It can be overwhelming trying to decide what to stream when you need a distraction from endless anxiety-inducing tweets about the spread of COVID-19. Do you catch up on the modern classics people have been telling you to watch for years — The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Leftovers?
Do you check out the critically beloved recent hits — BoJack Horseman, Fleabag, Catastrophe — that will both entertain and help you to understand the present state of human relationships and existence?
Yes, you probably should watch all of these excellent shows at some point. But they can also get a little (or a lot) dark, at a time when many of us might be feeling the need for something light, funny and cheerful for a reprieve from the very real problems of the real world. That’s what this list is for. Below, find recommendations for everything from low-stakes comedies to contests for who can make the best clotted cream to shows about inter-species animal friendships.
Parks and Recreation
Parks and Recreation is the perfect, warm-hearted “I need to feel good about the world right now” comedy. It’s about a group of municipal employees in the made-up town of Pawnee, Indiana, who, at the end of the day, love each other and take care of their community. A lot of comedy is cynical, but Parks and Rec always managed to be funny and remain optimistic about society, our intentions, and even (somehow) about politics.
Forgive me, creator Michael Schur, but I do recommend viewers skip Season 1. The show takes awhile to find its feet. Things really get good when Adam Scott and Rob Lowe show up midway through Season 2. (And if you love Parks and Rec, check out Schur’s more existential comedy The Good Place. It’s about the afterlife, so you’ll have to think about death, but mostly the show asks you to contemplate what it means to be a good person.)
30 Rock, Tina Fey’s comedy very loosely based on her own time working at Saturday Night Live, is more cynical that Parks and Recreation, but it also may be one of the funniest TV shows ever made. The hijinks on this show are so outlandish — in part because the characters are so rich and privileged that they live in their own bizarre universe — that they are totally distracting from real life.
That said, the full cast of characters hailed from such varied backgrounds, political perspectives and socio-economic circumstances that the clashes made for smart, subversive social commentary. (Wesley Morris, formerly of Grantland and now of the New York Times, wrote the definitive breakdown of 30 Rock’s identity politics.) This is a show that will make you think, but far enough back in time and absurd enough in its setting that you won’t risk pondering the current state of the world.
Happy Endings is a highly underrated sitcom that takes a Friends-like premise — but sub out New York for Chicago and the coffee shop for a bar — and makes the sorts of jokes that Friends never would have dared to try. The six friends who make up the show’s core group are neurotic, narcissistic and just plain messy: the show begins with one character leaving another at the altar. They have developed their own language that you may find you begin using in your daily life.
What differentiates the show from other “hang-out” comedies is how it subverts and mocks the typical tropes of the genre: The perfect married couple (modeled on Monica and Chandler) turn their reversal of gender roles into a kink; the would-be cool guy is constantly mocked for his lame taste in music and V-neck shirts; the bro-iest guy in the gang also happens to be gay. The show really hits its stride around episode five of the first season, and Season 2 offers some of the funniest episodes to ever air on TV.
We are getting into slightly dramatic territory here, so be forewarned. But Lovesick — which never got the attention it deserved because of an unfortunate decision to initially name the show Scrotal Recall — is a comedy at its heart, focused on three roommates and their romantic travails. The show begins when one of the roommates, Dylan, finds out he has chlamydia. Each episode focuses on a different sexual partner from his past, details how he became entangled with them and and reveals how he eventually tells them about his diagnosis. It becomes quickly apparent that Dylan and his roommate Evie have, at different times, held torches for one another. As the episodes jump around in time, the audience begins to piece together the timeline of Dylan and Evie’s complicated friendship.
But the real hero of the show is Evie and Dylan’s third roommate, Luke (Daniel Ings), who begins as caddish comic relief but evolves into an emotionally complex character. If this all sounds rather tense, don’t worry. The show is mostly made up of sex jokes, delightful tableaus of true friendship and a fantastic, bro-mantic sequence in which Luke reenacts the entire plot of Point Break for Dylan.
The Golden Girls
There is a chance that you are stuck in an apartment with roommates right now. If so, this is the show for you. It’s just a bunch of fantastic Florida women living their best roommate lives. The stakes are incredibly low, but the one-liners are truly LOL-worthy. The stars are cutting and witty, though the drama never gets too serious.
The show is also shockingly progressive for its time, both in terms of its treatment of older stars (they’re depicted as three-dimensional people with depth and love lives and friendships, still a rarity in Hollywood) and in terms of its politics. The series redefined for many viewers at the time — and the millennials and Gen Z-ers who have picked it up since — what it means to have a chosen family. Being reminded of the love our friendships provide can certainly be a comfort.
Maybe it’s just my Twitter feed, but a lot of my friends seem to be taking refuge in Cheers and Frasier right now. Frasier, especially, will rarely raise your stress level since it is, at its heart, a comedy of manors. The characters are all upper middle class snobs jockeying for positions in places like wine clubs — they don’t have many actual problems.
