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How these four engaging series take grief and angst to all new levels

Three young stars of "Never Have I Ever"
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, left, Ramona Young and Lee Rodriguez in a scene from “Never Have I Ever.”
(Netflix)

Even now while so many of us are spending more hours than we ever thought possible in our homes, there is still too much good TV to take in. But as always, The Envelope is here to help. For TV viewers and voters alike, here are four thematically similar series to pay a visit, chosen with an eye toward escaping our dire reality.

These shows feature fresh young faces and offer viewers various combinations of pain, love, humor and melancholy that somehow reflect the emotional rollercoaster we’re all on right now, while still diverting us from it. And although each show has created a unique world, all deal with grief in wildly inventive ways: bugs, busting walls, bursting into song. Try only some of these at home.

“Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,” Freeform

EVERYTHING'S GONNA BE OKAY - "Seven-Spotted Ladybug" - Nicholas' single dad has very bad cancer and he's going to die, soon. So Nicholas offers himself up to be the guardian for his two teenage half-sisters. They already know not to put their heads in the oven. What's the worst that can happen? This episode of "Everything's Gonna Be Okay" airs on Thursday, January 16, at 8:30p.m. ET/PT on Freeform. JOSHT THOMAS and KAYLA CROMER are shown. Credit: Freeform/Tony Rivetti
EVERYTHING’S GONNA BE OKAY - “Seven-Spotted Ladybug” - Nicholas’ single dad has very bad cancer and he’s going to die, soon. So Nicholas offers himself up to be the guardian for his two teenage half-sisters. They already know not to put their heads in the oven. What’s the worst that can happen? This episode of “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” airs on Thursday, January 16, at 8:30p.m. ET/PT on Freeform. JOSHT THOMAS and KAYLA CROMER are shown. Credit: Freeform/Tony Rivetti
(Tony Rivetti/Freeform)

Nicholas is an Australian entomologist who loses his father and becomes the guardian for his younger American half-sisters, Matilda and Genevieve. He is thoroughly unprepared and unqualified, but that doesn’t stop him from doing his best to stumble up to the job. The show is shaggy, sweet, sardonic and unforced. “I always just say it’s people waking up and trying their best to have a nice day at a difficult time,” explains Josh Thomas, the show’s creator and star. Matilda is on the autism spectrum, as is Kayla Cromer, the actress who plays her, but don’t look for any Very Special Episodes.

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The reviews: “Without doing it in a manufactured or disingenuous way, ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’ has the freedom to follow any path it chooses,” Indiewire’s Steve Green enthuses. “Playful in the face of gloom and inquisitive in the face of foregone conclusions, to have a trio so ready to handle anything makes this show’s future as exciting as its beginning.”

AV Club’s Shannon Miller notes the “messy and enchanting” action “results in a deeply funny comedy teeming with heart, wit and a refreshing level of humanity.”

The scoop: Thomas recognized how important representation was for the neuro-diverse community and was nervous about letting anyone down, “but the response has been really great,” he says. He also took time on set to check in with Cromer and other neuro-diverse actors to make sure they were comfortable and had what they needed “to set them up for success. And then I thought, ‘Why don’t I do this with everybody that we work with?’” So he did.

“Never Have I Ever” Netflix

A scene from "Never Have I Ever...Felt Super Indian."
(Netflix)
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Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is a first-generation Indian American teenager who has enormous rage issues. While her explosions tend to be fairly down to earth, they are still shattering; her suppressed pain over her father’s death led her to a temporary bout of paralysis. Balancing her runaway emotions and fighting with her mother while also trying to fit in at school and get with the cool boy of her dreams makes for a constant jumble of painful, awkward experiences. Sounds like high school.

The reviews: The Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson writes, “the best comedy is totally unsafe; and “Never Have I Ever” is the teen-sitcom equivalent of running with scissors, used hypodermic needles and a fully operating chain saw,” adding that star Ramakrishnan is “equal parts caustic and adorable.” Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya finds the series “practically built for quarantine marathon-watching. Its twists are fairly predictable, and its drollery is openly derivative of other teen hits. ... But you don’t watch something like this because it’s innovative; you watch it because it feels good to consume as much of it as possible.”

