I love TV —but which TV show I love really depends on the mood and moment. That’s why I put together a guide for The Wall Street Journal, mapping out how you can choose the right show for any given circumstance.
Now it’s time for me to update my recommendations, just as I did in 2017. Here’s a chart showing all the shows that are (or have been) in my rotation, either as solo viewing, or as something I watch with my husband or kids. Below you can find explanations of each of my viewing categories, along with capsule summaries of all these shows are in text below, beginning with the new additions.
About my viewing categories
Dedicated viewing Some shows are so good that they actually get my full attention. These are the best of the best: TV I watch the way I’d watch a movie.
Multitasking TV I often use TV as background noise or motivation to do boring tasks I’d otherwise avoid (as I explained a few years ago in this Harvard Business Review story.) My multitasking category includes all the shows I watch with my husband or teenager, while doing stuff like invoicing, inbox cleanup, tax preparation, etc.
Craft & Gym TV There are plenty of shows I enjoy too much to waste as background noise, but not so much they warrant my full attention. These are the shows I end up watching solo while working out or knitting. The main difference between this category and my multitasking category is that these are the shows nobody else in the family likes to watch.
Family viewing When I started building this list, our kids were 9 and 12; now they’re 12 and 15, respectively. Some of the shows in our family viewing list are shows we all watch together; others are shows we watch only with our older kid, because our youngest has a low tolerance for violence or creepiness. Before watching any of the shows on my list with your own kids, I recommend looking them up on Common Sense Media to see whether they look appropriate for your own kid’s sensitivities; a useful approach is to pick a couple of shows your kid enjoys, but which are at the outer edge of what you (or they) feel comfortable with in terms of violence, sex or scariness. Use those shows to figure out the Common Sense age rating that corresponds to your kid’s viewing age: I myself top out at a Common Sense 15 (shows that are rated 16+ for violence/disturbing content are too scary for me, though I’m fine with shows rated 16+ for maturity/sex), while my 12-year-old is more like a Common Sense 9 or 10.
New to the list
9–1–1 If your frustration with shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Law & Order is that there isn’t enough blood, gore or shock value, this is the show for you! A ridiculously talented cast (Peter Krause, Angela Bassett and in Season 1, an oddly annoying Connie Britton) gets wasted on poorly written material—but sustained by over-the-top emergency situations. Imagine the craziest, most disgusting reasons for calling 911, and then double the craziness because you’re not constrained by reality. So terrible. SO MUCH FUN.
Alexa & Katie My 12-year-old watches an endless stream of made-for-tween shows like The Haunted Hathaways, Some Assembly Required and Best Friends Whenever. All of these shows are deeply terrible—with the possible exception of Netflix’s Alexa and Katie, a vaguely sweet comedy about how two best friends navigate high school when one of them is recovering from cancer. If you have a child who insists on watching tween sitcoms, this is the show that is least likely to make you gouge your eyes out.
American Vandal A mockumentary comedy series set at a high school. Season 1 was insanely funny. Season 2 had a puke- and shit-filled premise that turned us off after 10 minutes.
Alpha House I’m not sure how I left Alpha House off my previous lists, because we watched it several years ago, and I’m still sad there was no season 3. Based on the real-life DC home shared by several Congressmen from both parties, this comedy is a must-watch for politics junkies since it’s both funny and smart.
At Home with Amy Sedaris This is not a show for everyone, but if you’ve ever wondered how Martha Stewart and Tim Burton would get along, you will love it. Structured as if it were a cooking and crafting show, it’s deeply weird and funny.
Black Lightning This well-made show about an African-American superhero is much, much better than its DC siblings—almost to a fault. The human cost of superhero living comes through loud and clear, and the action sequences are fabulous…but the bad guys are a little too bad, and I found some of the violence and torture scenes too disturbing.
The Break with Michelle Wolf I’ve long adored Michelle Wolf from her regular appearances on Seth Myers and on The Daily Show, so I was so excited when Netflix gave her a weekly show of her own! It was both smart and funny—and got cancelled way too quickly. I’m not sure how well the topical episodes will age, so go watch them soon, while you can still enjoy them. (And so that Netflix changes its mind.)
