A couple weeks ago, it seemed that there was too much television to possibly watch. Now, after the COVID-19 pandemic changed the entire structure of Western society, it seems there is not nearly enough. Or maybe that there is more than enough to watch – just not enough that’s actually good.
Here, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz offers his top series picks for every kind of audience – escapists, content-starved families, those needing a laugh, serious prestige TV aficionados, and those who just want to watch some well-executed trash – across all the major Canadian streaming services.
More on streaming
- Every movie worth watching on Canadian streaming services, for every kind of viewer
- Kids already bored? Here are eight children’s classics available to stream on the National Film Board website
- See you later, Paw Patrol: The best streaming films to keep your kids occupied during a COVID-19 school break
- If you need your fix of opera, theatre and ballet, here’s where to find them on TV
- You’ll need a streaming service or two these next few weeks. Here’s your guide to Canadian options beyond Netflix, both paid and free
Splashy Hollywood Escapism
Big Little Lies: In the first season of HBO’s miniseries-that-became-a-series, writer David E. Kelly and Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée teamed up to deliver an ultra-soapy drama of the highest degree, starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and more. It also featured a nearly perfect twist ending. And then the second season came along. Do not watch the second season.
Game of Thrones: If you have somehow managed to avoid the cultural juggernaut that was Game of Thrones, there’s no better time than now to experience all eight filthy, violent seasons. Bonus: Watching how miserable life is in the fantasy land of Westeros will make you that much more grateful you’re merely in self-distancing mode on good ol’ 21st-century Earth. Shame about the last season, but hey, we’re dealing with all kinds of disappointment over here.
Sharp Objects: Jean-Marc Vallée proves himself to be HBO prestige-drama whisperer with this seedy take on author Gillian Flynn’s pulpy thriller. Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson star in the southern-fried gothic tale, which features all the usual JMV quirks: a killer soundtrack, intense editing, sweaty sex and pointy-enough-to-draw-blood lead performances.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: All hail Larry David, original king of social distancing. All 10 seasons of the spite-filled meta-sitcom are available for your grumpy-viewing pleasure.
Girls: Despite series creator/writer/star Lena Dunham’s increasingly bad public-relations reputation as her HBO series wore on, the show itself got stronger and smarter. The final two seasons especially feature some tremendous work from Dunham and her co-stars, notably Allison Williams and Adam Driver (remember him?).
Detroiters: If you’ve already burned your way through Netflix’s sketch-comedy series I Think You Should Leave from Saturday Night Live veteran Tim Robinson (if you haven’t, go do so, because I didn’t find room for it in my Netflix guide below!), then move backward to Robinson’s equally bizarre but slightly more heartfelt Detroiters series, which ran on Comedy Central for a few seasons and features a bevy of I Think You Should Leave’s creative players.
For whatever reason, Crave doesn't have much in the way of family-friendly series. Oh, there are plenty of movies for kids, but when it comes to episodic entertainment, you're best firing up Netflix.
High-Quality High Drama
The Sopranos: Easily the biggest benefit of Crave is its access, for an additional cost, to HBO and its deep library of prestige television. The starting point for anyone should be David Chase’s masterpiece of the medium, The Sopranos. Part mob thriller, part family drama, part black comedy, but mostly a subversive dissection of the American dream, The Sopranos is easily the best television series ever made.
The Wire: Although there is an argument that David Simon’s The Wire might be a contender for The Sopranos’ crown. Either way, this Baltimore-set drama is so much more than its cops-versus-robbers conceit. One half follows the efforts of the city’s finest, and not-so-fine, to stamp out drug trafficking in the city’s most impoverished areas. The other chronicles the drug dealers fuelling the violence, and those who are innocently caught in the crossfire. It is haunting, magnificent storytelling that pays off even more on the second or third, or 11th, rewatch.
