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, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.
My husband likes darker dramas (Sons of Anarchy, The Wire, The Walking Dead), whereas I would be happy to only watch lighter dramas or comedies (Parks and Recreation, The Mindy Project, Orange Is the New Black). What can we watch together that we’ll both like? Previous good matches have been Parenthood, Alias, and Orphan Black. —Claire
My girlfriend likes fantasy things like Harry Potter, Supernatural, and Once Upon a Time. I like darker shows: The Wire, Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under. Is there something in between? —Alan
What should yo do when you live with someone who has opposite TV taste to you? The only show we’ve ever agreed on is You’re the Worst. —AD
My job has a lot of perks, and one among them is that it’s pretty rare for me not to get my way when it comes to TV selection. “It’s for work!” I say, which is never really a lie, because I write about all kinds of show all the time. A sheepish “what are you gonna do, the world is tough” shrug helps. Try telling your partner or whoever you’re watching TV with that it’s “for work.” Maybe you’re a doctor, and one of your patients compared their symptoms to a character on the show, and you have to watch it to understand what he or she is trying to describe? Maybe you are a teacher, and your students are using lingo from the show, so you need to be up to date on the terminology? Maybe you are a transpondster, and everyone’s talking about this show in the break room and you feel left out? People are very understanding when something is “for work.”
Lying is bad, though, so let’s take another tactic. (For work! My job is being ethical!) Maybe pick something that’s not really either of your expected genres, so it’s less a compromise and more a totally new option. If you can’t decide between a dark drama and a light comedy, pick a robust documentary series. Instead of looking for something somewhere between fantasy and prestige drama, go for comedies. And if you never agree, why are you trying to watch TV together? I’d never expect other people to listen to the same music as I do, so why would I assume they’d watch the same TV? Fight the fights that need fighting, as Lewis says in The American President.
Pick shows that defy obvious genre rigidity. Netflix’s BoJack Horseman might seem like an adult cartoon comedy (à la Archer, say), but it’s much darker and more introspective than that. Nurse Jackie competes at the Emmys as a comedy, but I don’t know that I’ve ever actually laughed at any episodes — even though it’s a show I love. Shameless is in that same boat of covering “serious” topics but in light-ish ways. Louie is one of the most depressing shows I think I’ve ever seen. The previously mentioned You’re the Worst is I guess technically a rom-com, but it’s so cynical that I’m more likely to lump it in with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Any given 30 for 30 documentary is surprisingly riveting, even for those of us who don’t care much about sports.
It also might help to think about what you’re trying to get out of the show and working backwards from there. “I just want something escapist!” might mean fantasy, but couldn’t that also mean Deadliest Catch, assuming you yourself are not likely to be on an Alaskan crab boat any time soon? “I like stories about serious human crises” might make you think of Breaking Bad, but why couldn’t you also enjoy Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, Tabatha Takes Over, or my new obsession The Profit, which are all basically the same show? All the people on those shows are at least as sad as Walter White, but there’s a redemption tale, too! (And yet many of these businesses fail anyway, so it’s not always a happy ending. Life!) “I want something that cheers me up” could mean perky, feel-good comedies, but the banter on Sherlock makes me feel happy, too. Be willing to think outside the genre you think you want.
In the interest of being clip-and-save-level helpful, here are some Stay Tuned Certified current shows to try. The agreement is that you will both approach it with an open mind and give the show one full episode; if after that you don’t like it, okay. It’s the no-thank-you portion of trying a show. Please note that this is not a list of every good show, but rather, this is a list of good shows that might appeal to people who think they won’t like them.
• American Ninja Warrior: It’s just so gripping! People are extraordinary!
• The Americans: Appeals to fans of dark/broody/action drama, but also fans of domestic/family stories.
• Bob’s Burgers: It’s not like other Fox cartoons of the last 15 years. Honestly, I’m consistently stunned that this show is on network TV, so tender and specific are its characters. Cartoon fans, family-set fans, ‘80s-reference fans, but also anyone looking for a outside-the-standard teen-girl character.