Bodyguard Everyone I know raved about this six-episode BBC series, seen on this side of the Atlantic thanks to Netflix. A tightly paced, engrossing quasi-thriller, it tells the story of a politician facing terrorist threats, and the ex-soldier who serves as her bodyguard. And yay! There will be a season 2.
Counterpart JK Simmons gives Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany a run for her money in the category of Great Actors Play Multiple Identical-Looking Characters in Mind-Bending Quasi-Sci-Fi TV. In this show, Simmons plays a mid-level bureaucrat in a Berlin-based government agency….which turns out to be charged with safeguarding a gateway to a parallel universe. When the pencil-pusher meets his spymaster alter ego from the other universe, both men experience a crisis of identity. Other than the premise, this show doesn’t feel like science fiction: It has a lot more in common with spy shows, so if that’s your jam, give it a try.
Everything Sucks Another one-season Netflix wonder, but one that is totally worth watching if you have tweens or teens, or are simply nostalgic for your own 1990s-era youth. Yes, the nineties now count as a historical period, and this show—about a group of young teens trying to survive school and their parents—is warm, charming, funny and thoughtful.
FBI This new Dick Wolf show is basically Law & Order without the law part. Unlike Law and Order, however, not every crime turns out to be a woman’s fault. It’s not particularly good, but if you like procedurals, it will scratch that itch.
Future Man This sci-fi comedy imagines what would happen if a videogaming addict really did have to save the world. Great cast, very funny, occasionally quite violent. Our eldest kid loves it but it’s too violent and too lewd for our youngest.
Good Girls Three suburban moms turn to an ever-escalating life of crime. It’s fun and well-paced but not irresistible, which is why I didn’t finish the first season after my teen gave up on it.
The Good Doctor This medical drama is far too trite and heartwarming for my taste, but since it centers on an autistic doctor and it’s shot in Vancouver, I believe I am legally obligated to watch it. Meh.
The Kominsky Method Did you know that prostate medication keeps men from visibly ejaculating? This is the kind of handy information you will learn if you watch this comedy starring Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin. I am quite sure there was a meeting in Hollywood where someone said, you know whose story never gets told? Old white guys! As much as I feel like white guys might be able to live with only the first 70 years of their lives being chronicled in film, TV, literature and music, I will nonetheless admit to finding this show both funny and enjoyable.
Life in Pieces Think of this as Modern Family with a twist: Each episode unfolds as four mini-episodes, which together share a slice of life in a multi-generational (and almost entirely white) family. Unlike Modern Family, the moms in this show have actual jobs (gasp!) which I appreciate. If you’re looking for a family comedy this is a good option.
Lost in Space This is a great family show for space nerds, though it’s too intense for my youngest. If you’re not a sci-fi person this is not the show for you, but if you like sci-fi—and especially, sci-fi you can watch with tweens or tweens—give it a try.
Lucifer The devil decided to take a break from hell by opening a nightclub in L.A., and picks up crime-solving as a hobby. Season 1 had a good time with this premise, and much to my surprise, season 2 was even better, as the cast expanded and settled into their roles. It’s an enjoyably addictive show with a good balance of thriller and humor, and it’s rarely more than a little violent.
Making It This show was our favorite discovery of 2019. Imagine Project Runway with crafts instead of clothes, and with humor instead of interpersonal drama. Each episode presents a different crafting challenge, and the participants show off their genuinely impressive talents like woodcarving, paper crafting, interior design and felt work. But the joy comes from the hosts, Amy Poehler and Nick Offernan, who make each episode funny and upbeat. It’s just a pure infusion of happiness and inspiration.
Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger Teen superheroes: Need I say more? Oh, fine. White teen runaway discovers she’s supernaturally linked to a wholesome African-American boy. It’s set in New Orleans so the supernatural stuff has voodoo flavor…but turns creepier towards the end of the season, when we gave up because it was too creepy for our teen.
