Hello, fellow quarantined human! Or future alien historian!
As one of America’s many Citizens with Depression, I have consumed uncountable hours of streaming television. Even as a pre-teen, I religiously watched an episode of whatever DVD collection I was working my way through, usually Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Xena: Warrior Princess, every evening.
At this critical point in world history, America’s many Citizens without Depression are being told to do the unthinkable: settle into the couch and watch TV until you forget there’s a real world out there. In other words, you are being told to act depressed. The good news is, being depressed is a lot more fun in the 21st century. You might even come to enjoy the lifestyle!
So, I offer you what I hope is a fairly digestible guide to my 20ish favorite TV shows. For each of my top 10 scripted shows, I have written a little bit about why I like it, reasons to try it, reasons to stay away from it, and an idea for jazzing up a rewatch. I also included a bonus list of 10 reality TV recommendations.
Disclaimer 1: the most controversial things that aren’t on here will undoubtedly be The Office and Breaking Bad. The former I have watched all the way through and it’s fine for an American sitcom (more on that later); the latter I have only watched the pilot, which I hated enough to never watch another episode. If you like either enough to start a comment war when it is excluded from a top 10 list, congratulations! You know what show to re-watch.
Disclaimer 2: these are in alphabetical order, not order of preference
MY TOP 10 FAVORITE SCRIPTED SHOWS OF ALL TIME
Attack on Titan
One Sentence Summary: Mediocre white boy and his two actually-talented friends try to save humanity from man-eating mutants, learn emotional regulation.
Why I Like It: I initially agreed to watch Attack on Titan because it felt like the kind of show a self-described nerd would at least try. Set in a dystopian probably-the-future, the popular anime follows a group of rebellious youth as they learn to battle mindless people-eating Titans and defend what is left of humanity.
As I watched the pilot, I had doubts that I would get too engrossed, as I had been on the hunt for a comedy. An interesting thing happened: I found the main character of the show (Eren Jaeger) to be the absolute worst, and enjoyed rage watching him get his ass kicked. Slowly but surely, though, the show’s genre-blending mysteries sucked me in for the long haul. The show is much more than a monster show; it is part character study, part political thriller, part soap opera.
More esoterically, the technical aspects of Attack on Titan are well done — unique plot, intense drama, intriguing characters, cool animation — and the crew have earned themselves a number of episodes with ratings of 9.5 or higher (out of 10) on IMDB. Most impressively, the story is intricate, but holds up under the most scrutinous of re-watches.
Be warned: at its heart, Attack on Titan is a mostly poignant, but sometimes heavy-handed exploration of the theme of hopelessness. Thus, it is incredibly heavy and depressing, with pretty graphic depictions of struggles with mental health, often in a combat setting. This is not some cartoon to veg out and eat cupcakes to — though you may want to have some emergency comfort food on hand.
You should watch if: You could use an example of how things could be even worse for humanity/you like weird, creepy shit/you like zombies/you struggle with crippling mental health issues.
You should not watch if: You have no patience for melodrama/you would like to retain faith in humanity.
Rewatch Party: Read the manga instead — and then rewatch!
One Sentence Summary: 90s Sitcom has-been/anthropomorphized horse attempts image makeover through memoir, fails upwards.
Why I like It: The adult animation series Bojack Horseman works, quite simply, because it is impeccably created. The writing is witty, the characters are compelling, and the storylines are scintillating. There’s a reason it has 3 episodes on the IMDB top 30 of all time; there are are actually many reasons.
That being said, it gets off to a humble start. The concept is pedestrian: a washed up 90s sitcom star worries about his image and attempts a comeback. The visual twist — that this world has both “normal” people and giant animal-people — takes a few episodes to get used to. The graphics are comfortably familiar, though this helps soften the blow of watching anthropomorphized humans have sex with traditional humans.
My first viewing, I struggled to see how depressing a talking horse show could really be, especially once I learned the protagonist’s girlfriend is a pink cat named Princess. It seemed dark, but not South Park dark — and thank god it didn’t rely so heavily on crude humor. My conclusion after the first couple episodes: it’s The Simpsons with a PG-13 rating and a progressive makeover.
