The average American works 47 hours per week, and I’m not even clear if that includes the time devoted to various side-hustles or gig work. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s peak TV era continues to grow. Last year saw the release of 495 scripted original TV shows. This year, that figure will likely eclipse 500, a new record. Next year, the launch of new streaming services like HBOMax, Peacock, and Quibi will push the figure even higher. All of this is enough to leave many observers asking the following question: who has the time to watch all of this?
The answer is no one. Not even professional TV critics can keep up. No wonder most consumers have retreated into binges of old standards like Friends and The Office. The human brain can only withstand so many choices before it struggles to process, evaluate, and compare.
So, we are overworked and overloaded with choices. The upside, however, is that most of your choices are good. TV – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – has never been better. The downside is trying to decide which specific good choice to make. Many fans are probably facing this conundrum at this very moment as they finally have some free time thanks to the holidays but can’t figure out what to pick out of the endless scroll of content. Plus, if you have family over you might be facing the challenge of trying to pick something for a group. I have a couple picks for that.
Consider the following my attempt to help you navigate through this moment.
I Want a Comedy
The Elevator Pitch: Danny McBride and his usual collaborators – along with some new ones, like John Goodman – take the piss out of hypocritical, megachurch families.
The Actual Premise: A long-in-the-tooth televangelist (Goodman) assesses his empire and realizes his adult children (McBride, Adam Devine, Edi Patterson) have all turned out rotten. He doesn’t know the half of it, though. His kids are actually fighting off a massive blackmail scheme involving hookers, drugs, and attempted vehicular homicide. How did this family of righteous, religious crusaders end up so wrong? It all goes back to the day Mama Gemstone died.
The Reason to Watch: You’ll finally understand all the “Misbehavin!” memes.
Target Audience: Most obviously anyone familiar with McBride’s prior HBO shows, Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals, but Righteous Gemstones might actually be his most accessible show yet, the type of thing old fans will love, new fans will easily enjoy. It also just might change your mind if you’d already written off McBride’s style of comedy as not for you. Profane and outrageous, yes, but Righteous Gemstones is ultimately a more sentimental and mature effort than usual for the man who invented Kenny Powers.
Where to Stream: HBO. The first season has 9 episodes. A second season is currently in development.
I Want Something Scary, But Not So Scary That My In-laws Can’t Watch Too
Elevator Pitch: A horror procedural from the people – Robert and Michelle King – behind The Good Wife/Good Fight and starring the guy who played Luke Cage. Also, Michael Emerson as the bad guy!
The Actual Plot: A skeptical forensic psychologist (Katja Herbers), a civilian contractor with a technical background (Aasif Mandvi), and priest-in-training (Mike Colter) work for the Catholic Church as an independent team investigating purported supernatural events.
The Reason to Watch: It has the easy-to-follow formula of a CBS, case-of-the-week procedural but the experimental nature of a streaming series, which is exactly what you’d expect from the people who have recently turned the CBS All Access-exclusive The Good Fight into the craziest show no one talks about. (Have you heard about the musical interludes?). All of that is to say Evil isn’t quite what you’d expect when you hear “CBS procedural.” The most recent episode, for example, included a scene in which a ghost gave birth to a demon baby in a wheat field, and by the end of the hour, you’re left not knowing if that really happened or was just a hallucination.
That’s kind of Evil’s entire M.O. – every episode explores the gray area between supernatural and basic, human evil, and while an overarching plot about some end-of-the-world prophesy leans more toward “this is all really happening” than away from it you end most episodes not knowing for sure if the supernatural case was a hoax or not. Elsewhere, the hot priest claims to receive visions from God, but he has to get high to see them. The Scully of the show is visited by a demon in her dreams, and while she rationalizes her way through it with help from her therapist (Kurt Fuller) she can’t entirely explain it away. And so on.
Beyond obvious X-Files skeptic vs. believer mimicry, the Kings use this particular format to speak to our current historical moment where we don’t really need a supernatural whatever to see evil all around us, but it sure would be a relief if the explanation was that simple. Evil preaches this message, but not in an overly preachy way.
Also, yes, they are totally doing a Fleabag “hot priest” thing with Colter and Herbers.
Target Audience: Fans of The Exorcist: The Series, The X-Files, and any of Robert and Michelle King’s prior shows, especially the gone-too-soon political satire BrainDead
Where to Stream: CBS. The episodes are also available on CBS All Access. The currently-airing first season will end after 13 episodes. CBS has already renewed the show for a second season.
