A TV Guide for Hard Times

This watchlist is 100% escapism, comfort viewing, and guaranteed happy endings. You're welcome.

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Okay, so things are pretty bad. Where do we turn? For many of us, for better and worse, it’s to our TVs. Some turn to their television sets during times of duress to keep up on the news or to try out a new show that challenges them to think about how (and if) the world can get better. Lately, though, I’m more inclined to aim for straight-up comfort viewing, the kind of TV-watching that acts as a ritual designed to get you out of your fight-or-flight headspace and lull you into a state of solace and ease.

Take it from someone with an anxiety disorder: when the world is crashing down around you, the last thing you want is to think about tough things. Even the slightest mention of something that reminds you of the real world can send your thoughts racing back to the disaster at hand. I’ve tried my best to minimize any shows that can trigger such thought patterns, but as with any list, your mileage may vary. There are plenty of great shows out there that you can stream to cope with the rough times ahead; here are a few you can get lost in and vibe out for a while.


Guaranteed happy endings

Bob’s Burgers

Bob's Burgers

There are two types of people in the world: those who love Bob’s Burgers, and those who haven’t seen enough of Bob’s Burgers to realize that they love it. The animated series about the Belchers, a misadventure-prone family who runs a burger joint, is an utter delight. Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) is the grounded patriarch of the family, while mom Linda (John Roberts) is goofy, charming, and prone to taking kooky ideas and running with them. Teenager Tina (Dan Mintz) is nerdy, loveable, and deep in the thralls of puberty, while younger Gene (Eugene Mirman) is preoccupied with toilet humor. Meanwhile, the youngest kid, Louise (Kristen Schall), is a maniacal rule-breaking mastermind who only begrudgingly acknowledges that she’s a nine-year-old girl. Bob’s Burgers has been on for ten seasons and is still going strong and leaving viewers with smiles on their faces, thanks to the humor and character dynamics that are always rooted in love.

Where to watch: Hulu

If you like this, also try: The OG animated sitcom about family dysfunction, The Simpsons.


Brooklyn 99

Brooklyn

One of several whimsical offerings on this list from Parks and Recreation’s Mike Schur (this one co-created by Dan Goor), Brooklyn 99 is a workplace comedy set in a New York City police department. In anyone else’s hands, this show would not still be endearing in 2020, but a talented writer’s room and an excellent cast led by Andy Samberg pull off the premise by always circling back to the decency and integrity that should be required of public servants. Brooklyn 99 also boasts what may be the best supporting cast of characters in any Schur-made show. Between overachieving Amy (Melissa Fumero), off-putting goofball Charles (Joe Lo Truglio), angry Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz), ever-serious Captain Holt (Andre Braugher), and more, the series has an offbeat hero for everyone. Brooklyn 99 especially triumphs when pumping out epic holiday or in-office tradition episodes, and when recurring characters like frenemy Doug Judy (Craig Robinson) reprise their roles. Despite its sometimes-high stakes, the series will always leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

Where to watch: Hulu

If you like this, also try: New Girl, another show about a group of zany friends with tons of in-jokes. It once had a brief crossover with B99, but the less we say about that, the better.


The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Fresh Prince

Just the theme song of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is enough to put anyone in a good mood. Add Will Smith in his prime, and you’ve got yourself one of the most enjoyable sitcoms of the ‘90s. Even if you didn’t grow up with it, this series about a streetwise Philadelphia teen (Smith) who’s transplanted to an upscale California neighborhood is likely a fish-out-of-water story you’re familiar with, thanks to reruns in syndication on close to a dozen different channels. The series, which ran for six seasons, boasts a stellar supporting cast (despite the controversial Aunt Viv changeup) and a revolving door of recognizing guest stars. A pop culture throwback in all the best ways, Fresh Prince is an energetic comedy of manners that’s endlessly watchable.

Where to watch: DirecTV online, or pretty much any cable channel you can think of

If you like this, also try: The newer version of One Day At a Time, another great sitcom that isn’t afraid to talk about class differences and tell specific cultural stories.


