The problem with the golden age of TV is that with so many choices, it’s hard to know what to watch. So much of the conversation focuses on the brilliant shows that we now watch in place of movies – but there’s a lot of TV that, while less than brilliant, can be plenty of fun to watch in the right context.

I confess that I’ve lived much of my life with the TV on; as early as high school, I did a lot of my homework with a show on in the background.  In recent years, I’ve become a fan of TV as a way of enduring all the mundane busywork of digital maintenance, using it as  concurrent reward” for doing dreaded tasks. And now that I have kids, watching TV as a family can give us a shared experience we might miss if we’re each ensconced on a separate device.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time documenting our technical approach to watching TV, which mostly relies on using Plex to watch shows we torrent. (We still pay for a full cable package, so I just think of this as a way to get the shows we pay for using an interface we prefer.) But it’s not enough to know how to watch TV: you need to know what to watch.

This post is my ultimate guide to watching TV for any occasion.  Here’s what it includes:

The What-to-Watch Cheat Sheet

grid shows our favorite shows by genre and occasion

Download the cheat sheet as a PDF.

TV Occasions

Our TV watching falls into four discrete categories:

  1. Dedicated viewing: These are the grownup shows that are so compelling that we actually turn off our computers and watch with something close to full attention.  A lot of our favorites are action or spy shows that have some violence, but we don’t like the stuff that is super violent or creepy, so that rules out a fair bit.
  2. Multitasking TV: This is the bread and butter of our grownup TV watching. We often have the TV on while we’re doing routine work like formatting blog posts or clearing out our email.  A lot of the shows in this category might also make for family TV (like Chuck or Burn Notice), but are things we watched before the kids got old enough to join us.
  3. Workout TV: The chance to watch TV shows that Rob doesn’t enjoy really helps motivate me to get to the gym. So my “workout TV” category is a hodgepodge: some of it is stuff that is too schlocky to earn my full attention (like Scandal or Revenge), but a lot of shows are great programs that are just not Rob’s cup of tea (like Parenthood, The Affair and Unreal).
  4. Family Viewing: These are shows we watch with one or both of the kids, now ages 9 and 12.  There are a lot of shows on this list that wouldn’t be appropriate for younger kids, or which other families wouldn’t show to kids as young as 9: we are not concerned about our kids seeing stuff that is sexy or grownup, as long as it’s not explicit or disturbing.  And the kids are now ready for stories and themes that offer a little more intellectual and emotional heft. Most of the shows under “family viewing” count as “multitasking TV” when they’re viewed by me and Rob.

Show-by-Show Capsule Reviews

Wondering about some of the shows on my cheat sheet? Look no further.

11/22/63  James Franco finds a temporal portal back to 1960, and is charged with stopping JFK’s assassination. The violence gets intense at times, but the underlying concept is so compelling that it’s worth gritting your teeth.

Marvel’s Agent Carter This spin-off from the Captain America movies is a cross between a cop show and a superhero show, all set in the 1940s. Not brilliant, but charming.

Alias TV’s original badass female action hero was plenty of fun, especially before it got mired down in the meta-conspiracy story line.

Almost Human File this under Geeks Only: a one-season copy show in which the sidekick is an android.

American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson A terrific, high quality re-enactment of the O. J. case, which drew rave reviews and was compelling even for those of us who lived thorugh that time.

Battlestar Galactica  Unless you actively hate anything set in space, this is a stupendous show that uses a human vs android war as an allegory for America’s engagement in the Middle East.

Better Off Ted Proof that there is no justice in the TV universe, Better Off Ted only lasted for two very short seasons. But it’s one of our very favorite comedies ever – an absolutely brilliant send-up of workplace culture, set in the R&D unit of a GE-like corporation.

Billions A high-end soap with a stellar cast and solid writing, set in the world of Wall Street.

Black-ish A fun family sitcom that rises above the genre with its insights into race in America. We don’t watch it religiously but we enjoy it when we do.

Blindspot  The latest addition to our family TV lineup, this show about a tattooed amnesiac who works for the FBI does a good job of balancing its big picture storyline with standard episode-long cases. The writing is mediocre but the puzzles embedded in the tattoos are often genuinely clever, and keep us watching.