Marvel’s Runaways More teen superheroes! These superheroes have evil, conspiring parents and a pretty interesting assortment of special powers. We’ve enjoyed both seasons, which check just enough boxes (queer romance, racial representation, mental health issues) to make Seriously Political Teens feel OK about zoning out for an hour.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Watch my grandmother’s apartment on TV! OK, maybe that isn’t the draw for everyone, but I find it enormously nostalgic. I’m guessing most people watch because Rachel Brosnahan is absolutely captivating and hysterical as a nice Jewish housewife turned divorcée comedienne. It’s also the most beautiful looking show on TV: I was so obsessed with the color palette in season 2 that I’ve started buying yarn in the colors on the show. (To knit with. While I watch. Not so crazy, eh?) Much to my surprise, the whole family loves this show—even our 12-year-old son!
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries This light-hearted show revolves around the crime-solving hijinks of a well-heeled flapper in 1920s Australia. It’s charming, fun and never scary. We’re thrilled that a new spin-off, set in the 1960s, has just debuted.
Monk I know everybody else watched Tony Shaloub’s brilliant, obsessive detective when he was first on air more than a decade ago. But I fell in love this past year, when I introduced Monk to my autistic 12-year-old. This was great family viewing, since the episodes are never scary, and the show demonstrates how people can be appreciated for their talents, even if they have significant quirks.
One Day at a Time I was underwhelmed when I watched the first episode of this Netflix reboot, but I’ve heard so many great things that we decided to give it another try. The spirit of this reboot reminds me of why I loved the original: As the child of a single mom in the 1970s—when I hardly knew anyone else whose parents were divorced—it was hugely meaningful to see a family like mine on TV. The new version plays the same role, but this time it also speaks to the particular experiences of Latino families, veterans and queer teens. And watching an 87-year-old Rita Moreno has taken away all my anxieties about ageing.
The Orville What if Star Trek: The Next Generation had a sense of humor? It would be The Orville, a show that mirrors the structure and visuals of Star Trek, but with the silliness of its creator and star, Seth MacFarlane. If you’re a Trek fan you owe it to yourself to watch at least a couple of episodes. If you’re not a Trek fan, I can’t imagine why you’d watch this.
Quantum Leap Another show brought out of the vault for my 12-year-old. Scott Bakula plays a time-travelling scientist who “leaps” into different time periods by taking over the life (and body) of someone who has some kind of life challenge or dilemma. It’s episodic in a way that has gone out of style, but it’s perfect for a time-travel-obsessed tween, and enjoyably nostalgic for his mother.
Queer Eye The original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy brought gay aesthetics to the straight (and still homophobic) masses. More than a decade later, the show’s queer sensibility has a different social context—and a different impact. It’s still emotional, and a damn good source of cooking, grooming and decorating advice.
Parks & Recreation When P&R first aired, its initial episode left me cold. After falling in love with 2019’s Making It (see above), we decided to give Parks another try—and it’s been great family viewing for many months. Season 1 really is the outlier here: The show became much smarter, kinder and funnier as of season 2, so if you’re not sold on the first few episodes, jump ahead.
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj This weekly show is vaguely akin to The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, but I think it’s even more compelling. Minhaj delves into issues that might not otherwise hit your radar, and his commentary is as smart as his jokes are funny. (For the record: Very.)
Pose It’s hard for me to overstate the importance of this show, about a group of gay men and trans women in the ballroom scene of the 1980s. (So yes, the AIDS crisis is a big part of the story.) The characters are beautiful and honest, the setting is colorful and fascinating, and the stories are utterly engrossing. I miss this show desperately and can’t wait for season 2.
Russian Doll Is it sci-fi? Comedy? Drama? This story about a woman who relives the same few days (but different deaths) manages to be engrossing, funny, insightful and emotional. Give it a few episodes and you’ll fall in love.
Silicon Valley How is it that I, a professional tech nerd, only started watching Silicon Valley a year ago? I think the real question is how you let this happen: Why didn’t you tweet and call and text until I started watching? It’s so funny and painfully observant that I can almost forget that I don’t actually need to spend more time with white guy tech nerds.