And then it suddenly got too real, my soul was represented by that fucking depressed horse, and I was motivated to go back to therapy.
So it may feel like you’re “sticking out” the first few episodes (especially if you’re not usually an adult animation person like myself). But for those who love dark humor, the payoff will be well worth it. You’ll have opinions about Bojack (the character) but it’s the supporting characters that take this show from good to iconic. In particular, I identify with Bojack’s biographer Diane Nguyen, who spends most of the show grappling with self-loathing, the drive to find “meaning” in life, and being too smart for her own good. The ensemble is rounded out by an annoyingly optimistic Labrador named Mister Peanutbutter, Bojack’s lovably average roommate Todd, and the aforementioned Princess Caroline, a have-it-all career gal with a can-do attitude, love of puns, and nonexistent personal life. All depict human foibles with grace, charm, and soul-crashing emotional realism.
Bojack Horseman is particularly near and dear to my heart because it is the kind of art that changes lives. It is art made by the mentally ill for the mentally ill, and the first of its kind to touch my soul in a way that inspired tangible change in my choices. Especially if you have a lifestyle that involves a therapist or two, you should check this one out.
You should watch if: You struggle with crippling mental health issues/the main reason you haven’t is that you don’t like other adult cartoons/you like your TV shows to hit you in the amygdala with a sledgehammer.
You should not watch if: You are happy and want to stay that way.
Rewatch Party: Pause every time there are posters on the walls, crawl text on the bottom of the news, etc in order to catch all of the background puns.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
One Sentence Summary: Blond teenage girl fights demons: the one worth watching.
Why I Like It: You probably have already watched this show. If you have not watched this show yet, and you are friends with white feminists (especially gay ones), it’ll help you get a lot more of the jokes. In fact, you’ll learn a bunch of new jokes to impress your friends!
For the uninitiated, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a television series* following the life of Buffy Summers, a high school student in Sunnydale, CA, as she battles vampires, werewolves, and other assorted demons…like the mayor, and a pack of wild hyena bullies. It has everything a classic network hit should: drama, action, banter, ridiculous outfits, cringe-y musical montages, a musical episode, aggressive brooding, David Boreanaz, and the odd one-dimensional character to keep the plot moving.
To be honest, at this point I really only watch my favorite episodes over and over. The last few times I attempted a complete rewatch, I crashed midway through the fifth season out of resentment towards the existence of Riley’s storyline. A few days later, I simply jumped ahead to season 6, episode 4, which is where it starts getting good again in my humble opinion. My least favorite season — Season 5 — is pretty well reviewed, though, and includes The Body, which, according to Tumblr, is the most universally loved episode of the show. When Buffy gets bad, it doesn’t really get that bad.
*Fun fact: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is also a perfect, terrible film, still directed by Joss Whedon, that you should definitely watch.
You should watch if: You’re still on the fence. It’s quarantine or never!
You should not watch if: You watch sci-fi and fantasy for the visual effects (I see you and you matter!)/the 90s mean nothing to you.
Rewatch Party: Buffy is, at this point, a nostalgia piece. Play up that 90s love! Enjoy a rewatch that wallows in the fashion; look up that familiar bop and add it to your playlist; realize you need to appreciate Sarah Michelle Geller’s awesomeness in other films, perhaps cult classic Cruel Intentions…
Bonus! Episode Recommendations: Halloween (S2), Lovers Walk (S3), Once More With Feeling (S6), Tabula Rasa (S6)
One Sentence Summary: High functioning crazy lady stalks ex across country, finds love in unexpected ways, sings many songs.
Why I Like It: I wish I knew why I was so resistant to watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the 4 season musical dramedy following peppy psycho lawyer Rebecca Bunch’s journey to find true love. Part of it is that I really, truly have been over musicals since Chicago won Best Picture at the 2003 Academy Awards. Seriously, I could take or leave the musical numbers in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I don’t have a favorite song (but I have an answer to that question: Sexy Getting Ready Song). I feel like an asshole saying that, because they are clearly very well done and require tons of time and talent. But they’re not why I like the show.
