With the world as it is right now, TV often feels like a necessary escape. But sometimes I find that the shows that I stumble upon pull me into worlds even darker than the real one. And while it’s fun to marvel at the machinations of tycoons on Succession or watch Jack Ryan save the world from a diabolical villain, too much TV cruelty can leave me feeling sleepless and on edge.
It can be harder to find the light-hearted shows — warm and funny, yet still smart and thoughtful — and when I do discover one, it feels like striking buried treasure. So I thought I’d share a list of my favorite my joyful TV shows with you. What I love about this crop of shows is that they reveal that the tradeoff between light and deep is illusory. We can have sweet, generous, funny shows that don’t give us nightmares, yet that doesn’t mean we’re watching the equivalent of bubble gum. On the contrary, these shows explore the full range of the human experience: our attachments and aspirations, challenges and vulnerabilities, but they use humor and affection to put them in perspective — a characteristic I find valuable at any time, but particularly now, during the current crisis.
Without further ado, here are eight joyful TV shows I’m delighted to recommend. Note that I’ve refrained from spoilers here because I want you to have the full pleasure of watching them (and because some of these I’m not completely finished with myself). I hope you enjoy!
1. Schitt’s Creek
5 of 6 seasons available on Netflix
I initially resisted this show because of its title, which struck me as tacky and crass. But oh, how grateful I am that I overcame this initial objection and started watching this generous, brilliant, deeply funny show. (It’s number one on this list for a reason — it’s really that good.)
The pilot of Schitt’s Creek opens as the wealthy Rose family is having their assets seized because their business manager committed tax fraud. The only thing they’re allowed to keep? A town that Johnny Rose (the incredible Eugene Levy) once purchased for his son David (played by his real-life son and creator of the show, Dan Levy) as a joke: Schitt’s Creek.
Soon the out-of-touch Roses are living in a dingy motel in the center of the town, scheming about their comebacks and lamenting their surroundings. And for a few episodes, these fish out of water flail around — but soon, through their interactions with the locals, things start to change.
Ultimately, this is a show about loss and growth — about what happens when who you think you are and what you think you need is taken away from you, and you’re forced to rebuild from the ground up. As I watch this show (and I’ve seen many episodes at least two or three times, though am saving the last season because I can’t bear for it to end yet), I think a lot about Seinfeld and how Schitt’s Creek marks such a powerful evolution from the sitcoms I grew up with. Seinfeld took a kind of nihilistic approach to character development. As the series went on, we gained more evidence that revealed who these people were, but they didn’t change much over the course of the show. I’d argue that Friends and other sitcoms of the time were kind of similar; yes, they grew up, fell in love, had babies. They had superficial revelations about themselves. But they were more or less the same people they’d been when we started watching.
But in Schitt’s Creek, we get to see something different. We get to see a group of people become better people, without losing the quirky essence that makes them who they are. And we get to see it happen before our eyes, with razor-sharp wit and a tenderness for the characters that I haven’t seen anywhere else on TV. It’s a show about love — familial, romantic, and friendship — that isn’t sappy or twee. It’s transcendent.
Other reasons not to miss it? The comically muddled accent of matriarch Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara), the brilliant styling of the Roses’ outfits, and meme-worthy quips that your family will be quoting long after the show has ended.
2. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist
First season on Hulu (crossing fingers this one gets renewed!)
What would you do if you suddenly started hearing people confessing their innermost emotions to you — in song?
Now, before you say, “I hate musicals,” hear me out. I’m not a lover of the genre either, so much so that I groaned when Albert mentioned the premise of this new show. But Zoey’s provides a fresh, less saccharine take on the genre (and manages to send it up in the process) by giving the songs true purpose in the storyline. In this show, people aren’t gratuitously breaking into song for no reason. The songs reveal unexpressed longings or dynamics that are left out of everyday communication, bringing them up to the surface in ways that can be laugh-out-loud funny, or achingly poignant. And because only Zoey can hear them, they become like a riddle for the heroine to puzzle through as she tries, sometimes clumsily, to help the people around her with their struggles.
In this show, music reveals what we don’t say to the most important people in our lives: because we’re afraid of being judged or afraid our feelings won’t be reciprocated, because we’re afraid of expressing our needs or standing up for ourselves, or because we aren’t even consciously aware of how we truly feel. It makes me reflect on how a song can sometimes express a feeling better than any words we might be able to come up with.
The unpredictability of the songs and the reliably smart song choice make this a delight to watch, not to mention there is some incredible talent in the show. Bonus points for a diverse cast and for tackling deep, interesting issues, from coming out as gender non-conforming in a church to losing a loved one to degenerative illness. The startup backdrop is pat at times, but the show is so inventive in other ways (a scene where a deaf character breaks into song through sign language comes to mind) that it doesn’t matter.
I cried my way through the whole finale, and can only hope this one gets picked up for a second season.
3. The Durrells in Corfu
4 seasons available on Amazon Prime
BBC-fans, this one’s for you. The Durrells in Corfu is based on the autobiographical Corfu Trilogy by the writer and naturalist Gerald Durrell. It tells the story of a British widow who moves her four children, aged 11 to 21, to the Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s, and the whimsical adventures that ensue.