Single Parents An ensemble comedy about a group of single parents, helmed by Taran Killam (formerly of Saturday Night Live). The cast of characters is a little too stock Hollywood, but the chemistry works and (most important) it’s genuinely funny.
The Umbrella Academy The best thing about this show is its premise: After a few dozen women around the world simultaneously give birth without a prior pregnancy, a rich eccentric adopts seven of their babies and raises them to be deeply dysfunctional superheroes. It’s fun and engrossing, even if few of the characters feel more than two-dimensional.
Wolf Hall I loved Hilary Mantel’s novel about the political machinations in the court of Henry VIII, and this six-part mini-series did the novel justice. Mark Rylance stars as Thomas Cromwell (and is typically amazing) and Damian Lewis plays King Henry. It’s a little slow to start, but stick around for episode 2 and I suspect you’ll be hooked—unless you hate period pieces, in which case you will hate this one, too.
Young Sheldon It’s hard to believe this is a Big Bang Theory spin-off, because even though the character is the same (if younger), the sensibility is entirely different. Where BBT is cynical, mean and occasionally raunchy, Young Sheldon is funny, thoughtful and fundamentally kind-hearted. Our autistic son strongly relates to the main character, but the rest of us love the show, too. It’s one of those “I laughed, I cried” kind of show, but I never feel manipulated–just seen.
These are the capsule summaries I’ve previously written for all the shows on my very long list, in some cases slightly updated to reflect changes in the show (or in my perspective).
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.
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. I abandoned it
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.
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.
American Crime Story T The first season consisted of 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 through that time. The second (entirely unrelated) season told the story of Gianni Versace’s assassination in reverse chronological order; it was really the story of the serial killer who murdered Versace, and through his eyes, the broader tale of a slice of gay life twenty years ago. Both seasons were brilliant, but a few episodes of season 2 include really graphic violence.
Anne with an E: An updated version of Anne of Green Gables that portrays Anne as an abuse survivor, but still delights in her ever-optimistic soul. I watched this with my kid, who despite being a Canadian, has never read the books…and we both loved it.
The Baroness von Sketch Show This Canadian sketch comedy show is driven by a group of amazingly funny women. Unlike most sketch comedy, BVS doesn’t flog a dead horse: a sketch might be four minutes long, or forty seconds long, depending on how much material there is to work with. The sketches are funny and viral and speak directly to very specific women’s experiences—on which note, folks, you can stop sending me links to the BVS sketch about nudity in the over-40 women’s locker room. I saw it, and I love it.
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.
Better Things It’s hard to find shows that are both funny and profound, but this comedy about a single mom (and comedian) living in L.A. manages to achieve both. A must-watch for parents (and especially, parents of daughters) but I’ve road tested this one with friends who don’t have kids, and they’ve loved it too.
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.
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 This show about a tattooed amnesiac who works for the FBI did a decent job of balancing its big picture storyline with standard episode-long cases. The writing is mediocre but the puzzles embedded in the tattoos were often genuinely clever, and kept us watching for a while before we petered out.
Bloodline Half crime drama, half family melodrama, this Netflix show follows the increasingly sordid struggles of a well-established family in the Florida Keys. When the black sheep brother returns to town, much trouble ensues. Watch it for the Keys, and for Kyle Chandler, because Friday Night Lights isn’t on anymore.
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. If you watch, please let me know whether the huge party scene (you’ll know which one I mean!) is your best-case or worst-case scenario.
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. It’s definitely gone downhill in the last year—many episodes now feel like they come straight from the Generic Sitcom Writers’ Room—but it’s still watchable, at least with kids.
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’ve hoped to 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.
The Closer Kyra Sedgwick rocked the cop show genre as a neurotic, brilliant supercop. The sexy boyfriend didn’t hurt, either.
Continuum This sci-fi show has two ingredients that put it at the top of my list: a time travel premise and a kick-ass female protagonist. The first two seasons are good fun, but the third season felt downright profound: it’s a surprisingly subtle take on how a democracy can turn towards authoritarianism. I’d tell you to jump in at Season 3, except I think the power of the season rests on the characters and back story developed in the first two—and they’re no hardship! This is also a show that mostly works well as a family show (if you let your kids watch action shows): there’s virtually no sex, and the violence is rarely intense.