Blunt Talk Patrick Stewart plays a dissolute, crisis-ridden Piers Morgan: the storylines mix behind-the-scenes plotlines set at his news network with hilariously over-the-top personal drama. Quirky and incredibly funny, but definitely not one to watch with the kids.

Borgen  This subtitled Danish show about a moderate politician who becomes her country’s first female prime minister is one of our favorite shows ever. It’s fabulous political TV that manages to make complex political issues truly compelling; it’s also the best thing I’ve ever seen on the challenges of balancing career and family.

Brain Games Think of this as pinch hitter for MythBusters. It uses interesting social experiments to illuminate the quirks of human neurology and psychology.

Broad City  The first couple of episodes left me cold, but then I hopped on the bandwagon of people who love this insane, hysterically funny buddy show about two young women in New York.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine Our whole family enjoys Andy Samberg’s sitcom set in a Brooklyn police precinct.

Bunheads This one-season wonder follows a washed-up showgirl who takes over a ballet school, blending her midlife crisis with the teen dramas of her students. It’s the quintessential family drama,  elevated by its lead, Broadway superstar Sutton Foster.

Burn Notice Another spy show we’ll soon share with the kids, about a CIA operative hiding out in Miami. The show’s charm lies in its behind-the-scenes explanations of spy tricks, which you can also enjoy through its online web shorts.

Catastrophe A super raunchy, super funny comedy about an American man who hooks up with an Irish woman in London – and a month later, discovers their 3-day stand left her pregnant. Some of the most candid, affectionate insights into marriage and sex that I’ve seen on TV.

Chuck A pseudo-Best Buy tech pro gets implanted with a computer program that makes him a super-spy. Another one we’ll soon revisit with the kids.

Cosmos  Compelling science TV that not only unlocks the secrets of the universe, but also covers a lot of science history.

Coupling  The British sitcom that inspired Friends proves that everything is smarter and funnier with an English accent and attitude.

Covert Affairs  The adventures of  newly minted CIA agent gave us a female-driven action show that was just smart enough to be enjoyable.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend  Even if you think you hate musicals, this show will change your mind. A funny, weird show about a woman who relocates to small-town California in pursuit of her summer camp sweetheart, featuring two or three inspired, witty musical numbers in each episode.

Damages Glenn Close starred in this smart, tense legal drama that illuminated the challenges smart women face at work. If you missed it, you’ll want to binge watch one season at a time – though you may end up plowing through the whole series.

Doctor Who In his latest incarnation, the Doctor has somehow morphed into a tween phenomenon. This is great news for geeks, who will find that their previously derided Whovian status makes them super-cool in the eyes of their kids.

Don’t Trust the B_ in Apartment 23  It only lasted a season, but Krysten Ritter as the titular “bitch” was so compelling that she made up for her annoyingly dull roommate.

Downton Abbey I was one of many who loved this historical drama that followed an aristocratic British family in the early 20th century.

Empire Taraji P. Henson isn’t the only reason to watch this show, but she is definitely what makes it awesome. I love R&B but the music is only good enough to sustain the show.

Episodes Matt Leblanc plays a dysfunctional, narcissistic version of himself as the star of a smart UK sitcom that is ported to American TV with predictably disastrous results. The real heart of the show are the husband-and-wife team behind the sitcom, and the whole thing is a smart, funny send-up of L.A. culture.

Friday Night Lights The idea of watching a TV show about football would never have appealed to me, but I loved this program – not the least because it presents the most inspiring, real take on marriage that I’ve ever seen.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee Of all the Daily Show alumni and successors, this show is our favorite. Its weekly half-hour has been polished, funny and insightful from the very first episode.

Girls Oberlin alumnae in New York. OK, that’s probably not how most people think of it, but that’s why I enjoy it.

Grey’s Anatomy How can I still watch this medical melodrama after twelve years? Only because I’m on the elliptical.

Halt and Catch Fire A smart, well-written drama set in the early days of the computer industry, it’s a must-watch for tech nerds.

