I expect to spend a great deal of time indoors for the foreseeable future. Not only has our spring break been extended by a week, but I’ll be teaching online at least through Easter. I’m sure I’ll spend some of that time writing about Charles Lindbergh, catching up on reading, improvising alternatives to lectures and seminars, fretting over cold and flu symptoms, and cherishing unexpected time with my wife and children.
But let’s be honest: I’m going to fill a lot of hours with TV series and movies.
And so will many of you, if Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, and other streaming services don’t collapse under the weight of a socially distancing population’s insatiable demand for media.
You’ve probably got a few things you’re already binging, but in case you’re worried that you might run out of things to watch, I thought I’d ask my colleagues at The Anxious Bench to recommend some of their favorite films and series.
• Not surprisingly, British dramas proved very popular with our contributors. Broadchurch, Father Brown, Foyle’s War, Grantchester, and River all got votes, as did The Crown, which has continued to explore religious themes in its third season.
(I’m as much an Anglophile as everyone else here, but let me also put in a plug for an unsettling, definitely TV-MA crime drama from Germany: Babylon Berlin evokes the dreams, decadence, and downfall of the Weimar Republic, with a visual style heavily influenced by the expressionist films of that era.)
• I also learned that multiple colleagues share my love of Star Trek. If our COVID hiatus lasts long enough, I might finally break down and join Andrea and Beth in paying CBS for the privilege of watching Picard.
• Andrea reminded me that I’d recommended a couple of binge-able historical series back in 2016, though The Americans ended up being far better over the long haul than did Outlander (which just started its 5th season).
• Speaking of shows that play with alternate timelines… I’m thinking about catching up on The Man in the High Castle, which Andrea wrote about last summer. And tomorrow night HBO debuts its version of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which imagines my pal Charles Lindbergh winning the 1940 presidential election — and setting this country on the path to fascism. (I blogged about the novel after Roth died in 2018).
Then a few of my colleagues went the extra mile and wrote lengthier recommendations — or, in one case, outsourced the task to their 11-year old daughter:
For the category of ‘comedy shows for families with kids,’ Kim’s Convenience Store on Netflix is great. It’s about a Korean family that runs a convenience store in Toronto. It’s both hilarious and surprisingly sensitive, and it sheds a different light on Asian Americans, by focusing on the lives of working class Korean immigrants. Also, there’s lots of political intrigue between competitive Korean church ladies!
The Good Place, also on Netflix, is funny and entertaining while also prompting interesting ethical questions that can be the fodder for long family discussions. (Also, weird fact: my cousin went to prom with Kristen Bell.)
At a time when we all need everybody to play their part in bravely battling the forces of viral evil, now’s a good time to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies. Although The Fellowship of the Ring can’t be streamed on Netflix right now, The Two Towers and The Return of the King can! [Chris: we just let our 10-year old twins watch the trilogy for the first time. Isaiah was more into it than Lena, who would watch a Harry Potter movie every night if we let her, but both watched the final battle with rapt attention.]
This isn’t necessarily fun viewing, but now’s actually a good time to watch Tidying Up with Marie Kondo because now you have all this time to unload your closets and ask if that t-shirt from that corporate teambuilding day in 1996 still brings you joy. And if you, like me, have kids home for a month, they can be forced to clean their closets, too! FAMILY FUN!
Here are some comedy suggestions in an age that badly needs something light.
Everything depends on taste, of course, but there are some great British comedies from the past twenty years or so on the different networks, and all are great for binge viewing. By common consent, one of the best things the Untied [sic?] Kingdom has ever put on television is The Detectorists, a superbly written and acted piece about English villagers obsessed with their hobby of metal detecting, and the archaeology it can reveal. It is brilliant on so many angles, but it gains enormously if you know anything whatever about the Middle Ages or archaeology. As close to perfect as television gets. Among other Brit comedies, Miranda, Black Books, and The IT Crowd are all fine, and available on Prime. Derry Girls is on Netflix, as is Chewing Gum. Chewing Gum and Miranda are both vehicles for insanely talented women comedians.
Eva Du Mez
(edited, very lightly, by Kristin Du Mez)
Just Add Magic: Three girls find a magical cookbook and make recipes that not only change their lives, but also deepen their friendship.
Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street: Three normal kids live on a street where some not-so-normal things happen. Another quirky show where the unexpected is expected.
A Series of Unfortunate Events: Based on the books by Lemony Snicket, this quirky show stars three siblings who try to escape plot after plot concocted by the evil Count Olaf, with no help from adults.
The Dragon Prince: In a world where humans and elves are divided, a group of three friends band together and discover a secret that could change everything. A heartwarming animated series.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: In a war-ridden world, a girl finds a magical sword and realizes she’s been fighting for the wrong side.
The Healing Powers of Dude: When Noah, who has social anxiety disorder, starts middle school, he needs the help of his emotional support dog. This is a funny and delightful show that both raises awareness for dis ABILITIES and demonstrates deep friendship.
Alexa & Kate: When two best friends enter high school, together they face all the teenager problems, with some added ones as Alexa is getting over cancer. This show is funny and it gives you a feeling of belonging.
The Who Was Show: A fun and educational series that compares two historical figures’ lives each episode. [Chris: another Lena and Isaiah favorite. They particularly love the one that matches Bruce Lee and Julius Caesar.]
Then I’ll close with some more recommendations of my own, from two rather different categories of televised non-fiction:
First, for fellow fans who aren’t sure what to do with themselves without ANY ORGANIZED SPORTS AT ALL to watch… Why not take the chance to learn about the rich history of sports? I was disappointed to find that the PBS app doesn’t offer full episodes from Ken Burns’ series about either Jack Johnson or Jackie Robinson, but his Baseball series is still on Amazon Prime — as is the completely un-Ken Burns-like No No: A Dockumentary. It tells the story of the late Dock Ellis, the Pittsburgh Pirate who tells us that he “pitched every game in the major leagues under the influence of drugs” — including LSD, which he dropped before no hitting the San Diego Padres in 1970. I’m not far into it, but so far No No promises to offer surprising insight into everything from racial politics to addiction.
Then for something completely different… I’m still lamenting the end of A Chef’s Life on PBS, but for an even richer exploration of how food and cooking help us understand culture, check out Ugly Delicious, whose second season just started on Netflix.
The latest collaboration between chef David Chang and food writer Peter Meehan, it bounces around the world to explore everything from fried chicken to fried rice. The series starts well with an episode on pizza that pays due homage to New Haven, Connecticut, but my favorite hour in season 1 centered on tacos. In a time when our worlds are about to feel very small and isolated, it was refreshing to see how a deceptively simple staple of Mexican cuisine has been adapted by everyone from a Korean food truck owner in Los Angeles to the refugees from the Armenian genocide who invented tacos Árabes to a Mexican-American chef based in Denmark who returns to the land of her immigrant parents. At the same time, the series doesn’t shy away from the politics of food, interviewing an undocumented barbacoa cook in Philadelphia and a chef for a Michelin-rated bistro in Mexico City who left a son in the U.S. after being deported. You’ll find yourself wondering, with Chang, whether food can truly serve as an agent of social change.