Watchmen: What could have been a crass and easy play at mining Alan Moore’s original comic series is given immense purpose by show-runner Damon Lindelof’s wild imagination and supreme storytelling abilities. His team of writers, directors, actors and musicians (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide the show’s thudding, haunting score) play with big, messy ideas and somehow come out the other end looking like tidy geniuses. There’s a conceit used in the sixth episode, for instance, where Lindelof has one character (Regina King’s former Tulsa cop) relive the painful and history-making memories of her grandfather. It could have been a slow-the-story trick that crumbles in lesser hands. Yet Lindelof, no rookie at flashbacks thanks to his time on Lost, does something unexpected and astounding here, reworking the power of narrative to suit his own ends.
Years and Years: I’m hesitant to call this British miniseries trash, per se, as is is made with a huge budget, stars several highly respected English actors (Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey, Emma Thompson), and is constructed with care. But it also comes from Russell T. Davies, who brings along his usual emotional bombast and penchant for cheap twists, creating something of high-prestige TV. The show may also be terrifying to watch right now, given how it plots a near-future of political malfeasance and global terror that seems all-too realistic.
Strike Back: Do you want action and blood and fighting and just-stupid-enough plotting to tie it all together? Then meet the best paramilitary drama you’ve probably never heard of. All eight seasons’ worth of it.
Entourage: What? Yeah, this Mark Wahlberg-produced series looking at the travails of a Mark Wahlberg-esque movie star is unwatchable in its later seasons. But for those first two or three, it was dumb-but-fun-enough escapism. And it’s better than its football equivalent, Ballers. Just barely, but still.
Splashy Hollywood Escapism
The Crown: If you want big stars, a bigger budget and so-big-it-cannot-be-contained-to-history drama, then The Crown is here to satiate all your luxe-TV desires.
Stranger Things: The only true by-Netflix-for-Netflix production to break out and dominate the zeitgeist, Stranger Things is also a perfect encapsulation of the streaming service’s conceit: smash a bunch of nostalgic elements together and hope people keep asking for more. Fortunately, the three-seasons-strong series is also pretty damn entertaining at least 85 per cent of the time and has acted as a gateway drug of sorts to audiences curious about its John Carpenter/Stephen King/Steven Spielberg/Joe Dante sensibility.
Mad Men: Every time I see Jon Hamm pop up on my Instagram feed hawking food-delivery services, I shed a little tear that we’re still not all collectively losing our minds about how excellent he was in this drama about the poison that is American masculinity.
The Office: It has been anecdotally passed around that the most-watched piece of content on Netflix is the pilot episode of The Office and that the series itself accounts for a massive chunk of subscribers’ view-times. I believe it, given that the American remake of the British sitcom is one of the funniest series available to binge right this moment, as well as the sweetest. (Even discounting the not-particularly-fun Michael Scott-free seasons.) Watch it today and feel instant pangs of nostalgia for an era when people for some reason dreaded leaving their homes to go to work.
Great News: Two summers ago, NBC shot itself in the foot. As mainstream networks struggle to survive in a premium-cable and streaming world, the peacock cancelled its one great sitcom not named The Good Place: Great News. Created by Tracey Wigfield, the series chronicled the goings-on at a New York news station. But the setting was just an excuse for Wigfield and her sharp cast (Briga Heelan, Andrea Martin, John Michael Higgins and Wigfield herself) to deliver hyper-speed punchlines and engage in all manner of 30 Rock-esque absurdism. Which makes sense, given that Wigfield cut her teeth on 30 Rock and Tina Fey both executive-produced and guest-starred on Great News. Fortunately, the show’s two seasons are available to stream on Netflix. Unfortunately, there are only two seasons.
Big Mouth: Filthy yet frequently profound, the animated series Big Mouth features the voices of today’s best comic performers (Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Maya Rudolph) and compassionately explores the growing pains of adolescence – even though its nudity and extreme bluntness means it shouldn’t be viewed by anyone under the age of 16. Okay, maybe things are getting desperate in your household right now, so I’ll lower it to 13. But with caution that I’m not responsible for your child’s future therapy bills.
Pee Wee’s Playhouse: All five seasons of the subversive children’s program are available to stream right now, and dammit, I’m already getting overwhelmingly nostalgic.
