11 great television escapes (plus a few extras), because reality is a bit much right now

Polly Walker (as Atia) and James Purefoy (as Marc Antony) in "Rome."
Polly Walker (as Atia) and James Purefoy (as Marc Antony) in "Rome."Franco Biciocchi/HBO via Bloomberg News

Welcome to diversion therapy, TV-style, wherein I attempt to steer your thoughts away from the fears and tragedies of the coronavirus. Got anxiety, existential dread, heavy boredom? All three? I prescribe 10 episodes of “Not Black Mirror” and “Anything But E.R.,” stat.

When I think of escapist television, I don’t only think of lighthearted, giddy comedies, although they do have their place in my arsenal of distractions (I’m looking at you, FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” Pop’s “Schitt’s Creek,” NBC’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and “Parks and Recreation” reruns). I also think of shows that drop viewers into foreign worlds, from the 1700s to the 1950s, or shows that revisit youth with a sense of optimism, or genre shows where mysteries emerge, but then are sufficiently solved.


With this list, I’ve tried to come up with different kinds of series that won’t nudge you into asking big questions or rub your nose in moral relativity. They’re not all happy-happy; some of them include murder and mayhem. But there are no post-“Sopranos” dramas here; just isolation-friendly shows that, I’m hoping, will heal.

TRANSPORT: Escape doesn’t always mean jokes. Sometimes, it just means traveling to another place and another time.


This visually spectacular two-season series — about the political chess match between Julius Caesar and the powers that be in 52 B.C. — looks like a classy sword-and-sandals epic, with British accents and formal-sounding dialogue. It’s a 2005 BBC-HBO co-production. But it has the heart and soul of a hard-R-rated soap opera, with a sexual primitivism that would make Sigmund Freud plotz. “Shakespeare’s Dynasty,” anyone? The Alexis Carrington character is the unapologetically amoral Atia, played with scene-stealing coldness by Polly Walker, who at one point is heard telling Cleopatra, "Die screaming, you pig-spawned trollop.” The familiar historical material, with legendary names such as Brutus and Mark Antony, is juicy, and so is the fictional story line about two odd-couple soldiers (Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson) who return home after many years in the war. “Rome” isn’t psychologically complex like so many HBO series, but, with its melodrama and scandalous bawdiness, it’s thoroughly engrossing.


“This History of Tom Jones: A Foundling”

This six-hour BBC miniseries, which originally ran on A&E in 1998, is rarely mentioned on best-period-drama lists. I get it; “Tom Jones,” based on the classic novel by Henry Fielding, is a broad comedy, and this adaptation came out after the much-loved Oscar-winning 1963 movie. But that said, it’s a complete pleasure, with the sex-romp spirit of the movie replaced by a bemused, heroic vibe. The characters are more dimensional, with Tom a more considerate fellow than you might expect, particularly compared with Albert Finney’s turn in the movie. Certainly there is plenty of debauchery afoot, but issues of class and money are in play, too. The picaresque plot has the sweet-tempered Tom (Max Beesley) — a bastard raised as a gentleman — making his way through 18th-century England amid subplots involving more over-the-top secondary characters. He’s in forbidden love with the wealthy Sophia, played by Samantha Morton with the kind of sharp comedy that still makes me smile.

Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw in "The Hour."
Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw in "The Hour." BBC America

“The Hour”

This literate period drama, set in 1956 England, is a tonal hybrid, with elements of an office romantic comedy, a political conspiracy drama, and a cool retrospective of the early days of TV journalism. Originally shown on BBC America, it’s about the time before breaking news stories could go directly to air, as the folks who run a news program called “The Hour” struggle to expand the medium. There’s a compelling romantic triangle recalling that of “Broadcast News,” with Ben Whishaw as the scrappy, substantive reporter in love with Romola Garai’s producer, who is distracted by her attraction to the vapid new anchor played by Dominic West (of “The Wire” and “The Affair”). The performers are irresistible, particularly Whishaw, whose reporter is pushy — except when it comes to love.


OTHER TRANSPORTING SERIES: The royal chess games of the elegant “Wolf Hall,” the class drama of 2002’s coolly gorgeous “The Forsyte Saga” with Damian Lewis, and the worth-revisiting 1981 adaptation of “Brideshead Revisited,” all originally on PBS.

INNOCENCE FOUND: These shows are less about the dramatic traumas of youth and more about the inexperience of the teen years and the good humor and perspective that can get you through them.

The cast of "Freeks and Geeks."
The cast of "Freeks and Geeks."

“Freaks and Geeks”

Is this your time to finally watch, or rewatch, the one season of the show that restores innocence to the teen years? While so many teen series — from HBO’s darkly affecting “Euphoria” to histrionic soaps such as the CW’s “Riverdale” — rely on hipness and intense media savvy, “Freaks and Geeks” gave us kids in 1980 Michigan, right before MTV captivated, jaded, and commodified a generation or two or three. All the high school characters wear their insecurities and defenses on their sleeves, unprotected by shrouds of irony. The show, famously packed with soon-to-be stars including Jason Segel, Busy Philipps, James Franco, and Seth Rogen, dissects all the classically painful moments of the teen years — fear of sports, cliquishness, unrequited love — with humor and humanity. Both the freaks and the geeks are outside of the school mainstream, trying to see their way through. As Lindsay, a former mathlete nerd trying to express her individuality with a group of freaks, Linda Cardellini is an unassuming pleasure. She makes courage look as hard as it is worthwhile.