Happy Endings  This Friends wannabe was funny enough for me to enjoy as background TV.

Hindsight On the morning of her second wedding, a woman travels back in time to the day of her first wedding, in the early 1990s.  The time travel angle was a great way to approach the “if I knew then what I know now” theme, and treated us to nostalgia-filled 90s soundtrack. Sadly it only lasted one season.

Homeland One of the best spy shows ever, it’s been showered with so much praise that I can only say: if you haven’t yet joined in, you’ve got a fab binge watch ahead of you.

House of Cards Sometimes I think people who aren’t political junkies enjoy this show even more than we do, because they aren’t bothered by its cynicism. Nonetheless, a favorite.

Human Target  Just smart enough to be watchable, this caper show centers on a man who volunteers to be a human target in order to draw out his clients’ would-be assassins.

Inside Amy Schumer Super funny, but not one to watch with the kids.

iZombie I find pretty much every zombie movie too scary —  yes, even Shaun of the Dead scared me – but even our 12-year-old can watch this show about a medical examiner who solves crimes by eating the brains of her, um, “patients” .  It’s got a great sense of humor and a charming cast.

Jane the Virgin A humorous American spin on the telenovela, about a young woman who gets accidentally impregnated with a stranger’s sperm. It’s basically a family comedy-drama, with just enough humor and sincerity for us to overlook the egregiously aggressive Target product placements.

Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge Like Project Runway for puppets. In other words, fun!

Key and Peele  Sketch comedy genius.

Last Resort A naval submarine is ordered to fire its nuclear missiles, but in the absence of confirmed orders, the captain goes rogue. It only lasted a season, and it kind of left of us hanging, but the combination of Andre Braugher, action sequences and global conflict made this a fun run.

Last Week Tonight John Oliver’s smart, funny take on the week’s news.

Late Night with Seth Meyers What started as a moderately funny late-night show has gotten better now that Meyers has ditched the stand-up opening monologue.

Leverage We put this heist show into our rotation after we finished White Collar. It’s not as good, but it’s fun for the kids and ok for us.

Lie to Me Yet another weekly procedural, this one featuring a human lie detector. It was a bit uneven, but usually engaging.

Mad Men It felt like a crime to watch Mad Men at the gym, because it was so damn good. But Rob found it too chilly and depressing to join me in my obsession.

Madam Secretary A moderately diverting show about a female Secretary of State, I’m happy to watch it with the kids because I convince myself that it’s vaguely educational for them to see its facile treatment of international politics.

Master of None Each episode of Aziz Ansari’s clever comedy watches like a tiny, perfect movie.

Modern Family  I don’t know that I consider it “modern” to show an extended family where each household has its own stay-at-home parent, but the show has given us a lot of laughs over the years, though we no longer watch as avidly.

Mr Robot This compelling drama about a hacker is a must-watch for tech nerds, but it’s a bit of a tricky one to fit into our TV schedule, because it’s too slow-moving to monotask, but smart enough that we can’t follow what’s happening if we multi-task.

MythBusters  Our 9-year-old’s favorite show ever, this show does an amazing job of making science engaging and fun. We’ve all enjoyed it over the years, but our little guy has watched the same episodes over and over and over again.

Nashville I’ve never been a country music person, but I love this soapy drama about the Nashville music scene, which mostly rises above the genre thanks to star Connie Britton.

Nikita Your basic kick-ass female covert ops superhero show. It got a little tired over time but had enough of an edge to feel different from the rest of our spy shows.

No Ordinary Family A regular family gets turned into superheroes through a freak accident: pretty much the perfect setup for a good geek family show. Our daughter was devastated when it was cancelled after one season.

Nurse Jackie A very dark comedy about a nurse who struggles with addiction, I enjoyed this more for its smart characters and social engagement than for the laughs.

Orange is the New Black I avoided this for ages because I was worried it would have too much sexual violence – and yes, there are a couple of episodes in Season 3 that I had to largely skip. But for the most part, it’s rarely that grim – and boy, is it ever engrossing.

