17 shows to binge-watch while hiding out from coronavirus
So you just happen to find yourself at home and looking for entertainment because, say, you’re hiding out from — or, perhaps, with — the coronavirus. Well, all those many, many hours of Peak TV you’ve been hearing about for so long, all the movies, miniseries, and series waiting at your fingertips? They’re there for you now, to keep you company.
Shorter shows that go down easily.
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If you haven’t seen this four-season delight, you owe yourself. The outline of the comedy is nothing special: A lovably goofy American guy played by Rob Delaney has a fling in London with a feisty Irish woman played by Sharon Horgan, an unexpected baby ensues, and they try to raise the baby together despite being near-strangers. But the cast members — including Carrie Fisher and Ashley Jensen — are great, and the writing, by Delaney and Horgan, is too. The pair are one of TV comedy’s most believable couples, as they argue and make up and click in a charming but never cloying way. Work, parenting, sobriety, monogamy, sex — they’re all part of this surprisingly romantic story. Amazon
“Dead to Me”
You’ll breeze through the 10 episodes of the only season so far of this comedy with dramatic themes. I couldn’t wait to see how show creator Liz Feldman would get out of the corner in which she puts the story at the beginning. I’m not going to spoil anything here, but the plot is juicy and twisty and funny. Christina Applegate is remarkably good as a real estate agent whose husband was recently killed by a hit-and-run driver, and she is obsessed with finding out whodunit. Linda Cardellini is excellent, too, as a bohemian free spirit Applegate meets in a grief group. Together, they’re a twisted-up Lucy and Ethel. Netflix
While the eight half-hours of “Modern Love” have the sparkling feel of urban romantic comedy, they’re about the very many faces of love out there in the world — between lovers, yes, but also between friends, between people tossed together by circumstance, between a birth mother and the gay couple adopting her baby. The adaptation of The New York Times column of the same name was created by Irish writer-director John Carney of “Once” and “Sing Street,” and he brings just the right touch to almost every episode. OK, so there’s a bit of corniness here and there; the charm of the whole project makes its excesses tolerable, as does the swiftness of the storytelling. Amazon
In this excellent eight-episode anthology series, each half-hour zeroes in on one immigrant in order to tell an entirely discrete story about his or her experiences in America, in coming to America, or in having to adjust to America. Each episode seems to have the reach of a full-length movie, but the season holds together impressively as a collection of short stories whose themes resonate and contrast with one another. “Little America” is consistently inventive, and the diversity of storytelling styles matches the diversity of the characters. When Iwegbuna listens to cassettes sent to him by his family in Nigeria, the family members appear in the room with him as they talk. One episode from the middle of the season — my favorite, called “The Silence,” which I will not spoil here — has almost no dialogue. Each episode has its own language, literally and figuratively. Apple TV+
This one didn’t catch on, alas. Perhaps that was because the physical and mental rigors of old age and the existential despair of navigating hospital bureaucracy are not generally considered comedic targets. But this HBO series, a remake of a British sitcom, succeeded in sending up — and up and up — the goings-on in the geriatric ward of a struggling hospital. The humor was dry and the décor was gray, like “The Office,” and it wasn’t above poop jokes, either. The cast was all aces, led by Alex Borstein (yup, Susie from “Mrs. Maisel”), Laurie Metcalf, and Niecy Nash, and the special guests — Harry Dean Stanton, Jean Smart, June Squibb, Rita Moreno — always added a kick. I laugh out loud when I watch “Getting On,” as it treads shamelessly on tender ground. HBO
“Master of None”