The scoop: Lang Fisher, who co-created the series with Mindy Kaling, says they knew they wanted Devi to have a temper. “Often when we see teenage girl characters who feel like outcasts, they’re quiet and mousy and wallflowers,” she says. “Mindy and I were not like that when we were teenagers. We weren’t particularly cool, but we had big personalities and were dramatic and talked a lot and had weird confidence in some areas and were very insecure in others. We wanted this character to have that kind of a feel.”

“I Am Not Okay With This,” Netflix

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Sophia Lillis and Wyatt Oleff in Netflix's "I Am Not Okay with This"
“It” couple: Sophia Lillis and Wyatt Oleff reunite in Netflix’s “I Am Not Okay with This.”
(Courtesy of Netflix)

Sydney (Sophia Lillis), a teenager in a dispirited small town, just wants to be normal. But her father killed himself in the basement a year ago, she can’t seem to talk with her mother without fighting and her best friend brings up unexpected feelings. When it all becomes too much for her, she explodes with anger, as a teenager is wont to do. The thing is, though: She really explodes, causing mass destruction in her wake. Based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman, the show was adapted by co-creators Jonathan Entwistle (who previously adapted Forsman’s “The End of the ... World”) and Christy Hall.

The reviews: “What feels so excitingly fresh about ‘I Am Not Okay With This’ is that it actually takes time to explore the rage of adolescent girls,” Salon’s Ashlie D. Stevens notes. The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan singles out Lillis’ performance, “which manages to convey the depths and numbness of loss beneath the layers of more ordinary teenage fury and frustration all lying beneath the traditional pose of sardonic disaffection. You want to smack her, champion her, comfort her and be her all at the same time.”

The scoop: This series has style to spare. Make that styles. “Growing up in the U.K., we very much have this kind of fetishization of American high school movies and TV shows,” notes Entwistle — particularly those of the ‘80s and ‘90s. All of it goes into this mix. So an episode that seems to pay homage to “The Breakfast Club” actually takes its cues from “Dawson’s Creek’s” tribute to the movie. It’s a deliberate pastiche of a pastiche within a meta-mash-up. Add the small-town superpower element, “and I felt like, here’s an opportunity to genre-bend and make something that feels of no era in particular.”

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“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” NBC

"Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" NBC
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”
(Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy) is a socially awkward computer programmer living in San Francisco who one day gains the ability to hear people’s innermost thoughts and feelings expressed in big musical numbers. This power allows — well, forces — her to connect with those around her, most poignantly with her father, who’s dying of a rare degenerative brain disease called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). It also makes a simple walk to the corner cafe end up with a horde of strangers begging Zoey for the musical favor “Help!”

The reviews: RogerEbert.com’s Brian Tallerico finds the premise “so ludicrous that it takes an incredibly charming ensemble to pull it off,” before noting that’s exactly what the creator and producers have done. (The starry cast includes Mary Steenburgen, Peter Gallagher and Lauren Graham.) USA Today’s Kelly Lawler says, “Beyond its music, the series needs a little ‘Help’ to become great. But all signs, musical or not, indicate it will eventually get there.”

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The scoop: Creator Austin Winsberg found inspiration from the most tragic of circumstances; his own father died of PSP several years ago. “He was a very healthy, vibrant, dynamic man who used to run up and down San Vicente [Boulevard] every morning,” Winsberg says. “In less than a year, it robbed him of all of his abilities, until he could only blink his eyes and move part of one of his hands.” Winsberg knew that someday, somehow, he would write about that time.

Meanwhile, he started working in musicals, writing the book for the Broadway show “First Date” and adapting “The Sound of Music Live!” for NBC. Then it hit him: “What if the way my dad saw the world during that time was through musical numbers? When that idea popped into my head, it brought a smile to my face and made the horror of that time feel a little bit lighter.”

And who couldn’t use that right now?


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