Orphan Black Our favorite current sci-fi show, this tale of a group of female clones is a must-watch for both sci-fi and action fans. As the clones, Tatiana Maslany delivers what may be the most amazing performance ever, but it never feels like a stunt.  Season 3 dipped a bit but the first couple of episodes of Season 4 suggest it’s back in fine form.

Parenthood Every mom I know who has watched this show absolutely loves it. For me, the plotline about an autistic tween was a real lifeline when we were first navigating our own son’s challenges.

Project Runway For years, I assumed this show was like America’s Top Model. But it’s actually a fantastic immersion in the creative process of fashion, not to mention an amazing source of sartorial inspiration. And Tim Gunn’s role as advisor the designers is like a master class in mentorship. The kids love this just as much as we do!

Quantico Follow a class of FBI recruits through their training at Quantico – interspersed with the mysterious bombing that one of the recruits is blamed for a year after graduation. It’s a middle-of-the-road cop show, but it’s enjoyable.

Revenge This melodramatic soap told the story of an heiress who disguises her identity in order to avenge her father’s imprisonment. It was trashy in the best way, and even though it periodically went through the doldrums,  it was perfect gym TV.

Sarah Connor Chronicles The Terminator franchise ventured into TV with two fun seasons that focused on Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton in the movie, though not in the TV show) and her teen son John – both protected by a superhot female Terminator.  Family TV meets sci-fi: what’s not to love?

Saturday Night Live  You know what SNL is, so let me just tell you how to watch it with the kids. For younger kids, you pre-watch, and just show them the pre-screened clips you think they’ll enjoy. For older kids, you can dare to watch together – – but keep your hand on the remote in case it ventures into dangerous territory, and be prepared to parentsplain the most problematic sketches.

Scandal A brilliant African-American woman plays DC political fixer by day, and is the President’s mistress by night. It should be fantastic, but with rare exceptions, its take on politics is beyond stupid. In fairness, it’s not really a political show – it’s more of a soap meets spy show meets fashion showcase for expensive white clothing.

Six Degrees of Everything Each episode of this giggly reality show connects six apparently unconnected topics, and crams in enough historical and scientific factoids to convince you it’s educational.

Smash This behind-the-scenes show about the making of a Broadway musical took a lot of criticism for its mediocre writing and silly plotlines. But for Broadway nerds like me, it was heaven. I still listen to the score all the time, and I’m trying to convince my daughter to watch it with me, since she missed its tragically short, two-season run.

Star Trek: The Next Generation If you love Star Trek, you need to share it with the kids. The tricky thing is the first couple of seasons aren’t that great, and the last few seasons are most enjoyable if you’ve already been watching a while. So introduce the kids to TNG by cherry-picking the episodes that you think will appeal to your particular kids – and pass on DS9, which, while fabulous, is too complex for young kids who are still being assimilated into the Trekiverse.

Start Trek: Voyager While Voyager wasn’t my favorite Trek, it’s actually a great starting point for kids. Again, pick your episodes, and be sure to steer clear of the episodes featuring the phage (creepy alien leprosy) and Species 8472 (too scary).

Suits We accidentally discovered the kids were ready for adult legal drama when I watched an episode of Suits with my son in the room. It’s not nearly as sophisticated as The Good Wife, but it’s plenty of fun, and the sexy stuff isn’t too sexy (your mileage may vary).

Supergirl The latest DC TV show started out a bit rocky, but by mid-season, we were all enjoying it.  Believe it or not, the best part of this show is Calista Flockhart as a brilliant, bitchy media mogul.

The Affair A thoughtful drama that follows the story of an extramarital affair through multiple perspectives. Lots and lots of very naked sex, which can be a plus, as long as you don’t watch it with the kids.

The Amazing Race Yet another reality show I would never have looked at without the kids. But they love it, and it’s actually great family viewing, because we all talk about who in our family would be best at handling the various challenges.

The Americans We adore this show about two Soviet spies pretending to be a normal American mom and dad. Quite apart from the meticulous, nostalgia-inducing recreation of the 1980s, it’s a terrifically well-written and well-acted show, with lots to engage anyone who enjoys a good spy movie or thriller. The complexities of raising kids who don’t know their parents are spies adds a layer of additional interest for those of us are parents, too. Note that while the first episode has some pretty disturbing sexual violence, that’s only in the first episode (at least, so far) though there are plenty of other sex scenes, including many that feel icky because they’re conducted under false pretences.

