For a long, blissful time in my life, television existed in its rightful place. It was there when I had to, or simply wanted to, catch a game. It was right there, in the prime real estate of the living room, when I needed to turn off my brain. It was an easy way out of the everyday whenever I had that escapist urge.
I was into “Happy Days” as a kid. I admit it. I did “Seinfeld” and “Friends” as a younger adult. I’ve watched plenty of bad TV, too, over the years. Gobs of it. But I have never been the kind who immediately turns on the TV every night. Whole weekends could go by without me picking up a remote. These days I sit and look at a screen for most of my day. Why do that at night?
But then came the damn pandemic. (When historians tap out the story of the early 2020s, I nominate that to be the title: “But then came the damn pandemic.”)
Sitting on the couch, in front of a pulsating box specifically designed to provide entertainment and make you forget about the outside world, has become a natural for these unnatural times. Mary Jo and I have watched a tonnage of TV over the past year and a half. Probably more than I watched in the decade and a half before. And I know we’re not alone.
We’ve settled in for comedies, cop shows, science fiction, drama, and every combination of those and more. We’ve absorbed one-off movies — some of the, say, Netflix-only flicks are just gawdawful, making you wonder if heading to a bar full of sniffling, hacking strangers might be less painful — and whole, multi-year series. When Luke was home for a time, the three of us re-watched the entire Harry Potter film series and the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe oeuvre.
We’ve pulled out of shows when we couldn’t get into them after a couple episodes. We’ve stuck with them even when we probably shouldn’t have. Sitting in front of the stupid boob tube still is probably the safest G-rated entertainment option we have in these pandemic times. And if that’s true, we probably all ought to be thankful for all the TV out there.
In that spirit, here’s my Pandemic Top 10, the best shows I’ve watched, all with Mary Jo, over the past 18 months. Maybe later I’ll come up with some awful ones we’ve subjected ourselves to, and a movie list, too. I’ll do a streaming movie list. Good and bad. Some of them … oof. Just terrible.
But decent TV series? We’ve seen a few …
A TV binging trick: Work the accounts. We leech off our son’s Amazon Prime membership. He’s long had a free ride on the family’s Netflix subscription. We have HBO because we bundle with AT&T — TV, internet, cell phones. Luke snags that, too. We do what the streaming services hate: We sign on for a month and then cancel. (It’s called churn in the business.) I’m sure we’ve missed some things on Hulu and Paramount Plus and the Peacock. We’ve somehow managed.
#1 The Americans — Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play a typical suburban DC couple in Cold War America. They run a travel agency, have a couple picture-perfect kids, live next to a friendly FBI agent and are, not coincidentally, a pair of ruthless Russian spies. Super sexy and at times super violent, always suspenseful and so fricking cool from start to finish, this six-season series, which originally ran on the FX network and is now available on Amazon, is a story about family and friendships, loyalty and betrayal, and the fight for what’s most important to us all — even when that’s not apparent, even when it’s not the same for those you know and love. In this scene, Elizabeth and Phillip, embedded in the U.S. for more than 20 years, partake of a forbidden taste of home. Russell and Rhys are fantastic.
#2 The Wire — One of HBO’s most-awarded shows, this five-season series is straight-up unsparing in its portrayal of the bleak streets of West Baltimore and the drug trade that defines them. Maybe most amazing: In this true-to-life but thankfully (to most of us) foreign setting, where violence and inhumanity are part of everyday life, this show manages to humanize both cops and drug dealers. Heroes and crooks, good guys and bad ones inhabit all sides. One of the show’s most endearing characters is Omar, a shotgun-toting, street-philosophizing thug who makes his living stealing from drug dealers. Here’s the show’s trailer. Here’s one of Omar’s best scenes. It’s all in the game, though, right?
#3 Schitt’s Creek — Mary Jo liked this show so much that she binged the whole series … and then made me watch it with her again. It’s a — I don’t know, I think “strange” probably fits — comedy that revolves around the one-time fabulously wealthy Rose family, a foursome that somehow mutates from grating and annoying to touchingly endearing in the course of the show’s six seasons. Dan Levy and Annie Murphy as the ever-cloistered spoiled, sparring siblings, stuck in a seedy motel in the middle of nowhere (it’s a town called Schitt’s Creek) with their recently impoverished parents, steal the show. A warning: This may be a bit too woke, its characters a bit too out-there, for some. But this Canadian series, now on Netflix, has a huge heart and a hugely talented cast. It’s a great lifter-upper.
#4 Stranger Things — Another Mary Jo recommendation, this ongoing Netflix sci-fi series — Season 4 is coming in 2022 — is a blast from the ’80s. And I didn’t even realize we needed a blast from the ’80s. Set in a fictitious Indiana town (and filmed in Atlanta, BTW), Stranger Things is the story of a group of misfit kids (well, they’re going to be damn-well grown-up by the time ’22 gets here), including one with a terrible past and a wicked super power. The kids stumble through episode to episode battling a shadowy government and a spooky otherworld (the Upside Down) that is filled with creatures bent on destroying … well, pretty much everything. The show is scary and fun and funny, and successfully answers the question, “Whatever happened to Winona Ryder?”