I Want Something Dense, and I Love New York Period Pieces
The Elevator Pitch: The latest brilliant David Simon show everyone will sleep on and then “discover” years from now.
That’s Your Pitch? Pretty Weak: Ok. James Franco plays identical brothers tangentially connected to the rise of porn, prostitution, and seedy night clubs in downtown New York in the 1970s all the way up to the cleanup and gentrification efforts of the 80s and 90s.
That Creep Franco, Really?: To be fair, The Deuce started before any sexual misconduct allegations were made against Franco, and as the series progressed his dual performance ceded more and more screen time to other characters, particularly Maggie Gyllenhall’s prostitute-turned-porn-star-turned-porn-director.
The Actual Plot: Each new season captures a pivotal moment in time in the history of downtown New York, ultimately stretching from the early 70s into the 90s. As prostitutes become porn stars and street hustlers become club owners, the question of who is really screwing who forever lingers, and the real power, as always, boils down to land ownership. The mob used to have that market cornered, and then local politicians and police officers willing to bend the law took that power back. With such institutions stuck in mortal combat, what hope is there for all the little people just trying to make a buck?
The Reason to Watch: It’s David Simon’s definitive history of the New York that used to be and a tribute to the various miscreants who lived through it.
Target Audience: Fans of The Wire
Where to Stream: HBO. All three seasons – totaling a combined 25 episodes – have been released. The third season was always designed to be the show’s last.
I Want a Documentary Series & I Have At Least a Passing Interest in Disney and the History of American Business
The Elevator Pitch: Learn the behind the scene stories from every major Disney theme park and ride from the people who built and designed them.
The Actual Plot: Actually, the elevator pitch pretty much covers it this time. Through extensive use of archival footage and new interviews, The Imagineering Story chronicles the history of every significant advancement in Disney theme park history.
The Reason to Watch: Disney is currently in the midst of its hostile takeover of the entire film industry, but the truth is Disney makes more money from toy sales and theme parks than it does from movie theaters or home videos. Not that Walt Disney and his Imagineers – a group of engineers, artists, and other future-thinkers – thought of such things in those terms when they first built Disneyland in the 1950s. Instead, the impulse was to create something Walt’s daughters would like, certainly something better than the amusement parks of the day. Everyone thought they were crazy, and Walt frequently demanded the impossible.
The Imagineering Story is a tribute to that pioneering spirit and the people who have literally had to invent new technologies just to make the theme parks work. The first 3 episodes chronicle the company’s history all the way through the 90s, and thus far each episode has ended on a note of heartbreak, with longtime employees fighting tears as they mourn a lost leader – Walt in the 60s, Frank Wells int he 90s. It’s a tribute to the show’s directors and producers that such moments pack an emotional punch, but it’s ultimately a bonus feature. The series is worth watching just to marvel at the various feats of engineering which went into making countless rides and attractions.
Did you know Disney theme parks had touch screens before any of us knew what those were? Or that Haunted Mansion features several basic magic tricks? You’ll learn all about that and more in The Imagineering Story.
Target Audience: Families
Where to Stream: Disney+. This 6-episode limited series will conclude on December 13.
I Want Something Animated, Something Trippy, Something Like an Early 2000s Indie Movie But as a TV Show
The Elevator Pitch: A rotoscoped – translation: they filmed in live-action and then animated over it – mindfuck that turns seriously profound from two of the people responsible for BoJack Horseman.
The Actual Plot: After a near-fatal car accident, Alma (Rosa Salazar) – a hearing-impaired daycare teacher with self-destructive tendencies – discovers she can project herself to any prior moment in her lifetime. Oh, also, she can communicate with her dead father (Bob Odenkirk), a psychist who may have discovered the secret to time travel and been killed as a result. It’s…complicated, something Alma learns the hard way as she copes with her new abilities and struggles to lead a linear life. This all comes at just the worst possible time since her sister is about to get married and her longtime boyfriend wants to move to the next stage of their relationship.
The Reason to Watch: It’s quite literally unlike any TV show you’ve ever seen before, and once your eyes adjust to the rotoscoped visuals you’ll be sucked in by the mystery followed by the deceptively profound insights on what it means to be a responsible child, spouse, and parent.
Where to Stream: Amazon Prime
What are you planning to binge this Thanksgiving, if anything at all? Let me know in the comments.