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 could 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. We adored the first season but lost interest mid-way through season 2.
The Crown This series about a young Queen Elizabeth is classic binge fare. Everyone I know who watched it loved it. I’ve included it in my “Politics” category because the most interesting part of the show was its political dimension, and it would make terrific side-by-side viewing with Borgen, which deals with similar themes around the balancing act faced by women in leadership.
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.
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 Thorne This mini-series isn’t going to rock your world, but if you still miss Downton Abbey, it will scratch that itch.
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.
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.
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.
Extant Halle Berry as an astronaut who returns home to her husband and a robot kid: what’s not to love? Well, the robot kid plot line is pretty compelling, even if it does make me a bit resentful that my kids don’t have an off switch. I got most of the way through season one before losing interest in the whole meta-conspiracy plot that purports to explain how Halle returned from her last space mission with a space embryo. So mark this one hard-core sci-fi geeks only, and maybe not even us.
Frequency A new wrinkle on the time-travel genre, or maybe, a new wrinkle on the cop procedural. A police officer who lost her cop dad when she was still a kid magically connects with him across time, using the family’s ham radio. Together, they fight crime. (Yes, really.) My teen and I enjoyed watching this together, though do note that the crime they are fighting is creepy, though never crossed over into showing sexual assault. It was cancelled after the season ended but we enjoyed it while it lasted.
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 We loved the first season of this show, but I’ll admit that I now find it a little exhausting to have all the evils of the world pointed out so smartly and sharply. It’s a little too hard-hitting to feel like entertainment…so I rarely watch it these days.
Girls Oberlin alumnae in New York. OK, that’s probably not how most people think of it, but that’s why I enjoyed it. I gave up before the final season though.
Glow: The first season of this Netflix series introduced us to an eclectic group of women as they are trained up to be the stars of a new women’s wrestling TV show. Great characters and relationships, a wonderful cast, crazy and fascinating context—it all makes for a fun yet satisfying show.
Graves What would happen if George W. Bush grew a conscience—and a personality—in his retirement? Hilarity, brought to live by Nick Nolte and Sela Ward.
Greenleaf This high-caliber melodrama focuses on the African-American family behind a large evangelical church. It’s got all the soapy intrigue you could want, but it also offers a surprisingly nuanced take on both the hypocrisy and the spiritual power of corporatized religion. Note that the core drama of the first season revolves around themes of sexual abuse; I was able to handle it but I did fast forward through a few scenes.
Grey’s Anatomy I can’t believe I’m still watching this show. It’s certainly not because I care about the characters; if I ever did, I am now thoroughly exhausted by their endless and formulaic pairings, un-pairings and re-pairings. But there’s something satisfying about its adrenalizing medical scenes and weepy storylines, so I keep at it—but only as background TV.
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.
Houdini & Doyle: The title notwithstanding, this show has a very strong female protagonist. Arthur Conan Doyle (played by Episodes’ Stephen Mangan) teams up with Harry Houdini to investigate allegedly supernatural crimes, all under the supervision of London’s first female police officer. Excellent family viewing, though it will be occasionally scary for younger kids.
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. We have been loyal fans but have yet to watch the final season.
Human Target Just good 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.
Imposters We greatly enjoyed this clever, fast-paced new show about a female con artist and her various exes (aka victims). It’s a “dramedy”—a mix of humor and intrigue—and just when we think it’s going to follow a predictable arc, it changes course.
Incorporated It was a huge mistake for me to watch this engrossing drama about a dystopian, corporatized future during the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. Sure, it’s a little predictable, but it’s very well done, and full of intriguing and well-thought out details. Even if you’re not going to watch the full show, do yourself a favor and watch its brilliant sixty-second PSA imagining the poverty of a post-climate change America.
Insecure If truth be told, I should put this in “Family viewing”, because I watched with my elder kid, who loved it. But even I think it’s inappropriate for kids, particularly if you aren’t comfortable with your child rapping “Broken Pussy”.
