Thanksgiving is great: too much food, too much family, and literally thousands of hours of streamable television ready and waiting if — when — the food and family get to be too much. Here, our staffers give their recommendations for the best binge-worthy TV from 2016. (If mom asks, you’re working.)
Kate Knibbs: “I’m trying to do something a little more meaningful than my last gig,” Chelsea Handler tells Maria Shriver in the most recent episode of Handler’s new Netflix talk show, Chelsea, which you should watch on Thanksgiving because it’s good. If you feel confused and suspicious about this recommendation, please believe me when I say I do, too. I have held a few beliefs about Chelsea Handler for about a decade, and those beliefs are:
1. She wasn’t very funny.
2. Her E! show wasn’t very funny.
Those beliefs haven’t changed. But I recommend watching Chelsea because it is fascinating television. There’s a dog wandering around on set. Chelsea Handler cries. She invites politicians on and asks them exactly what she wants to ask them. It’s strangely raw and a little radical.
Chris Ryan: This is an intense quaalude of a show, if that makes any sense — perfect for riding the tryptophan wave into naps on naps on naps. Set in 1972 in Memphis, Quarry is about a Vietnam vet just back from the war, down on his luck, and on the outs with his girl when he gets strong-armed into a gig as a hit man. The vibes are all cold beer icing in motel sinks, smoking roaches, and listening to Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey on vinyl, but underneath is a skeletal, hard-boiled-to-the-point-of-oblivion story, full of gunfights and betrayal. There are solid performances from Logan Marshall-Green (in the title role), and Peter Mullan as his mysterious plug with the badass name (“The Broker”), but the real thanks should be given to the extraordinary Damon Herriman (better known as Dewey Crowe on Justified), who plays Buddy, one of The Broker’s underlings.
It’s eight one-hour episodes on Cinemax, and it will go down like smooth bourbon.
‘Planet Earth II’
Ben Lindbergh: ATTENBOROUGH BACK. Despite our species’ best efforts, planet Earth is still habitable. Our reward for not self-exterminating is a six-part sequel to the 10-year-old BBC series, airing now in England and premiering on BBC America next month. On paper, Planet Earth II’s sweeping vistas, “How were they there?” footage, and soothing, accented narration should be the perfect remedy for post-election angst. In practice, Planet Earth II points back to politics; the planet has had a rough decade, and Paris Agreement or not, the next one will likely be worse. Here’s hoping all of that wonderful wildlife (this time filmed in 4K) won’t go the way of the HD-DVD drive I played Planet Earth on in 2007.
‘Yuri! On Ice’
Justin Charity: The breakout title of the fall 2016 anime season, the ongoing Yuri! On Ice, is a gay romance TV series about competitive figure skating starring a young Japanese skater, Yuri Katsuki; his callous Russian rival, Yuri Plisetsky; and a legendary Russian coach, Victor, who becomes the split center of the boys’ professional affection.
This show is cute as hell, with pouty and passionate characters and charismatic choreography from the retired ice dancer Kenji Miyamoto. Yuri! On Ice is the most gorgeous sports anime since Ping Pong; it’s perfect for binge-watching since the first three episodes form a clear and immediately compelling arc; and, if the family dynamic you’re avoiding is conservative or repressive in nature, I could hardly offer a more restoratively subversive distraction from whatever grim and unimaginative politics await you at the big dinner table. Yuri! On Ice is still airing weekly in Japan and still simulcasting on Crunchyroll, so even if you do binge through Episode 8, you’ll have plenty more to look forward to between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
LeBron James’s Historic Block on Andre Iguodala From All Angles
Rob Harvilla: Honest answer.
