When we got tired of work, reading, walking, baking and feeling sad about the world’s state of affairs, we tried to toss aside our COVID-19 fears, turn on the TV, not to news but to laughs, drama, romance and a little whodunit and generally avoid violence if we could. Here’s what we have most enjoyed during these last few months. Escapism is now needed more than ever. We’ve listed 10 series that have held our interest and are featured in no particular order.
Enlightened…When you need to laugh and remember that you’re fairly normal at a time when nothing seems normal, this is the series to watch. Though it debuted back in 2011, we had never heard of it despite the raves it elicited among many viewers, yet not enough since it was cancelled. We loved the main characters Laura Dern and David White—who’s also the writer and producer—plus Dern’s mom, Diane Ladd, who plays her mom in the show. It takes place in the Los Angeles area with Dern cast as a successful, ambitious, quirky executive, who has a nervous breakdown, heads off to heal in Hawaii and comes back and questions much about her life, including her company’s ethics, her colleagues, family members and friends. There’s a bit of romance, touching dialogue, fast-moving storyline with the two main threads taking place in her corporate office and her mom’s home. What we also liked was the thoughtful look at the different relationships that evolve--between Dern and her mom, between Dern and her former husband, a drug-addict, and between Dern and her supposed friends, some of whom really aren’t all that supportive.
Belgravia…Who can resist another series from Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey and the movie that continued the storyline? Not us, so we couldn’t wait to watch this period piece that takes place in the 1800s. It features the same kind of wonderful houses, scenery—here mostly London’s fancy Belgravia neighborhood, costumes, parties, hierarchical society and all its intrigues and gossip, and some history, with an episode taking place around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The story begins with the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in 1815, and we do love those gowns and dancing, held in Brussels for the Duke of Wellington before the Battle of Quatre Bras, ahead of the Battle of Waterloo. James and Anne Trenchard attend since they’ve moved up in society due to his business dealings. Their daughter becomes romantically involved with an heir, and a secret thread begins. Sorry, we can’t ruin what’s concealed. Do watch if you’re an Anglophile and want something short and sweet since this is just six episodes, a relief from some that we watched that go on for months.
Ozark…We started this series before the pandemic and were immediately hooked with the main characters’ excellent acting, including Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, who play a married couple with two children living in suburban Chicago. How nice, well, not for long. They are forced to relocate to the Ozarks in Missouri following a money laundering scheme for a Mexican drug cartel that goes bad. Bateman who plays “Marty” concocts an idea to make the money back in Missouri. There he and Linney who plays “Wendy” become involved with two local criminal families and then the Kansas City Mafia. The murders and bodies start stacking up. Among the best parts is the arrival in the show of newcomer Julia Garner who plays “Ruth,” a member of one of the criminal families. According to Wikipedia, the show is set at a modest waterfront resort, the Alhonna Resort and Marina, but was really shot in Atlanta at Lake Allatoona and Lake Lanier and some Chicago locations. We started Season three during the height of the pandemic and found it too grisly to watch while so many people in real life are dying. But for those with strong stomachs, soldier on and see it through to the end.
The Crown… Who doesn’t love royal gossip? If you’re curious about what’s happening behind the royal curtain, this historical drama serves it up in heaping doses with its first three seasons. Two more are in the works. The series covers Elizabeth II’s life from her young years to her reign in the 21st century. It lets the viewer enter the lavish and dysfunctional lives of the Windsors. When it begins, Elizabeth II is a newlywed and young mum who in her early 20s finds herself abruptly thrust into the role of Queen when her father dies. How is she supposed to handle this enormous responsibility for which she’s had the right schooling--royalty 101 at Eton College but no on the job training? She wends her way through the lifestyle changes and the political morass of her new role alongside her mentor Winston Churchill, played brilliantly by John Lithgow. Claire Foy plays Elizabeth in the first two seasons, Matt Smith is Prince Phillip and Vanessa Kirby plays Princess Margaret. Once she’s anointed Queen, the family dysfunction escalates. There is marital strife with Phillip and the dramatic breakup of Princess Margaret’s engagement to Group Captain Peter Townsend, a commoner and divorcee. (Margaret is the very definition of a royal pain.) In some of the best dramatic moments in the series, the ice-cold demeanor of the queen is brilliantly contrasted with the thundering behavior of her almost-never-sober sister Princess Margaret, a wild, fashionable and dashing figure. Season two covers the period from the Suez Crisis in 1956 to the retirement of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan i 1963 and the birth of Prince Edward in 1964. In the third and fourth seasons, Olivia Coleman takes the role of the queen with Helena Bonham Carter playing Princess Margaret. The third season spans the period between 1964 and 1977, including Harold Wilson's two periods as Prime Minister. Also introduced is Camilla Shand, who has a fling with Prince Charles but marries Andrew Parker Bowles instead. The fourth season, we are told, will include Margaret Thatcher's stint as PM, and we are to be introduced to Lady Di. Imelda Staunton will play the Queen in season five, which will cover the Queen’s reign up to today.
