14 movies and TV shows to hunker down with this Christmas, according to our experts
Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone who might be staying inside a while this Christmas. Again.
Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your outlook), we here at The Times are highly skilled in the art of the pandemic-era viewing guide, so for this special holiday edition, we’ve assembled a list of 14 streaming films and TV series to keep you occupied — whether what’s keeping you inside is inclement weather, the Omicron variant or your quest to avoid last-minute shopping.
Whether it’s Christmas classics (and modern spins) or titles with no seasonal connection whatsoever, we have something for nearly every taste. And if nothing here strikes your fancy, there are 22 other possibilities from Thanksgiving to take a look at. Here’s hoping this coronavirus surge is short enough that you won’t need more than a handful.
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Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (BritBox)
It’s no holiday without viewing some version of Dickens’ Christmas masterpiece, whether Magoo, Mickey or the Muppets. But every year, I spare an hour for this different-spirited special, sprung from a 1980s series starring a pre-Bean Rowan Atkinson as iterations of a devious, self-dealing rapscallion through centuries of English history. (Its four seasons are also available on BritBox, for context.) Co-written by Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”) and Ben Elton, it reverses the usual thrust of the series, with Atkinson as Ebenezer Blackadder, the nicest man in Victorian England, and one continually taken advantage of. As he’s shown visions of less generous ancestors and descendants by a Christmas spirit (Robbie Coltrane), a new idea forms in his head. With Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent and, as always, Tony Robinson, as the much-abused Baldrick. — Robert Lloyd
Dickensian (Britbox) / The Man Who Invented Christmas (Amazon)
Bah, humbug and God bless us, everyone. Both my picks are alternate takes on the man of the season, Charles Dickens. The 2017 Irish Canadian comedy film “The Man Who Invented Christmas” follows the thirtysomething Dickens (Dan Stevens) as he strives to overcome writer’s block and deliver another novella to his impatient publisher. In this witty tale of how “A Christmas Carol” came to be, the writer finds inspiration in the real-life folks of 1843 London, borrowing from their names and personality tics to conjure his fictional cast of characters. His creations (Fezziwig, Jacob Marley) then end up haunting him until he completes the book. The late Christopher Plummer portrays a perfectly sour and snarky Scrooge, while Jonathan Pryce is Dickens’ charming yet irresponsible father.
And in the dark, mysterious and thoroughly entertaining BBC series “Dickensian,” characters from multiple stories by the celebrated author converge for the first time in the same neighborhood of Victorian London. Scrooge meets Inspector Bucket (Stephen Rea) meets Fagin meets Miss Havisham in this murder mystery, where their lives intersect in Mr. Venus’ taxidermy shop, the Three Cripples (Bill Sikes’ favorite pub) and Honoria Barbary’s parlor. The series offers a new twist on “Oliver Twist” ... and plenty of other Dickens characters. — Lorraine Ali
Emily in Paris (Netflix)
“Emily in Paris” is the quintessential Darren Star joint: The women are chic, the men are beautiful and the gays are catty. And in the dark days of autumn 2020, I devoured the first season of Netflix’s romantic fantasy like a dime-store paperback. But I also came to see the series, which stars Lily Collins as a young woman who moves to Paris to lend an “American” perspective to a French marketing firm, as a remarkable marriage of form and function: an earnestly, often cringingly basic comedy about the meaning of “basic,” set in a world where social media influencers mass-produce “style” and “branding” is treated as a populist art. Whether you’re dispirited or grimly fascinated by this notion will shape whether you can stomach it, but for those as shamelessly ringarde as I am, Season 2 is a gift you may not be able to wait to unwrap. I couldn’t even wait until Christmas. — Matt Brennan
The Great (Hulu)
