“Roots.” The miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel first aired in 1977 and was remade in 2016. Both versions are excellent, but the original won nine Emmys. It’s the story of a young man, Kunta Kinte, who is captured in Africa and sent to this country as a slave. The story follows Kinte for several decades, and depicts the brutality and depravity of slavery in the United States. There was a fervid debate recently in a town near mine in Vermont about a school’s use of “the Rebel” as a mascot. When asked, I would tell people, “Watch ‘Roots’ and then come back and tell me you are in favor of anything even remotely associated with the Confederate Rebels and how people of color were treated then.” (The school is now represented by the Wolves.) “Roots” also shows how black families supported and lifted each other even while enduring prejudice and savagery for generations.
“Battlestar Galactica.” The 1978 show was a cosmic flop, but the 2005 reboot ran for five years and was exceptional. It’s about robots who look like humans doing their best to exterminate the few thousand actual humans remaining. Yes, it’s a plot we’ve seen many times (in “Terminator ” and “Ex Machina,” for starters), but this is a bit different because it’s about humans who are being hunted down while also trying to live through romantic intrigue, power plays and shifts in allegiance. And this show keeps the audience guessing. Edward James Olmos as Admiral William Adama is a great example of what makes someone a leader, and what leaders do when faced with difficult or life-threatening scenarios.
“Friday Night Lights.” It started as a book, then became a movie and then a television series that ran for five years starting in 2006. It’s about a high school football team in a small town in Texas and stars Kyle Chandler as the inspiring, but flawed, head coach. Those qualities show up in his relationships with his players and also with his wife and daughter. I played football in high school and had a coach like him, who was demanding and sometimes infuriating. But I knew, in the end, he believed in me and was on my side, and because of that, he got the best from me. This series features story lines about racism, drugs, economic privilege, and how young people struggle to overcome obstacles.
“The West Wing.” This one is a bit of a commitment because seven seasons is a long stretch, but it’s worth it. Creator Aaron Sorkin did a brilliant job showing the inner workings of the White House and what it takes to move things forward, to solve the country’s problems and to weather the inevitable crises. Martin Sheen stars as President Jed Bartlett in this show that ran from 1999 to 2006. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything. There are all kinds of compromises along the way, by those in and out of power, by both political parties and in all branches of government. But you never doubt that those who serve the president ultimately admire him and have the country’s best interests in mind.
“Freaks and Geeks.” Long before James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel were big-screen household names, they appeared on this 1999 show, which sadly only lasted one season. Luckily it’s still on Netflix because it’s funny and poignant. Set in a suburban high school in 1980, there are three “geeks,” boys we can all either remember or relate to. When one of them asks a girl to the homecoming dance and she declines, I turned to my son and said, “That happened to me, and I still remember how hurt and embarrassed I felt.” Then there are the “freaks,” who are more interested in cutting class and getting buzzed than in their academic pursuits, but they also have moments of charm and tenderness. Linda Cardellini plays a brainiac who’s grown tired of that identity and is trying to make her way into the cool crowd. And of course, there’s a father character who constantly reminds the kids of the many celebrities who died young because they drank too much, didn’t study hard enough, etc. It’s all very relatable.
“The Handmaid’s Tale.” Parents need to use their judgment with this one because of the language and graphic violence, including rape scenes. The first two seasons are on Hulu; Season 3 comes out next year. Based on the 1985 book by Margaret Atwood, it is about the Republic of Gilead, formed within what was once the United States. Gilead is run exclusively by men; women have no rights, not even to read a book. There is no rule of law, no due process. It’s a theocracy that executes gay and transgender individuals. To me, the most intriguing parts of the series are the flashbacks to pre-Gilead, and how people’s rights were removed in small increments. Historians know this is how it happened in Nazi Germany. It’s how it could happen here unless we are vigilant, which is why I believe young people, when they are ready, need to watch this series.
“The Office.” Picture the worst boss you ever had. Multiple it by 100, and that’s Michael Scott, as played by the very funny Steve Carrell. The other characters are entertaining, as well. I started watching it when it launched on NBC in 2005. My 15-year-old son binge-watched it this past summer. The other day he asked me if I’d watch it with him again, all nine seasons. I said yes. It’s worth it, and we’ll laugh our heads off together. Who doesn’t need a good laugh?