Parks and Recreation

Parks And Rec

No matter what happens, Leslie Knope has a plan. Amy Poehler’s enthusiastic do-gooder heads up a dynamic cast of loveable, utterly unique characters who work at the parks department of small-town Pawnee, Indiana. Series co-creator Mike Schur is known for shows that include relentless yet realistic optimism, a stellar supporting cast, and a strong central romance, and this one is no exception. When it comes to times of struggle, there’s no better series to turn to than Parks and Recreation. The series deals with real issues like workplace sexism, money in politics, and bureaucratic incompetence, all while cushioning them in the comforting small scale of local government. Silly, heartfelt, and wonderfully imagined, Parks and Recreation is built to last rewatch after rewatch.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime and Hulu

If you like this, also try: A little show called The Office, the original workplace comedy with Daniels and Schur behind the scenes.


Schitt’s Creek

Schitts Creek

My happy place is a small, nondescript town that seems to consist only of a diner, a motel, and a hipster general store. I know everyone there, and they all know each other. The town is, of course, Schitt’s Creek, the fictional setting of the affable Canadian sitcom that’s grown a cult following over the past five years. Any series that reunites Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy is bound to be great, and the younger generation of cast members, including Dan Levy and Annie Murphy as the spoiled adult Rose children (O’Hara and Eugene Levy play their parents), are sensational, too. The premise is this: the wealthy Rose family loses all their worldly possessions, with the exception of an entire town they once bought as a gag gift. Forced to relocate, the Rose family eventually acclimates to Schitt’s Creek and starts to grow their lives there in ways that are funny, sweet, and surprisingly emotional.

Where to watch: Netflix, The Roku Channel, DirecTV online, and CW Seed

If you like this, also try: Cougar Town, another good-natured series about a bizarre community (in this case, a Florida cul-de-sac).


Ridiculousness as an art form

Chewing Gum

Chewing Gum

No one does balls-to-the-wall comedy quite like Michaela Coel. As the writer, creator, and star of the wild British sitcom Chewing Gum, she creates scenarios that are sometimes excruciatingly cringe-worthy, other times gut-bustingly funny. Michaela plays Tracey, an adult virgin living in East London, whose horniness and aspiration to be like Beyonce takes her off the beaten path more often than not. Outlandish and often screamingly hilarious, Chewing Gum only lasted two short seasons but is good for near-endless laughs, whether Tracey’s claiming that Stormzy is her boyfriend or accidentally going on a drug trip for the ages.

Where to watch: Netflix

If you like this, also try: For more stories about young women doing things that’ll either make you cringe or laugh so hard you almost wet yourself, try Broad City.


Community

Community

Dan Harmon’s Community is a series whose mythology and ambition in its prime outpaced any other on TV. For six crazed, hilarious, high-concept seasons, the series about a ragtag group of community college students — their campus life becoming increasingly outlandish with each passing semester — keep us on our toes. Granted, Community gets a bit more existential than other shows on this list, but the whole series is coated in meta-commentary that consistently reminds us that we’re watching TV, not real life. Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) were clear series breakouts from the start as a pair of joyous, deeply weird friends, and their goofy energy carries the series through most of its run. Community was also consistently under-watched during its original airing, meaning that if you marathon it now, you can still be that cool friend who gets to introduce your peers to a new cult classic.

Where to watch: Hulu

If you like this, also try: Arrested Development, another comedy with increasingly convoluted, hilarious, and quotable moments.


