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What Should I Watch While I’m Doing Other Things? Your Pressing TV Questions, Answered

Photo: Showtime, HBO, Fox

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, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.

I always like to have something on in the background while I do other things. What shows should be keeping me company? Nothing too intensive, please. —NJ

Oh, I love a good background show. The diligent tutor in me would encourage us all to focus on the tasks at hand, but the TV fan in me is like, “How else am I going to watch Revenge?” I’m assuming that you’ve already watched most of the Greats, and that you’re already prone to background-watching your historical favorites. Also consider this a prime opportunity to double up on a show you’re currently watching: If you’re really into Game of Thrones, make a GOT rewatch your background show to enrich the present experience. Given your criteria, this list is focused on shows you might otherwise not bother with. Below, a bunch of background tune-out shows to enjoy, broken down by how strenuously you might be focused on your primary task.

Other people would probably listen to classical music or white noise; I’m really concentrating on something else, but I still want my TV to be making sounds:

  • Degrassi: The Next Generation. Look, I love Degrassi and have seen every episode of the new generation, and honestly believe the show is a force for good in the world. But it does not require tremendous focus, and the comforting rhythms of earnest Canadian dialogue provide a solid backdrop to what I assume is the graduate-school work some of you are clearly putting off.
  • America’s Test Kitchen is also a force for good in the world, and another show I adore. But here’s something I’ve never said while watching ATK: “Oh my God.” You’re not going to accidentally miss a crucial moment or jazzy murder-fight sequence or something. Spoiler: Butter is considered “soft” when you can bend the stick without it breaking. Listen in peace.
  • Ken Burns America. Bonus gentle Americana music!
  • How the States Got Their Shapes. You don’t really care how, but if you think you might wind up learning from your background shows, this is a good one.
  • Under the Dome. This is truly the only circumstance under which it is acceptable to watch UTD.
  • Any food-travel show. How much focus does Anthony Bourdain really require? His imitators require even less.

Paying a little bit of attention, I guess? Mostly I’m looking away:

  • Doctor Who. This show rewards careful attention, but it doesn’t punish minimal attention. Once you get the basic premise, you can kind of zone out until you hear pew-pew sounds and want to see what that’s about.
  • Bones. Just mid-era Bones, though. Seasons three through seven. The other seasons are too dreary, boring, or both.
  • True Blood. When you hear funky sex noises or bite sounds, look up from your task and enjoy. Train your ears to recognize Lafayette’s voice, and listen to his lines. Otherwise, you are fine to just keep ironing shirts.
  • Dexter. There’s a voice-over on the show, so you barely need to look up at all. Watch through season four and then save yourself.
  • Drop Dead Diva. Even compared to other lawyer shows, DDD’s legal mechanics are laughably ridiculous. And the premise — a supermodel is reincarnated in a plus-size body — is of course silly. But! There are sweetly evocative emotions on the show, with stronger performances than the material warrants. It’s like a very gentle spa day for your emotions.
  • Murder, She Wrote. There is so much MSW! Let’s say it takes about three minutes to assemble a wedding invitation — stuffing the envelope and addressing it and everything. You could invite over 4,000 people to your wedding and still have more Murder, She Wrote to watch. (Really.)
  • Intervention. The show uses a lot of chyrons, so you will absolutely miss information (“Matt’s parents divorced when he was 11”), but it doesn’t actually matter for the structure of the episode. When you hear one of the interventionist’s voices, pay attention to that scene — the pre-intervention family meeting is always fascinating. Tune back when you hear the closing-credits song, because that’s when you find out how the subject’s recovery is going.

Medium! I’m just about half-watching:

  • 3rd Rock From the Sun. You might remember this as a show about aliens, but it’s actually a show about gender politics. Also, it’s great.
  • Cheers. I know, I recommend Cheers here a lot, but I keep finding out how many of you have never seen Cheers. It’s not medicine. You’ll like it.
  • Generation Cryo. What happens when a young woman sets out to meet the other people who share her sperm-donor father? A pretty decent little documentary series, thanks in large part to the warmth and charm of its star, Breeanna.
  • A Different World. Finally on Netflix!
  • Any Star Trek. Original, Voyager, Deep Space 9, etc. This is a matter of personal preference. Any space drama will do here.
  • RuPaul’s Drag Race. Like any other reality contest show, Drag Race repeats its premise and challenges over and over throughout the episodes, so you can prioritize the judging portion without missing much.
  • Any USA show. Start with Suits, but White Collar, Royal Pains, Necessary Roughness, Burn Notice, Covert Affairs, Monk, and In Plain Sight will also do the trick.
  • Reaper. What can I say, I love a whimsy show.

More than medium, but not full focus:

  • Weeds. The show eventually ran out of steam, so whenever you’re over it, go ahead and bail. Until then, though, there’s a lot to like.
  • Mozart in the Jungle. I don’t care for this show, but many people whom I otherwise respect keep repping for it, so okay. Warning: Contains egregiously phony-looking instrument-playing.
  • Vikings. You should just be watching Vikings for real, but if you’re not going to do that, this is also acceptable.
  • Parenthood. Those early seasons have a lot going for them. I was spiritually allergic to the last season or so, but my pain is not your pain.
  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. There are only seven episodes, but you can still fill out about 140 invitations in that amount of time.

Remember, the more engrossing the background show, the more you’re telling yourself that you don’t want to do what you’re “supposed” to be doing. So if you’re looking for a way to make The Wire your background show, that’s your TV soul sending you a message. Maybe you don’t actually want such a big wedding, or to study for the LSATs, or to have a very clean closet. Maybe you just want to watch TV. I feel you.


What Are Good Shows to Put On in the Background?