• Broad City: Unless you are super prude, it’s hard to imagine someone who won’t like at least some episodes of this show.
• Drunk History: Smarter than you think.
• Game of Thrones: Many, many people who are not otherwise fantasy fans really dig it. Worth a shot!
• Hannibal: Sort of a procedural, more of psychodrama, with both catch-a-murderer week-to-week storytelling and an aesthetic befitting a show with ten times the budget.
• Jane the Virgin: I cannot get over how great this show is, but in addition to being a good and functional soap itself, Jane’s also a meta-soap, poking fun at the genre and using its tropes to wink at the audience.
• Justified: Yeah, it’s a crime show, but it’s also often hilarious. Funny characters can still experience serious situations! It can be pretty violent, but it’s nowhere near as bleak and scary as Sons of Anarchy.
• Madam Secretary: Honestly, this show is not good. But it is too casual to be a heavy drama and too self-serious to be a fun comedy, and in the Sunday-night waiting-for-the-good-shows zone, it might get the job done if there’s nothing on the DVR.
• Manhattan: Again, serious subject matter (the Manhattan Project), but the show itself isn’t bleak or heavy, really.
• Orange Is the New Black: Absolutely in the sweet spot between comedy and drama. Also just a fantastic show.
• Orphan Black: Not just for sci-fi people!
• The Returned: Can appeal to fans of sad shows, but also Francophiles, sci-fi people, and people who like excellent sibling casting.
• Sleepy Hollow: Anyone who likes supernatural shows is probably already watching, but the show’s comedic sensibilities make it way more fun than its genre brethren. It’s also genuinely spooky.
• Top Chef: If you fast-forward the parts where everyone rags on each other, Top Chef is a masterpiece. Sadly, there’s a lot of ragging and complaining and swagger-contests, etc., but with a remote in your hand, you are the show’s editor! Wheee. Don’t let “I don’t like reality shows” dissuade you; the demonstration of skill makes up for the artificiality of the genre.
One last thing to think about: How much do you dislike your partner/roommate’s preferred shows, and what is it you dislike about them? What do you think it would take for you to say, “I don’t care, I’ll watch whatever you want to watch”? I am personally maxed out on shows about rape and torture, but drama-wise, I could certainly sit through a few episodes of Reign or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. I find the racism of 2 Broke Girls to be actively harmful, but there’s nothing wrong with The Goldbergs — it’s just not my taste. But if someone I cared about really wanted to watch it, sure, why not?
Don’t be judgmental about what they pick, and don’t seek “revenge” by picking something you like that you know they’ll hate. Don’t keep score, and don’t save up these relationship coins to cash in on something big — “Remember all those times we watched House Hunters International? Well, that means I don’t have to go to your mom’s third wedding.” Ugh. Unfair. (Again, this only goes for shows that are not doing active harm.) When you have been the beneficiary of these sorts of small gestures, reciprocate and do so earnestly. Maybe you’ll like The League or The Chair or The Roosevelts. And if you didn’t, well, didn’t it make you feel good to show your person how much their comfort matters to you?
Compare how much do you not want to watch Whose Line Is It Anyway with how much your viewing companion does. Do they really, really want to? Then take this opportunity to learn to be more patient. Let their joy bring you joy. Give them this as a small gift. Did they have a hard day? Don’t they deserve a Modern Family if they did? Did she kill the giant bug you were afraid of? Then maybe an episode of Castle is not a valuable point of contention. Has he been under a lot of stress? Then an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is not going to kill you. I get that we all have different desires, but if you’re going to share a TV, let that be a symbol of how much of yourself you’re willing to share, too. If you find all your partner’s taste abhorrent, and you’re a person to whom taste matters a great deal, maybe this person is not a good match for you. But if they just want to watch The Voice, suck it up and watch The Voice. Save the grand gestures for car commercials and fake-seeming viral videos. Small moments of agreement are the real way to show someone you love them.