Like Schitt’s Creek, this is a fish-out-of-water story, one of transplants and locals trying to understand each other and their resulting mishaps. It’s also a fantasy, depicting a free-range life in a crumbling-yet-picturesque villa perched on the edge of turquoise waters, surrounded by lush landscapes and olive trees. Spending an hour with this show is transporting, about the closest thing that any of us can get to a vacation in these “shelter-in-place” times.
One of the joys of this show is its sheer physical beauty, which begins with a stunning set of animated opening credits filled with little Easter eggs that relate to different incidents that happen over the course of each season. (They’re so beautiful I embedded them above for you to watch here.) And it continues with beautiful cinematography, and as already mentioned, a glorious setting.
The words I most often use to describe this show are sweet and charming. It’s impossible not to be won over by prim Louisa, feisty Spiro, gentle Theo, hormonal Margo, doleful Lugaretzia, and curious Gerry, the last of whom is constantly bringing exotic animals into the house to comedic effect. Even histrionic Larry and gun-obsessed Leslie are treated with affection.
Ultimately, the Durrells’ choice to leave behind dour Bournemouth for Corfu was a decision to embrace joy, and we see that in the joys they find in life’s simple pleasures, and each other’s company. There are only four seasons, so use them wisely! I was so sad when this one ended I might have to start it all over again.
4. The Good Place
4 seasons total, with some available on Hulu and Netflix
A sitcom about moral philosophy? Weird — but it works.
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in the office of an “afterlife architect” named Michael (Ted Danson), who explains that she has died and arrived at “the Good Place,” the show’s version of heaven, a place where everyone is paired with their soul mate, has a house perfectly decorated to their taste, and has access to unlimited fro-yo. Curse words dissolve into comical euphemisms on the tongue, like “What the fork?!” or “Are you shirting me?” and there’s a robot named Janet (D’Arcy Carden) who can fulfill any wish on command.
Ah, but if only it were that simple. When Eleanor runs into a dilemma, she has to turn to an oddball crop of friends, including self-obsessed socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Buddhist monk Jianu (Manny Jacinto), and her soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who happens to have spent his life on Earth as a moral philosophy professor. What begins with indulgence and wish fulfillment turns into a quest to understand no less than the meaning of life.
That an education in ethics was creator Michael Schur’s core purpose for the show, and not merely a side effect, makes this show a truly unique TV creation. That it happens to be incredibly funny in the process makes it joyful. If you’re curious to know more about The Good Place, this profile in the New York Times Magazine will give you a window into the philosophical texts that inspired it, and is what turned me into a raving fan. (That and Ted Danson, who is just everything I’d hope an afterlife architect to be.)
5. Queer Eye 2
4 seasons on Netflix
The first incarnation of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out while I was freshly out of college, and it was instantly the most fascinating example in the reality TV makeover genre. Watching a series of clueless dudes be transformed through fashion, design, and good grooming was a delight, but more interesting was seeing how supposedly superficial interventions could radically change the subjects’ confidence. By the end of the show, it was always striking to me how many could see possibilities in their lives that they had believed were closed to them at the outset.
Yet I was happy to see that the reboot came with a change in tone. The original series was often packed with judgment; a critical moment of each show involved the Fab Five descending on their poor victim and rifling through his closet, bathroom, and kitchen cabinets, making faces and pantomiming their horror at dirty bathtubs, old underwear, and grotty leftovers. This ritual public shaming, in the vein of existing series like What Not to Wear, was always funny, yet left the viewer feeling a bit like bystanders to schoolyard bullying episode.
What makes the new show dramatically better than the original is the casting. The Fab Five are, to a one, more interesting, more self-actualized, and warmer than the original crew. (Part of this may be a function of our cultural evolution in the 15 years since the first series, but credit where credit is due, this is a special group of guys with remarkable chemistry.) They also display that rare, wonderful combination of talent without ego.
Many evenings I’ve found myself crying through a reveal, marveling aloud to Albert at Tan France’s seemingly effortless ability to make people look like a better version of themselves without any unnecessary or costume-y flourishes. Similarly, Bobby Berk is an interior design wizard. Hearing him say in one episode, “the things you surround yourself with can bring you joy,” made me realize that one reason I love this show is that it’s aligned with the central idea behind my work: that our tangible environment is not incidental to our happiness, but a vital component in our well-being.
And don’t even get me started on Karamo Brown, one of the show’s true gems. “Culture” in the first series often meant scoring tickets to a game or a play and attempting to teach the makeover subject some non-cheesy pickup lines. But in the new series, Karamo is more like a coach, tackling deeper issues of confidence and vulnerability through activities that physicalize repressed emotions and create space for growth. (I was struck to discover that it was Karamo’s idea to focus the culture role more on mental health, and that he initially met with some resistance on this front.)
