For everyone in any kind of quarantine, I hope you stay safe. Anyone with any level of illness, I hope you feel better soon. No matter your situation, all of us could use a little something to keep us occupied. With that in mind, I’ll share a few shows I’ve enjoyed over the years, and where you can go streaming them.
Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
Any list of the greatest shows ever made has to include this five-season masterwork. Even its very logline feels like pure gold: A middle-aged chemistry teacher, freshly diagnosed with lung cancer, begins cooking and selling crystal meth to provide for his family. But Bad is so much more. Walter White’s descent provides scorching drama, coal-black humor, and a potent dose of tragedy. Cranston’s performance in the lead is just about the best acting you’ll ever see. Everybody else turns in world-class performances as well: Aaron Paul nails it as the twitchy, reluctant sidekick, Dean Norris generates a strange mix of sympathy and contempt as Walt’s lunkheaded brother-in-law/DEA agent, and Bob Odenkirk steals most of his scenes as a strip mall lawyer for whom the word smarmy doesn’t do justice. This is a rare–perhaps unique–series that only gets stronger as it goes along.
Better Call Saul (2015-Present)
Once you finish Walter White’s socio-spiritual demolition, Better Call Saul will make a worthy follow-up. Saul can’t–and doesn’t try to–match Breaking Bad‘s blunt force trauma, but it’s all good, man. If its predecessor showed us Walter White’s transformation into Heisenberg, then this prequel walks alongside Jimmy McGill’s journey into the ethical weeds. You’ll feel for McGill as he slowly takes on the polyester sheen of Saul Goodman. Odenkirk might be the most subtly funny dude on television. He gets abetted by Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, who acts as McGill’s colleague, companion, and conscience. Jonathan Banks returns as Mike, a badass fixit-for-hire. Other familiar faces appear, but nobody makes a cheap cameo. By adding to Breaking Bad’s already-rich legacy, show-runner Vince Gilligan and company achieve a rare feat for a prequel.
Star Trek: Picard (2020-Present)
CBS All Access
Fine, I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for Star Trek, and specifically The Next Generation. Star Wars may’ve planted the sci-fi bug within my geeky soul, but Picard and company showed me a whole different side of the genre. I was nervous as all get-out when this show was announced. Was this going to be another cash-in on our collective nostalgia? Thankfully, that’s a resounding nope, as Picard turns out to be Trek decked in all its finest. It assumes you have a passing knowledge of TNG, but I honestly think noobs will still enjoy the serialized storyline and top-notch performances. The show-runners wisely shake up the tidy Star Trek universe, adding some shading and depth that’s been so badly needed. Set 20 years after Star Trek: Nemesis (which was…a not great movie), Picard finds Jean-Luc haunted by his role in galactic history. He meets–a la Firefly–a young woman with a rare gift, and only the intrepid Captain can save her. We get some legit surprises, awesome special effects, and a meaty narrative to enjoy. And all those nostalgic cameos? They’re just the icing on the cake.
(For anyone looking for a Trek refresher to prep for this specific series, head over to Netflix and watch these Next Generation episodes: “The Measure of a Man,” “The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 & 2,” “Unification, Parts 1 & 2,” and “I, Borg.”)
Schitt’s Creek (2015-2020)
Ever wonder what those blathering dilettantes on reality shows would be like on, you know, Planet Earth? Well, look no further than the Roses. Stripped of their ginormous wealth, Johnny (Eugene Levy) and Moira (Catherine O’Hara) relocate to a podunk burg in the Canadian hinterlands. Their cacophonous, high-maintenance son and daughter (Dan Levy and Annie Murphy) get pulled in tow. Naturally, these effete snobs meet an assortment of local hicks and nut jobs. This could’ve been just another exercise in social satire, but creators Dan and Eugene Levy follow the Parks and Rec prototype by gradually endowing this show with heart and soul. You’ll laugh at the Roses, but you’ll come to love them, too. All the performers are great, but O’Hara–her accent combines Zsa Zsa Gabor, Cruella DeVille, and…hell, I don’t even know what–traipses off with most of her scenes.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017-Present)
This show has a lot going for it, but the best thing about Mrs. Maisel? Below its cotton candy surface, the show’s Eisenhower-era examination of sexism and bigotry are, sadly, just as relevant today. Sometimes, it just takes something frankly funny to crumble both of those pillars of ignorance. Enter Midge Maisel, a wealthy Manhattan housewife whose life gets upended when her husband (Michael Zegen) comes down with a case of wanderlust and wanders right out the door. She drunkenly hits an open mic and wows the crowd with her brutal one-liners. Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein) senses potential in this would-be Joan Rivers and installs herself as Midge’s agent. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel (the force behind Gilmore Girls), Mrs. Maisel boasts the expected Uzi bursts of dialogue, but this sparkling period comedy gets anchored by Rachel Brosnahan’s note-perfect performance in the lead.
The world needs another serial killer TV series like it needs a bucket of horse puckey in the face, but Mindhunter distinguishes itself with razor-sharp writing and compelling performances. David Fincher (Se7en, The Social Network) and Charlize Theron head up a world-class production team, and it’s clear no expense has been spared. Loosely based on real events, this series takes us back to the mid-70s, and the FBI’s attempt to build a profile for modern serial killers. Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) approach this task from completely different ideologies, and utilize a behavioral scientist (Anna Torv) to split the difference between them. The team interviews notorious monsters, and soon finds that many of these murderers are more alike than different. Meanwhile, new killers pop up in Atlanta and Wichita. Both seasons are just about perfect, and the actors they get to play people like Charlie Manson and Ed Kemper are so spot-on it’s creeepy.
I know what you’re thinking, this show premiered during Bill Clinton’s first term, but with its pithy humor and avoidance of topical references, most of Frasier holds up pretty well. Like Better Call Saul, Kelsey Grammer’s spinoff sidesteps the pitfall of following an iconic show by spinning its narrative in a completely different direction. Haughty shrink Frasier Crane, fresh off a divorce from ice queen Lilith, relocates home to Seattle. There, he picks up a gig as a call-in shrink, takes up with his even haughtier brother Niles, and moves his Archie Bunker-esque father into his posh apartment. Frasier can’t keep a full head of steam for its entire run, but the first seven or so seasons make for as good as sitcom television gets. If you need a marathon of funny, this show is the way to go.
Stay tuned: For my next list, I’ll put together a list of recent movies you may’ve overlooked!