Over the holidays, there’s nothing I enjoy more than hunkering down and watching a show with vast historical sweep, elaborate costumes, lots of sumptuous scenery and a wintry landscape. Better yet if it’s also irreverent and wickedly funny. That’s why I plan to catch up on “The Great,” Hulu’s aggressively anachronistic series about the young Catherine the Great. I gobbled up Season 1 during Pandemic 1.0 and fell in love with the whole thing, particularly the performances by Elle Fanning, who believably transforms from a wide-eyed princess into a cunning empress, and Nicholas Hoult as her cretinous yet strangely likable husband, Peter III. The series is clearly not interested in sticking to the facts, but it captures something often overlooked when it comes the history of European royals: Those people were nuts. Season 1 ended with Catherine staging a coup against Peter that — spoiler alert — will not end too well for him, but I’m curious to see how the series will handle this historical inevitability. Huzzah! — Meredith Blake
The Mighty Underdogs (Discovery+)
Sure, it’s prestige television season. Everyone cool says you have to see “Yellowjackets,” and you’ve been saving the “Succession” finale for the first night of winter break. But it’s also been a very, very long year. And maybe you just need to luxuriate in something absurd. In that case, let me direct you to a special little show called “The Mighty Underdogs.” It’s about a group of young folks who dream of trotting around a ring with their purebred canines at dog shows. The junior dog handlers live in Arizona and are under the tutelage of a woman named Jodi, a hard-nosed industry veteran whose advice for girls includes: “Don’t put your hair in a bun until you have breasts.” Need I say more? It’s on Discovery+, which costs money. But you won’t regret it, because when you’re done with this weird little reality show, you can then watch every home renovation show ever created in the HGTV library. — Amy Kaufman
The Ms. Pat Show (BET+)
If you’re not familiar with comic Patricia Williams, a.k.a. Ms. Pat, your head will snap the moment she releases the first f-bomb in “The Ms. Pat Show” on BET+. Williams plays a version of herself as Pat, a felon who has moved with her family from Atlanta to the less racially diverse Plainfield, Ind., to press restart. She’s a mother trying to adjust to suburban ways and a comedian trying to get her shine on far from the lights of the big city (fodder for an episode starring a “Family Matters” alum). Though Ms. Pat is the star of the show — and, soon, a Netflix comedy special — and opens each episode with a microphone in hand, there’s enough shine to go around: Tami Roman (“The Real World”) is the blunt live-in sister who always has a trick to treat the audience; J. Bernard Calloway is a dad who’s not so clueless; and the children (Brittany Inge, Vince Swann, Theodore Barnes and Briyana Guadalupe) know to be heard only when they have to be. You’ll get that good laugh you’ve needed during this disconcerting year, but what really makes “The Ms. Pat Show” go is everyone’s wry determination to make the best out of a situation by learning when “It is what it is” is code for “Good enough.” — Dawn M. Burkes
Not since the closing moments of the Season 1 finale of “Dawson’s Creek” — you know, when Dawson and Joey finally kissed — have I felt the truly unbearable preteen anguish of having to wait an eternity for new episodes of my favorite show. Two decades and some change later (oh, my God, writing that hurt my soul), shooting delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced the second season of “PEN15” — which reminds me of those preteen days in excruciating but splendid ways — to be split into two halves. Then, just as the second half of its sophomore season arrived, Hulu announced that this batch of episodes would be the last of the series. Starring Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle as 13-year-old BFFs in 2000, the show brilliantly captures the angst, humiliation and naïveté of middle-schoolers who don’t quite fit in, often in ways that will transport you back to the halls of your own seventh grade. I’m on my second viewing of the final batch of episodes, but if you have yet to watch the whole series, there are 25 half-hour episodes at your disposal. Pretend this recommendation came to you via a handwritten note decorated with hearts and stars. — Yvonne Villarreal
School of Chocolate (Netflix)
Combining the culinary rigor of “Top Chef,” the calming tone of “The Great British Baking Show” and the educational access of “How It’s Made” is the recipe for this Netflix reality “competition,” which I put in quotes only because it’s unlike any of the usual unscripted rat races we consume. Though there is a hefty prize for a winner, no contestant is eliminated after forgetting to sweeten a pastry or breaking a chocolate showpiece, and being “at the bottom” simply means taking a step back to regroup and do better next time. World-renowned chocolatier Amaury Guichon is the show’s gentle genius, playing its host, teacher, mentor and judge; his eight students stir up plenty of satisfying drama among themselves. (Also, he’s so cute.) I’ll be rationing these eight episodes while snacking on my own sweet treats. — Ashley Lee