A Place to Call Home…This was one of our absolute favorite series and the longest with six seasons and a total of 67 episodes. We couldn’t wait to watch nightly and even sometimes two or three episodes a night—if we started early enough. The series takes place in New South Wales after the Second World War. The lead is Marta Dusseldorp, “Sarah,” who has returned to Australia after 20 years abroad to start a new life after a major falling out with her mother due to her choice of a marriage partner (the wrong religion in her mother’s snotty view). In transit on board a ship, she meets a wealthy family, the Blighs. Problems ensue from the start but so does the beginnings of a romance! We loved the different storylines through the seasons, which included homophobia, anti-Semitism, class snobbery, jealousy, affairs, secrecy and family business. We especially loved the portrayal of Regina, a widowed, wealthy, money-grubbing, mean, spiteful—you get the drift--sister-in-law of rich widowed George Bligh, the main male character. Regina does get her comeuppance, but we won’t share how. Sarah is delightful throughout, though at times a bit too saccharine for us. Maybe, that was necessary to counteract Regina’s awfulness.
Seaside Hotel…Another European series takes place in Denmark at the swank beach resort Badehotellet on the North Sea where the same guests return for long stretches every summer. What we loved was the scenery—crashing waves and deserted beaches, the food preparation by the charming staff—we’re a sucker for what’s being made and especially when it’s elaborate and delicious, the different guests’ very different personalities and again some of the storylines, which deal with homophobia, affairs, snobbery and wealth—and the lack of wealth after certain events occur. In fact, the story takes place over six seasons starting in 1928 and continuing through the stock market crash in the U.S. and onto 1933. We loved seeing how the characters’ lives change—often because they took bold steps, though sometimes because they were afraid to do so due to their or society’s morals. The most charming parts are the “upstairs/downstairs” thread—though here it’s in the back of the house in the kitchen rather than literally downstairs as in Downton Abbey and Upstairs/Downstairs, and the portrayal of Fie, a new member of the staff who comes to share her determination to help the hotel owners survive and make friends of the staff who have been employed at the hotel for years. Fie also becomes involved in a wonderful romance, which, of course, has its ups and downs. This is Danish melodrama. Our one problem with the series is that it’s in Danish with English subtitles. We wish we had mastered the Danish language during the pandemic since the subtitles shown are often hard to read, presented against light-colored backgrounds. We’re not finished yet, but it’s making us wish we could join the guests for a dip in the waves or for a glass of champagne. Not going to happen with social distancing, however.
Anne with an E…This was one series—three seasons--we just loved and liked to watch before falling asleep. Anne with an E is based on the book, Anne of Green Gables, and several movies. This season was adapted by Lucy Maud Montgomery who also made the excellent TV series, Breaking Bad. What we loved were the relationships—first the love between brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, and what eventually evolved between the brother and sister toward Anne Shirley, a 13-year-old orphan they took in, even though they expected a boy to help with their farm in fictional Avonlea on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Besides gender, Anne Shirley’s not what the Cuthberts expected with her bright carrot-orange hair, non-stop chatter, inquisitiveness and wild imagination. There’s also the love between Anne and her best friend Diane, who’s from a wealthy family, the friendship between Anne and classmate Gilbert, who eventually becomes her boyfriend—and maybe more, and the antithesis of friendship presented with lots of bullying that goes on, much directed toward Anne. We were sad when the series ended but have our real-life plan to head to Prince Edward Island for the scenery, mussels and so much more.
