Some watch TV to escape the drudgery of their quotidian existence. Others watch because TV provides something comfortable and familiar in a hectic world. Right now, good cable TV shows are easy to come by, as we are perhaps living in the golden age of television. No matter the reason, there’s plenty of programming to be excited about. Here are nine of my can’t-miss choices.
Let’s start with girls. I’m not talking broke girls, gossip girls, or golden girls — I’m talking writer girls. Our first bookish type is Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) on HBO’s Girls. This show, which won a 2013 Golden Globe for best television series, isn’t afraid to realistically portray how girls actually live and look (this includes sex, so prepare to see some flesh). Hannah and her comrades exist in a frenetic whirlwind of depression, diets, and dysfunctional families, played out with such realism that it’s almost uncomfortable. The complicated joy the girls find in ordinary life, however, has kept me glued to my set. There’s something special to be said about a show that can make you appreciate the relative calm of your own life.
The Carrie Diaries
On The Carrie Diaries, still in its first season, viewers revisit the 1980s with Sex in the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. Played by AnnaSophia Robb, the 16-year-old Bradshaw is an aspiring author, a compassionate big sister, and a fashion trendsetter. I watch Diaries for the thick eyeliner, for the cheesy ’80s hair, and to remember a halcyon, distant time when there was no Internet. In short, it reminds me of my youth and invokes feelings that, all too often, are distant, albeit happy, memories.
From shows about girls, the next logical step is to move on to shows about women. On HBO’s Enlightened, Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) shows us what it’s like to be a 40-ish, single and slightly neurotic woman. In the show’s second season, we return to Amy’s skewed world of passive-aggressive friendships, workplace bullies, and fickle lovers. It’s her determination to suck the marrow from life — no matter how painful it is — that draws me to watch the show over and over again. That integrity, plus the cast of all-star actors, have earned this show its collection of well-deserved awards.
Another leading lady with a cabinet full of antidepressants (and, oddly enough, another Carrie) is Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). On Showtime’s critically acclaimed Homeland, Carrie is a CIA agent who has returned from the Gulf War and who’s convinced that ex-Marine-turned-national-hero Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) is a terrorist sympathizer and spy. This show alternates between psychodrama and thriller-suspense. I began watching it to find out why Saturday Night Live (another one of TV’s best this year) spoofs it so often. Be careful: You’ll get hooked on the creative plot lines and extraordinary performances if you start watching it for the same reason.
If you like machismo, bravado, and all that other guy stuff, there are plenty of cable TV shows to accomodate you. A fourth season of FX’s Justified is well under way. In this show, we are immersed in the world of deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a bluegrass badass who flirts with breaking the law on a frequent basis. I like this show because it appeals to common sense — often, justice is a result of clear thinking instead of blindly following the law. This show is brilliant with plot puzzles, black humor, and tough characters with soft hearts. As a bonus, you don’t need premium channels to see these bad boys.
NBC’s Grimm is about to start a new season, continuing the complex but fascinating narrative of homicide detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli). With inherited guardian powers assigned through a previously unknown lineage, he is called upon to confront Portland’s surprisingly large population of supernatural creatures. He does this mainly at night, and lots of blood and teeth and fur are involved. I watch Grimm for the special effects and for the compelling performance of Burkhardt’s reluctant crony and mentor-in-magic Monroe (Silas Wier Mitchell), who looks more like a Star Trek geek than a blutbad. Want to know what a blutbad is? Watch and find out. The new season began March 8th.
If you have Showtime, you’re invited into the quirky lives of the Gallagher family as depicted on the fourth season of Shameless. This motley crew, figuratively but not literally headed by drunk dad Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy), is both street smart and social-work-loophole smart. Though the Gallaghers capture our interest with their crafty intelligence, the true measure of this show is how they break our hearts when they long for a less chaotic existence. Personally, I love that nothing about this show is normal — its quirky spin on poverty is reminiscent of shows like My Name is Earl or Roseanne, but its well-crafted writing raises the bar. The performance of Frank’s daughter Fiona (Emily Rossen) will keep you watching if nothing else.
For a more light-hearted version of Shameless that doesn’t skimp on eccentricity, tune into The Middle. ABC is giving the Heck family a fourth season to entertain us with their everyday antics as narrated by meta-Mom Frankie (Patricia Heaton).
If it’s eccentricity you like, don’t let Louie pass you by. As a lost and lonely dad who plays himself, comedian Louie C.K. proves that comedy doesn’t necessarily always have to be happy. Now in its fourth season with FX, this show is a series of related vignettes that comment on the absence of meaning in life. Or is it the presence of meaning? That’s the question you will ponder, so maybe read a little Sartre first. I like this show because it’s highly relatable — none of us are perfect, and Louie reminds us of this every week.
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