Shaun the Sheep: Adventures from the Mossy Bottom: Gentle viewing for younger viewers, this stop-motion animated series will nicely distract little kids for however long you need it to – although adults may be drawn into its cleverly crafted world, too.
Teen Titans Go!: Fast-paced and with a bit of a mean streak, this animated series twists the concept of the superhero show into something resembling high, freaky art. Your kids will love it – and you’ll probably be glued to its antics, too.
High-Quality High Drama
Better Call Saul: The younger, less-praised sibling to big brother series Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul actually exceeds its more famous family member in several ways. First, there’s showrunner Vince Gilligan’s slow-burn scripts, which let us become more attached to the characters than in his blockbuster drama. And there’s the many tics and shades of Bob Odenkirk, who turns a joke of a side character into a complex and captivating leading man.
Halt and Catch Fire: Criminally ignored when it aired on AMC a few years ago, this rise-of-the-personal-computer drama just got better and sharper every year, rebooting its core concept and characters each season just like the technology of the day. Thinking of the excellent series finale still brings a tear to my eye.
Collateral: Writer-director David Hare’s miniseries about cops, traffickers and illegal immigration is the platonic ideal of British Netflix bliss: short and tight at only four episodes, top-lined by terrific performances from familiar U.K. faces (Carey Mulligan, John Simm, Billie Piper), and featuring twists that are actually earned.
You: A ridiculous, borderline insulting concept -- a soapy drama about a murderous stalker, but from his heroic perspective! – is accompanied by just that much self-awareness that it turns into something bizarrely stupid-fun.
Bodyguard: As poised and serious as Collateral is, British miniseries Bodyguard is ridiculous and far-fetched, featuring twists that make zero sense and characters who zig-zag when it comes to motivation and emotion. Still, it’s propulsive trash TV, and features a charming, empathetic lead performance from Game of Thrones star Richard Madden.
Zoo: Do you want ridiculous television that wholeheartedly embraces its foolishness? Then I give you Zoo, a three-season drama that follows a pandemic (wait...) of animals going nuts and attacking the human population. For serious followers of serial silliness only.
Amazon Prime Video
Splashy Hollywood Escapism
The Good Fight: A spin-off of CBS’s long-running legal drama The Good Wife that requires you know almost nothing about The Good Wife, The Good Fight is a procedural produced without the safety of a network television net, given it was made directly for the eye corp’s streaming service. As such, there’s a peculiar, beguiling sense of zaniness to it, complete with free-flowing profanity, flashes of nudity and a scorching anti-Trump sensibility guiding its cases-of-the-week plotting. Plus it features all your favourite character actors playing cranky judges (Richard Kind! Denis O’Hare! Jerry Adler!).
Homecoming: Julia Roberts’s first foray into long-form television was worth the wait, even if it was mostly passed over by audiences when it made its debut last fall. Based on the fictional-narrative podcast created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg and produced by Gimlet Media, the series carries a distinct air of paranoia. It’s a little bit Lost, a little bit Alan J. Pakula and a whole lot Mr. Robot hyper-visuals. Which makes sense, given that the series is produced and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail.
Lost: Ah right, one of the original practitioners of Mystery Box television series. Forget the reception to the sincerely disastrous series finale for now and concentrate on the kooky world-building that Lost attempts for most of its existence, complete with time travel, polar bears and what may be the Devil himself.
Fleabag: Believe the hype: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s two-season series is a marvel of self-assured voice and sensibility. Cutting, touching, hilarious and just a little bit profound, the dark comedy about a woman attempting to manage her self-destructive tendencies will have you racing from episode to episode.
Parks and Recreation: Just like its quasi-related cousin series The Office, you can mostly skip Parks and Recreation’s first, wobbly season. But after that, every episode is a winner – delightful, frequently hilarious storytelling with a stable of instantly lovable characters.
Happy Endings: Mercilessly cut down by network ABC in the prime of its life, the three-season sitcom Happy Endings only looks like a Friends facsimile. In actuality, it’s a ridiculously super-fast-paced gag-a-thon that happens to employ the most attractive, best-timed comic performers of the moment. There is a reason that every time, say, Eliza Coupe reveals she’s been cast in a new series, Happy Endings acolytes weep: It’s just one more obstacle in our never-going-to-happen of getting the entire gang back together again.