The Sex Lives of College Girls (HBO Max)
I know, I know: Another show about four female best friends? Original. That was my reaction when I heard about “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” the new HBO Max show about a quartet of freshmen roommates co-created by Mindy Kaling. But I’m so glad I didn’t let the (admittedly overdone) premise keep me away from this series, because it’s a gem. The cast of up-and-comers is great, especially Pauline Chalamet — yes, elder sister to TimmyChally — who is super endearing as the nerd of the bunch. It’s a perfect winter break binge: The episodes are less than 30 minutes, all 10 are already up, and it’ll give you that warm-and-fuzzy hit you’re craving over the holidays. — Amy Kaufman
Summer Camp Island (HBO Max)
This holiday season, I want nothing more than to pull out some comfy blankets and spend time catching up with the newest season of one of my favorite cozy shows, “Summer Camp Island,” which hit HBO Max earlier this month. The animated series follows young best friends Oscar (an elephant) and Hedgehog (you guessed it, a hedgehog), who discover shortly after their arrival that they’ve been dropped off at a magical summer camp and that their counselors are teen witches. The show is plenty of wondrous and whimsical thanks to the island’s magical inhabitants — yetis, monsters, aliens, unicorns, ghosts and more — as well as how inanimate objects tend to come to life. But “Summer Camp Island” also packs substance with its humor, touching on themes like friendship, acceptance, expectations and growing up. Plus, it’s a show you can watch alone or with friends and family of all ages. — Tracy Brown
Tuesday, After Christmas (Kanopy)
It’s been 11 years since I first watched this unsparingly truthful drama of marriage and infidelity, and its images and intimate exchanges are still burned into my memory. With ruthless clarity and insight but also unforced, matter-of-fact compassion, writer-director Radu Muntean follows a middle-class Romanian couple (perfectly played by Mimi Branescu and Mirela Oprisor) whose marriage suddenly collapses over the course of a week in December. Despite its emergence among several critically acclaimed films that testified to the strength and vitality of contemporary Romanian cinema, “Tuesday, After Christmas” was underappreciated on its initial release. There’s no better time to discover it than now, when its bracing portrait of yuletide family misery might be just the thing to chase away your own. Also available on Hoopla, the Criterion Channel and Kino. — Justin Chang
When the triumph of Tom Wambsgans in the “Succession” finale left me craving more Matthew Macfadyen, I was shocked to discover that the excellent “Ripper Street,” in which he plays a 19th century London police detective, was not available on any streaming platform. How is this possible, and someone please fix it! Meanwhile, I recommend “Quiz,” which is available on AMC+. The three-part miniseries features Macfadyen and “Fleabag’s” wonderous Sian Clifford as Charles and Diana Ingram, who, in 2003, were convicted of cheating their way to a million pounds on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” If anyone walks the line between anxious-to-please bafflement and cutthroat scheming better than Macfadyen, I’ve yet to see it. But I mean it about “Ripper Street.” — Mary McNamara
Unhappy Holidays Collection (Shudder)
“Please, let there be ‘Rare Exports,’” I said when I went to the Shudder app a few days ago to get my holiday movie fix. Although I had watched (and rewatched) Netflix’s “Jingle Jangle,” it was time for something less colorful and more … sinister. Here comes Shudder, making a good many of my holiday dreams come true: The horror streaming service’s “Unhappy Holidays” collection is populated by the aforementioned “Rare Exports,” which is set in Finland on Christmas Eve and features a chase for — and from — Santa Claus. It hits all the sweet spots: blood, gore and well-earned giggles. Other titles in “Unhappy Holidays” include Greg Nicotero’s “Creepshow Holiday Special,” a few movies in the “Silent Night, Deadly Night” franchise and the sheer lunacy of the William Shatner-starring “A Christmas Horror Story.” My family is going to settle in for a cold winter’s fright night. — Dawn M. Burkes
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