‘Gomorrah’ and ‘The Last Panthers’
Sam Schube: What do the words “Sundance Channel” conjure? For me, it’s the goofy Iconoclasts: the interview show that will never top SNL’s Charles Barkley–meets-Björk parody. (“Hello, Bork!”) But that’s the old Sundance. After a gentle push toward prestige (Top of the Lake, Rectify), the channel found a groove this year with … ultra-gritty foreign crime dramas? I know: not exactly Iconoclasts. But Gomorrah (an Italian series adapted from the book and movie about organized crime in Naples) and The Last Panthers (a British import about the infamous gang of Balkan jewel thieves) are what I’ll be watching this weekend. That each show has been likened to “Country X’s version of The Wire” maybe says more about the state of TV criticism than the shows themselves, but it’s a worthwhile starting point: These are panoramic endeavors, concerned with the social, economic, political, and moral valences of organized crime. Which sounds heavy. But there’s plenty of cheese here — much of it in the form of John Hurt haircuts.
So put on your finest Adidas tracksuit, sink into the couch, and prepare to book (and rapidly cancel) multiple flights to southern Europe.
‘Lovesick,’ f.k.a. ‘Scrotal Recall’
Juliet Litman: Netflix shows are generally hip, except when they are named Scrotal Recall. Such was the fate of the delightful British romantic comedy that popped up on the platform in the summer of 2015. Originally broadcast on England’s Channel 4, the show follows three friends after one of them, Dylan, finds out he has chlamydia. Each episode features a flashback about one of his previous relationships and a current-day confrontation with the old flame in which he delivers the STD news. The conceit may sound strange, and the name is admittedly bad, but the show is perfect for binge-watching. There are only three essential characters to keep track of, the episodes are 30 minutes or less, and there’s a lot of unrequited love. Season 2, which Netflix commissioned, dropped last week, so now there are 14 episodes — nearly seven hours! — to distract you as you tune out your family. The best news is that when someone asks you what you’re watching or how you spent your holiday, you no longer have to say the title Scrotal Recall. Netflix renamed the show Lovesick.
Jason Concepcion: I’m five episodes into The Crown, Netflix’s new series about the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II (a doe-eyed Claire Foy) and nothing much has happened. Let’s see (warning: mild spoilers of widely known historical events to follow) — King George VI (Jared Harris), Elizabeth’s dad, dies of lung cancer, which he didn’t know he had because his doctors never told him, while Elizabeth is on safari in Kenya; you see Prince Philip’s (Matt Smith) ass; Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) has a nonsexual dalliance with the equerry Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) that’s so repressed it’s like Kingsley Amis wrote it while trapped under a block of ice; and London is blanketed by smog so suffocating that Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) momentarily stops drinking himself to death to opine that it is an act of god. That’s really it. One death (natural causes), a pale butt, no sex, and an old man grumbling about the weather. Our Allison P. Davis described the show as “… like watching a British candle slowly burn itself out into a wax puddle for 10 hours.” That it is. Which is to say, in times like these, it’s exactly what I need.
‘The Girlfriend Experience’
K. Austin Collins: For me, the most compelling piece of television this year was in many ways the most mystifying: The Girlfriend Experience. It’s a straightforward show about a young professional who becomes a high-end escort for extra money. But, thanks to its star, Riley Keough, there’s an air of mystery to the Starz show. She becomes an actor, tailoring her expressions and moods to the needs of her clients. And yet, somehow, Keough manages to make the character feel alive, crackling with intelligence. We don’t simply take for granted that her own desires and ways of being are obscured for the sake of her customers; we instead actively wonder who she really is. I’d spend the weekend trying to figure it out.
Alison Herman: Those of us who have met (or been) Brooklyn millennials don’t need to be told that they’re insufferable. Those of us who haven’t don’t need more than one TV show to tell them. So why, in this post-Girls, post–Broad City, post–Master of None, post-the-last-of-our-patience world should you spend your precious pie coma on another story of a grating comic antiheroine with too much free time and no boundaries? Because this antiheroine — Dory, in TBS’s Search Party — is played by Alia Shawkat, that’s why. She’s also more genuinely troubled than most casually awful gentrifiers, in a way the show clearly sees: When an acquaintance from college goes missing, Dory is consumed with hunting down a woman she barely knows, a quest that’s filling a void Dory’s too oblivious to notice. And she’s surrounded by a coterie of fuck-ups: a pushover ex-boyfriend, a narcissistic actress, and best of all, comedian John Early’s multihyphenate bullshit artist. (Watch his episode of The Characters if you haven’t already.) The mix of social satire with an actual plot makes a binge fly by, and you can find all 10 episodes on TBS’s site now.