Flight of the Conchords

Flight Of The Conchords

Sweet, bizarre, and incredibly deadpan, Flight of the Conchords is a perpetual underdog saga and a rare balm for the soul. Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie’s comedy band is the subject of the two-season series, which imagines a fictionalized version of the duo struggling in New York with only a nutty manager (Rhys Darby) and a stalker super-fan (Kristen Schall) to support them. New Zealand-based humor is perhaps uniquely suited to hard times, as the guys’ mixture of politeness, awkwardness, childlike perspective, and earnestly felt emotions anchor every song and episode. There’s a purity and playfulness to Bret and Jemaine’s world; in it, small things like a broken mug become a huge deal, whereas significant things, like Jemaine becoming a sex worker, are played off as blips in the larger story. In the end, Flight of the Conchords is lovely and surprisingly warm; it’s the TV form of a security blanket, and there’s no shame in grabbing onto it at times like these.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

If you like this, try: Another hilarious show with an undercurrent of sweetness, also co-created by Jemaine Clements, What We Do in the Shadows.


Seinfeld

Seinfeld

This beloved show about nothing is not only a great investment for a rainy day, but it’s also one of the greatest shows you’ll watch, period. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy opus is a gift that still gives decades later, and much of it has aged surprisingly well. One of the most rewarding types of comedy stretches everyday situations into ridiculous circumstances, then lets well-written characters either over- or under-react to them as they’re wont to do. Seinfeld is the modern godfather of this type of TV comedy, both the first and the best to pull off many of its more out-there endeavors. Plus, the situations on-screen are at times so outlandish that they’re bound to make us feel better about our own lives. Elaine’s sponge shortage, Jerry’s puffy shirt, Kramer’s Junior Mint, George’s, well, everything — Seinfeld performs the minor miracle of making us feel as if our every misstep and embarrassment could be comedy gold in the making. If we just have the sense to laugh about it.

Where to watch: Hulu or DirecTV online

If you like this, also try: Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s continuing exploration of everything that irks and interests him, Curb Your Enthusiasm.


Whose Line is it Anyway?

Whose Line Is It Anyway

Remember when the world was simpler and we all got easy enjoyment out of the American version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? I believe we can get back to that time. Sure, being “into improv” has rightly become the butt of plenty of jokes in recent years, but who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned belly laugh during periods of high anxiety? The original US iteration of Whose Line? is top-tier improv, so silly and endlessly clever that many have questioned how improvised it could truly be. With ten seasons to burn through, plus a reboot series, you can kill hundreds of hours watching Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, Wayne Brady, and other talented comedians come up with Irish drinking songs and perform scenes from a hat. You know you want to.

Where to watch: The original US version is on CW Seed.

If you like this, also try: 1990s Saturday Night Live.


Total escapism

The Great British Bake Off

Great British Bake Off

Words can’t describe the treat that is The Great British Bake-Off, a series that’s so charming and addictive that even the most reality-TV-averse viewer can easily fall into a binge when it’s put on. The show, which sees amateur bakers compete against each other in high-stakes baking challenges, has gone through a few hosts and judges in its time but has mostly maintained its good vibes and sweet-tooth-inspiring creations. The low stakes are part of the fun; at the end of several weeks of challenges, the winner goes home with no more than a decorative cake stand and some flowers. Not everything is perfectly quaint, though, as timed challenges and baking disasters result in raised blood pressure for both contestants and viewers. All in all, Bake-Off is a happy place, but fair warning: make sure you’ve got snacks on hand when you watch.

Where to watch: Some seasons are available on Netflix, PBS online, and Hoopla

If you like this, also try: Zumbo’s Just Desserts, an Australian Bake-Off type series that tweaks the formula just enough to be addictive.


The Joy of Painting

Bob Ross

If you’re stuck inside and want to learn a new skill, you’re in luck. Iconic ‘80s painting instructor Bob Ross is here to teach us about color palettes and drop some wisdom along the way. Remembered for his “happy little trees” and creativity-embracing attitude, Ross’ educational series was a mainstay for kids of a certain age. Across the span of a short episode, Ross turns a blank canvas into a beautiful landscape, adventurously streaking colors and adding lines in a way that looks like magic, all while maintaining a go-with-the-flow attitude and calming disposition. Ross made art a positive experience that is open to all ages and abilities, and his legacy lives on in these still-entertaining episodes and in a generation that took his words to heart.

