You most definitely cannot watch “The Twilight Zone,” or “Black Mirror,” or anything that trash-talks the present or future state of the world. In fact I’m afraid that most science fiction TV, with its dystopian settings and apocalyptic leanings, is forbidden. “The Outer Limits” is off limits.
For those looking for a TV escape from the relentlessly dire news, these are hard times. So many shows seem to invite comparisons to the dramatic state of America, or to twitchy international relations, or to civil rights concerns, or to money trails. In a way, almost every series seems to easily serve as a metaphor of current affairs, from the power plays of “Game of Thrones” and the primitive intimidations of “Vikings” to the racial issues that suffuse the comedies “Black-ish,” “Insecure,” and “Dear White People.”
The triggers are everywhere. Amid the endless deluge of breaking stories, even a heartfelt, community-positive drama such as “Friday Night Lights” can cause anxiety, as it turns a light on the at-risk kids for whom government intervention is a saving grace. Try to watch “The Americans” without thinking about Robert Mueller; try to watch “Ozark” without pondering all the ways a capitalist can be beholden to business forces; try to watch “The Crown” without comparing the protocol of the monarchy to our current lack.
So here are a handful of shows you can start bingeing to drown out the sounds of disaster outside your window. Warning: I haven’t vetted every single episode of all of these series for prompts and provocations, so I can’t promise uninterrupted peace of mind. Proceed at your own risk.
I am fond of this series, even if, like too many shows, it lived beyond its natural creative life, totaling 111 episodes and one spin-off movie between 2007 and 2013. It’s a breezy comedy-drama about a spy — played with masterful irony and cool charm by Jeffrey Donovan — who has been fired and blacklisted without knowing why. The GQ-handsome guy returns to his hometown, Miami, where he reconnects with his raging ex (Gabrielle Anwar) and his retired spy pal (B movie icon Bruce Campbell) to solve cases. The only case he can’t solve: his relationship with his wonderfully passive-aggressive mother, played memorably by Sharon Gless. What makes “Burn Notice” work is that it doesn’t take itself seriously as it consistently leans into spoof, and that Donovan delivers a perfectly wry second-person voiceover: “People with happy families don’t become spies,” he says. “A bad childhood is the perfect background for covert ops. You don’t trust anyone. You’re used to getting smacked around. And you never get homesick.”
“Sherlock Holmes” (1984-94)
I have a love-hate relationship with “Sherlock,” the Benedict Cumberbatch iteration of the Arthur Conan Doyle detective. Jeremy Brett was the definitive Sherlock for me, and these 41 episodes made between 1984 and 1994 are thoroughly enjoyable, even when they are flawed or, particularly in the later episodes, as Brett’s health was failing (he died in 1995), underwhelming. With his unearthly pallor, vampire-red lips, odd eccentricities, drug use, and expert sense of drama, Brett’s analytical sleuth was mesmerizing. Even in the middle of his black moods, he never lost his passion to solve crimes, donning some peculiar disguises along the way. The series, while dated, nonetheless evokes Victorian England, and it’s more faithful to Doyle’s books than most of the Sherlock adaptations we see.
I wanted to mention the humane and wonderful “Freaks and Geeks,” the one-season wonder that I mention every chance I get, which is often (maybe too often?), but then I remembered that Judd Apatow made this one-season wonder, too, in 2001-02. The half-hour “Undeclared” isn’t as special or original as the hourlong “Freaks and Geeks,” nor are the characters as fully developed. But it’s a charmer nonetheless, with an appealing cast including Charlie Hunnam (who went on to “Sons of Anarchy”), Jay Baruchel (the remarkable “Man Seeking Woman”), singer Loudon Wainwright, and Seth Rogen. And the guest cast includes Amy Poehler, Busy Philipps, Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Martin Starr, and Jason Segel. The show is a look at college life through the eyes of a group of wide-eyed college freshmen. It’s an uncynical celebration of awkwardness and innocence, as these kids adjust to their new curfew-free, 24-hour social life, slouching endearingly toward self-declaration.
“The No. 1 Ladies Detective
I’m not sure this gentle seven-part charmer got the respect it deserved when it ran on HBO for only one season in 2009. Based on the novels by Alexander McCall Smith and set and filmed amid the physical beauty of Botswana, the mystery series follows the titular business started by Precious Ramotswe after her beloved father dies. Played with natural ease by Jill Scott, Precious investigates cheating husbands and missing dogs with the help of her extremely awkward assistant, Grace, played by Anika Noni Rose. The crimes aren’t particularly riveting; the show focuses more on the characters, their bonds, and their country. With the behind-the-scenes contributions of Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”) and Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”), the show is light, kind-hearted, and sunny.
“The Larry Sanders Show”
I never assume people have heard of this series, despite the fact that, during its 1992-98 run on HBO, it was nominated for a ton of Emmys. Without this comedy, from Garry Shandling, we probably wouldn’t have seen “30 Rock,” another edgy, satirical TV show about making a TV show. It’s a subversive masterpiece, as it draws a moustache and horns on top of Hollywood’s glossy self-image. Shandling’s late-night host Sanders is a mess of neuroses, and he is surrounded by equally vain, touchy, insecure, and paranoid assistants, actors, and executives. The humor is savage, the egos are giant, and the cast is extraordinary (including Jeffrey Tambor). Also, the list of actors who play versions of themselves is epic, including Carol Burnett, David Duchovny, Jim Carrey, Warren Beatty, and Ellen DeGeneres. You’ve got 86 half-hours waiting for you. Go.
Also safe: “Extras,” Ricky Gervais’s two-season look at the background performers on movie sets, features unforgettable guest appearances by Daniel Radcliffe, David Bowie, and Kate Winslet as themselves. And “Party Down” is an acerbic and irresistible comedy about a catering company of wannabes serving the rich and famous in LA, with Jane Lynch, Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, Megan Mullally, and Martin Starr, among others.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.