In the “Peak TV” era, there are literally hundreds of shows on our cable and streaming services. Yet with fresh programming showing up weekly on our home screens, we tend to spend our time with new series or catching up on critically acclaimed shows from the recent past with challenging narratives, edgy humor or award-winning performances.
But sometimes, when the news of the day is frightful and hanging out during the holidays with family and friends puts us in a nostalgic frame of mind, the most delightful choice can be watching an old show where we know everybody’s name and don’t need to worry about new plot twists.
In the spirit of hunkering down with the familiar, we offer a list of shows that — like a holiday blanket — offer us comfort in challenging times.
Be it the pioneering charms of the MTM comedies, the gritty details of real-life police investigations, the delights of British people baking and building things, or the soapy machinations of pretty people in an L.A. apartment complex, these are a few of our favorite TV things.
MTM Enterprises comedies: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda” and “The Bob Newhart Show”
Comfort is a shared domestic pursuit, and what we readily agree on at our house are the mind-settling, restorative properties of 1970s comedies from MTM Enterprises — specifically “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda” and “The Bob Newhart Show.”
Although chronologically they partly coincide with the Vietnam War and Watergate eras — and one is actually set in a newsroom — these series are political mostly by example, having at their center intelligent, articulate, capable adults living in a modern way. (Eccentrics do surround them.) If they’re explicit in anything, it’s their feminism, a streak that time has made no less relevant: Mary Richards doesn’t need a boyfriend; Rhoda Morgenstern owns a business; Bob and Emily Hartley are equal partners (though Emily is smarter and better-tempered). The humor is dry and unsentimental. There is conflict, of course, but nobody yells.
Streamable on iTunes, Hulu and Amazon.
“The First 48”
Perhaps it’s a comment on how bad things have become that I find comfort in an unflinching, true crime docu-series where three things are a given: homicide, a homicide investigation and hard questions in a bleak interrogation room.
I’ve been told that “Friends” reruns would be healthier escapist fare, but no thanks. All I want after a long day of having my senses ground to a nub by a fire hose of bad news, White House bloviating and smart scripted dramas that force me to think is TV that lets me know that someone, anyone, is fighting for justice while I sink into the couch and consume cereal out of the box with no regard for what my son will eat for breakfast tomorrow. Hundreds of episodes of A&E’s series largely focused on the first 48 hours of a homicide investigation stretch back multiple seasons to 2004, which to me equals a cornucopia of no-nonsense detectives in unmarked cars, fighting crime and avenging untimely deaths. The draw? No actors, melodrama or sloppy scripted dialogue — just the facts, ma’am.
Streamable at aetv.com, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon and Google Play.
When “Melrose Place” premiered on Fox 25 years ago, I was 7 years old and secondhand viewing episodes every now and again when my mom couldn’t get me to sleep. That’s to say, I couldn’t fully appreciate the deliciously absurd plot lines that involved a cast of attractive people living in an apartment complex.
There were fiery affairs, a few attempted murders, explosions, a prostitution ring, fake deaths, baby-stealing — nothing was too outlandish.
Heck, it’s far more watchable than my apartment complex drama, which consists of leaving passive aggressive notes on my neighbor’s car when he’s blocking my garage. With no shortage of good-for-you TV programming on the air right now, when I want to be in the company of totally unrelatable characters in bizarre situations, that’s when Billy, Alison, Jake and the gang are invited into my living room — even when all I want to do is tell them to hang out with more people of color.
Streamable on Hulu and CBS All Access.
You may best know Kristen Bell from her superb NBC series “The Good Place” — and if you don’t, get watching! — or as the voice of Anna in “Frozen.”
But before coping with the vagaries of the afterlife and the antics of Olaf, she played the title character in this cruelly short-lived series about a teen gumshoe navigating the confusion and consternation of high school politics and romance while solving mysteries.
Among the show’s many pleasures over three seasons and a movie were its irresistible Dandy Warhols theme song, one of the best depictions ever of a father-daughter relationship (with the great Enrico Colantoni) and the combination of standalone stories and satisfying season-long arcs.
Look for now-familiar faces peppered throughout, including Krysten Ritter (“Jessica Jones”), Tessa Thompson (“Thor: Ragnarok”), Amanda Seyfried (“Twin Peaks: The Return”) and Max Greenfield (“New Girl”).
That Bell — who could pivot from snark to heartbreak in an instant — would go on to be a star felt like a foregone conclusion to anyone who had been to “Mars.”
A long time ago, we used to be friends. Fortunately, we still are.
Streamable on iTunes, Amazon and go90.
“The Outer Limits”
“The Twilight Zone” is what most people cite when talking about vintage anthology series that revolve around the weird and fantastic. But I’ll take “The Outer Limits.”
When, as a youth, I first saw the ominous opening with the narrator warning, “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture,” I was a goner.
The hour-long episodes, filmed in glorious black-and-white, had a key element that “The Twilight Zone” lacked — monsters!
Almost every week, there would be a different, bizarre creature. But the series had a higher purpose than horror. Like “The Twilight Zone,” there was a lesson or twist that would be a commentary on the human condition.
Still, the show was definitely scary. One episode titled “ZZZZZ” featured a sexy, mysterious woman who was actually a — well, the title gives a clue. Another, called “Don’t Open Till Doomsday,” had a box with a hole that revealed a blinking light. Those who looked in the box would disappear inside and . . . I won’t spoil it, but it still makes me shudder. The series was revived in 1995. The original is also available on DVD, and there’s talk of a Blu-Ray coming soon.
Streamable on Hulu.
British reality shows: “Grand Designs” and “The Great British Baking Show”
As a chronic Anglophile, I am always happy to gobble up a new season of “The Crown” or the latest “Masterpiece” import. But when I really, really want to get cozy, I opt for British shows with nary a bonnet or horse-drawn carriage in sight.
For several years now, my go-to happy place has been “The Great British Baking Show,” a.k.a. “The Great British Bake-Off,” a niche favorite in the U.S. that is a national sensation in the U.K. With its pastel palette and artfully edited shots of swirling mixers and glistening cakes, the show is soothing to watch even when tensions run high.
Another favorite is “Grand Designs,” an unscripted show that follows ambitious home builds and renovation projects from start to finish (or “kinda finished,” in some cases), often through hair-raising budget overruns and disastrous architectural snafus.
Both shows offer the satisfaction of a close-ended journey within each episode, plus a hearty sprinkling of British wit — and none of the product placement that can make similar American shows grating.
As I’ve learned from experience, “Grand Designs” and “The Great British Baking Show” are crowd-pleasers that will appeal to “Downton Abbey”-loving parents and hipster, food-and-design-snob friends alike — making them perfect for viewing on the couch together in a post-holiday stupor.
Streamable on Netflix.
When you want to run from the world and hide in your TV, there is no better, kinder place than behind the scenes of “The TGS Show” as imagined by Tina Fey. So playful in its twisted, joke-a-minute execution it could’ve existed as a cartoon (though Fey briefly does appear in Muppet form), “30 Rock” ended less than five years ago yet feels drawn from a far more innocent time.
While its taste for pushing limits yielded a few lines about race and sex that curdle in the light of 2017, Fey’s show remains consistently and rewardingly absurd thanks to an unrivaled imagination — Leap Day William, anyone? — and an inspired roster of performers (Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth is a national treasure, along with guests such as Elaine Stritch, Will Forte and Jon Hamm). Plus, “30 Rock” features the peak comic brilliance of Alec Baldwin as a parody of a right-wing corporate capitalist who, refreshingly, doesn’t hold elected office.
Streamable on Hulu.