One of the central functions of television journalists — editors, critics and reporters alike — is to sift through the seemingly infinite options now available to viewers through broadcast, cable, streaming and video-on-demand options. And as silly as it may sound, that function is more important than ever, thanks to the inauspicious confluence of a global pandemic and “peak TV.”
So while we’ve already collected recommendations for what to binge while in isolation and children’s TV that will keep your kids happy (and you sane), among other helpful guides, the TV team here at The Times has also launched this weekly recommendation engine — one based on what we’re watching ourselves. Think of it as your work-from-home water cooler, where we bring the water cooler to you.
“Pick of the Litter”
Available on: Disney+
Plenty of studies have shown that pets can reduce stress and anxiety. And with growing fears related to the barrage of news headlines about the coronavirus outbreak, there’s something comforting in tuning all that out for 30 minutes (or more, if you’re like me) to watch an adorable litter of puppies. This six-episode series follows six puppies — Amara, Pacino, Paco, Raffi, Tulane and Tartan — on their not-always-easy journey to become guide dogs for the blind. You’ll meet the “puppy raisers” who rear the puppies from the time they’re 2 months old to about a year-plus; the puppy trainers who help the canines work on the skills needed to be of service; and the people they are matched with in the end. The tension comes in knowing not every dog is up for the task, for a variety of reasons, and can be “career-changed” in the process — a polite way of saying they are dropped from the program. It’s light fare but with an informative and heartwarming message: the good in helping others. Before long, you’ll find yourself mimicking Tyra Banks screaming to the TV screen: “We were all rooting for you!” — albeit in a more cheerful tone.
— Yvonne Villarreal
“Hot Ones: The Game Show”
Available on: TruTV
Have the quarantine blues? “Hot Ones: The Game Show” will warm you up. The series is a spinoff of YouTube’s “Hot Ones,” in which host Sean Evans interviews celebrities while they both consume chicken wings that get spicier during the course of the discussion. The game show kicks the concept to another level as two-person teams compete for cash while answering silly trivia questions. But they must face off while consuming flaming hot wings cooked on set by the “sadistic” Chef Willie. The game takes place in a crowded arena called the “Pepperdome” and the contestants, who always enter with swagger and confidence, are quickly reduced to spasms of sweat, tears and worse as they try to remain clearheaded while their mouths and brain cells are torched by demonically titled sauces like the Eye of the Scorpion and the Constrictor — a 10 out of 10 on the “Hot Ones” heat index.
Players with weaker stomachs have the option of reaching for a nearby bucket to relieve themselves, simultaneously disgusting and delighting the pumped-up audience. The competitors can be colorful as they describe their fiery ordeal. “I didn’t think it was possible for my eyeballs to sweat,” said one. “I can’t feel my hands,” another proclaimed. “I’m serious.” The show even features behind-the-scenes glimpses of the players being examined by medical personnel during commercial breaks. The team that makes it to the final round has a chance to win the grand prize of $25,000 and soothe their pain with a frosty milkshake, but as Evans warns, “Milkshakes are for winners only.”
— Greg Braxton
“Bored to Death”
Available on: HBO Now/Go, Amazon Prime
Novelist Jonathan Ames’ literary noir sometime-stoner comedy bromance, which ran on HBO from 2009 to 2011, is a farcical fairy tale of New York (Brooklyn, mainly), set in a moment between gentrification and overdevelopment. Jason Schwartzman, channeling Jean-Pierre Léaud in Francois Truffaut’s “Stolen Kisses,” plays a usually lovelorn, semi-successful novelist moonlighting as an “unlicensed detective,” with Zach Galifianakis as his grumbling comic-book-artist best friend and Ted Danson as his other best friend, a rakish publisher with an adventurous past — and present. (All are small boys within the bodies of grown men.) Open to the varieties of human weirdness, it’s a bighearted picture of a city teeming with people and possibility, where things may go wrong but everything’s OK.
— Robert Lloyd
Available on: Netflix
I couldn’t stop watching “Unorthodox,” which tells the story of a young Hasidic woman who flees from her community in Williamsburg, N.Y. The four-part limited series, inspired by the memoir of the same name by Deborah Feldman, offers an engrossing look inside a world rarely depicted in popular culture and paints a deeply sympathetic portrait of Esty, a teenager who finds herself hopelessly trapped in an unhappy marriage in a culture where women have few options outside the home. The series is propelled by a riveting performance from Israeli actress Shira Haas.
— Meredith Blake
“Dispatches from Elsewhere”
Available on: AMC
Dreaming of freedom? Look no further than “Dispatches From Elsewhere,” which creator-star Jason Segel based on a strange, relatively new genre of interactive storytelling sometimes called “alternate reality gaming.” But you don’t have to understand the premise to be taken with Segel’s surreal and frequently moving vision of four lonely strangers — his corporate drone; a rebellious trans girl (Eve Lindley); a conspiracy theorist (André Benjamin); and a woman caring for her sick husband (Sally Field) — who find much-needed connection in their wild goose chase through Philadelphia. You can practically feel the wind in their hair as they cycle in tandem after Richard E. Grant’s limousine. (Just go with it.)
— Matt Brennan