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 email@example.com, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.
Say you’re too sick to look at a big TV screen, or even your computer screen. What are shows that will hold up okay and not make you feel claustrophobic on a phone? Trust me, I was very sick. —L
I’m not putting down the visual joys of television, but … there are plenty of shows you can watch on your phone and be just fine. Just about any sitcom will fit the bill, given how little most comedies rely on sweeping vistas, and many cartoons will also lose very little on a smaller screen. If you’re feeling low and want to wallow, Party Down and You’re the Worst (both on Hulu) feature people who are often unhappy, and both shows include occasional barfing, if you don’t want to feel like the only person who has ever barfed. Sometimes when you’re really sick, you wonder! (“Is this … is this how I die?”) But then you see people on TV really struggling through hangover hell, and you think, Truly, we are all part of the same mass of humanity, all of us born from Satan’s asshole, but we must endure. Wilfred, maybe? Scrotal Recall is a bleak delight, too.
Maybe you’re not barf-sick. If you can tolerate depictions of food, you should watch The Great British Bake-Off, or as it’s known on U.S. PBS stations, The Great British Baking Show. You don’t need extreme close-ups of fruitcakes, so it’s good phone-viewing, plus the judges describe and analyze every inch of what’s prepared, so even if you can’t spot the slightly irregular icing, trust. They will. GBBO is the most gentle, humane reality show I’ve ever seen, one that isn’t designed to screw over its contestants and push them to weeping, but rather one that’s like your most serious but inspiring high-school teacher: You just feel super-motivated to do your best, and you can’t help it, and goddamn if this meringue couldn’t be more perfect if God whipped the egg whites herself. America’s Test Kitchen, too, has never steered me wrong. (Just remember: Think of it as a spiritually brutalizing domestic drama.)
Finally, if you feel like you can’t commit to big, long episodes, try the web series city.ballet, a documentary about the New York City Ballet. It’s riveting even in small doses.
Am I wrong for being turned off by terrible special effects in a television show? I know as a viewer I’m obligated to understand that there are budgetary reasons for this, but I still can’t commit myself to watching sci-fi-heavy shows, especially comic-book ones, for this reason. Are there shows with great special effects, or am I doomed a life of only receiving great visuals in an Imax theater? —Ruben
You’re not wrong. Ringer never recovered from its truly garbage “boat” scene. What could have been! The practical effects on The Walking Dead are dazzling, but on the season premiere, the CGI shots of the queuing zombies just looked like a screenshot of the old PC game Lemmings. What a great game. What a bad scene. I’m always surprised when Game of Thrones wins special- and visual-effects Emmys because the dragons look so cartoony, and that mammoth from a few years ago haunts me in the uncanny valley. Doctor Who sometimes looks like two mozzarella sticks dying in an oven, but then some episodes look fantastic. Budgets are weird.
The effects on BSG got the job done, though, and the effects on BSG Jr., The 100, are pretty solid, too. If you’re looking for gross-out, wild special effects, Hemlock Grove has some terrific ones. (Warning: very gross.) It’s not a very good show, but in terms of hands coming out of werewolves and stuff, it works. But if you want a comic-book show that just does away with flashy CGI, try Daredevil. Just authentic-looking punching for that show! Seriously, the show is 80 percent punching.
I am thinking about breaking up with How to Get Away With Murder. I am all caught up on the other two Shondaland shows, but I haven’t even finished the season premiere of Murder. I’ve been too busy watching shows like The Good Wife, Nashville (another rocky relationship) and The Affair to devote any time to it. Plus, now Fargo is back (and SO GOOD), and, well, a girl’s got to see her family, work, and sleep. Will my TV viewing be diminished if I just delete my HTGAWM season pass? —Jessica
No. Set yourself free. I used to think the show was basically Slytherin Law School, but I have to think Slytherins get off on being deceptive, at least sometimes, whereas our Scooby Gang on HTGAWM just wants to mope around. For now I’m basically hanging on for Oliver, Laurel’s eyebrows, Asher’s goofy faces, and the hopes of seeing additional Gilmore Girls alums. If it gets amazing, I’ll tell you. Pinky promise.
Not to sound hysterical, but sometimes it feels like we’ll never have another drama like Mad Men or Breaking Bad that everyone (relatively) is tuned into, like watercooler TV of decades past. Do you think that time of television is over because of too many options and the convenience of streaming, or is it a matter of being patient and waiting for the next one to come along? —Lauren
Uh-oh, Lauren, your demographics are showing. Most people — the staggering majority, in fact — didn’t watch Mad Men or Breaking Bad, and certainly didn’t watch them when they aired. BB’s finale pulled in huge numbers (around 10 million viewers), but its final-season premiere was more like 5.9 million, and its previous season premieres were closer to 3 (and 2) million. Mad Men was far less popular, for a variety of reasons. Those felt like watercooler shows to you because birds of a feather watch together.
We have other conversation-piece dramas right now. Mr. Robot and The Americans leap to mind, and I think plenty of Scandal fans would agree that they like to kibitz about the show the next day. Empire, certainly. AHS, depending on whom you run around with. (It’s not a scripted prestige show, but when The Bachelor/ette is in season, it seems like everyone wants to chitchat about it.)
But if you want a watercooler show in your life, make a new show your watercooler show. You should pick Fargo, because it just started its second season, but you don’t need to have watched season one or the movie. (You may, and it certainly doesn’t hurt, but it’s not essential.) Plus, it’s a mini-series, which people might find easier to commit to. Start talking about Fargo. “Did you watch Fargo last night?” “Hm, no.” “Oh, it’s really good, it’s a sad murder show, but weird and quirky, too.” Repeat. When someone says yes, be excited! “I’m so glad! Yay, us! Let us now talk about if there was too much food noise in that first episode.” (YES. Ban meal scenes.) This is how I got everyone I know to watch UnREAL. Be the watercooler you wish to see in the world, Lauren. Also, watch Fargo.