I like it because it’s a positive-adjacent representation of psycho bitches like me. “Crazy” in the title is just another in a long list of reclaimed insults, like “bitch,” and “slut.” While I wouldn’t say this goal immediately comes across, the entirety does a damn good job. And it’s worth noting that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, like Bojack Horseman, is something made by the mentally ill for the mentally ill. As horrifying as that sentence sounds at first, I’m glad to live in a world where such art exists, and have found interacting with such art to be incredibly healing.
I also like it because of the casting and styling. The “ex” in the title of the show, Josh Chan, is totally a heartthrob. He has a dreamy smile, is a talented dancer, and dresses quite snappily. Yet, just the choice to make the male heartthrob a break-dancing Asian-American flies in the face of the typical All-American quarterback. Rebecca herself is very attainably hot — her skincare routine is on point, but her arms jiggle! There are characters who are more aspirationally hot — this is a network television show — but the show acknowledges how much time and effort goes into low body fat and flawless winged eyeliner.
In short, I love this ridiculous, campy musical dramedy because it is one of the most compassionately human shows I have ever seen.
You should watch if: You like musicals/camp/you like over-the-top tomfoolery/you suffer from crippling mental illness/you have ever described yourself as a “high functioning” anything.
You should not watch if: You identify with the word “normal”/you don’t like musicals (duh).
Rewatch twist: Air hairbrush sing along with all the songs (turn on the captions to help!). Bonus points if you post to Tiktok!
One Sentence Summary: The Brady Bunch meets Lord of the Lies, starring Eva Longoria.
Why I Like It: Desperate Housewives was the first network television show that I discovered for myself. I read about it in Entertainment Weekly, eventually watched episodes from the first season on DVD at a sleepover, and finally convinced my household to hold weekly Sunday night viewing parties for each new episode. I have streamed it through more times than I have any other show on television.
Perhaps because of its silly title, Desperate Housewives is an overlooked cultural powerhouse: it inspired the Real Housewives reality franchise, turned many of its cast into household names, dominated the ratings, and effectively utilized the soap opera formula to explore middle class American womanhood. The main characters represented a diversity of American women: the underappreciated stay-at-home mom, the career gal turned mommy, the bored new housewife, and the recently divorced ingenue. These four main characters are friends of Mary Alice Young, the show’s narrator-from-the-grave. The first season follows them as they investigate Mary Alice’s suicide, uncovering disturbing truths about her life before the suburbs. The women begin to question their own lives, desperately seeking ways to feel happy.
Each rewatch, I’m blown away by how amazingly well acted the show is (at least by the women). The committed performances bring the soap opera plotpoints to life, leaving you laughing and crying, not cringing and eye-rolling. The strong performances save it when the writing becomes formulaic in later seasons. Even when formulaic, though, the writing stays clever. Each episode is framed by a voiceover monologue from the Mary Alice Young. These monologues are consistently entertaining, whether because they are funny, touching, too real, or all three.
In short, Desperate Housewives is as good as how bad it sounds.
You should watch if: You appreciate shows that don’t take themselves too seriously/enjoy witty banter and pretty girls. I mean women/you are or are dating a middle class woman under 40
You should not watch if: you are happily married and want to stay that way/have ever referred to Breaking Bad as art/don’t have a room for another problematic fave
Rewatch party: Skip the Susan scenes. Or Lynette if you’re still mad about the college admission scandal (you should be).
Friday Night Lights
One Sentence Summary: Small Texas town supports its high school football team to death
Why I Like It: The older I get, the more I realize I really should have been a sociology major — and my love of all media about Texas is the main reason. My norcal hippie brain just flat out does not understand what it is like to be from Dillon, Texas. And I come from a small town, at least! I enjoy shows like Friday Night Lights and the new Netflix series Cheer, because they offer me a window into a way of being human that is totally foreign to me. I think it’s important to take time to engage with such perspectives, especially when we’re blessed with such entertaining modes of doing so and a mandatory quarantine.
