In 1995, “Seinfeld”’s Elaine Benes had a problem: her female contraceptive sponge was being pulled from the market. She grabbed a case before they left the shelves but with her limited supply, she began scrutinizing each potential suitor, questioning, “Is he sponge-worthy?”
Now, 20 years later, TV viewers have the opposite problem: an overabundance. But the solution is the same—there are only so many hours to watch, and thus we need to be choosy. The introduction of new channels and methods of watching has left us with so many good shows that it’s hard to know how to spend our viewing time. Many favorites take a summer hiatus, which frees us to watch full seasons of other shows at our leisure.
And while it might be fine to while away a frigid winter’s day watching 13 episodes of “The Bachelor,” when it comes to staying in while it’s nice out, we need more from our shows. Great binge-worthy shows should have a strong cast and an engaging, ongoing plot. A show that builds from one episode to the next is best—the kind of show we’re glad to be watching all at once because waiting a week between episodes would be torture. Here’s a guide of what to watch this summer:
If you haven’t seen these yet, get thee to a screen, stat.
Five seasons, AMC (2008-2013)
This totally satisfying and addictive drama follows high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) as he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer then comes up with an unscrupulous way to secure his family’s financial future. White teams up with former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to create a crystallized methamphetamine business. Suspenseful and often violent, this show features characters you’ll root for even when they do very, very bad things. Available through iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, Xbox, Google Play and on-demand with your local cable provider.
House of Cards
Three seasons, Netflix (2013-present)
A political drama that features—no surprise—corruption, grudge-holding, and despicable characters. Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is smarmy and diabolical as he plots his rise to the top while settling past vendettas along the way. His ambition is matched only by that of his clever and cunning wife, Claire (Robin Wright). The performances are powerful and the show made television history by becoming the first web series to receive major Emmy nominations. The drama is an adaptation of a British mini-series and novel of the same name. Available through Netflix and Amazon.
The Walking Dead
Five seasons, AMC (2010-present)
County Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) awakens from a coma to find the world as he knew it changed. Flesh-eating zombies, called “walkers,” dominate. Grimes encounters other survivors, and their struggle to maintain humanity (and their safety) under such trying and frightening circumstances is central to the plot. The series is rife with difficult choices and heart-stopping cliffhangers. “The Walking Dead” is based on a comic book series by the same name. Available through iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, XBox and Google Play.
Five seasons, PBS (2011-present)
The acclaimed costume drama begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and continues with other major historical events having their effect on the characters of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. The melodrama focuses on the complicated relationships under the estate roof of Downton Abbey, mingling servant storylines with those of the mostly spoiled-but-kind-hearted family they serve. It’s good, soapy, addictive fun. Available through iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.
These less talked-about shows will have you parked on the couch for hours. Maybe watch them on a treadmill instead to get in tip-top shape.
Five seasons, Showtime (2011-present)
Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum) is a 23-year-old looking out for her five younger brothers and sisters on Chicago’s south side. Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) is their deadbeat alcoholic, drug-addicted, freeloading single father. This is a heartbreaking series about a desperate, dysfunctional family that sticks together in tough times. The show is full of poignant moments and engaging storylines, and is based on a British series of the same name. Available through Showtime, iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.
One season, Showtime (2014-present)
The happily married Noah (Dominic West) meets waitress Alison (Ruth Wilson) and begins an affair while he’s on vacation in Montauk with his family. The topic doesn’t tread new ground, but the way it’s handled does. The show explores the consequences of desire through the two main character’s viewpoints—with all of the nuance and fallibility inherent in human memory. The viewers are left to create their own interpretation of the story. Did I mention that in addition to the affair thread, there’s also a murder investigation? Available through Showtime, Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
Five seasons, CBS (2010-present)
A New York-cop drama focusing on a multi-generational Irish-American family of police officers including the city’s commissioner (Tom Selleck), his retired father (Len Cariou), two sons (Donnie Wahlberg and Will Estes) and daughter (Bridget Moynahan). The well-cast show boasts the old-fashioned appeal of patriotism and loving-family dynamics, despite differing opinions. Engaging Sunday dinner conversations revolve around current cases and controversies. Available on Hulu, CBS, Netflix, iTunes and Amazon.
These shows are very much a product of their time but are still as engaging and enjoyable today as when they were first filmed.
The West Wing
Seven seasons, NBC (1999-2006)
This drama depicts the fictional Democratic administration of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen). The excellent ensemble cast includes Allison Janney, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe, and portrays the daily work of federal government as well as the characters’ personal battles. An idealistic group at heart, the show finds some characters compromising their values to move the machine along. Features the large storylines and intellectual topics for which creator/producer/writer Aaron Sorkin is known. Available on Netflix, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.
Seven seasons, WB (2000-2007)
This comedy-drama follows the mother-daughter team of Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory (Alexis Bledel) Gilmore. Lorelai had Rory at 16, then raised her as a single mother after leaving her wealthy, judgmental family. The show begins as Rory nears that same age and follows the pair’s hi-jinks and heartbreak. Lorelai’s parents re-enter the picture when she needs a favor for Rory and their presence adds a layer of familial complexity. Smart, fast-paced dialogue and a town full of quirky side characters make for a fun watch. Available on ABC Family, Netflix, iTunes and Amazon.
Gone Too Soon
Sometimes a quality show is cancelled before its time. Watch and imagine what could have been.
My So-Called Life
One Season, ABC (1994-1995)
This drama unfolds on-screen and in the voice-overs of 15-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes). Though it deals with weighty issues like homophobia, adultery and drug abuse, it never does so in a “very special episode” kind of way. Despite being a show about teens, it’s a mature, relatable series featuring parents with their own set of joys, disappointments and digressions. Available on Amazon, Hulu and iTunes.
Short on time? Check out these engrossing mini-series: The Jinx (HBO), The Blue Planet (BBC), Broadchurch (BBC).
What binge-able shows did we miss? We’d love to hear your suggestions.
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