Where to watch: Some seasons are available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix

If you like this, also try: Instagram videos of people mirror glazing cakes or otherwise creating mind-blowing food art.


The Mandalorian

Mando

This flagship Disney+ series may have cost millions of dollars to make, but it’s at its best when it comes across as a low-budget throwback, like the love child of Firefly and Sam Raimi’s’ ‘90s swashbucklers. The series has quickly become known for the overwhelming cuteness of its secret weapon, the child popularly known as Baby Yoda, and the green guy is definitely capable of giving even the most stressed-out viewers the serotonin bump they need. That being said, the Child isn’t the only fun thing about the series. The Mandalorian also has classic Western homages, creative creature design, silly one-off episodes, and supporting cast members who sometimes seem as if they’re all acting in different movies. In short, it’s fun and takes itself less seriously than most Star Wars movies. After you’ve finished, put the banger of a theme song by Ludwig Goransson on repeat and you’ll be entertained all day.

Where to watch: Disney+

If you like this, also try: Another series that’s lightly corny, adventure-heavy, and revolves around a warrior on a mission to help others, Xena: Warrior Princess.


Riverdale

Riverdale

Is Riverdale good? No. Is it a must-watch? Absolutely. The messiest, most ridiculous show on TV plays a murderous version of Archie Comics with a perpetual straight face, despite the cast and writers being in on the joke of its own increasing silliness. This series has everything: maple syrup-related murder, a drug called Jingle Jangle, cult leader Chad Michael Murray, an SAT-ruining bear attack, an occult version of Dungeons & Dragons, nuns committing mass suicide — and most of that’s just in season three. A few aspects of the show are genuinely great, including the all-in musical episodes and Lili Reinhart’s nuanced performance as Betty Cooper. The rest of the show is deliciously campy, filled with venomous one-liners, allegiance shifts that go nowhere, and meme-worthy plot points that play into the series’ reputation. Riverdale is far from the best thing on television, but it’s by far the most thing on television. And a welcome distraction to all who dare invest in it.

Where to watch: Netflix, DirecTV online, and CW Seed.

If you like this, also try: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, another less-than-great teen soap based on Archie comic books that canonically takes place one town over from Riverdale.


Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?

Scooby Doo Where Are You L

In times of crisis, repetition can be our friend. Structure, familiarity, and predictability aren’t necessarily the traits of a standout TV series, but they’re qualities that can make us feel safe. And what feels safer and cozier than classic Hannah-Barbera cartoons? Luckily for anyone who’s got time to binge, the obvious best of the Hannah-Barbera properties, Scooby-Doo, has a near-endless number of iterations to get hooked on. And almost all of them are very good! Still, you can’t go wrong with a classic: Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? establishes the formula that all future Scooby properties would use afterward, one which includes some middling but iconic animation, groovy mystery-solving, and light commentary on how people are the real monsters. The original series is only 41 episodes, and while they’re generally pretty similar, they’re perfect for multitasking, getting ready for bed, or just trying to chill out and ignore the news for a while.

Where to watch: The first season is on the Boomerang app, which is also available through Amazon Prime.

If you like this, also try: Be Cool, Scooby Doo! an awesome, ultra-creative recent version of the series that’s jam-packed with jokes and meta moments.


Maybe thinking about mortality isn’t so bad?

Golden Girls

Golden Girls

Age lends perspective, and few sitcoms have had as witty and winning a perspective as The Golden Girls. Susan Harris’ series about four older single women is groundbreaking (female protagonists are still often expected to fall within a narrow, young age range), bawdy, and all-around delightful. Blanche (Rue McClanahan), Rose (Betty White), Dorothy (Bea Arthur), and Sophia (Estelle Getty) are the original Sex and the City-type quartet, a group of women with strong opinions and differing romantic trajectories who are nonetheless bonded by shared experiences. The Golden Girls often addresses tough topics related to aging and even mortality with nuance, but the infinitely re-watchable series never fails to see the humor in life.

