Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.
I currently don’t follow any ongoing scripted TV series. Part of the problem is that so many of them seem to be about cynicism, violence, and/or failure — heroes who never seem to get truly happy outcomes (one reason I gave up on Doctor Who), dysfunctional families, heroes who have to kill to save the day, etc. There’s enough sorrow in the nightly news; why aren’t scripted shows modeling better behavior? I would like to find some positive-thinking shows aimed at adults and without fantasy elements (i.e. Touched by an Angel) where nonviolence, charity, love, and intellectualism conquer all. Recommendations? —Rori
My first recommendation would be to stop watching the nightly news. Surely there are more interesting, less histrionic, more in-depth sources of news than a nightly newscast. My God.
Why aren’t scripted shows modeling better behavior? you ask. Well …why would they? Living a wholesome, decency-oriented life is probably satisfying, stabilizing, and empowering — but it’s not much of a story. “Once upon a time, everything went according to plan”? Stories need conflict, stakes, tension, setbacks.
That said, I share some of your frustrations. I am so tired of watching characters beat one another to death. I’m not sure how many more women-in-peril stories I can tolerate, how many more broken men I can watch gaze into an undulating meniscus of whiskey. Too bad, so sad. Lucky for both of us, there are a handful of more positive shows on TV right now. No. 1 on my list is Jane the Virgin. I feel like the president of the JTV fan club sometimes, but so be it: These characters value loyalty, integrity, and family (well, the good ones do), and the underlying theme of the show is “you know, we all need each other.” It’s aware of its own cheesiness and cuts through that with occasionally snarky narration and anchors itself with moments of real, honest emotions. There is a murder-mystery subplot, though, and occasional instances of soap-opera violence.
You specify “aimed at adults,” which might be why you’ve avoided The Fosters, which is on ABC Family. While the show includes teen and tween characters, it includes plenty of grown-ups, too, and it doesn’t strike me as “aimed” at any age group in particular. If you want to watch a show that models good behavior and where love conquers all, you’re not gonna do better than this. Stef and Lena Foster — the interracial lesbian couple who head up the show’s central family — are two of TV’s best parents, supportive and loving and present, though not without their individual struggles. I’m someone who’s seen every episode of 7th Heaven (life is long!!), so believe me when I tell you: You don’t want to watch a show about a “perfect” family. One of the things I love most about The Fosters is that there are loads of problems — none of which is insurmountable. Let’s go to an Alateen meeting, because that’s a good way to help you deal with your mom’s addiction crises. Let’s talk to your girlfriend’s parents, because keeping this kind of secret is hurting all of us. I will never be mad at you for telling me the truth. Seriously, my heart is full just thinking about this show.
It’s tough to find characters that embody “nonviolence, charity, love, and intellectualism” more than a group of rad nuns, so I’d recommend Call the Midwife. Not everyone’s a nun, just some of them, but they do all abhor violence and support science. If I could chose a motto to live by, that might be it. Let’s get bumper stickers.
I reread your question a few times, and it strikes me that you’re put off by all scripted programming — not just dramas. Bob’s Burgers stars an incredibly functional family of weirdos who prioritize individual creativity and rely on the sense of self-worth that one gains from hard work. (If that hard work is putting together a musical about Thomas Edison electrocuting an elephant, so be it.) Playing House on USA is earnest and tender, too; I particularly like its lack of cynicism, which a lot of contemporary comedies rely on. Fresh Off the Boat is new and still getting its exact formula down, but overall it meets your standards.
I grew up in a household where part of the fun of watching TV together (especially in the case of procedurals or a show involving any kind of mystery) was to guess who did it or what was going to happen next. If you turned out to be right, you enjoyed some short-lived bragging rights. These comments have to be made judiciously — you wouldn’t want to interrupt dialogue or miss a key point — but it’s still something I do when I’m watching TV, and the more into a show I am, the more likely I am to do it. I have one friend who thinks it’s horrible that I guess at all, because if I’m right, the show is “ruined.” My automatic reaction to this complaint is that it’s insanity. Who watches a show without at least asking themselves what’s going to happen next? I have made the effort when I’m with this person not to make my guesses aloud, but I find myself wondering if I’m really weird in a way I’d never noticed. Doesn’t everyone watching Law & Order try to guess who the killer is? Am I watching TV the “wrong” way? —Emma
You are right and your friend is wrong. Especially for shows like L&O or other crime procedurals: Am I supposed to just sit there and watch it, like it contains enough entertainment to occupy my brain? It does not. The guessing, the kibitzing, the quoting of John Mulaney bits — this is part of the experience, no? Otherwise I have to do a crossword puzzle or play Tetris on the ancient Game Boy I still have. And then other people are like, “Margaret, that is rude.” But my brain is hungry for stimuli! Give me joke-making opportunities, or give me Tetris. Those are the only choices.
If you were making these guesses during, I don’t know, Mad Men? Or Breaking Bad? Or Game of Thrones? I’d probably get annoyed, too. Those shows are more immersive, and guessing their plot twists — or hearing someone else do so — takes you out of the show.
If you could drop one character from any show, who would it be? —LB
Teddy on Nashville. All of his stories could be replaced by a GIF of a penguin, and the show would already be so much better.