Food, I think we can all agree, is good. So is TV; both are things most of us enjoy bingeing on, on occasion. Personally, food and TV are probably my two most frequent comforts in this dark, dark world. So when I’m eating food, and I’m watching TV, and the characters are eating food … comfort squared, truly.
In recent years, food styling — that is, the job of preparing and arranging food for film, TV, and photos — has become more important than ever. At first, says food stylist Sienna DeGovia, the food styling industry was primarily about longevity; food had to be built to last under hot lights and long shoots. Now that technology has lessened those difficulties (though they certainly still exist), food stylists can focus more on making things look amazing. “People do pay more attention now than they did in the past,” she says.” Adds fellow food stylist Janice Poon: “I want my food to be so compelling that the camera will just go to it, as if it’s a beautiful starlet.”
Winter is a time to indulge — to watch that seventh episode, to take that extra helping. With that in mind, here are ten great shows to watch that are not about food, but feature very good food, recommended both by food stylists and also me, a person who loves food and TV very much. They will all probably make you hungry.
Yes, Hannibal is on the list, but if it makes you hungry, you might also face a small existential crisis. It’s a credit to Janice Poon’s impressive food styling that, even knowing the source of the meat being eaten, it’s hard not to be tempted by the beautifully plated meals of Hannibal Lecter, serial killer and cannibal. Until halfway through the third and final season, each episode is named after a food course. The scenes of Hannibal cooking and eating are luxurious and usually set to classical music, and despite the violence that the show is centered around, viewers sometimes can’t help their mouths from watering. People love Hannibal’s recipes so much, in fact, that Poon published a cookbook of them.
Suggested Snacking: “Futamono” (Season 2, Episode 6)
The events of this episode are equal parts horrifying and delicious. Hannibal first throws an awfully appetizing dinner party during which his gloved staffers carry around yummy morsels of what we’re led to believe is human flesh, and guests are shown savoring the small bites. But it turns out that his party crudités are of the goat, pork, and beef variety; the truly horrifying scene comes later, when he feeds a man his own thigh, roasted in clay à la beggar’s clay chicken, a Chinese delicacy.
The Good Place
It’s The Good Place! Everything has to be beautiful, including the food, and the show delivers on all accounts: the frozen yogurt curls into a perfect cone, the shrimp our protagonist Eleanor so loves is plump and juicy and, at one point, comes out of a vending machine. But the show also uses its food as a sly reminder that we are, in fact, in the bad place. The food looks good, but it’s ultimately just another part of the torture, and the writers are always pointing out its flaws. As writer Megan Amram told GQ, “In the same way that New York was a supporting character for Sex and the City, food is always going to be in the background as a supporting character of The Good Place.” Also, it’s simply a great show! Ted Danson is a demon (with a truly delightful evil laugh)!
Suggested Snacking: “Dance Dance Resolution” (Season 2, Episode 2)
In this episode, Eleanor and her fellow bad-placers are rebooted more than 800 times, giving Amram the opportunity to come up with just so many food puns for the names of restaurants featured in different reboots of the good place (an abridged list of her original food pun pitches is available on her Twitter). It’s very funny, and it will make you very hungry.
Besides being one of the most well-done family sitcoms on TV right now — one that manages to be genuinely funny while also confronting issues many of us don’t want to deal with, like race and class and all the ways they intersect — Black-ish demonstrates the power of a family meal. The banter setting up the plot of each episode often happens in the kitchen, during breakfast or meal-prepping. Later, around the dinner table, those problems can be resolved. Andre can complain about work and the kids are forced to talk about what’s going on at school. Dad jokes are told. Hijinks ensue.
Suggested Snacking: “North Star” (Season 4, Episode 17)
This episode powerfully portrays the emotional power of food during the family’s Easter dinner. With Bow’s white family members in attendance, Dre explains the history of soul food and how it connects to slavery in a spoofy Chopped segment. It’s a good example of how skillfully the show manages to bring up important social issues and also make you laugh, and it reminds us of our emotional connection to the food we eat.
The precision of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner shows through clearly in the close attention paid to food on the show: any fruit on the show is small and imperfect, like it would have been in the ’60s, and when Dunkin’ Donuts was featured in an episode, the boxes used were the original ones from the era. “That whole crew, from the creator-director on down, is so detail oriented as far as getting the period correct,” says DeGovia, who styled airplane food for an episode. The carrots, she says, had to be cut into perfect cubes. Perfectly browned roast dinners and office sandwiches are not what the show is known for, but the the food is always perfect, both in terms of historical accuracy and appearance, helping to characterize the atmosphere of a given scene. It even inspired a cookbook featuring 70 recipes from the show.
Suggested Snacking: “Red in the Face” (Season 1, Episode 7)
This may be the most food-heavy episode in the whole series. It begins with a classic steak-and-potatoes dinner served by Betty and ends in a true feast of oysters shared by Don and Roger. In both cases, the food is juicy and colorful. There’s also a brief pastry close-up, and we’re treated to a scene in the grocery store, which is great because it’s all very colorful and shiny and organized.
Game of Thrones
Westeros, the fictional land in which the battles and love affairs of Game of Thrones take place, is similar to a medieval society — agrarian, with a humongous disparity between the rich and the poor. In King’s Landing, the home of the Lannisters, royalty enjoy their opulent meals featuring expensive wine, while the Starks at Winterfell enjoy heartier meals of meat and root vegetables. (As for Arya, well, all she needs is oysters, clams, and cockles.) Part of the show’s focus on gorgeous food styling and presentation stems from the source text: In the GoT books, George R. R. Martin devoted plenty of sentences to long, loving descriptions of food.
