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The Sunday Night TV Watchability Index

With more TV on Sunday nights than ever, we introduce a foolproof system to determine what you should be watching

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Remember when Sunday nights were for The Sopranos? It was a given. You’d go about your day, run the errands you were too much of a bum to run on Saturday, all while knowing that at 9 p.m. you could plunk down on your couch, turn on HBO, and call it a day.

Things are not like that anymore [readjusts suspenders, wags finger]. Around 2011, Sunday nights became a juggling act, with Sunday shows like Mad Men, The Good Wife, and Game of Thrones dividing attention. That was still relatively easy, though — if watching TV on Sundays in 2011 was like juggling, doing it in 2017 is like having a ball pit dumped on you. HBO, AMC, FX — even E! and CBS All Access, which I’m being told is a real thing, are dumping content on the last night of the weekend. By my count, there are 12 shows of relative interest releasing new episodes on Sundays right now: Billions, American Crime, Homeland, Girls, Crashing, Big Little Lies, The Good Fight, The Walking Dead, Feud: Bette and Joan, The Last Man on Earth, Making History, and The Arrangement. It’s not fair!

The existence of choice can be one of the most debilitating things in the world for a human being. Have you ever opened Seamless and asked your significant other where to order takeout from? That shit causes breakups! We were never supposed to have this many options in life — our brains are not strong enough to choose one thing without worrying about the untapped potential of the discarded choices. I can’t fix your Seamless issues (though I will say, Thai is usually a safe bet), but I do think I’ve come up with a system that eliminates the fear of decision-making and crunches hard numbers to rationally determine which show you should be watching on Sunday night.

The system takes four quantifiable factors into account:

Water-Cooler Score

This judges how many people are talking about a given show. Yes, I know no one actually huddles around water coolers anymore, but you get the idea: If a ton of people are talking about a show on Monday morning, it’s in your best interest to watch it live on Sunday night. The Water-Cooler Score is calculated using Google Trends’ “Interest Over Time” metric in relation to a replacement-level program. (For this batch of shows, Taboo was used as the replacement-level program, which is fitting in so many ways.)

Spoiler-Alert Score

Similar to the Water-Cooler Score, this rating more specifically takes into account the presence of spoilers surrounding a show. Having something spoiled is terrible regardless of the show, but the truth is some shows rely more on mystery, and therefore demand to be watched in real time. The Spoiler-Alert Score is based on how many results Google finds for the search terms “[INSERT SHOW/SEASON HERE] ‘spoiler alert.’” That total number is then divided by 100, if for no other reason than because I didn’t want these total scores to be in the millions.

Quality

Is the show terrible? Then it’s probably fine to let it chill on your DVR for a few days. This number was determined by Metacritic — I’m sure your feelings on quality differ from Metacritic’s ratings on a regular basis, but you asked me for help SO PLEASE SIT DOWN, SIR/MA’AM.

The “Too Real” Rating

Until recently, how much a television show allowed you to escape wasn’t much of a factor in the TV show selection process. But everyday life is a lot right now; I think we can all agree on that. What that means for picking the perfect Sunday night show now is that you want something that won’t remind you of the terrible push alert you just got. You’re just hours away from waking up and it being Monday again — there’s no sense in spending the end of the weekend fueling your angst. Coming up with a show’s “Too Real” Rating is an admittedly inexact science, but you don’t want your show to score well in this category: any points earned here are negative, and will affect the score.

Adding the first three scores and multiplying that number by the “Too Real” Rating gives you a Watchability Score. The higher the score, the better the show for Sunday nights. Now, for the rankings.

12. ‘American Crime’

Water-Cooler Score: 0
Spoiler-Alert Score: 16.1
Quality: 93
“Too Real” Rating: 0.25
Watchability Score: 27.3

Listen, American Crime is a good show — its Quality rating is one of the highest on this list! So here’s why its total score is basically zero: the third season is just starting this coming Sunday, so its Water-Cooler and Spoiler-Alert Scores haven’t had time to peak yet, and also oh my god, this show is WAY too real. The first sentence of Entertainment Weekly’s review of this season reads, “Those seeking to escape the realities of harsh times should look away from American Crime.” The system and EW agree: DO NOT WATCH THIS ON SUNDAY NIGHT.

11. ‘Crashing’

Water-Cooler Score: 0
Spoiler-Alert Score: 1.7
Quality: 73
“Too Real” Rating: 0.95
Watchability Score: 71.0

I can’t say I’m surprised here. No shots at Pete Holmes, but his HBO comedy is flying under the radar and is basically unspoilable.

10. ‘Homeland’

Water-Cooler Score: 92
Spoiler-Alert Score: 22.9
Quality: 68
“Too Real” Rating: 0.4
Watchability Score: 73.2

Homeland is toward the bottom of this list for three reasons: (1) it’s objectively bad, (2) no one’s talking about it, and (3) its subject matter is just a little too authentic. This season featured an attack in New York City — so yeah, even though Carrie Mathison is the Batman of CIA agents, I’m gonna go ahead and say this is too real for a Sunday viewing. Save Homeland for a binge watch, if you must.