The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That: This Canadian-produced take on the works of Dr. Seuss not only boasts refreshingly clean and simple animation, but also the vocal talents of Martin Short as the titular Cat. So while your kids learn about silly rhymes and the like, you can enjoy Short’s mischievous vocal delivery, which edges close to an Ed Grimley-meets-Willy Wonka vibe.
Inspector Gadget: The original 1980s cartoon is back, and ... well, it’s completely the same as you remember it, with the delightful Don Adams voice acting to match.
Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny: Take it from someone with the Paw Patrol scars to prove it: You could certainly do worse when it comes to preschool television than this series based on the Jack Black-centric franchise. Plus, there are some decent lessons about friendship and teamwork hidden between the pratfalls.
High-Quality High Drama
Justified: Created by Canadian Graham Yost and based on the work of novelist Elmore Leonard, Justified will quickly become your new favourite diversion. Following the just-this-side-of-the-law antics of U.S. Federal Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, 100-per-cent charm) and his frenemy, Southern-fried outlaw Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, offering a hall-of-fame villain), the series is as compelling and well-crafted as these things tend to get. Bonus points (I’m all about giving away bonus points today) for the ridiculous bevy of character actors who pop up along the way to make mischief for Raylan and his buddies (Sam Elliott, Adam Arkin, Margo Martindale, Garret Dillahunt and the one and only Jere “Wynne Duffy” Burns).
The Shield: Speaking of Walton Goggins, here’s where the wild-haired actor got his start, playing a just-as-devious cop in this ultra-intense vehicle for a Hulk-sized Michael Chiklis. Aside from Goggins’s stellar work, the L.A.-set The Shield features gritty-as-hell action, can-they-do-that plot twists and enough stone-cold heroes, antiheroes and pure-evil villains to makes the series unrelenting, though wildly entertaining, viewing.
Battlestar Galactica: Before Battlestar Galactica is soon rebooted again by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, travel back to a time when this sci-fi series captured the imagination of both geeks and scholars. Set far into the future (or is it???), showrunner Ron Moore’s Battlestar updated the original 1980s series’ goofy aesthetics and paper-thin plot for a captivating, if sometimes flawed, meditation on humanity’s penchant for self-destruction. Ignore the dopey title and the fact that the narrative conceit revolves around murderous in-disguise robots, and indulge Moore’s series-long fascination with morality, fascism, bio-ethics, faith and our undeniable instinct to survive at all costs.
The Boys: Bloody and coarse, Amazon Prime Video’s big superhero series bet embraces all the gleefully vulgar aspects of Garth Ennis’s comic-book series, while at the same time trying to say something just a touch new about the genre. The Boys is not high-minded or even essential television, but it is pretty fun, and pretty gross, entertainment.
Preacher: Another metaphorical middle finger from Ennis, this equally gruesome comic-book adaptation features a disillusioned man of the cloth, an Irish vampire, the Angel of Death and a young man whose failed suicide attempt earns him the nickname “Arseface.” Oh, and an escaped-from-Hell Hitler is milling about somewhere there, too. By this point in the paragraph, you are already searching for this series frantically, or wondering what on Earth the world has come to.
Heroes: NBC’s big-budget superhero series eventually crashed and burned, but the first season still works well enough for those not looking to exercise their brain all that much. Plus, Zachary Quinto’s villain is still a bad guy for the ages.
Splashy Hollywood Escapism
The Mandalorian: So long as you don’t expect the first live-action Star Wars series to be as powerful and imaginative as, say, The Empire Strikes Back, you’ll be fine. A solid mixture of Kung Fu and Lone Wolf and Cub, The Mandalorian is more serialized western than sci-fi epic, and picks up its energy just when it seems like the plotting couldn’t be slower. And there’s also Baby Yoda. Everyone loves Baby Yoda. If you don’t, that is a crime. See you in jail, Baby Yoda hater. I’ll be watching Disney+ in the splendid freedom of my home-quarantined prison. Sucker.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Ah, now this animated series is more like it: surprising, lighthearted, and packed with enough Star Wars universe Easter eggs and tidbits to fuel an entire encyclopedia’s worth of canonical lore.