Where to watch: Hulu

If you like this, also try: Grace and Frankie, an uncensored series about the love lives and friendships of older women.


The Good Place

The Good Place

Okay, so it’s pretty clear by now that series creator Mike Schur has cornered the market on TV shows that give us hope. If we could bottle the essence of his shows and drink it, we’d be really happy and well-adjusted people who are capable of solving all the world’s problems. For now, though, we can watch The Good Place and think about philosophy. The series is — at least in its first season, as it’s a fast-paced show that quickly reinvents its premise — about four people who mistakenly find themselves in a heaven-like afterlife despite the mistakes of their lives. By the end of its four-season run, The Good Place gives us an outline for treating one another better, and for self-improvement through collaboration. “What do we owe each other?” Chidi asks at one point, quoting T.M. Scanlon, and it’s a question so urgent during times of crisis that it may as well reach out of the screen and grab us. The show is never judgemental about humankind’s knack for screwing up, though, and it eases viewers into thinking about hard topics like death through a lens of acceptance rather than fear.

Where to watch: Most seasons are on Netflix, although the latest episodes are on Hulu and the NBC website

If you like this, also try: Lost is another fantastic show about the big metaphysical questions of life, death, and what comes after.


Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Mr Rogers Neighborhood

You undoubtedly know by now what Mister Rogers once said about looking for the helpers. In times of great strife, we often look to him, as Fred Rogers himself was one of the greatest helpers in recent history. While full episodes of an old kids’ show involving puppets and the like may feel a bit weird to sit through as an adult, I encourage you to lean into your vulnerability and give it a shot when the world around you starts to feel too bleak. Alternatively, the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and the Tom Hanks-starring biographical film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood both highlight the powerful generosity and patience of a man whose deep understanding of feelings can still teach both kids and adults a thing or two about what it is to be human.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

If you like this, also try: Revisit another childhood favorite aimed at younger kids, like Sesame Street. I promise the sensitivity and compassion will do you wonders.


Pushing Daisies

Pushing Daisies

If you haven’t dipped your toes into the delightful world of Ned the Piemaker (Lee Pace), there’s no time like the present. Bryan Fuller’s beloved short-lived series follows the gentleman whose self-described past-times include “baking pies and waking the dead.” In this magical realist world, overflowing with colorful and lavish bits of set design, a man who can bring people back to life with a touch is just inside the realm of possibility. Ned wakes his childhood sweetheart, Charlotte Charles (Anna Friel), and the two navigate their tenuous newfound relationship (his power has some major caveats) while helping a local private investigator (Chi McBride) solve crimes. If any of this sounds dark or serious, don’t worry, it’s not; Pushing Daisies is bursting at the seams with romance and bright imagination, and while it dances with melancholy, it’s never outright sad. Also, Kristen Chenoweth is there, sometimes wearing a pie hat, so that’s a plus.

Where to watch: CW Seed

If you like this, also try: A Series of Unfortunate Events, another intricately designed show that mixes the bright and eccentric with the dark and deadly.


Queer Eye

Queer Eye

Who knew a self-improvement reality series could be so cathartic? Netflix’s reboot of the popular makeover series was an instant sensation upon release, launching its cast — groomer Jonathan, home designer Bobby, stylist Tan, chef Antoni, and life coach Karamo — into mega-stardom almost overnight. And the show deserves the props; in a divided country, it’s one of the only series doing the difficult work of bridging the gap between middle America and marginalized groups. Which, the Queer Eye team would point out, have more overlap than one may think. Politics aside, the series is capable of tugging at the heartstrings in a way few others can, as the group doesn’t shy away from the grief, hurt, self-image issues, and more that are at the root of their subjects’ problems. By episode’s end, you’ll nearly always feel as if an honest transformation has occurred (a rarity for reality TV), and you’ll probably want to call a loved one, too.

Where to watch: Netflix

If you like this, also try: Netflix’s other addictive guided self-improvement series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.

Val is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast. You can find her @aandeandval wherever social media accounts are sold.