While the U.S. is not technically in a full-on quarantine as it stands, the social distancing effect is about as close as it gets. Limited time outside? Check. Closed public spaces? Check. Isolating inside your own home? Check. General feeling of restlessness and boredom? Check.
So now people are left wondering what to do with all their extra time. Once finished with all their work and time for productivity, there’s still so many hours left in the day. Luckily, with streaming services and the Internet, there’s no shortage of great content to carry people through what appears to be a prolonged bout of social isolation.
Major film distributors have already made their newest releases available online for rental. So don’t worry about missing anything new in theaters. But there’s also a massive catalog of older series and films available online. Basically, there’s no excuse to be bored. Unless one is a big extrovert—in which case, start a Discord chat.
HBO’s landmark series is no doubt one of the most consistently entertaining, nuanced, and brilliant television series to ever air. It’s hard to remember it now, but “The Sopranos” was a complete cultural phenomenon when it was released. And for good reason.
David Chase’s exploration of the New Jersey mob lifestyle is essentially like if “Good Fellas” lasted for 80+ hours. It’s at once very dramatic and at times gut-wrenching, subtly funny, disturbingly violent and has a sprawling narrative and cast of morbidly engrossing characters that will keep you hooked with its various unpredictable twists and turns. There’s even some cast members with actual mob ties from the past—such as Tony Sirico who plays Paulie, the best supporting character on the show—plus small appearances by Frankie Valli and Frank Sinatra Jr. as a sort of inside joke about their rumored family connections to the mafia. The series revolves around the slow decay of the mafia in America. Throughout the series, it’s made clear how those involved in the organization are in denial, using the mob as a juvenile escape from the “day-to-day” of civilian life, and how they are, in a sense, dinosaurs: the last of a long-dying breed that can’t function within modern society.
The late James Gandolfoni is absolutely iconic as Tony Soprano. No character on television will test a moral compass so thoroughly. Tony was the first in a now-long tradition of television antiheroes. He’s slovenly, mean-spirited, aggressive, pathetic in many respects, jealous, spiteful, hypocritical, cheats on his wife constantly, probably sociopathic to some degree, intolerant and bigoted, and is—of course—a murderous mob boss. But he’s also deeply depressed and self-loathing, often concerned for his family—though in his own way. He’s jaded by his upbringing by his mafioso father and cruel and manipulative mother, caring towards animals and kids, and to top it off, Gandolfini brings an unmistakable charm and quiet sadness to the character. Gandolfini elevated him from being a loathsome caricature to a fleshed-out human being, who the audience may even pity despite all his moral bankruptcy. Tony is one of the most fascinating characters in television history, and will constantly have viewers reeling from emotional whiplash: should they hate or like Tony? Both? To what degree either way? The character alone is worth watching the series for.
But the rest of the cast are terrific as well, capturing everything appealing and repellant about the gangster archetype in what essentially amounts to a satire of the genre, exposing how hollow and revolting the romanticization of the gangster is in American pop culture.
And the theme song is a banger.
During this trying time, where all societal systems and the things Americans take for granted seem to be on the brink of catastrophe, it’s a great time to catch up on a show that exposes how deeply dysfunctional these systems have always been.
“The Wire” is a fascinating series in many respects, one of them being the background of its creators and it’s thesis. Created by former crime journalist David Simon and former Baltimore detective and school teacher Ed Burns, “The Wire” seems to evaluate the city of Baltimore and the War on Drugs as a microcosm about everything wrong with our municipal systems.
The series, for the most part, can seem bleak. But there’s always a small but definite ray of hope that permeates it. How much of this is meant to be genuine or merely to alleviate some of the grimness of the show is up to the viewer. The cast is comprised of great character actors and soon-to-be-stars—Dominic West, Idris Elba, Lance Reddick, Michael K. Williams, Deidre Lovejoy, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Clarke Peters, Aidan Gillen, and even Method Man—as well as Baltimore natives, some of whom are actually retired cops and ex-convicts. The series was even filmed on-location in Baltimore, which is actually quite irregular for a television series— especially a modestly budgeted one—but proves the crew’s dedication to authenticity.
The series is known for its stark realism, unflinching brutality—both through physical violence and the oppressiveness of systemic corruption and apathy—and grounded tone. With few exceptions there is no musical score or soundtrack, the soundscape of the city being left as it naturally is. The series also contains complex critiques of the inefficacy of police departments, the press, inner-city school systems, and city governments. “The Wire” is not agitprop, however. There are no prescriptive treatments the show is pushing. Every solution is presented as having drawbacks that ripple throughout the city. Nor is “The Wire” a dry and boring piece of academic critique. The critiques it does pose are layered subtly within entertaining storylines and character arcs, so the show primarily remains an entertaining narrative with deeper themes for those who care to notice. Not to mention, like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” is full of quotable dialogue, poignant philosophical musing and wry, understated humor.
