As the virus shutdown continues, it’s time to dive deeper into the TV pool.
I’m guessing you’ve already found some of the streaming giants, from Amazon’s marvelous “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” to Netflix’s deeply observant “The Crown.” But now let me offer some of my personal preferences to dig through.
A few are coming up quickly – the first half of a nature gem (shown here) on Monday (March 23), the season-finale of “This Is Us” on Tuesday. Most, however, are easy to find; here they are, in five chunks:
1) Throwbacks: “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”
TV had lots of so-so variety shows and a few good ones. This was the best, rippling with creativity.
It got its reputation by nudging the censors, but that’s only a smidgen of what made it great.
Much of the humor was the simple mom-liked-you-best stuff that the brothers savored. I remember laughing loudly over Pat Paulsen’s first “editorial” – simply muttering some nonsense syllables.
The show’s young writers – including Steve Martin and Rob Reiner – were masters of goofiness. Paulsen even had a Trumpian moment: After insisting he wasn’t running for president, he was shown a tape in which he said he was. With his usual straight face, he said: “I was misquoted.”
And the show’s music was first-rate. Dick Smothers had a great voice and the guests ranged from Pete Seeger to The Doors. Often, they were filmed cleverly. One “topless dancers” number had just legs; another number seemed to have Mason Williams simultaneously playing every instrument.
The show recently started reruns at 11 p.m. ET (8 p.m. PT) Saturdays on Get TV. That’s a throwback channel that has a lot of bad shows – TV has had a ton of them – and some great ones. The wonderful “All in the Family” is 8-10 p.m. ET (5-7 p.m. PT) weekdays and a few fairly good variety shows are on weekends – Sonny and Cher at 10 p.m. ET Saturdays, Johnny Cash at 10 and 11 p.m. ET Sundays.
Some people can get Get via the Dish network, Channel 373. For others, it’s one of many interesting sub-channels (most of them throwback) on local stations; check www.get.tv/get-the-channel.
2) Nature stuff
The world has made immense cinematic strides lately, creating awesome sights and sounds. Most of those skills, alas, are used on superhero movies.
But they also help create epic nature documentaries, especially on two cable channels. BBC America recently finished its gorgeous “Seven Worlds, One Planet”; Nat Geo Wild now has its splendid “Hidden Kingdom of Chinas” on two Mondays – 8-11 p.m. March 23 and 9-11 p.m. March 30.
If you miss them, don’t fret: BBC America has great nature shows every Saturday (currently “Planet Earth” reruns) and will have “The Best of Seven Worlds, One Planet” at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT) April 21 … the day before National Geographic, BBC and others celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
That’s the same time that – assuming theaters re-open – Disney opens its “Penguins” movie. There have been eight previous films from the “Disneynature” group, all terrific and all going to Nat Geo after their theater release.
3) Franchise-free dramas
For a time, TV people figured every drama needed to be one of the “franchises” – cops or crooks, doctors or detectives or lawyers.
That way, you could always have stories ending in each episode. If you try to just have human drama, you risk a common flaw: To keep having new plot twists, you start spinning the story wildly out of control; you become like “Empire,” literally talking to ghosts.
But “This Is Us” is a marvel, doing this with intelligence, depth and – particularly with Sterling K. Brown – gifted actors. The season’s second-to last episode – with a therapist (Pamela Adlon) taking Randall (Brown) through two “what-if” scenarios – was a masterpiece.
Now the season-finale is 9 p.m. Tuesday (March 24) on NBC. At 10:01 p.m. isthe debut of “Council of Dads,” a well-made, franchise-free show that then disappears until April 30. And on Thursday (March 26), “A Million Little Things” – a fairly good show in the “This Is Us” mode – has its season-finale.
Once you’re past the top tier of streaming networks, you can find gems underneath.
One of my favorites is at www.acorn.tv. Like some others – Showtime and Sundance Now – it has expanded its free trial period to 30 days.
Acorn started with British shows – a fertile field until Britbox (another good service) gobbled so many of them. Fortunately, it had already gone on to the rest of the British empire, with shows from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Wales and beyond.
There’s a library that’s deep enough to get you through any shutdown. Oddly, that includes five series that share the same “Northern Exposure” notion – a city person settling in a quiky town. Each is fun – “Doc Martin,” “Agatha Raisin,” “800 Words,” “The Heart Guy” and “The Good Karma Hospital.”
But Acorn also has range, as evidenced right now. “Blood” (currently unfolding, one episode each Monday) is tense, brooding and compelling. “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” is a bright and giddy movie about a Jazz Age detective, amid missing treasures in Jerusalem. “Deadwater Fell” (four Mondays, starting April 6), is a murder drama with two top starsa – Cush Jumbo of “The Good Fight” and David Tennant of … well, almost everything.
5) And more …
Let me briefly add:
– All things FX. The hilarious “Breeders” is 10 p.m. Mondays; the quietly funny/involving “Better Things” is 10 p.m. Thursadays. On the day after each episode airs, it jumps to Hulu … which also has the richly tangled “Devs” (produced by FX, but only on Hulu), with new episodes on Thursdays. And ahead? “Fargo,” alas, has been delayed by the virus and may not arrive until late this year. But two shows are coming April 15 – the weirdly funny “What We Do in the Shadows” and (Hulu only) “Mrs. America,” a star-stuffed look at the efforts to pass or prevent the Equal Rights Amendment.
– Chuck Lorre comedies. Here is one of the last masters of making situation comedies before a studio audience. “Mom” (9 p.m. Thursdays, CBS) and “Bob (Hearts) Abishola” (8:30 p.m.Mondays, CBS) have different styles, but both share a quality of Lorre’s now-departed “Big Bang Theory” – richly detailed characters we care about.
— PBS is back from its pledge-drive break, with lots of things to catch. Let’s start with Sundays — a rerun of the superb “Little Women” at 9 p.m. March 22, a Garth Brooks tribute at 9 p.m. March 29 and the sprawling “World on Fire,” at 9 p.m. April 5.
– And one other thing: I really can’t help liking “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” (9 p.m. Sundays, NBC). Yes, some of the stories are lame – especially the ones set at her office. And yes, it’s highly unlikely that a person can hear people’s thoughts via pop songs. But this is, among other things, the most visually appealing show on television; it has a charm that overrides any of my grumbling.