As a television series, Friday Night Lights is successful because of how deep a bond the viewer forms with the protagonist, Coach Taylor, his wife Tammy Taylor, and the various players that we meet throughout the series. This bond is cultivated not just through impeccable writing and acting, but stylized camerawork that makes you feel like you’re right there with the characters in their private moments. You may not be invested in the game of football (you will be soon enough), but you’re invested in grades, dates to the dance, and Buddy Goddamn Gherrity’s latest shenanigan.
I compel you to try this show if you’re on the fence, if for no other reason than I think the pilot is one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen. If it doesn’t suck you in, then it really isn’t the show for you — and that’s OK!
You should watch if: You are the kind of person who says “I appreciate television”/You like a solid drama/You are interested in Texas
You should not watch if: you have I-grew-up-in-a-repressed-small-town PTSD/you don’t want to feel feelings today
Rewatch Party: Try reading the book (also called Friday Night Lights) about a real Texas team, or watching the movie, before your next rewatch! Both are compelling.
The Good Place
Why I Like It: The Good Place is the only sitcom I’ve ever watched that doesn’t do something lazy and problematic every other friggin episode. Yes, I even have beef with The Office — the fact that Michael Scott is a sympathetic character is why we have rampant Nice Guy Syndrome. Parks and Recreation was OK, though I never really got Andy and I didn’t laugh as much the second time around. Maybe Brooklyn 99 is OK, too, I need to watch it again, but I remember not thinking Doyle was funny. HIMYM was made by rapists and Barney is a rapist and you need to look at yourself real hard if you think that shit is funny. COMEDY DOESN’T HAVE TO BAD, YA’LL. BUT GOD IS IT HARD TO FIND.
Let’s try that again. I like The Good Place becaue it is actually good comedy, for once on network TV. It’s not perfect because there is no such thing, but it is fresh. It’s set in Heaven, but our shero Eleanor Shellstrop isn’t supposed to have landed there. I won’t say much more about the plot, except to say that they do very clever things with the setup. The plot is actually an important part of the humor, and I’d hate to spoil it!
What makes it funny? Despite the diverse cast, the show rarely leans on stereotypes for humor. When it does lean on stereotype, it punches up. It is compassionate towards its characters without glorifying them. It has actual plot twists. William Jackson Harper, as philosophy professor Chidi Adegonye, showcases some of the best comedic timing I have seen in any medium. Kristen Bell and Ted Danson are as epic in their leading roles as you’d hope. The romance is cute and charming, never forced. I could go on. It’s a really good show.
You should watch if: you watch TV/you need to laugh/you are a nerd/you love a nerd/you have referred to yourself as “high functioning” anything
You should not watch if: you voted for Trump and stand by that decision
Rewatch Party: Just treat yourself and do it already!
One Sentence Summary: “Sad men being sad (in the 50s)” – my partner
Why I Like It: I started watching Mad Men while I was researching 1950s nostalgia for my undergraduate thesis. l am not personally afflicted with 1950s nostalgia, but if you are one of the millions of Americans suffering from this painful delusion, Mad Men may be the cure for you!
The show follows the lives of the employees of an advertising company in 1960s (the 1960s were shitty because of the 1950s) New York City; in other words, the show follows a bunch of privileged white men choosing to use their immense privilege to make themselves and everyone around them completely miserable. It’s fascinating because it happened.
Like many others on this list, Mad Men is generally acknowledged to be a good show on a number of technical levels: the costuming and styling are particularly stellar in this case. The cast is full of powerhouses. The writers succeed in convincing the viewer that the salesmen are convincing. Really, Mad Men is a master class in “show not tell.” Much of the acting is done in the subtext, which can be far more difficult than crying on cue.
Like Friday Night Lights, I’m ultimately drawn to Mad Men because it is a culture I will never fully understand, presented to me in a medium that makes me want to believe I can. I am disgusted and repulsed by many of the characters in Mad Men, and I can’t stop watching because I want to understand why these characters are so well loved within their own worlds. I wanted to understand 1950s nostalgia. And while I still will never feel the nostalgia, watching Mad Mad did help me sympathize with it.
You should watch if: You will watch anything with an attractive cast/you like drama/you like costumes.