Lindbergh: This pick is partly self-serving. I need you — yes, you — to watch Pitch post-haste, because if the drama’s downward ratings trend doesn’t reverse in the first season’s final two episodes, fictional-first-female-major-league-pitcher Ginny Baker (played by a convincing Kylie Bunbury) won’t see a sophomore year. Maybe I shouldn’t have disclosed my motivation; now you’re probably wondering whether to wait for Fox’s verdict before getting attached to another series that ends too soon. In the spirit of Pitch’s optimistic message — remember those? — I say to you: We can still save this thing. The show does a damn good job with the baseball, but its West Wing–esque structure, Friday Night Lights–worthy warm-heartedness, and yes, occasional campiness, make it a (don’t say pitch-perfect don’t say pitch-perfect) sadness-reducing — and at only eight episodes to date, refreshingly brief — binge even for viewers who normally can’t stomach sports.
Katie Baker: The web-series-turned-HBO-show High Maintenance was one of the best programs on TV this year, each episode one part character study, one part New York love story, and one part kind, kind bud. Most episodes revolve around the Guy, the weed dude played by show cocreator Ben Sinclair, who slides in and out of the private, weirdo lives of his customers with very little judgment and lots of chill. But my favorite episode is one that keeps the Guy on the periphery. In “Grandpa,” the main character is a dog named Gatsby who falls hard for his new walker. It’s a soulful rumination on love, loss, and loneliness, and it might inspire you to slip your parents’ dog a few choice scraps.
‘Horace and Pete’
Sean Fennessey: In Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, a recent edition of American Masters, the famed TV impresario talks delicately about family. He talks of his ex-wife’s manic depression, of his father’s abandonment, of the lies he told about his grandfather for decades. There was darkness all around his comedies, melancholy lining the arteries of his comedy. This summer, Lear — who created All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and many other network sitcoms that changed American cultural consumption — became a handy reference point for Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete. Even the man himself agreed.
Lear must have recognized something — if not everything — familiar to him in this show. C.K.’s surprise buy-it-from-my-website-only release surprised some Louie loyalists with its bleakly intimate look at a crumbling local Brooklyn bar and its dissolute family of proprietors. The bar is named after the titular figures, two in a long line of twos: Horace and Pete, and their Uncle Pete, who came before another Pete (and another Horace), who preceded another Pete, and so on a century into the past. The people in this show are happy people in the way that cats like being wet. They would sooner shit than smile.
That much was true of many of Lear’s characters, too. Archie Bunker was exuberant only in his fervent distaste. (Bunker was alt-right before it was all the rage.) But there was relief in Lear’s work — antics and punch lines and roaring comic medicine. He created a blueprint for what became “The Very Special Episode” — but even in that framework, Lear gave us J.J. on Good Times or Edith on Family, a coterie of sentimental clowns. That’s not exactly Louis C.K.’s style, though if he hasn’t made you laugh in the past, he’s at least made you crinkle your lips into something resembling embarrassed relatability. Horace and Pete ain’t that.
This show does have something utterly unique in 2016 — relentless agony. There is no redemption, no joy, hardly a single laugh. It’s a miracle. After you’ve spent a listless Thursday evening explaining “cuck” to your parents, you will need a booster shot of “At least we’re doing better than these schmucks.” H&P is that. Spend the $31 for all 10 episodes. It’s better than arguing with Uncle Gary about the next HUD secretary.