The shows that we watch (and re-watch) say a lot about us – our temperaments, our tastes, but mostly, what we find enjoyable, and even soothing. After a long day of work, while sick (or nursing a hangover), amidst a bout of depression or general malaise, our favorite series can be a balm, improving mood with brutally honest humor, allowing us to reflect, or to get lost in situations with people whose problems are much worse than ours.
A great series can improve empathy, make us think, laugh, cry, and even change us. Here are eight series I’ve found great comfort in over the years.
1) Homeland (2011 – present)
Homeland, starring Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operative with bipolar disorder, is perfect “misery viewing” – cathartic to watch, especially if you are down in the dumps. I first watched the series in its entirety a month into sobriety, and then again after leaving a particularly draining job. It levels me every time. The emotional highs are highhh and its lows are lowwww, mimicking Carrie’s own disorder in a way. When it’s hitting stride as a straight-ahead thriller (as in the fourth season, set in Pakistan), it becomes highly addictive.
There is nothing like Homeland on TV: campy melodrama and high-stakes storylines involving domestic and Middle Eastern terrorism intersect, mostly with precision. Start with the gripping first season, and if you find you’ve had enough of the “Brody era” by the end of season two, jump ahead to the stand-alone fourth and fifth seasons set in Pakistan and Berlin.
2) Veep (2012 – present)
At its core, Veep is a joyous and uplifting series. Technically, it’s a situation comedy about a US Vice President grappling for power and influence, wrangling her incompetent staff, and dealing with the endless politicking that comes with the job. It’s dark and cynical for sure, but it’s poignantly written, and, though set-and-costume designed within an inch of its life, moves with uncommon spontaneity and fluidity, thanks to a cast who makes it all look effortless. The dialogue moves at a rapid pace and the jokes, which are scatching and yield endless returns, never feel forced.
Veep is so brilliant because its characters are people who could (and probably do) exist in real life. You’ll cringe at how horrible and human these people are, and maybe fall apart with them when their tireless and futile efforts end in bitter disappointment (as in the fifth season finale “Inauguration.”) At 10 28-minute episodes a season (only 48 episodes total so far), it’s also a fast watch.
3) Buffy (1997 – 2003)
Buffy was the first show I fell in love with, and the first show I couldn’t get enough of. Watching Buffy was like inhabiting a dangerous, sexy, scary, and inimitably cool world that helped me make sense of my own confusing and at times scary experiences. I could relate to the story of a young woman coming to terms with her lot in life, having to shoulder incredible burdens, often alone and in silence, and trying to reach some level of peace with it all. I suspect most of the young people who tuned in, struggling with their sexualities and identities, thrashing about, trying to find their place in the world, felt the same.
4) Mr. Robot (2015 – present)
Mr. Robot is one of those shows that seeps into your pores, and fucks your shit up for a while. In the first season, where we meet Elliot, a young hacker planning the “largest redistribution of wealth in history”, the story functions as a red pill, forcing us to acknowledge our slavery, to institutions and corporations, to our perceptions and those of others, to our own human desires, and frailties. By season two, the writers have dosed us with a powerful hallucinogen, and maybe a tranquilizer, asking us to accept the madness we’ve found ourselves in, to find comfort in it, if only, like our wide-eyed hero, for a brief moment.
5) Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)
Breaking Bad is more than cathartic; it’s incendiary. It challenges notions of what it means to be American, what it means to be good, and what it means to be a good American. It is the story of a man who is just fed up with everything. Fed up with being pigeonholed into a life and a role he never wanted, fed up with living life on life’s terms. To break bad is a Southern colloquialism meaning to “raise hell” – and high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White does just that, and much more.
6) Shameless (2011 – present)
The central question behind Shameless is: do the poor have any chance of getting ahead in America? Or do their destructive behaviors and addictions (often the side effects of living in poverty) threaten to keep them where they are, or destroy them? So far, the story seems to be going in an uplifting direction, implying that the Gallaghers, a hardscrabble gang of Irish-American siblings living in Southside Chicago, have a pretty good shot of making something of themselves – with myriad fuckups along the way, of course.
In the show’s final years, we’ve seen the Gallaghers become business owners, (failed) college students, and civil servants despite obstacles such as criminal records and mental disorders. With the show’s upcoming and likely final eighth season, hopefully these kids get a collective break, and if they can’t get out of the ghetto, at least end up stable enough to weather the wave of gentrification heading their way.
7) Everybody Hates Chris (2005 – 2009)
I remember watching this show every day in the afternoon and it had such an earthy and charming vibe. Chris’ family was lower middle-class; his father worked as a delivery truck driver, his mother was a wise, no-nonsense disciplinarian with a heart of gold, his younger brother and sister were equal parts annoying and adorable. This was my childhood (if it had been halfway decent), complete with ass whuppings and maternal death stares.
Everybody Hates Chris was the only “black show” on TV made with any restraint and inventiveness, and that’s likely because it wasn’t a “black show”, but a sitcom about a young black boy growing up in Brooklyn in 1985, who, as we know, goes on to become one of the most famous comedians ever. The set design and period details were perfect, and you could tell every episode was made by a cast and crew that genuinely loved working together, such as in the finale, which paid homage to The Sopranos’ final episode, “Made in America”.
8) Nurse Jackie (2009 – 2015)
Poor Jackie Peyton, the beleaguered and drug-addicted nurse played so deftly and movingly by Edie Falco (The Sopranos). Did she die in the final episode? Or was she merely enjoying the high and wishing everyone would fuck off and let her enjoy it? I’d like to think it was the latter. Three lines of heroin couldn’t have been enough to take out our beloved Jackie, the tough-as-nails, (re)lapsed Catholic who said to herself once, “Make me good Lord, just not yet.”
To anyone who has craved the thrill, for whom everyday mundane life was not enough, who has used drugs or alcohol as a means to not just cope, but to get the full feel of life – this show hits where it hurts, but it’s also painfully funny and true.
Honorable Mentions: How to Get Away With Murder, Atlanta, The X-Files, Absolutely Fabulous, The Sopranos, The Wire, Dead Like Me.