The Big Bang Theory For a long time, this show was the only show that got viewing consensus in our house, which is how we ended up watching its many seasons. It’s had its delightful moments, but I basically agree with the argument that it’s not laughing with nerds, it’s laughing at them.

The Closer Kyra Sedgwick rocked the cop show genre as a neurotic, brilliant supercop. The sexy boyfriend didn’t hurt, either.

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah After many years of devotion to Jon Stewart, I was leery about a change in host. But Trevor Noah has totally won me over. He’s found his own style, and I’m dazzled by how quickly he’s assumed confident command of what remains my favorite bedtime viewing.

The Dollhouse  I’m not exactly a Joss Whedon groupie, but I enjoyed the two seasons of this quasi-scifi show about um, I guess you have to call them prostitutes, who are actually implanted with different personalities.

The Flash This is a goofy superhero show, but it’s a fun goofy superhero show.

The Good Wife It’s hard to believe this series is about to end, when we’ve followed it devotedly for years. Among its many strengths, I’m particularly fond of its recurring, smart attention to the NSA, beginning in season 5. And the show bears re-watching: when we finished watching Suits, we started the kids on The Good Wife, and I was amazed at how much I enjoyed watching the whole thing again.

The Grinder Rob Lowe’s entire career, for good and ill, is fully justified by the opportunity to watch him essentially spoofing himself in this sitcom about a TV lawyer who tries to start over as an actual lawyer.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert I still miss the old Colbert, but the new show has a lot to commend it – not the least of which is the fabulous wardrobe of Jon Batiste, the band leader.

The Man in the High Castle An alternate history set in a 1960s America in which the Axis won World War II, Japan controls the Western US, and the Nazis control the East. Yikes! Totally engrossing, and only occasionally traumatic.

The Newsroom The revelation that Andrew Sorkin recycles his material almost ruined The Newsroom for me, but not quite. This smart drama, set in a CNN-like newsroom, made me wish for smarter politics and smarter media. Even if you’re not ready to commit to the whole series, watch this brilliant clip of the climate change interview we never see on the real news.

The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore In the now-crowded landscape of good late-night TV, we don’t watch The Nightly Show very often. But the first segments of the show are always funny and insightful; it just tends to drag a bit during the round table conversations.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Tina Fey is the genius behind this funny show with what should be an un-funny premise: a young woman makes her way in New York after spending years imprisoned by a creepy predator.  That grim setup speeds by in the first five minutes of the pilot, and you’re left with a delightful show.

The West Wing It’s been years since we worked our way through most of this smart series about the White House, but we’re returning to it now as family viewing. It’s a great introduction to politics, though we’re still having trouble getting the kids to buy in.

Trophy Wife I’m convinced that this show failed because of its stupid title. But its 22 episodes about a blended family – husband, two ex-wives,  young “trophy wife” and assorted kids – were incredibly funny, and far more worthy of the title Modern Family.

Unreal I’ve never watched The Bachelor, but I devoured the first season of this drama offering a feminist, behind-the-scenes take on a Bachelor-type reality show.

Veep It took us a few episodes to get hooked, but we love this vicious comedy about a heartless Vice-President, as played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Weeds We were loyal viewers of the first few seasons of this clever comedy about a suburban widow who supports her family by dealing dope.

White Collar A career forger and con artist turns into an FBI operative.  While hardly high-brow, the characters and shenanigans made this show fun for me as well as for the kids.

Younger I can’t say no to Sutton Foster, even if I can’t quite buy her as a 40-something divorcée who makes a new life by posing as a twenty-something. Since this fantasy scenario comes with a hot twenty-something boyfriend, however, I’ll take it.

Where to watch

You can find out where to download or stream all the shows on this list by viewing this post with a complete list of links to the GoWatchIt page for each show on this list.

Do you have suggestions for more shows we might enjoy? Please let me know in the comments below, or tweet me at @awsamuel.