9. ‘The Good Fight

Water-Cooler Score: 70.7
Spoiler-Alert Score: 6.6
Quality: 80
“Too Real” Rating: 0.8
Watchability Score: 125.8

I’m honestly surprised that The Good Fight’s Water-Cooler Score wasn’t higher, but I guess that’s what happens when a show’s marooned on CBS All Access. That many of the show’s story lines are based on current events — the pilot featured a police brutality case — means it also hits a little too close to home for a Sunday show.

8. ‘Billions’

Water-Cooler Score: 88.3
Spoiler-Alert Score: 57.8
Quality: 67
“Too Real” Rating: 0.6
Watchability Score: 127.9

[Pats self on back because this ridiculous formula seems to be working so far.]

7. ‘The Walking Dead’

Water-Cooler Score: 26.3
Spoiler-Alert Score: 39
Quality: 79
“Too Real” Rating: 1
Watchability Score: 144.3

Spoilers for TWD abound because the show has a nasty habit of ending episodes with TOTALLY CRAZY cliff-hangers. It’s almost as if, I don’t know, the show’s trying to game the system (and manipulate its audience). But the low Water-Cooler Score here is also surprising. Over 10 million people watch this show, but it doesn’t garner much interest — oh look, I just landed on the perfect way to describe The Walking Dead.

6. ‘The Arrangement’

Water-Cooler Score: 93
Spoiler-Alert Score: 12.8
Quality: 61
“Too Real” Rating: 0.9
Watchability Score: 150.1

The Arrangement, E!’s drama about a Hollywood superstar who pays an unknown actress to be his girlfriend, is qualitatively the worst show on this list. But it is a great distraction — if a negative “Too Real” Rating was possible, this show would have one. What other Sunday show is going to feature a Mischa Barton look-alike performing an a capella rap song about William Shakespeare? The Arrangement might be based on reality — have fun trying to guess which parts are directly referencing Tom Cruise! — but is so enjoyably frivolous that existential angst never creeps in. There’s a little mystery at play too, thanks to the famous actor guy’s cult-leader friend.

5. ‘Making History’

Water-Cooler Score: 82
Spoiler-Alert Score: 19.1
Quality: 64
“Too Real” Rating: 0.95
Watchability Score: 156.9

A time-traveling comedy starring Adam Pally and Leighton Meester? That’s about as low stress as TV watching gets, and Making History’s minimal “Too Real” Rating reflects that. However, spoilers tend to matter less when it comes to comedies, and the show’s Quality score is pretty dismal. (Dear critics, stop being mean to Leighton!) Ranking in the middle of the pack on this list means you really don’t have to move around your Sunday night schedule to fit this one in. It’s probably best saved for a Monday or Tuesday night.

4. ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’

Water-Cooler Score: 93
Spoiler-Alert Score: 44.7
Quality: 81
“Too Real” Rating: 0.85
Watchability Score: 185.9

If there’s one thing Ryan Murphy knows how to do, it’s make people gather around a water cooler. Keep an eye on Feud, though — it’s only one week in, and if there’s another thing Ryan Murphy knows how to do, it’s make people find a different show after a few weeks.

3. ‘The Last Man on Earth’

Water-Cooler Score: 90
Spoiler-Alert Score: 32
Quality: 72
“Too Real” Rating: 1
Watchability Score: 194.0

Will Forte fans stand up! I didn’t expect the system to rank this show so high, but numbers don’t lie — it’s the fresh second half of a season, it is definitely not too real, and it’s an actually good show! That’s a solid Sunday watch right there.

2. ‘Girls’

Water-Cooler Score: 79.2
Spoiler-Alert Score: 168
Quality: 79
“Too Real” Rating: 0.6
Watchability Score: 195.7

Girls is coming off two highly buzzed-about episodes, which no doubt inflates its Water-Cooler Score. After five seasons of displaying an uncanny ability to inspire hot takes, Lena Dunham really isn’t messing around with Girls’ final episodes. Following up a loaded, claustrophobic bottle episode with a reveal that — spoiler alert — Hannah is pregnant (!) is a seriously bold move that demands the following six episodes be watched live. Whether you think Girls is good or bad, people love talking about it, so if you want to give the appearance that you’re Cultured™ on Mondays, the show is required viewing.

1. ‘Big Little Lies’

Water-Cooler Score: 74.7
Spoiler-Alert Score: 559
Quality: 75
“Too Real” Rating: 0.6
Watchability Score: 425.2

Not only is Big Little Lies a brilliant and pointed miniseries about small-town social politics, 21st century feminism, and extremely wealthy people creating trivial problems to mask their enormous ones (my favorite niche on TV, honestly), it’s also a murder mystery. And if we’ve learned anything from the fervor — online and IRL — created by shows like Making a Murderer and Westworld, it’s that people love nothing more than dissecting minute details to solve a mystery ahead of schedule. That’s why Big Little Lies’ Spoiler-Alert Score is off the charts — you must watch it live because you want to be in the weeds with all the part-time theorists, not standing off to the side with your fingers in your ears screaming “La la la I can’t hear you!” If you pick Homeland and sleep on Big Little Lies, just know that on Monday morning your friend Julie is going to text you about what Nicole Kidman did and your day will be ruined. I get that everyone hates Julie, but in reality it was your fault. Big Little Lies is the show you need to watch on Sunday nights.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.