Maya Erskine (left) and Anna Konkle in "PEN15."
Maya Erskine (left) and Anna Konkle in "PEN15."Alex Lombardi/Hulu


It sounds like the setup for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, or a throwback to Amy Sedaris’s twisted “Strangers With Candy,” but this Hulu comedy featuring 31-year-old actresses playing seventh-graders is surprisingly honest and insightful. Series creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskin play middle-school versions of themselves, dealing with bullies and crushing on boys, and, after a few minutes of viewer adjustment, the gimmick works beautifully. While “Freaks and Geeks” is set before MTV took over, “PEN15” is set in 2000, before cellphones and social media began to dominate. This comedy has a touch of cringe to it, as the girls face cafeteria crises. But all the fear and loathing is shown through a lens of empathy and a contemporary awareness of teen sexism. It normalizes, rather than ridicules, the questions that make many kids feel so alone.


OTHER COMING-OF-AGE SERIES: The poignant comings-of-age in poverty on Showtime’s comic “Shameless,” the warm stories of love and sex on Netflix’s wonderful “Sex Education,” and, of course, the challenges of small-town America in “Friday Night Lights,” which originally ran on NBC.

TV ON TV (ON TV): TV can be quite ruthless toward itself — which makes watching behind-the-scenes comedies so juicily entertaining.

Tracy Morgan and Tina Fey in "30 Rock."
Tracy Morgan and Tina Fey in "30 Rock."Eric Liebowitz/NBC

“30 Rock”

My jaw still drops on occasion while watching this show, which is extremely cynical and all the better for it. The jokes come so fast and furiously that a second viewing is usually rewarding. The story of the corporate greed and ego at a live sketch-comedy show, “30 Rock” is miraculously able to be cleverly meta, shrewdly political, and a cozy workplace ensemble comedy all at the same time. The characters are indelible, including Tracy Morgan’s Tracy Jordan and Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney, and the writing is sharp. We love our “Friends” and “Office” reruns these days; it’s time for “30 Rock,” originally on NBC, to join the rewatching club.

Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke in "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke in "The Dick Van Dyke Show."Nick at Nite

“The Dick Van Dyke Show”

It holds up! This CBS classic series had five excellent seasons beginning in 1961, as it looked into the family life and friendships of TV writer Rob Petrie, played with clumsy lovability by Dick Van Dyke. The show — with Mary Tyler Moore as wife Laura — was an affectionate snapshot of America’s Camelot, and it ushered situation comedy into new levels of honesty about family dynamics. It also captured the ways people really talk to one another, instead of going with the more vaudevillian style common in older sitcoms. Some of the best material was about Rob’s office life with co-writers Buddy and Sally and his vainglorious boss, Alan Brady (played by Carl Reiner). It’s easy to imagine that “30 Rock,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and a few other TV-themed comedies would not exist if it hadn’t been for the shenanigans at “The Alan Brady Show."


Some people hate Ricky Gervais and his cringe approach to comedy, but I think he is brilliant — not just because he gave us the original “The Office,” but because he continued to make good TV after it, with “After Life” and this HBO series. “Extras” finds him and his best friend serving as extras on movie sets, a pair of nobodies hoping to be noticed. The first season is a little more brutally comic, with unforgettable and sometimes self-skewering guest appearances by Kate Winslet, Daniel Radcliffe, Patrick Stewart, Ben Stiller, and Samuel L. Jackson. The second and final season is sweeter, with some pathos, and more serialized, with a David Bowie appearance that is one of my most favorite TV moments ever.

OTHER TV-ON-TV SERIES: The Hollywood send-up that is HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” Showtime’s clever Matt LeBlanc satire “Episodes,” and Lisa Kudrow’s knife-sharp “The Comeback” from HBO.

MYSTERY TRAIN: Sometimes, all you want is an addictive whodunit with a few good twists — that isn’t one of the “Law & Order” series. It’s easier to think about make-believe crime than it is to think about reality right now.

“The Stranger” and “Safe”

I’m pairing these two Netflix miniseries because they’re both British suburban gothics based on novels by Harlan Coben. They’re both about crazed men searching for missing loved ones. In “Safe,” it’s Michael C. Hall’s widower looking for his daughter; in “The Stranger,” it’s Richard Armitage’s husband and father looking for his wife, after a stranger has exposed some of her secrets. Neither one is perfect, and the endings, as is often the case in elaborate TV mysteries, are not brilliantly satisfying. But still, they are both highly addictive one-offs, managing to firmly hold onto our attention across the hours with feints and twists and reversals.

“London Spy”

This slow-going but mesmerizing five-part miniseries, originally on BBC America, rewards your patience with psychological twists that feel almost Hitchcockian at some points. Ben Whishaw plays a rudderless young man named Danny who falls in love with a closeted man who suddenly disappears. Danny doggedly tries to find out the truth, even as others try to stop him. I don’t want to give anything away, except to say that your understanding of the facts will change from hour to hour. Also in the fine cast: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Mark Gatiss, Clarke Peters, and James Fox.

OTHER MYSTERY SERIES: The twisty, dark “Broadchurch,” which first aired on BBC America, and Netflix’s relentless and emotional “Happy Valley.”

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.