We don’t even watch the same way. Of the many frantic pleas I’ve received in the past few days seeking advice for what to watch, someone wanted me to recommend a show she could watch on one screen, while doing her job on the other. Bleh. It’s tempting to have something playing at all times: cable news all day, snatches of YouTube while you dawdle, your umpteenth cycle through every season of “The Office.”
For your own sanity, however, my first and best advice is to try to keep the television off, especially while you’re working or trying to learn. In ordinary times, I am platform- and consumption-agnostic; in these very unordinary times, I urge you to “watch TV” on something other than the laptop, smartphone or desktop PC that dictates your workday. For some of you, this may mean buying an actual TV, and why not? You can always donate it to charity when the CDC gives the all-clear.
The goal here is to treat TV as your day’s only figurative getaway destination — that “third place” status we usually grant to cafes, bars, gyms, theaters, museums, parks, sports arenas and retail stores. TV must now be regarded as a retreat from a day spent in confinement.
Before you turn it on, think hard about why you’re turning it on and what you intend to watch. You don’t want TV’s companionable qualities to turn into the noisy friend who never shuts up. Don’t watch TV just because it’s on; respect the form. You might be happier tonight with a book, or a favorite album, or a podcast, or a phone call with an old friend — or silence. Watch all the junk you need to get by, but regard the act of watching with a sense of discipline.
My other big advice may seem to run counter to that, but here it is: Subscribe to everything. Treat streaming television like you’ve been treating the toilet-paper aisles and get it all. Many streaming outlets are already offering sign-up specials or extending free-trial periods.
Whatever you’re no longer spending on gas, coffee breaks, Uber, bus fare, restaurants, draft beers, spin classes, theater tickets, travel, sporting events (and sports betting) — use that money to let yourself have Hulu and Netflix. Along with Amazon Prime (with our usual disclosure here about Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos being The Washington Post’s owner), sign up for CBS All Access, Acorn TV and Starz. Buy a PBS subscription. Get Disney Plus, mainly for the kids. Get Apple TV Plus. Add HBO, Showtime and Epix. Cancel anytime.
When people ask me for a TV recommendation, I usually turn the tables and ask them what they’ve recently liked, what they usually watch and why. That’s how I’ve approached this list — grouping hypothetical viewers by type.
I hope this helps get you through these long days and nights.
TV for people who ignored my list of 2019's best shows
It’s been only a few months since I gave careful thought to last year’s many outstanding shows and ranked the 10 best. If you still haven’t watched all of these, then our work here is done — there’s enough to last you several weeks.
At the top of that list is HBO’s “Watchmen,” a stunningly realized drama about race and vigilante justice in a fictional America suffering from a peculiar sort of superhero complex. You don’t have to be a comic-book fan to enjoy it; Regina King’s performance alone will quickly persuade you.
The rest of that list: “When They See Us” (Netflix); “Unbelievable” (Netflix); “Succession” (HBO, Seasons 1 and 2); “Gentleman Jack” (HBO); “Fleabag” (Amazon Prime, Seasons 1 and 2); “This Is Us” (NBC, currently in Season 4); “Chernobyl” (HBO); “Dead to Me” (Netflix); and “Leaving Neverland” (HBO).
TV for people who think they've watched everything already
I’ll bet you haven’t — not even close. You’ve watched all the amazing previous seasons of FX’s “Better Things” and are up to date on the current season? Then you, too, share my belief that Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) would be the ideal person to quarantine with. (Have you noticed all her delicious cooking?)
What about HBO’s “Insecure,” which returns April 12? Are you ready for that? What about all of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman”? (And “Big Mouth”?) You’ve watched “Ramy” on Hulu? “Dickinson” on Apple TV Plus?
Now that you can access FX’s entire catalogue on Hulu, I’m sure you’ve watched both seasons of “Pose.” (Right? And “Fosse/Verdon”?) You found time to figure out what the producers were trying to tell us in last summer’s “Euphoria” on HBO? You’ve considered the beguiling meanings and extreme creativity in Showtime’s “Kidding,” including this current season? You’re deep into FX on Hulu’s “Devs,” Silicon Valley’s answer to “Killing Eve”?
The point is, we only think we’ve watched everything, but it’s not possible. Right now, I’m committed to enjoying the second chapter of HBO’s masterfully envisioned Italian drama “My Brilliant Friend,” which premiered Monday. I really blew it in 2018, deciding to pass on writing a review of the first chapter — because I was too busy. Now it’s back, like a mesmerizing gift.
TV for people trying not to have an existential crisis
If official reassurances have failed to convince you that the end isn’t near — or you’re just spooked in general about your own mortality, the absurdity of existence, the meaning of moral goodness and the notion of a final judgment, well, you’re primed and ready for TV’s brightest, wittiest and most thorough exploration of life’s big philosophical concepts. I’m talking, of course, about NBC’s “The Good Place,” which wrapped in January.