#5 The Boys — Luke pointed out this Amazon series. We were, almost from the start, hooked on the turned-on-its-head superhero take. If you can get past the swearing — the award for the most liberal use of the “C” word goes to this show and its Kiwi star, Karl Urban — and its over-the-top gore and violence (it really, purposely and often humorously, is ridiculously overblown), this is a series that is hilarious and compelling at the same time. It’s hard to categorize. Comedy/drama/horror/sci-fi? Sly commentary on the evils of big business and our pathetic insistence on idol worship? Love story? Special effects showcase? Yeah, it’s probably all that. We’re MCU fans, so we’re drawn to a series about superheroes anyway. What makes this series fun, though, is that the superheroes are villains. Like scumbag, murderous, narcissistic villains. If nothing else, The Boys is a nice palate-cleanser for those who have OD’d on Iron Man, Cap, and the rest of those goodie two-shoes (what does that even mean?) over the past 10 years.
#6 The Leftovers — (This was a late add to this list, which is only able to happen when you don’t really have any self-imposed deadlines.) I had forgotten about this Lost-like tale of love and loss, a terrifically weird supernatural thriller from one of the creators of Lost. Adapted from the Tom Perrotta novel of the same title, Justin Theroux (^) stars as a sheriff trying to keep his community, and himself, together after 2 percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears. Was it some kind of roll-of-the-dice Rapture? How do those of us left behind adapt? How do we move on from tragedy? What makes a life worth it? A story that takes a big swing at the role of religion in our lives and the meaning of true belief, it’s downright confusing at times and achingly heartbreaking in others. But it’s always fascinating. Ultimately, the three-season HBO series ends up offering more questions than it answers. That’s life, I guess. (The theme song sums up things nicely. Iris DeMent’s full version is a classic.)
#7 Bosch — I don’t think Titus Welliver is much of an actor, to be honest. But that probably makes him a good choice for Michael Connelly’s chain-smoking, jazz-listening, taciturn L.A. cop, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch. This series, done in a kind of 21st century noir, is often painstaking in its storytelling. I guess the intent is to show how painstaking real police work can be. But the pace is so deliberate that episodes sometimes simply seem to expire, quietly, with a moody saxophone leading into the closing credits. The character of Bosch, by the way, is beloved in the publishing world, the subject of 21 Connelly novels, every one of which my mom read and loved. (In her last years, she talked more about Bosch than she did her seven kids.) The series ran on Amazon for seven seasons, and Mary Jo and I ended up watching every one over the course of a month or two. Once you get into the rhythm of the thing — slow, now, with a lot of long pauses taken and short sentences uttered by characters who (maddeningly) actually never say “Goodbye” on the phone; they just hang up — it’s like a cup of hot chocolate before bed. Added points for having at least two veterans of The Wire (Jamie Hector and Lance Reddick) as regulars.
#8 Mare of Easttown — Kate Winslet crushes the lead role in this limited (meaning: one season only) seven-episode HBO crime drama. Playing Mare Sheehan, a divorced policewoman in Southeastern Pennsylvania haunted by her past triumphs and failures, Winslet nails everything from the accent (like my Philly-born mom, Mare calls the stuff that comes out of the kitchen tap “wooter”) to the beer drinking to the schlubby outfits to the whole feel of simply trying to catch a breath and live your life in a working-class town. The scenes with a police psychiatrist, which could have been numbingly cliché, are instead fresh and raw, as are Winslet’s too-brief scenes with her on-screen mom, played by Jean Smart. The story itself is hardly groundbreaking, and perhaps a bit too tricky — maybe that’s true of all good whodunits? — but the performances, the dialog, the setting, the characters make it worth staying at home to watch. This could easily be up the list, but it’s a one-and-done, a short story, not a novel.
#9 The Queen’s Gambit — Stylish and bizarre, this story of a young woman chess champion — an orphan and an addict in a man’s world, with a family history of mental problems — made a pandemic TV star of Anya Taylor-Joy, who (to use a corny but in this case accurate reviewerly word) is absolutely luminous in the lead role. It’s a limited Netflix series (again: one and out), so it’s difficult to compare it with something that ran for seven series. But a drug-addicted orphan prodigy? What’s not to love?
#Ten WandaVision — (Damn drop caps don’t work on numbers past 9 …) Just weird. Even for MCU fans like Mary Jo and I. This Disney+ one-off series — I don’t see it going any further than this one season — picked up where the movies ended. Unfortunately, you don’t really get what’s going on through the first four episodes or so, which are clever knockoffs (or so the reviewerly reviewers said) of old sitcoms. In the end, WandaVision propels the story of the main character forward, and puts a capper on the arc of her superhero cyborg-ish love interest. But getting to that point was tortuous. It’s worth the watch for MCU fans (as is another Disney+ limited series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier). Wanda was a nice try. But it’s No. 10 here for a reason. It’s just … weird.