the place where you are responsibly self-isolating right now? Television (and operas and movies and FaceTime and phone calls) can help, if only you can concentrate long enough to actually watch television. I turned on the ultimate comfort TV of the Before Times, The Great British Baking Show, in a moment of desperation the other night, and it bounced off me like a pogo stick. The TV that I need right now is not soothingly mindless. What I really need it to do is take my mind somewhere, elsewhere—though not just anywhere. This list of suggestions is soothing and not particularly stressful, but it’s full of shows that can carry you away, little magic carpets of narrative and temporary escape—if only you can focus just enough to climb on.
This three-season Danish drama was inspired by The West Wing and stars Sidse Babett Knudsen as a politician who unexpectedly wins a parliamentary election to become the first female prime minister of Denmark. While it may be hard to watch a show about an extremely high-functioning country with well-intentioned, hardworking, competent leadership, isn’t that also a place you’d like to visit? Knudsen is incredibly appealing, the show is serious and meaty without being depressing, it features a marriage as good as Eric and Tami’s on Friday Night Lights, you will learn a little Danish, and you can’t look at your phone while you are watching. This is my favorite TV show, I think.
Ugly Delicious (Netflix)
The second season of restauranteur David Chang’s documentary series just arrived on Netflix, and the format is eclectic, emo, and argumentative enough to be more gripping than most food shows. The episode about kids’ food, which is really about Chang becoming a father, will make you tear up.
Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman (Netflix)
This deadpan, gentle, weird-ass show is about Kantaro, an office worker who lives a double life. Every episode is built around a quest to find the time to eat a specific dessert during work hours. The comedy very lightly spoofs crime and food shows, while also showing lots of ecstatic close-ups of Japanese delicacies.
Derry Girls (Netflix)
Immerse yourself in this very funny high school show set in the 1990s in Northern Ireland. The mortifications, hilarities, and absurdities of high school play out, lightly, against the backdrop of the Troubles, with a great ’90s soundtrack, a hang-out vibe, and some incredible facial expressions. Extremely great company.
I Love Dick (Amazon Prime)
This eight-episode adaptation of the cult Chris Kraus book is loaded with so many ideas about art, art monsters, feminism, sex, and consent, it seems like it should sink under all its theory, but instead it makes that theory personal and riveting.* In it, an artist named Chris (Kathryn Hahn) becomes obsessed with a professor named Dick (Kevin Bacon) while on a research fellowship in Marfa, Texas, and gets extremely, extremely sloppy and intense about it, engaging him in a writing project against his will. Hahn is spectacular, Bacon is hunky, and the show is hot, taking all its earnestness and making it into something buoyantly artful.
The French Chef With Julia Child (Amazon Prime, PBS)
OK, this one is probably not going to fully distract you, but it would be great to have on in the background while you’re doing something else, so you can occasionally look up and ponder both how far and not so far food shows have come, while wondering if that recipe really requires that much butter.
Howards End (Amazon Prime, iTunes, Starz)
This Kenneth Lonergan adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel is a period drama that’s also fresh, finding everything that is modern in this story of two feminist sisters (one played by Hayley Atwell), a square businessman (Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Wambsgans from Succession, but in a very different mode), and one beloved house.* It’s wonderful. If you, like me, have an incredible soft spot for Masterpiece Theatre adaptations and have already rewatched Downton (only through Season 2, after which it falls off a cliff), may I also recommend North and South and Wives and Daughters, both based on Elizabeth Gaskell stories. And, not a Gaskell, but a gimme for a rewatch: the Jennifer Ehle–Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice.
Halt and Catch Fire (Netflix)
The best show of the “golden age of TV” that not enough people have seen. The weakest season (the first, unfortunately) begins in the 1980s in Dallas at the dawn of the personal computing age, and the series then moves through the next decade following the relationships and accomplishments of four people inextricably connected with one another and the tech world. The show, so humanist and so fun, really moves while amounting to something genuinely deep and emotional. I think of everything on this list, it’s going to be what I (re)watch myself.
Oh my God, do I love Moonlighting. This 1980s show starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis as two private investigators with combustible chemistry is a comedy-procedural-romance.* Every episode involves a case, lots of bantering one-liners, and so much sexual tension. It was a smash that got caught up in its own drama, the ultimate will-they-wont-they show. But before it flamed out, it was incredible, about as avant-garde as 1980s network TV could be, regularly breaking the fourth wall and winking at the audience and constantly trying weird and new things. You may not have had “fall in love with Bruce Willis” on your quarantine to-do list, but if you watch this show, it will happen, and, in all likelihood, you will be happy about it.
Srugim (Amazon Prime)
A 30-minute Israeli comedy-drama about a group of modern orthodox Jews trying to date, it starts like a wannabe Sex and the City but reveals itself quickly. The six cast members are all virgins who take dating extremely seriously, since they’re all looking for spouses. The show, in other words, revives the marriage plot, so that every flirtation, every kiss carries an incredible weight. It looks janky, but damn has it got stakes.
This is a 2000s show from Bryan Fuller, who would go on to make Pushing Daisies and Hannibal, and like many Fuller shows, it is quirky as all get out. In it, a young woman who works at a Niagara Falls gift shop suddenly starts to be able to talk to the tchotchkes for sale there, all of them giving her hints on how to help people. It’s fun and fizzy and romantic and part of the underloved tier of good-but-canceled shows that deserve more attention, not unlike Judd Apatow’s college-based, Freaks and Geeks follow-up Undeclared, which he just made available on YouTube, and also might do the trick.
Being Erica (Amazon Prime)
This very Canadian show about a woman who travels into her own past as a form of therapy is a Trojan horse. It looks goofy, its premise sounds silly, it seems light, and while it is very enjoyable, an easy thing to turn on, it also gets extremely deep and substantive and heartfelt. If you’re into it, I also suggest another time-hopping, personal growth, lady tale: VH1’s too-suddenly canceled Hindsight, about a woman who also returns to her own past to get some clarity.
Correction, March 19, 2020: This post originally misspelled the last names of Chris Kraus and Matthew Macfadyen, and the first and last names of Cybill Shepherd.