I can’t heap enough praise onto this lovely comedy, which has delivered two fine 10-episode seasons so far. Netflix gave Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang enough rope to hang themselves, and instead they made an auteur series that balances effortlessly between humor and drama, straight-ahead storytelling, and experimental narrative. The show is about Ansari’s Dev looking for love in New York City, being a good son, being Indian-American, and trying to be an actor who isn’t pigeonholed into playing only heavy-accented cab drivers. It’s about growing up but not growing numb. And it’s about a search for the best food in whatever city Dev happens to be in. Netflix
“Please Like Me”
Australian comic Josh Thomas created and starred in this bittersweet, affectionate comedy that lasted four seasons, ending in 2017. It’s one of my favorite little-known shows. Like many series these days, it’s essentially nonbinary — not entirely a comedy and not entirely a drama. Thomas’s Josh is the central character in a small group of pals, all of whom are looking for love and aiming for grace. It’s the opposite of “Seinfeld” or “Friends” in tone; they’re all bonkers, but quietly so, without catchphrases or applause. Josh is an awkward, endearing, and tall gay man caring for his mother, who is bipolar and has suicidal tendencies — all of which adds some gentle drama. Guess who plays Mum’s best friend? A then-unknown named Hannah Gadsby. Hulu
We know that the corporate setting can be soul-crushing; thank you “Dilbert,” “The Office,” and “Better Off Ted.” But this cheeky Comedy Central series takes that idea to new blackly comic heights. Matt and Jake (played by co-creators Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman) are junior execs in training at the nefarious Hampton DeVille company, a kind of Amazon whose slogan is “We make everything.” The two crash cake parties all over the building when they’re not helping to fire others; they know they’re buying into evil, but their cynicism and passivity keep them in the race. Don’t expect any sweet twists or resolutions, by the way. This is nihilism at its most entertaining. Added pluses: Great turns by Anne Dudek, Adam Lustick, and Lance Reddick as the powers that be, as well as a cameo by Aimee Mann. Comedy Central
“Back to Life”
I fell in love with this little, precisely observed portrait of a woman recently released from prison, which is from some of the executive producers of “Fleabag.” A fast but meaningful watch at only six half-hour episodes, it follows an anguished — and yet touchingly buoyant — 36-year-old woman who has just been released after serving 18 years in prison. Miri (played by co-writer Daisy Haggard, who was the sourpuss head of comedy on “Episodes”) is trying to restart her life, but her family and neighbors have a hard time letting her do so. It’s like a light version of the more meditative “Rectify,” with some wonderful humor from Geraldine James as Miri’s pent-up mum and a masterfully gradual unraveling of Miri’s original crime. The series was just renewed, and I’ll be first in line when it returns. Showtime
Yet another tale of a hitman with a heart, this FX drama has no right to be as good and as affecting as it is. Writer and star Scott Ryan is a revelation as Ray, who is as laconic and laid back as TV’s other fixer named Ray, Ray Donovan. He murders and beats up his targets with a cool street efficiency. But he’s otherwise quite sympathetic, caring for his 8-year-old daughter and his ailing brother with loyalty. How does Mr Inbetween (there is no period) deal with finding himself in between two moral worlds, as he begins to tire of his business dealings? How do we reconcile his character? The episodes of this moody Aussie import are a half-hour each, but they have weight. FX on Hulu
“The Other Two”
Former “Saturday Night Live” head writers Chris Kelly (who wrote and directed the excellent movie “Other People”) and Sarah Schneider created this series about brother and sister Cary and Brooke — played by Drew Tarver and Helene Yorke — who find it hard to deal with their lack of success when their young brother, Chase, becomes a pop star. There are plenty of jokes about the fickleness of Chase’s fame in the social media age, but Cary and Brooke are the show. Cary is anxiously trying to get a job in a commercial, as “Man Who Smells Fart,” which is a lot harder to audition for than you’d think. Cary is gay, and the producers want him to play it a little straighter as he sniffs. And Brooke is a self-centered lunatic, a little bit like Kaitlin Olson in “The Mick.” Together, they’re a trip. Comedy Central
For when you want a beginning, middle, and end.