The Simpsons: If you, like myself, stopped watching The Simpsons after Season 12 or thereabouts, I have good if possibly terrifying news: All 30 (!) seasons of the series are now available on Disney+ for your binging pleasure. And even if you don’t want to venture far into the series’ past-its-prime run, then now is the perfect time to simply revisit those first 10 near-perfect seasons. (I’m not counting Seasons 1 and 2, which everyone can agree are shaky at the best of times.)
The Muppets: ABC’s short-lived attempt to bring The Muppets back to prime-time television was widely ignored. But the in-fashion meta approach – the series was produced in mockumentary style, as if we were watching a doc about the goings-on at a show called The Muppets – works well enough a few years later, mostly because we could all use a little Gonzo in our lives right now.
Um, just about everything on Disney+ is geared to families. I kept searching in vain for a secret Disney+++ portal that contained not-safe-for-work fare from the Disney Vault, to no avail. But for those who want their animated, family-friendly offerings with a little bit of sophistication and even daring, I have two recommendations: the mid-1990s Saturday morning staples Gargoyles and X-Men, which combined heart and action with a form of long-tail storytelling rare for the genre.
High-Quality High Drama
Following the note above, it’s no spoiler to reveal that Disney+ is not exactly courting prestige-drama audiences. Which means there’s a dearth of high-gloss drama series here, unless you count the high-school stakes of Boy Meets World.
I also hesitate to throw any of Disney+'s offerings into the trashy-TV category ... though the two-season reality series Fairy Tale Weddings certainly prompts my gag reflex: A look at real-deal weddings held by real-deal adults at Disney properties, the show will not only make you question the powerful grip that Disney-branded nostalgia has on the grown-up mind, but also provoke debate about just how we were spending our time and money these past few glorious years we were allowed outside.
Splashy Hollywood Escapism
The Morning Show: Truth be told, almost all of Apple TV+'s content could fit under the “Splashy Hollywood Escapism” category, as the upstart streaming wing of the computing giant largely operates on the philosophy that you have to spend money to make subscribers spend money. To that end, we have The Morning Show, essentially a massively expensive night-time soap that stars marquee staples Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and enough reputable character actors (Mark Duplass! Billy Crudup! Nestor Carbonell!) that you half-wonder if producers lured everyone by offering next-gen iPhones or some such. The result isn’t exactly good, per se, but it is highly watchable. And it looks as expensive as everyone says.
Dickinson: Between this series and last year’s film Wild Nights with Emily, it’s a banner time to be an Emily Dickinson fan with a sense of humour. Here, Hailee Steinfeld stars as the American poet in a surreal, comedic take on the period drama.
Ghostwriter: For anyone with fond memories of the PBS kids’ detective show, Apple has rebooted the concept with a cast of eager young actors, although there’s a sense that the magic has faded. Either way, it’s an educational and well-intentioned series that will distract your children long enough for you to calculate whether or not it’s worth keeping Apple TV+ in the household budget for however long this COVID-19 crisis lasts.
High-Quality High Drama
For All Mankind: Battlestar Galactica mastermind Ron Moore goes back to space, although in a more grounded fashion, with this alternate-reality drama that imagines what happened if Russia beat the U.S. in the space race. It’s a neat-enough hook, and Moore obviously maxed out Apple’s music-licensing fees, though you wish there was a bit more of an expansive vision behind the conceit.
See: Oh, you knew this hot mess was coming. Jason Momoa stars in this spectacularly trashy genre dumpster fire that imagines a dystopia where everyone has gone blind. The logistics of what this future society looks like and how it functions make absolutely zero sense, much like everything else about the series. But it is delightfully bonkers nonsense that is handsomely shot and, like everything on Apple TV+, very, very expensively produced.