I actually thought I’d watch more TV in the pandemic than I have. I’m not sure why I didn’t–maybe because I spent so many of my days looking at a computer screen that I just couldn’t look at another screen in the evening. I did read quite a bit, and before the summer is over, I’ll have some books to recommend.
As a child of the ’80s, I admit I’m still rather amazed at all the viewing choices–and there has to be some German compound noun to describe the condition of spending most of your time scrolling through your streaming queues. We tease younger generations about FOMO, but no one who has as many items in various queues as I do can really talk.
What I’ve come to love best in the pandemic is “maker” shows. I always love a good food-based show, and you can’t go wrong with the gorgeous, multi-season Chef’s Table (Netflix) or the much-loved Great British Baking Show (Netflix). Over on PBS (PBS Passport), Chef Vivian Howard’s follow-up to A Chef’s Life is the fascinating Somewhere South, which takes a particular food (greens, pickles, barbeque, etc) and traces its history and development through a number of ethnicities scattered throughout the South. It’s food culture and sociology and history and storytelling all rolled together. In a similar way, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi’s new series Taste the Nation (Hulu) explores “American” food and along the way refreshes our notion of history, immigration, and citizenship. And when something light and entertaining is what you have in mind, Crazy Delicious (Netflix) is worth checking out. Contestants have to transform ingredients out of a “magical, edible world” into amazing shapes and clever inventions. It’s all very gentle and slightly corny. Perfect for pandemic brain.
If food-related isn’t your deal, several other shows have been a delight. First, the long-running British show Grand Designs (Netflix), which follows (usually overly) ambitious building projects/renovations in the U.K. Past seasons have featured everything from a huge Victorian tower to a cave dwelling to converted 1920s theatre to a tree house. You can never quite believe the scale, the hubris, the mistakes, but also the beauty of what people with a stubborn vision (and usually quite a few pounds) can accomplish. On a completely opposite scale is the charming The Repair Shop (Netflix) where highly skilled craftspeople restore old bits of this and that with great sweetness. It’s all very dear. In a more vigorous vein is the aptly titled Blown Away (Netflix). It may sound odd to chronicle a Canadian glass-blowing competition–but it is an intriguing study of the creative mind; the artists are all very different in their approaches to the challenges. And at only 22 minutes an episode, it’s a great palate cleanser between longer binges.
The final “maker” shout-out goes to A Stitch in Time (Amazon Prime), originally on the BBC. Each episode, fashion historian Amber Butchart selects a famous painting and studies it in a variety of contexts. Most interesting to me: she enlists Ninya Mikhaila, a historical costumier, and her studio to recreate the garment in the painting, using only period materials and techniques. Taken together, it’s an incredibly insightful and enjoyable look at history and culture. I was sad that there were only 6 episodes.
Now lest you think I only watch morally (and mentally) improving programs, something completely different. A Japanese anime recommended by one of my students this summer: Aggretsuko (Netflix). Mild-mannered good girl (well, actually good red panda) Retsuko works diligently at a Tokyo corporation. But underneath she channels her rage at the indignities of her life (corporate, romantic, familial) with a hilarious inner dialogue of death metal, something that also finds its way into her karaoke performances. Over the course of its two seasons, however, the show is, at heart, about the many negotiations of womanhood. And it’s just sort of fun!
It’s clear I need to revise the beginning of this essay about how much TV I watch! But never mind: it’s a treat to share these quirky, offbeat recommendations. We must find joy when and where and however we can. Share in the comments if you have great recommendations for the end of summer. I clearly need to watch even more TV.