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.
Legion I enjoyed this brain-bending superhero show, though it’s occasionally a bit disturbing. It’s the kind of show I’d like to multitask, but I can barely follow what is going on when I give it my full attention.
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.
Lovesick I loved the first season of this Netflix comedy about a young man who needs to notify all his exes about an STD. I thought this was a setup for a series of awkward encounters, but instead it’s more like a series of tiny romantic comedy gems. Funny and surprisingly sweet.
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.
Making History A goofball comedy about a not-too-bright fellow who owns a duffel bag that can travel back to the American revolution. Leighton Meester (yes, of Gossip Girl fame) steals the show as Paul Revere’s time-traveling daughter. It was short-lived, but its single season was fun.
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.
Master of None Each episode of Aziz Ansari’s clever comedy watches like a tiny, perfect movie. But I’ve had a hard time enjoying it since Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct; now I see the show’s reflections on men, women and dating through the lens of that very disturbing incident.
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.
Mozart in the Jungle This backstage-at-the-symphony show revolves around the relationship between a quirky, brilliant conductor and the young clarinet player he takes under his wing. It’s funny, it’s got Bernadette Peters…do I actually need to say anything more?
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 mono-task, but smart enough that we can’t follow what’s happening if we multi-task.
MythBusters Our 12-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 loved 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. I’ve yet to watch the latest season, however.
Orphan Blacks Possibly our all-time favorite 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.
People of Earth Wyatt Cenac (formerly of The Daily Show) played a reporter who joins a group for people who’ve been abducted by aliens. Super funny, and likely to appeal to people who aren’t sci-fi nerds—especially anyone who’s ever been in a support group. We’re heartbroken this got cancelled.
Pitch Now sadly cancelled, the single season of Pitch is still worth watching. This show imagines the personal, social and business impact of Major League Baseball getting its first female pitcher, a young African-American woman. I watched this during the early fall, when the challenges of being a first female something felt especially resonant (sigh). It’s a really smart show, and an enjoyable one—and I don’t even like baseball. Highly recommend for family viewing, especially if you have a daughter.
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.
Riverdale This show feels like it belongs in my “sci-fi and superheroes” category, because the vibe of the show has a lot more in common with The Arrow than with The Fosters. (A friend smartly described it as Twin Peaks for teens.) Your feelings about Archie comments should have zero bearing on whether you check this out: it’s just a fun, slightly creepy teen drama, and takes nothing from the comics other than the notional identities of the main characters. I got kind of bored with it mid-way through season 2 or 3, however, and I’m not sure I’ll be back.
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.
A Series of Unfortunate Events Based on the Lemony Snicket series, this delightfully surreal show has drama, humor and just a hint of menace (enough to make it too scary for my very sensitive 12-year-old). The first episode didn’t grab me, so I’m glad my daughter is now old and wise enough to have observed that you can’t judge anything based on a pilot. Mid-way through the second episode I was hooked.
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 was ridiculous. In fairness, it wasn’t really a political show—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.
Speechless As the mom of a special needs kid, it’s hard for me to describe how much this show means to me. After laughing our way through the first episode, Rob and I were both in tears from the poignancy of seeing our family’s experience portrayed so effectively. My guess is that anyone (and especially any parent) will find this show funny, moving and insightful, but if your family includes atypical kids, it’s a must-watch.
Star Trek: Discovery: We’re now six episodes in, and the giant aching hole in my heart caused by a world without a Star Trek series is finally starting to heal. If you hate sci-fi, this isn’t your show…but if you like sci-fi, yet have never liked Star Trek (I am told such people exist) you should still give this series a try. After a couple of very un-Trek-like episodes, the series seems to have found a balance between being just Trek-like enough for us die-hards, but with the dark complexity you expect from contemporary sci-fi.
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).
Stranger Things Blame peer pressure for this one. I thought it would be too scary for me, but it’s all the rage among my teenager’s classmates, so we were compelled to watch it—and thank goodness! It’s smart, engrossing, and just this side of 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 I really appreciated a future member of the royal family taking the time to educate my kid about safe sex.