“The Wire” is a slower burn than most TV dramas. It’s very subdued and its novelistic structure means viewers must be highly attentive—characters die off screen, and there are many name drops to keep track of. But for those who let the series marinate and grow on them, the experience of watching it start to finish is unbelievably cathartic and rewarding.
Oh also, banger theme song. And there’s a new cover of it for every season.
This cult classic anime series from 1998 falls into the category of “anime for people who hate anime.” It’s highly accessible to anyone, particularly Western viewers since series creator Shinichirō Watanabe was heavily influenced by American cinema
The series follows the crew of the Bebop, bounty hunters who drift through the galaxy—where planets have been colonized by humans in a retrofuturist style—encountering a number of strange characters and episodic adventures along their way, with each character running from their checkered pasts.
“Cowboy Bebop” is all about the aesthetics of cool. There’s no other way to say it. It’s just cool. The show creates a highly unique style and tone through its genre blend, combining film noir, Westerns, martial arts cinema, space fantasy/sci-fi, and even horror. The brilliant music by Yoko Kanno and her band The Seatbelts also reflects the eclectic influences of the series, combining elements of jazz, blues, funk, rock, and a bit of world music, while not feeling jarring. Every aspect of the series feels like a singularly unique product collected from many influences without relying on homage or becoming incomprehensible.
The series is episodic and has an aimless and relaxed feeling, which seems appropriate in this ever-uncertain era. At only 26 episodes, “Cowboy Bebop” provides a concise and highly cathartic viewing experience while leaving the viewer wanting more—and there is more. “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie,” released in 2001, is also highly engaging and fun and provides a nice cap to the show, even though it’s technically set between episodes. Despite the overall bittersweetness of the series—particularly in its final episodes—and its characters’ aimlessness and isolation, it packs excitement and lively adventure into every episode, and even the slower episodes never fail to capture attention.
This series is also known for having one of the best dubs in all of animation. While dubs of foreign films or series can often be rushed and rob them of their impact, this is an exception. The dubbed version of “Cowboy Bebop” is incredible, and each voice feels almost tailor-made for the character. This dub became the launchpad for the career of Steve Blum, who is now a legendary voice actor boasting the Guinness World Record for most video game voice roles—261 as of 2012. His deep and slightly bemused voice gives Spike Spiegel, the main antihero, such a vibrancy and life it’s as though he were a real person. Blum captures his dry wit and carefree persona while also hinting at the deep pain and anguish that lies beneath the facade.
“Cowboy Bebop” is unexplainable, really. It’s an experience that is hard to put into words. And now that everyone’s stuck inside, there’s no better time to put it on and be transported to it’s strange and timeless world.
And let’s not forget—starting to notice a pattern?—a banger theme song.
On Cinema at the Cinema
No subscription needed. This series is available entirely for free on adultswim’s YouTube channel. The brainchild of Tim Heidecker—of Tim & Eric fame—and Gregg Turkington—known for his on-stage anticomedy persona of Neil Hamburger—“On Cinema” is filled with the kind of awkward, cringe-inducing, highly specific and pitch black humor that adultswim has become known for.
Tim and Gregg portray fictional versions of themselves hosting an online film review series which very quickly becomes plagued by an increasingly insane and convoluted series of misfortunes, often exacerbated by the dysfunctional, inept and self-destructive hosts.
The series began as a podcast, but shifted to the video format in 2012, accumulating a total of 110 short episodes and 7 annual live-streamed Oscar specials as of this year. Not to mention the bonus content. “Decker” is a laughably bad spy series created by the fictional Tim and functions as a “show-within-a-show,” and is available on YouTube as well. “Decker” is referenced within “On Cinema” and is part of the rift that develops between Tim and Gregg. The fictional Tim was put on trial for murder within the series’ universe and the fictitious trial is available as a 4-hour livestream online—again, all in-character. “Mister America” is a satirical documentary available on Hulu which chronicles a post-trial Tim’s attempts to run for DA in a small SoCal community in a quasi-commentary on the Trump era of politics. This is also part of the series’ continuity and is referenced within the regular show.