“A Very English Scandal”
I love it when a true-crime story is adapted for TV with an eye toward historical context and character depth. Amazon’s three-parter about closeted British MP Jeremy Thorpe and his attempt to have an ex-lover murdered in the 1960s is a compelling story in its own right. But, as written by Russell T. Davies (“Doctor Who”) and directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), it also brings in rich themes of political self-interest, homophobia, the cruelty of stiff upper lips, and the way justice tips toward class and money. Plus, Hugh Grant, as Thorpe, beautifully turns his charm into something nefarious, and Ben Whishaw is perfectly cracked as his victim. Amazon, 3 episodes
This is the other haunting Margaret Atwood adaptation, a miniseries written by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron. Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” looks into a darkly imagined future, but this tale goes back to the 1800s for the true story of a young Irish immigrant jailed for double-murder. From the first episode, it’s riveting, with Grace (Sarah Gadon) recounting her Dickensian past to an American psychiatrist. As is wont to happen in therapy, Grace’s truth gets muddier and muddier before it gets clearer. A beautifully acted, carefully structured, and broody period piece — not typical of Netflix, but at this point the streamer seems to have a bit of everything under its umbrella. Netflix, 6 episodes
When I heard that the exquisite novel in stories by Elizabeth Strout was going to become a miniseries, I cringed. How could anyone — even the talented spearhead of the project, Frances McDormand — do justice to such an extraordinary and subtle book that, in some sections, gives its heroine no more than a cameo? But HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge,” directed by Lisa Cholodenko and adapted by Jane Anderson, is a special case. The four-hour drama stays extremely true to the anti-romanticism of the book, as it gives us a woman who is brusque, scornful, and as jagged as the Maine coast where she has spent her life. But it also carefully reshapes the narrative for the screen, making it work chronologically within a provocative framing device. McDormand is revelatory as Olive, Richard Jenkins is, as usual, perfect as her husband, and Zoe Kazan once again proves she’s a giant talent as Denise the decidedly un-Olive-like pharmacy assistant. HBO, 4 episodes
“Picnic at Hanging Rock”
Natalie Dormer is transfixing in Amazon’s six-episode adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel and Peter Weir’s 1975 movie. She plays the petty, vengeful, abusive, but above all composed English headmistress of a girl’s finishing school in the Australian bush. She rules her teen charges with an iron fist so cold it burns, and Dormer — the ambitious Margaery Tyrell in “Game of Thrones” — makes every second of the lethal stink-eye she throws at her victims count. Four women connected to the school disappear during the titular Valentine’s Day outing in 1900, but “Picnic” doesn’t unfold like a crime procedural. It’s a less straightforward tale, with surreal visual flourishes, time jumps, and a threatening atmosphere built on lurid coloring, off-kilter camera angles, and invasive closeups. Amazon, 6 episodes
Stories don’t come much bleaker than Showtime’s five-episode adaptation of the five Patrick Melrose books by Edward St. Aubyn. It’s about a man coming to terms with the father who raped him as a child. Benedict Cumberbatch brilliantly plays the adult Patrick, who spends the entire first hour, set in 1982, in a drug-addled stupor, like an upper crust Hunter S. Thompson. Cumberbatch brings out the satirical tones of “Patrick Melrose,” as it disassembles the aristocracy piece by glittering piece. The narrative also effectively flashes back to his 1960s childhood, with Jennifer Jason Leigh hypnotic as his always-blotto mother and Hugo Weaving as his violent father. This is a sharply rendered, and, ultimately, redemptive nightmare. Showtime, 5 episodes
“Years and Years”
I’ve mentioned this six-part miniseries to many people, most of whom haven’t heard about it. But when I explain it — a fleshed-out “Black Mirror” story, a haunting look at the biofeedback between individuals and global politics, an operatic rush forward through the next 15 years of history — I generally get blank stares. I now believe “Years and Years” is hard to reduce to an elevator pitch because it is so original. It’s dystopian, with Emma Thompson as an abrasive businesswoman running for political office, blood tests that predict life expectancy, climate-change disasters, and breath scans that are required for border crossings. It’s an anxiety dream come to life. But it’s also the warm story of the Lyons family of Manchester, England, with Anne Reid as the spiky, loving grandmother of four complicated siblings. The human side of the show — which is from Russell T. Davies of “Dr. Who” and “Queer as Folk” — elevates it from creepy to heartbreaking. As society becomes more coldly robotic, you wonder as you watch, perhaps something warm inside us will survive. HBO, 6 episodes
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