Supergirl This show has been wildly uneven—as has my inclination to watch it. Believe it or not, its chief attraction was Calista Flockhart as a brilliant, bitchy media mogul.
The Flash This is a goofy superhero show, but it’s a fun goofy superhero show. I abandoned it a couple of seasons ago, but my teen still enjoys it.
The Fosters: If you are one of the many folks who miss the late, great Parenthood, this is the show you’ve been looking for. Season 1 is particularly terrific, because even though there is a lot of melodrama, it’s the kind of melodrama that flows organically from the show’s set-up (lesbian couple with five children, four of whom are adopted/fostered from care). The melodrama has become harder to believe as the show goes on, but I’m now invested, so I don’t care. And this is a great show to watch with tweens/teens: there’s scarcely an episode where Sweetie and I haven’t paused to discuss an important issue.
The Gifted This X-Men spin-off is set in a near or parallel futures in which mutants are persecuted and hidden. When a prosecutor discovers that his own teen children are mutants, he gets a new perspective on the mutants he’s been pursuing, and helps his family go into hiding instead. For those of us who can longer quite tolerate the goofiness of The Flash and Supergirl, this new makes for satisfying (if not stellar) family viewing.
The Good Fight Our whole family watched (and loved) season 1, and after waiting months and months for us to watch season 2, I finally gave up on the rest of the family and gorged on it solo. And it was even better than the first season! Yes, there are tons of engaging legal storylines, but the real joy lies in the constant, creative and undisguised swipes at President Trump.
The Good Place: Our whole family loves this comedy about the afterlife, which manages the rare trick of reinventing itself (for the better!) each season.
The Good Wife . This is a show you can enjoy watching and 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. Among its many strengths, I’m particularly fond of its recurring, smart attention to the NSA, beginning in season 5.
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 Magicians This TV show about a boarding school for magicians is fun, but definitely on the spooky side—my 13-year-old found it too creepy at times, so after wrapping up season 1, we’ve yet to jump back in for season 2. If you’ve got teens who loved Harry Potter, you’ll enjoy watching this together.
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 Mayor An aspiring rapper runs for mayor of his small California town, strictly as a PR student…only to win. I was sad that this political comedy disappeared from the airwaves so quickly.
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 Quad: You’ve got to love a show in which the villains are the leaders of the marching band. Set at the fictional, historically black college of Georgia A&M (yes, the fake college has a fake website), this high-end soap from BET has the kind of writing and performances that make it eminently watchable. The setting makes the show more interesting than your average soap, and it’s got something for everyone: lots of football for sports fans, significant and smart engagement with race and gender for the activists, higher ed machinations for university folk, and of course, marching bands.
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.
The Young Pope: This super weird show stars Jude Law as a feisty, American—and yes, young—Pope. It’s dishy and unpredictable, and strangely, its streak of Christian mystery makes it feel more vaguely akin to all the TV shows that feature magic or supernatural characters. I really enjoyed it, but I was also quite confused by it.
This is Us: A widely and deservedly praised family drama. The less you know about it, the more you’ll enjoy its truly spectacular first episode. You’ll be hooked.
Timeless: This time-travel adventure series is great family viewing, since it revisits real historical events. It’s not particularly smart or well done, but we enjoyed the first couple of episodes with the kids…who have subsequently refused to watch it again.
Transparent: I was very late to this party, but holy cow, did this show ever live up to the buzz. There is little for me to add to the many kudos that have been heaped upon it, except to say that Gaby Hoffman’s season 2 and 3 wardrobe is exactly how I would like to dress.
Travelers: We recently started watching this sci-fi show about a mysterious group of people who time travel by jumping into other people’s bodies. It’s off to a promising start, but it’s been languishing while we watch all the other shows we’re way behind on.
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.
Working Moms: A comedy about a group of…working moms! But these are not cuddly sitcom moms: they’re foul-mouthed, cynical indie-comedy moms. Super funny, and not family friendly in the slightest. I can’t wait for the next season.
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.