If someone finds all this overwhelming or hard to follow, don’t worry. There’s a fan site—“The On Cinema Timeline”—that diligently keeps track of the surprisingly complex and well-developed continuity of the On Cinema universe. So there’s some extra research to kill time during the quarantine. The podcast, comprised of incredibly short episodes—because the fictional Tim and Gregg are unsurprisingly ill-equipped to discuss films in-depth—is available on SoundCloud.
So, if you enjoy the sort of calculatedly cringey comedy of people like Eric Andre, or already are a fan of Tim Heidecker through Tim & Eric, this series is a must-watch. It’s bizarre, uncomfortable, and practically grotesque—like watching a blend of bad YouTube content, Siskel and Ebert, and a fever dream—but for those with a weird sense of humor, this show provides literally hours and hours of entertainment.
No theme song here, but the increasingly poorly-edited and incomprehensible intro segments with Tim are definitely funny: “When you’ve got movies like Tom Cruise in them, you can’t lose” never gets old.
Ryan Murphy, the man behind “American Horror Story,” “Glee,” and “American Crime Story,” got his big break in television with this slick and polished but decidedly warped TV melodrama. “Nip/Tuck” follows Drs. Sean McNamara and Christian Troy, two successful plastic surgeons in Miami, their revolving door of oddball and/or emotionally damaged clients, and their increasingly ludicrous personal lives.
Dylan Walsh and Julian McMahon are terrific as McNamara and Troy, respectively. Both manage to be strangely likable and charming despite their less-than-desirable character traits. Sean is indecisive, neurotic, and resentful, trapped in a loveless marriage and saddled with a profoundly troubled and amoral teenage son—but he ultimately has a good heart. Christian is a sleazy womanizer with a vindictive and manipulative streak—but it’s partially a defense mechanism due to how badly jaded he is by experiences during his childhood. However, both actors do suffer a bit because they’re never really allowed to develop their characters. Sean and Christian are, for the most part—despite some pretty significant, life-altering events for both of them—static.
The show starts off the rails and only descends further into chaos from there. A major issue with this series is that it tries to expose the shallowness and decadence of a culture wherein plastic surgery would become such a profitable industry even as it transparently preys upon insecurities and promotes unrealistic standards of appearance, while simultaneously revelling in the beauty and sex appeal of its cast. The series can also become frustrating due to the constant amnesia of its characters in regards to any moral development, and the increasingly convoluted plot lines that seek to capitalize on any hot button issue it can. Everything is up for grabs for this show: neo-Nazis, Scientology, serial killers, religious hoaxes, celebrity trainwrecks, the adult film industry. Yet, it is nonetheless entertaining.
It’s like junk food for the brain. If one can just sit back and try to strap in for a show where they truly never know what’s going to happen next—because no one would ever believe any show would actually go there—then they’ll have a good time. And despite often cheapening sensitive topics by featuring them for the sake of shock value, “Nip/Tuck” occasionally does get it right. The first season features a small arc which offers a very supportive look at transgender rights, and it aired in 2003, some years before trans representation in the media was considered a mainstream idea.
Look no further than “Nip/Tuck” for a show that will keep viewers hooked while being completely all over the place, perhaps because it’s so all over the place, and feeding that need for something a bit trashy—but not too trashy.
The theme song ain’t so much a banger, but it’s alright and fits the aesthetic of the show pretty well.
“The Simpsons” is on Disney+, so if you want to watch the really good seasons (2-8), now’s the time. Undoubtedly some of the smartest and tightest comedy writing of all time. Just joke after joke after joke.
Hulu also sports some great comedy: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Archer,” “South Park,” “Seinfeld” and “King of the Hill.” All of these shoes are at least 10 seasons long, with “Its Always Sunny” and “South Park” sporting 13 seasons and 23 seasons, respectively, so there’s no shortage of comedy to get you through the daily slog of repetitive boredom. “King of the Hill” also has some of the most underrated writing of any comedy series: it’s very dry and subtle for the most part, but for those who appreciate it, it’s a very entertaining show.
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO is wrapping up its 10th season at the moment. Larry David’s brilliant follow-up to “Seinfeld,” focusing on a fictitious version of himself as he incompetently navigates the social minutiae of everyday life in Los Angeles is another stunning achievement in comedic television. Every episode is retro scripted, meaning only the plot is written but dialogue is mostly improvised, given the series a very naturalistic feel. While there is a continuity and overarching storyline in each season, the series is mostly known for its episodic structure, with Larry David finding himself entangled in a new web of misunderstandings every week, which build on each other into a highly unexpected but ingenious climax.