Suggested Snacking: “The Lion and the Rose” (Season 4, Episode 2)
One of multiple episodes featuring a decadent wedding feast and a violent death, this one centers around the marriage of the teenage king, Joffrey, to Margaery Tyrell, ending the Tyrell family’s siege against the capital ruled by the Lannisters. The food serves as a symbol of excess in the face of poverty — but it sure looks tasty either way.
A Nero Wolfe Mystery
This early-2000s mystery series centered around a detective, Nero Wolfe, with three obsessions: books, orchids, and food (tbh, same). His life of luxury is funded by his work as “the world’s greatest detective.” Like most fictional detectives, Wolfe has quirks that are annoying but tolerated because they’re what make him such a great detective. Who doesn’t love a quirky detective? Wolfe particularly loves meaty, fatty dishes like steak and starling. The gourmet meals prepared by his personal chef, Fritz, are not always to Wolfe’s satisfaction; arguments regularly arise. Still, the food snobs among us will appreciate Wolfe’s extremely sophisticated palate and obsession with making it just right.
Suggested Snacking: “The Golden Spiders” (Season 1, Episode 1)
The show starts with Wolfe’s dinner of starling, his very favorite dish, which he decides not to eat because he doesn’t like the way it’s seasoned. He replaces it with toast and four coddled eggs. A young kid brings him a mystery, and he solves it.
At Downton Abbey, much of life is lived in the kitchen and in the dining room, while the Grantham family are hovering over a dish of elegantly arranged duck confit or tea and crumpets. The meals shared by their staff of servants are less complicated — bread, cheese, butter, soup — but they’re staple comfort foods with their own appeal. The chaotic kitchen scenes display Mrs. Patmore’s devotion to her work as head cook, as well as her kitchen staff’s devotion to her. You’ll see the same English classics featured on The Great British Bake-Off — spotted dick (my favorite for obvious reasons), charlotte russe, or a Victoria sandwich. But unlike the immense calm that GBBO bestows upon viewers, Downton Abbey’s desserts are accompanied by constant drama. So many characters! So many problems! Honestly, it’s good they have all that food around so they can stress-eat it.
Suggested Snacking: “Episode One” (Season 1, Episode 1)
On a show as complicated and robust with characters as Downton Abbey, it’s best to start from the beginning. The premiere episode begins with the news of the sinking of the Titanic, and it functions well as a history primer and as an introduction to the many characters and the meals they all share.
The stories of this Japanese TV series, a favorite of Poon’s, center around a restaurant with strange hours; it opens at midnight and closes at seven in the morning. During that time, the owner and chef, called only “Master,” makes whatever dishes his customers request and listens to their stories related to the food. It’s a heartfelt show with mouthwatering dishes in every episode “[It shows] food as a touchstone to childhood, as a culture bond,” says Poon. In it, the sharing of food becomes “a centerpiece for mitigating the differences between strangers.”
Suggested Snacking: “Ham Cutlet” (Season 1, Episode 9)
You’ll find incredible food on any episode of the show, but this one is available on YouTube. An elderly lawyer asks the master to make the ham cutlets he used to share with the stepbrother he lost contact with after their parents divorced. His brother makes the news for refusing to move out of his apartment when the building is sold, and they eventually reunite and share the same ham cutlets they did as children. You’ll cry.
Billions is technically about an attorney general trying and repeatedly failing to prosecute a billionaire hedge fund manager. But really, it’s about food. Mostly, food is eaten out of takeout boxes or in hip New York restaurants, featuring cameos from famous chefs like Daisuke Nakazawa, David Chang, and Daniel Boulud. “Food scenes are well used to show status [and] power dynamics between the diners,” says Poon. But they also reveal the past of Bobby Axelrod, the billionaire in question; he still savors a New York slice in his childhood pizzeria every once in a while. Most uniquely, this show’s characters don’t just eat food as something to do while they develop the plot. They unabashedly enjoy it. They draw attention to it. On Billions, in many ways, the food really is the star of the show.
Suggested Snacking: “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
This is another show best begun at the beginning, because we all know how complicated and dramatic wealthy white men are. We first meet Axelrod at that favorite childhood pizza place, where he comes with his wife to savor — and I mean savor — a cheesy slice that is just floppy enough. (Also notable is that the episode begins with a dominatrix doing her thing with one of the other main characters, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades.)
This is the not-food-show food show to end all not-food-show food shows. We’ve got Sookie’s kitchen, full of colorful fruits and veggies or creamy sauces or elegantly frosted cakes. We’ve got dinners with the older Gilmores, featuring gourmet plates and perfectly blended cocktails. Lorelai and Rory’s hunger for all things saturated in fat is unmatched and admirable. Their traditional movie nights featuring like, fifty movies and three different food genres of takeout! The haphazardly slapped-together meals of tater tots and ice cream! Most importantly, the beautiful burgers and breakfast food at Luke’s Diner, which Lorelei and Rory almost always leave sadly uneaten. I’m going to go ahead and estimate that at least 75 percent of the scenes in this show include food, all the way from highbrow French dishes to lowbrow French fries. And I want to eat it all!
Suggested Snacking: “Happy Birthday, Baby” (Season 3, Episode 18)
It’s a special episode for many reasons: In the beginning, Richard makes “Johnny Machete,” a multicolored pasta dish that looks creamy and very good. Rory announces she’s going to Yale. Lorelai pays off her debt and celebrates her birthday, which includes: Mallomar cookies, a giant bowl of mac and cheese, a fancy vanilla Gilmore cake, and the world’s largest pizza (almost), with a circumference of six feet. “It was [made] in a swimming pool-type thing,” says food stylist Wendy Blasdel, who was responsible for the creation. “We were throwing pieces of pepperoni and cheese — it was huge — to make it look like a pizza.” Well done.