Maybe you tried to watch it before and found it too clever by half. Try again. It’s a reassuring primer for understanding human behavior, which might come in handy as you gird yourself for your next trip through that apocalyptic hellscape once known as Whole Foods.
TV for people who've watched every pandemic movie or show they can find
Yes, but have you watched “The Strain”? Lighter and more conclusive than the redundant socio-horror slog that is AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” Guillermo del Toro’s FX series (available now on Hulu) about a viral vampire pandemic aired from 2014 to 2017, and I always admired the way it tapped into modern anxieties while honoring old-school horror techniques, which ought to be fun rather than torturous. Great ensemble cast, too, including Corey Stoll as an epidemiologist struggling with alcoholism and a really uncooperative tweenage son.
If and when you finish that, I insist you get some other obsession. For starters, PBS has added an encore presentation of Ken Burns’s 1994 epic documentary “Baseball” — free on any PBS platform. Sure, it’s meant to soothe baseball fans who are going to suffer withdrawal pangs this spring, but it’s also a fine metaphorical history lesson about a fever that spread across America and still keeps many in its grip.
TV for people who can't take any more stress right now
Even during relatively peaceful times, I hear from readers who insist that TV offer escape — and only that. They can’t handle intense dramas. They have a common list of triggers (violence, crime, sexual situations, horror . . . one reader once told me she can’t stand any shows where people raise their voices at one another).
I often can’t recommend much more than “Jeopardy!” to them, but here’s my best attempt to offer some ideas that are either somewhat gentle, escapist, purely funny or some combination of the three.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon Prime is a reliable pick-me-up. (If she annoyed you before, perhaps now her frantic shenanigans as an up-and-coming female comic in late-1950s New York will ease the monotony of cabin fever.) “Little America” on Apple TV Plus tells melancholy yet ultimately upbeat stories of the immigration experience. And the ever-resilient PBS drama “Call the Midwife” always delivers (no pun intended) an inspiring moment. (It returns March 29.) And I’m still a huge fan of Hulu’s “Pen15,” a hilarious and moving account of two girls in middle school, circa 2000.
On Disney Plus, “The Mandalorian” sort of flattens out the Star Wars experience, but if you haven’t yet seen Baby Yoda in action, you’re missing out. And who couldn’t draw some comfort right now from the leadership of Patrick Stewart’s legendary Starfleet admiral, Jean-Luc Picard? You can engage “Star Trek: Picard” on CBS All Access.
TV for people who would like a little fresh-cracked anxiety on top of their anxiety
Yes! Wallow in it. It’s called adrenaline and it will keep you on your toes. The current, final season of Showtime’s “Homeland” is coping frenetically with a story line involving a helicopter carrying the president (Beau Bridges) that was shot down by the Taliban. And Claire Danes is good at stoking one’s jangled nerves.
David Simon and Ed Burns’s just-launched HBO miniseries “The Plot Against America” is a faithful adaptation of Philip Roth’s what-if novel that imagines a 1940s United States run by Nazi sympathizers — a disturbing reminder that things always could have been (and still can be!) worse.
Parents who love anxiety can’t do much better than Apple TV Plus’s morosely absorbing “Servant,” a sort of haunted-house story with baby monitors.
On a different but also domestically unsettling note, Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” just premiered with the first three episodes. It runs deep with unkindness between moms and neighbors (Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington), which makes it an even guiltier pleasure right now.
Of course, if you love awful and uptight people, Larry David has delivered what I think is the best season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” we’ve had in a long time, currently airing on HBO. I’m sure he’d have a lot to say about the hoarding of hand sanitizer — in fact, I assume he has quite a stash himself.
TV for people who always try to read "Moby-Dick" on vacation
I know your type. At long last, you (mistakenly) think, here is the time and space you always needed to tackle the towering classics of TV’s new golden age: “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” etc. You’re finally going to watch “Game of Thrones” from start to finish, arn’cha?
I don’t recommend this approach, simply because I’m hoping against hope that this crisis doesn’t last nearly that long. But if this is the route you’ve chosen — climbing the Grand Tetons when a pleasant nature hike would suffice — please do me a favor, and at least make it “The Americans.”
TV about real people
I’m still waiting for a scripted drama in 2020 to draw me in as thoroughly as Netflix’s six-part docuseries “Cheer” did in January.
Have you not watched it because you think you aren’t interested in competitive collegiate cheerleading? Let Jerry and the gang work their motivational magic on you. By the end, you’ll be pumped and ready for . . . another day at home.