The casting is also better on the participant side. The new producers clearly invested more in storytelling, choosing subjects who have suffered losses in their families or are struggling to find a footing in life. (They’re not all men this time either.) For most of these subjects, it’s easy to root for them, and emotional to watch them emerge, butterfly-like, at the end of the show.
Ultimately, makeover shows are about hope, self-transcendence, and renewal. Not all deliver, but this one definitely does.
(Note that I’ve only seen the first two seasons of this reboot, so my review is based on that.)
6. Perfect Harmony
One season available on Hulu (currently up for renewal)
Another musical? Ok, perhaps maybe I like the genre more than I think!
Perfect Harmony is a quirky show about a recently widowed Princeton professor who visits his late wife’s hometown of Conley Fork, Kentucky, and ends up taking on the role of choir director at a local church. If you like the style of surprising mashups featured in movies like Pitch Perfect, then this one might be for you. (It also features Pitch Perfect’s Anna Camp as Ginny, a waitress and one of the leaders of the choir.)
This show is what in our house is called a “palette cleanser,” something we watch after we’ve been sucked into something darker like Billions or more emotionally heavy like This is Us. It’s a light, feel-good counterpoint that lifts the mood and helps us mentally transition. It doesn’t have the production values or the ultra-crisp writing of some of the other shows on this list, but that kind of fits with its underdog storyline. The Second First Church, run by Reverend Jax, an Indian adoptee of white Christian missionaries (played by Rizwan Manji, who Schitt’s Creek fans know as Ray, the local realtor/photographer/travel agent) has to compete with a much bigger, cockier, better-funded megachurch. And there’s little more joyful than cheering on an underdog to victory.
The show also touches on themes of community and salvation, and the cast, diverse in both appearance and voices, gels in a way that’s beautiful to watch.
7. The Great British Baking Show
7 seasons on Netflix
I resisted the charms of this show for a long time. After all, I’m more of a cook than a baker, and really, what was all the fuss about? But there’s a lot to love in this gentle reality competition, where amateurs from around the British isles compete for the title of Britain’s best baker.
Each episode is themed around a particular category of baked good, such as cakes, biscuits (which Americans call cookies), pies, breads, and so on. Then within each episode, there are three challenges: a signature, where contestants have to make their own variation on a specific item, such as a braided bread or a meat pie; a technical, where contestants are each handed an identical basket of ingredients and a recipe and asked to reconstruct some obscure pastry or tart, yet without a photo and often without even having measurements, times, or temperatures listed in the recipe; and a showstopper, which involves a bit more time and creative freedom, and usually is judged strongly on the creativity in the aesthetics as well as in the flavor.
Contestants gather each weekend in a tent in a field, going back to their normal lives during the week. They also learn the challenges (except for the technical) ahead of time, so they can practice. This raises the overall quality of what you’re seeing, allowing the emphasis to be on the creativity, though because baking is a finicky process there’s still plenty of room for failure in the mix. My favorite challenges have an element of trompe l’oeil, which end up with bakers making a handbag out of cake or a picnic basket out of dough. Contestants are also usually incredibly kind and supportive toward one another, which makes it much more pleasant to watch than the usual cutthroat competition shows.
I started watching when Prue Leith had replaced Mary Berry on the judging panel, so have a certain affinity for the later seasons, though I know among true fans this is controversial. (I happen to like Prue’s joyful fashion choices, and the goofy dynamic between the newer hosts Sandy and Noel, but others have noted that Mary’s baking critique is sharper.) As with most series, the production values improve as the show goes on, so that’s also a factor.
Really, you can start with any season you like (though I’m partial to season 9, mostly for Kim-Joy’s animal creations). Just make sure your pantry’s stocked up on sugar, flour, and butter, in case entertainment turns into inspiration!
8. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
3 seasons on Amazon Prime
There are few shows whose return I anticipate with as much impatience as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a comedy set in the late 1950s about a housewife who stumbles into her calling — standup comedy — by accident, and ends up turning her life upside down to pursue it.
As a feminist, I love that the show centers on bold, outspoken female protagonist, and that week after week Midge (Rachel Brosnahan), her sarcastic agent Susie (Alex Borstein), and creator Amy Sherman-Palladino give the lie to the idea that women aren’t funny. As a creative, I love seeing the craft behind the comedy, the herky-jerky progress Midge makes as she digs in to become a better comic. The writers don’t make it look easy, but there’s also something transcendent about those moments when talent and hard work magically combine, when Midge gets a glint in her eye and starts to riff.
And as a designer, I love the joyful attention that’s been paid to costumes, sets, and styling. Visually, I don’t think there’s anything on TV that can quite compare. It’s like a Mad Men level of attention to detail and execution but with whimsy, color, and joy. (Honestly, I’d watch every episode even if they were terrible solely for this reason. Fortunately, they’re not.)
Supporting performances are uniformly excellent on this show, but of course Tony Shaloub as Midge’s father Abe is a favorite. The show has a confectionary quality, but like many on this list, deals with the very real struggle of a woman trying to succeed in a male-dominated field, going against the the grain of everything that seems to be expected of her. And the result? Pure joy.May 9th, 2020