By Coleman Bandy
Have cabin fever? Tired of fighting with your family? Want to drown out your kids for an hour or two? While you’re stuck inside during the coronavirus pandemic, bingeing a new TV show could be the difference between staying sane and going all ‘Jack Torrance in The Shining’ and finally losing it.
Okay, that might be a bit overdramatic. Regardless, there’s never been a better time to speed-watch some of those series you’ve skipped – or turn on some mindless entertainment to briefly distract you from the outside world.
Here are five addictive shows to watch while you’re stuck indoors.
The Sopranos – HBO
The series that started it all: before The Sopranos first aired on HBO in the late ’90s, prestige television wasn’t really a thing. Its most obvious forebearers were heady dramadies like Twin Peaks or St. Elsewhere, but hour-long series never caught steam until HBO took a gamble on David Chase and his Goodfellas-esque drama about a gangster in New Jersey.
The big secret about The Sopranos is that it isn’t really about organized crime — it’s actually about family. Tony Soprano might be a murderous mob boss, but the show is at its best when focusing on the relationship between Tony and his wife, Carmella, or what happens when two brothers get lost in the wooded wilderness.
Even better: HBO is letting you stream the series for free during the pandemic, along with other great dramas like Barry and The Wire. If you’ve been putting off watching any of these shows, now’s the perfect time to start bingeing.
Barry – HBO
Perhaps the most underrated show on television, HBO’s Barry is also streaming for free on the app. Two seasons into its run, Barry contains some of the funniest and most dramatic moments – sometimes within the same episode – that have aired on television over the past several years.
The show concerns a war veteran turned hitman turned struggling actor, brilliantly played by SNL alum Bill Hader, who expertly juggles his various roles and keeps them in the air at once. It’s an outlandish premise that’s only believable due to the talented writing staff and brilliant performance at its center.
While season one is about Barry trying to rid himself of his past demons and begin a new career in acting, season two is when Barry (the show) truly becomes one of the best on TV, a Breaking Bad-style foray into the darker corners of criminality. It begs the question: can Barry be both a murderer and a good person? Season three’s production is now on hold due to COVID-19, so the answer may be more than a year away. Thankfully, the first two seasons are worth watching on repeat for their depth, humor, and pathos.
The Simpsons – Disney +
At 31 seasons, The Simpsons is one of the longest-running sitcoms in television history, so if you wanted a show to last you the entire pandemic, this is the one for you. Granted, the show’s heyday was undoubtedly in those halcyon days of the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president and Corona was just a shitty beer. But what seasons those were.
At its best, The Simpsons was arguably the funniest show in TV history. Prime Simpsons is generally considered to be somewhere between seasons three and nine, with a few gems found in latter day episodes, too. Some from Season Four, including “Marge vs. the Monorail” and “Last Exit to Springfield,” contain more laughs-per-minute than anything on the tube today, and remain just as timely: “Last Exit” is likely the funniest episode of television about unions and workers’ rights, where the former doubles as a surprisingly witty rebuke against industrialization.
Some millennials sleep on The Simpsons. I never appreciated it until I was in my mid 20s and re-watched the classic seasons with an open mind. Jokes that went over my head as a child now land with a violent thud. After all, Homer, Marge & Co. represent middle class families that barely keep their heads above water – a premise that is sadly more pertinent today than it was when it first aired. No, The Simpsons isn’t as good as it used to be – but its best episodes remain timeless and ever-relevant.
Twin Peaks – Netflix
David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was The X-Files before The X-Files, a noir-ish murder mystery awash in the supernatural, with troubling themes of child abuse, incest, and drug use bubbling underneath the surface of a small northwestern town, much like the beetles that dwell underground in Lynch’s similarly excellent film Blue Velvet.
Indeed, Twin Peaks is a horror story, but labeling it as such does it a disservice: equal parts soap opera, sitcom, and scary movie, Lynch’s bizarre tale follows FBI detective Dale Cooper as he investigates the death of the beloved Laura Palmer, a beautiful 18-year-old whose murder unearths a string of secrets, lies, and something much, much worse.
If it sounds like a mishmash of tone and genre, it very much is, but it somehow still works due to Lynch’s hallucinatory and dreamlike vision. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll definitely be creeped out. Oh – and did I mention that it aired on FOX – on primetime – in the early ’90s? (The ’90s were weird.) Influencing everything from the aforementioned X-Files to The Sopranos and even Disney’s Gravity Falls, Twin Peaks ushered in an entire era of prestige TV.
Watch the first two seasons on Netflix before seeing the film Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me and then the third season revival, which aired on Showtime in 2017.
Fleabag – Amazon Prime
Phoebe Waller-Bridge might be the funniest person on the planet. Based on her resume with Killing Eve and more recently with the amazing Fleabag, Waller-Bridge is one of the best writers in television today – and possibly an even better actor.
Waller-Bridge plays the titular Fleabag, a free-spirited woman living in London who is hilarious and outgoing but sad and angry underneath the surface. Fleabag is a trauma survivor who uses sex and black humor to mask her pain but cannot escape her self-destructive tendencies.
While the first season is near-perfect, Fleabag’s second is one of the best seasons of television I’ve ever seen, our titular heroine finally beginning to overcome her demons through the help of various characters, most notably the “hot priest” played by Andrew Scott.
Fleabag is so much more than its premise: it’s a superbly well-executed piece of dramatic and comedic script-writing, a true masterwork of storytelling by Waller-Bridge, who’s sure to dominate the cultural landscape for years to come (she’s already hosted SNL and voiced a Star Wars robot in addition to cowriting the upcoming James Bond flick No Time to Die). It’s the best show on television featuring a female protagonist, not that there is a plethora of options in that department: a sobering fact that points to an overall lack of female voices in the entertainment industry. As Waller-Bridge is a queen of the screen and the writers room, we can only hope more women like her get a shot at superstardom.