The holiday season means many things to many people, but there’s one thing it means for all of us: family couch time. There’s a lot of sitting around in many of our very near futures, which also means a lot of scrolling through lists of shows in an attempt to reach a consensus, followed by the mutual “I don’t care, whatever you guys want to watch” response, followed by silent seething. Let us help.
My Cat From Hell (Netflix)
Good for: All ages, including children; pet lovers; fans of Intervention, Hoarders et al, but also fans of The Dog Whisperer, Super Nanny, and lifestyle-guidance shows.
The Pitch: Let’s grant that host Jackson Galaxy has a very cultivated persona, with a silly name and a really silly beard and the job of being a cat whisperer. Fine. My Cat From Hell is still great on two fronts: First, holy moly, there are some psycho cats out there! It is shocking how destructive and scary a house cat can be. Second, Galaxy always cures the cats, and every episode has a happy ending. Also, you get to learn a lot about cats.
Better Off Ted (Netflix)
Good for: Teens and older; comedy snobs; fans of Arrested Development, Community, and Parks and Rec; anyone disillusioned with corporate America.
The Pitch: Ted, about the inner workings of a weird giant company, tragically flew under the radar when it aired in 2009 and ‘10, and that’s a real shame because the show is hilarious and cutting and very easy to fall in love with. It’s also densely packed with jokes, which is important when some of the people watching the show are perhaps ducking in and out of the room. When you pop back in, you want to hear a joke right away, no matter what.
Luther (seasons one and two on Netflix; all three seasons on Amazon)
Good for: Adults only, and even then only the brave ones; fans of Silence of the Lambs or other murder stories; fans of The Wire.
The Pitch: You should watch Luther in as big a group as possible because the show can be terrifying. Idris Elba stars as a grumpy British detective who investigates serial killers, but it’s not a rote cop procedural: Each season tracks one major case, and we also see a lot of the story from the killer’s or victims’ perspectives. It’s not rah-rah celebratory holiday fare, but it is a damn good show.
The West Wing (Netflix)
Good for: Middle-school-age and older; liberal factions avoiding conservative family members; dads who would otherwise just watch whatever happened to be on the History Channel right at that moment.
The Pitch: Go ahead and skip to the second season. The first season’s great and all, but you have to deal with Moira Kelly’s Mandy (bleh) and all the stuff about Sam’s prostitute friend. Season two starts with the flashback episodes “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen,” parts I and II, which lay enough groundwork for newbies to figure out who everyone is.
30 for 30 (Netflix)
Good for: Almost all ages (some installments include discussions of sex, drug use, or warfare); both sports fans and melodrama fans; people with about an hour, hour and a half to kill.
The Pitch: It’s hard to go wrong even picking an episode at random (though some are better than others), and the various sports documentaries hit that sweet spot between a TV show and a movie. It’s not quite as long as a feature film, but it is a self-contained story.
Ugly Betty (Netflix, Hulu Plus)
Good for: Tweens and up; fans of The Devil Wears Prada; anyone looking for empowerment stories; anyone who ever liked an episode of Glee.
The Pitch: Betty burned bright for its first season but then seemed to fall off the pop radar — which is a shame, since the show stayed pretty darn good for all four seasons. Come for the campiness, stay for the wonderful earnestness that will cause your heart to grow three sizes.
Firefly (Netflix, Hulu Plus)
Good for: Tweens and older; Avengers fans; sci-fi fans; Star Trek fans.
The Pitch: Oh, sure, now Joss Whedon’s a household name with a billion-dollar franchise and the adoration of all who behold him. But it wasn’t always like that. There are only fourteen episodes of Firefly, which means you can bang that out in a long weekend (or less, depending on your group’s stamina).