You should not watch if: You don’t want to deal with reality/you need a laugh
Rewatch Party: Give yourself a mini history lesson on each year depicted, and let your inner critic analyze how the show chose to portray real events.
One Sentence Summary: British teens do teen things dramatically
Why I Like It: Look, teen dramedies are ubiquitous enough that ONE of them has to be actually decent. The one is Skins. It could have been Pretty Little Liars or Gossip Girl (I said what I said, fight me) but both fell apart after the first few seasons and were forced to throw together finales that make so little sense, they make negative sense.
Skins is a British television show popular in the late 2000s/early 2010s. It starred two actors who went on to be on Game of Thrones, the Slumdog Millionaire dude, and also inspired a truly horrible American knockoff on MTV. More importantly, it is a compassionate exploration into the lives of a diverse group of teenage friends. Each episode follows the perspective of one of the group, giving you insight into each backstory. These insights are generally sad – oh! he’s not ignoring everything, he has no parents and a fuckton of responsibilities – so the show relies on the jokes cracked by its characters to keep the mood light.
Unlike most US teen shows, Skins is realistic. The kids look like kids. Some of them are ugly. The hot ones are still believable. They do really dumb shit, and they face scary consequences. They chase dreams. They ignore dreams to do drugs. That’s the point of having a show about teenagers, you can use the lack of pre-frontal cortex to get away with some bonkers character choices and still claim realism. The authenticity makes Skins dark and depressing in ways you might not expect from a teen TV show, but it is hardly the most likely show to fuck you in the head on this list. Proceed with cautious optimism.
You should watch if: You like accents/you like drama/you like sociology/you’re considering a Gossip Girl rewatch and don’t just watch for the clothes.
You should not watch if: You have children, especially pre-teens.
Rewatch Party: It’s probably been awhile since you’ve watched it. Just write down what you think happened to the characters you remember, and see if you get any of them right.
One Sentence Summary: That show everyone keeps calling “The Great American Novel” is actually as good as advertised, depressing AF.
Why I Like It: The Wire is just really well done. It’s already been on all the top ten lists not written by racists. I’m just one fucking cranky feminist signing on to say “this thing actually is that good, for once.”
“This thing” being a cop show set in Baltimore that puts as much creative integrity into developing the “robbers” side of the story. And then it puts as much care into depicting City Hall, the local union, and the school system. The Wire may be a cop show, but it doesn’t take the cops’ side. It doesn’t take anyone’s side; even some of the kids are intentionally hard to like.
Yes, The Wire is the bottle of Merlot you waited 10 years to drink, and it was actually complex and heady and fulfilling. Much like a nice glass of red wine, though, if we spend too much time with it, it’ll fuck us in the head. I appreciated The Wire in particular because I spent a little over a year teaching in Washington, DC, and one of the schools I worked at faced similar challenges as the one depicted in the show’s fourth season. Validation eventually turned to frustration when I realized that meant the issues depicted in the show had not changed in the 10+ years since it aired. Indeed, our failure as a society to address urban poverty and the opportunity gap — major themes of the show — are a huge reason we are in the nightmare of a political thriller we find ourselves in today.
The Wire isn’t a show you watch; this is a show we have a moral imperative to not just watch, but to grapple with the implications of its message.
You should watch if: you watch TV
You should not watch if: you can’t handle too much fucking reality right now
Rewatch Party: Pick a favorite character and rewatch with an eye to their character arc — especially if you have a quarantine buddy you can compare notes with. I enjoyed doing this with Marlo Stanfield!
If you want to try reality TV, I recommend the following:
Love Island UK (preferably Seasons 2-3) if you like British accents
Cutthroat Kitchen if you like comedy and/or cooking
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver if you miss Jon Stewart
Love is Blind if you like romance
Vanderpump Rules if you like trash
Next in Fashion if you like Project Runway (or just rewatch Project Runway)
RuPaul’s Drag Race if you like to be entertained
Rock of Love if you like to drink
The Circle if you like wholesome memes
The Great British Bake-Off if HA! You didn’t realize you already like reality TV, did you?