The romantic plot between Frasier’s brother Niles and their father’s home health aide Daphne is sweet (though, in retrospect, maybe problematic given the working relationship). And there is a very cute dog. Do not underestimate the power of a cute dog.
Reality Competition Shows
The Great British Baking Show
You’ve probably already heard that this is the least stressful competition show in the history of reality television. There’s no backstabbing or sabotaging or yelling. It’s just a bunch of fundamentally decent British people trying to make a trifle or some other concoction involving clotted cream, sponge cake and a series of complex decorations meant to evoke themes like walking through a peaceful meadow or enjoying a cup of tea at home during the holidays. This is the perfect show to watch while engaging in a peaceful if somewhat mundane activity yourself, like making lunch or knitting or finally organizing all of your photos into folders. What a delightful afternoon you have ahead of you!
Remember that tip to watch Parks and Recreation a few paragraphs ago? If you’ve already done that and need more relentless cheer in your life, try Making It, a reality TV crafts competition hosted by longtime “workplace proximity associates” and Parks and Rec alumni Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman. Poehler and Offerman usually spend a solid chunk of every episode in a crafting pun-off, and the show is worth watching for those moments alone. The stars even try to cushion the blow of elimination by taking kicked-off contestants to a crafting barn to share a drink after the fateful decision.
What if you could watch The Real World but without the animosity, drama and conflict? In this Japanese reality TV show, three men and three women all move into the same house, and life unfolds at a surprisingly slow pace and with a peaceful tenor. There are no votes to kick people out of the house, no wasted confrontations in hot tubs. Just the typical, usually mild conflicts that arise when people who do not know one another share a space, conducted with a surprising amount of civility. Contestants can leave whenever they want, and sometimes couples form and depart together.
Given its pace, it’s best to totally immerse yourself in this show to really understand and appreciate the emotional fluctuations of its stars. The show can be meta: Occasionally it cuts away to a group of Japanese comedians commenting on the show or the Terrace House contestants themselves watching their past interactions. There’s emotional conflict and depth here, you just need to engage your own empathy and awareness to see it, a worthy exercise.
One of Netflix’s more recent reality series, The Circle, begins with an inherently more dramatic premise: contestants are isolated in individual apartments and can only interact with each other on social media, and someone is voted off each week based on “popularity” or “authenticity” or…something. This may sound anxiety-inducing, especially given the whole isolation aspect. But the show — at least the American version, which is remarkably well cast — ends up being surprisingly delightful. The contestants at first seem to be the clichés we know well from the reality TV era (the Jersey Shore bro, the nerd who wants to be above all the drama, the girl all the guys are after), but these people genuinely have depth. And, more surprising still, they are quite empathetic towards one another.
Other Various Happy Things
Do I really need to sell you on Planet Earth? There’s a reason it’s the gold standard in television shows about nature. You are going to watch cute otters and majestic eagles and a mama bear desperate to protect her cubs, and your heart will be warmed. Also, I swear that the newer episodes seem to have fewer instances of predator killing prey than the original series (perhaps to make the show more child-friendly). And, of course, David Attenborough’s voice is truly soothing.
This one does come with a warning that the newest episodes do evoke some anxiety about climate change and the impending doom faced by many of the animals you will fall in love with while watching the series.
The Disney and Pixar Shorts
Pixar and Disney movies might emotionally wreck you. But they balance that ravaging with hope. That’s true of the shorts as well, which are all finally mostly gathered in one place on Disney+. Their themes range from learning to be brave to falling in love. Some of my particular favorites include Piper for its astonishing animation, Paperman for its romantic message, Feast because it involves both a cute puppy and food, Partly Cloudy because it involves adorable animal babies, Sanjay’s Super Team because it’s so personal and Bao because it will make you want to call your mom.
If you like looking at beautiful food, do I have a show for you. Each new episode of Chef’s Table focuses on a different, highly accomplished chef and chronicles their rise in the food world. (Spoiler alert: In order to win a bunch of Michelin Stars, a lot of these cooks are totally consumed by their art and barely see their families.)
The second season features (thankfully) a more diverse cohort of chefs than the first, and it interrogates the challenges of making it in the food world if you are not a straight, white man. But what separates this series from the rest of the myth-making shows about the great chefs of the world are its careful, almost pornographic, shots of cooking and food. They camerawork is truly glorious and calming as heck.
Unlikely Animal Friends
I discovered this National Geographic show while randomly searching Disney+ for something joyous that I had not watched before. It’s all in the title: This is a show that finds two animals you would never expect to be friends hanging out with each other: A dog and a dolphin, a dog and a cheetah, a dog and a tiny bear cub. (Okay, confession, I watched only the dog episodes.)
I cannot necessarily say that this show is great or even a particularly well-made docuseries. But it does boil down to a series of shots of adorable animals nuzzling and playing with each other, so I’m not sure why you haven’t already queued this up.