Delicious…By now, you know that we’re suckers for British television drama series, and this one dates from 2016 and takes place over four seasons. It’s filmed in South East Cornwall and features another hotel; this one is known as Leo’s Penrose. The actual show was filmed at several country houses. At the fictional hotel, there’s a celeb chef Leo, an ex-wife Gina who’s a great chef, a new younger wife, a daughter and son from the marriages and another son from an affair. Leo was very busy in addition to his work in the kitchen. Leo dies—sorry to spill the beans, but he returns in memories and conversations. Gina is the real star who carries on when she inherits the restaurant and is a terrific cook. We don’t want to share more but we suggest watching if you also like drama with secrets galore, romance, some scandal, jealousy and again those great food scenes. We found it quite delicious.
Halt and Catch Fire…A four-season blockbuster that’s a rare American period piece. The series takes place over a period of more than ten years, starting in the early1980s. It depicts a fictionalized insider's view of the personal computer revolution and thre growth of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. In those early years, technology hadn’t hit Silicon Valley yet. It was centered in Dallas, the home of IBM, Xerox and Texas Instruments. While the big guns dominated the market, there were the dreamers who worked in their garages and for smaller companies, searching for their piece of the technological pie. That meant doing things faster and better than their competitors. In many instances, the results were revolutionary. We found the series grabbed us with its fascinating and complex cast of characters, most of whom are prodigies in their respective areas. Season one introduces the main character, Joe MacMillan, played by Lee Pace, a cold and gigantic presence in both size and mind. He is a visionary and lives in the shadow of his domineering father, an IBM executive. Determined to make his own mark in the technology world, he works for a company called Cardiff Electric as it struggles to get a foothold in the personal computing market. With MacMillan’s sidekick, computer nerd and engineer, Gordon Clark played by Scoot McNairy, the two struggle to build and replicate the IBM PC. Also introduced is programmer, coder and overall girl genius Cameron Howe, played by Mackenzie Davis. They create a PC but the launch is sabotaged by MacMillan. We won’t give away what happens. In seasons two and three, Howe and Gordon’s wife, Donna, also a computer engineer (she and her husband met at Berkeley) played by Kerry Bishe start their own gaming and online community and call their company Mutiny. When Mutiny goes south after an ill-timed and disastrous IPO, the focus turns to a battle of the web search engines. Overall, the series features a delicious menu of love, lust, lots of technical pillow talk, complex relationships, divorces, marriages and hookups that hook the viewer into wanting more than bandwidth.
Last Tango in Halifax…We’re old so we love to see old folks—in this case seventysomethings--as the lead characters in this charming British series that combines romance, drama and some comedic moments. The backstory is that screenwriter Sally Wainwright adapted the story of her mother’s second marriage, and the main characters Derek Jacobi who plays Alan, and Anne Reid who is Celia, are delightful and realistic as we see the ups and downs of romance at their advanced ages. Age doesn’t make problems disappear, if you thought so. They connect online after 60 years, thanks to their grandsons, and what ensues are the entanglements of their own quirks and baggage, their grown children from prior marriages, their grandchildren and friends. There are also threads about homosexuality, infidelity and abuse. We loved the dialogue and how characters evolve rather than remain stagnant, and even more enjoyed the occasional dancing scenes and music. Throughout all, we rooted for many characters, which is refreshing after shows like Ozark where there was nobody we cared much about. The only bad apple here is a narcissistic, deadbeat ex-husband. The 24 episodes over five seasons are worth sticking with.
Parting shots. We’ve also decided we’re likely to rewatch certain series, including Gilmore Girls, Victoria, Call the Midwife, Unorthodox and West Wing, and are considering the recommendations for Doc Martin and Shtisel.