We at America are grateful for the bounty of on-demand streaming options and titles the 21st century has gifted us, and have asked our team to share what they have been watching during the pandemic. While some staff members expressed a reluctance to disclose their guilty pleasures to the world, others were eager to share what is amusing them. At the end of the day, no matter what one is watching, we are all simply trying to make it through 2020 without going stir-crazy.
We asked our team two questions: What have you been watching to feed your mind? And what have you been watching for fun, and why do you recommend it?
Enjoy these musings on what’s entertaining the housebound America bunch.
Zac Davis, Associate Editor
First, I reject this snooty breakdown of “smart” and “fun” TV, but I will play along. “Ramy,” streaming on Hulu, follows its titular protagonist as he seeks to sort out what it means to grow up as a first-generation American Muslim. As someone who makes a podcast for and thinks about what it means to be a young adult believer, I have found it to be one of the most moving and soul-feeding depictions of a millennial grappling with his religious identity. The stories of the overly pious and the “Well, I was raised X but left it behind” types proliferate across pop culture. In depicting the day-to-day, authentic struggle of integrating identities and trying to be a holy believer, “Ramy” is charting a different path.
I was delighted to finally get around to Netflix’s “Big Mouth.” It’s a welcome addition to the adult, (frequently extremely) crude cartoon genre that “The Simpsons” and “South Park” trail-blazed. “Big Mouth” follows a group of preteens and the “hormone monsters” that plague them and their changing bodies. It’s a playful reminder that middle school and puberty are truly traumatic experiences for all of us, but even in the midst of that, there is plenty to laugh at and give thanks for.
Vivian Cabrera, Assistant Editor
I started watching “Immigration Nation” on Netflix. It is a short documentary series on I.C.E. and the lives of some of the immigrants they have taken into custody. You really get a sense of how broken our immigration system is and how it tears families apart. The testimonies of some of the men who have been separated from their children just break your heart. It is not an easy watch, but it is a show everybody should see.
“The Great British Baking Show,” also on Netflix. If you need to watch something that will help you forget all the horrible things happening around you, I recommend this show. It is delightful and so calming to watch. It has made me hypercritical of everything I bake, so that’s fun for me. It serves as inspiration for my future bakes and encourages me to experiment with flavors and ingredients.
The men who have been separated from their children just break your heart. It is not an easy watch, but it is a show everybody should see.
Sebastian Gomes, Executive Editor
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”; “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”; “13th”
“Silicon Valley” (HBO)—just hilarious. “Parks and Recreation” (Netflix), again hilarious. Catching up on oldies like “Breaking Bad” (binge-worthy, but too long).
Kevin Christopher Robles, O’Hare Fellow
Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” is a show I’ve had on rotation for over five years, and there’s a simple reason why: It gives me hope. There are so many prestige dramas out there: “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones” and “Chernobyl.” But they all feel the same in tone. They’re relentlessly cynical, unrestrained in telling their audiences that the world is a dark and dreary place and everything sucks and we’re all going to die. But “The West Wing”? This show chooses to be hopeful. It chooses to be better. It chooses to lift us up in ways that those other shows simply can’t. President Bartlet, played by the great Martin Sheen, sums up the show’s ethos poignantly during the show’s fourth season, quoting Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.”
“The West Wing”? This show chooses to be hopeful. It chooses to be better. It chooses to lift us up in ways that those other shows simply can’t.
Over the summer, I binged the eight “Harry Potter” films for the first time since childhood. It’s impressive to see just how well these movies hold up. For sure, it’s not a film series that can claim to be the best ever, but it’s amazing how cohesive it feels as a saga. Besides the third film directed magnificently by Alfonso Cuaron, I discovered that the second and sixth films held up much better on subsequent viewings, and the finale elicited emotions few other works of media have brought out in me. These movies have so much heart and soul. There really isn’t a series of movies like this, where you get to see the main cast age in real time. You follow these kids from childhood to adolescence over a filming period of 10 years. That’s extraordinary.
Molly Cahill, O’Hare Fellow
The most memorable watch of quarantine for me (hands down) has been “Just Mercy.” I had read and loved the book years ago and had been meaning to see the movie, but it definitely shattered my expectations. There were several parts (and one scene in particular) that left me in tears, and people should absolutely be warned that some of the material is quite heavy. But I was amazed by the thoughtfulness and sensitivity that everyone involved in making the movie brought to such heartbreaking material. I learned so much and was motivated to find new ways to advocate for a better justice system, particularly for those facing the death penalty.
“Salt Fat Acid Heat.” I’m not normally a big food show watcher, but the chef/host Samin Nosrat is fun and so knowledgeable. The four episodes follow food, family, culture and travel in Italy, Japan, Mexico and California—which was also cool since I haven’t been able to travel anywhere for several months and it made me feel like I was on a world adventure.
I learned so much and was motivated to find new ways to advocate for a better justice system, particularly for those facing the death penalty.
Robert David Sullivan, Senior Editor
Science-fiction anthologies (“The Twilight Zone,”“The Outer Limits,”“Black Mirror”). It is oddly comforting to watch people deal with previously unimagined dangers and disorienting situations. Aliens, evil dolls, insane government experiments... we can see the same strengths and failings in how people react to all of them. And in some of the episodes, faith and goodness actually win in the end.
The workplace sitcom “Superstore,” because I had never seen it before and because everyone is constantly violating the rules of social distancing—even by pre-pandemic standards.
And in some of the episodes, faith and goodness actually win in the end.
Joe Hoover, S.J., Poetry Editor
I started watching “Homeland,” which is an extraordinary series—top-flight acting, writing and directing. It is a high-stakes tale of intrigue, terror, mental illness, affairs, torture, love and destruction. There are about 10 seasons. I watched the first two—some of the best TV I’ve ever seen. After the high-wire finale of the second I was…exhausted. I don’t think I can do any more. It’s too good.
Every so often I watch “The West Wing,” a horrible, idolatrous, smug, self-satisfied, mind-crushing, soul-dispensing television series that golden-calfs the presidency, fetishizes the national security state and turns the wretched machinery of American political statecraft into a gilded ceremony worthy of a high Latin Mass (at a conference of how to do high Latin masses). And it is tons of fun to watch. Since “sheltering in place” ended in New York, I’ve also been enjoying informal sessions by live jazz bands in Prospect Park. Much more chill than “Homeland.”
J.D. Long-García, Senior Editor
Does “Avatar: The Last Airbender” count as feeding the mind? I had seen the movie years ago and am nevertheless still an M. Night Shyamalan fan. I did not watch the TV series until after reading Maeve Orlowski-Scherer’s review of it this summer. That inspired my family to watch it together. We absolutely love it. Healthy for mind and soul. I’m not bending any of the elements just yet, but maybe after the final season.
I've been watching a lot of baseball. I’m sort of fried on politics and pandemic news, but I have to stay plugged in—part of my faith and profession as a journalist. For respite, I watch baseball. I have a favorite team, but I’ll watch just about anything. It’s probably the greatest sport of all time, and many of my countrymen from the Dominican Republic are exceptional players.
I’m sort of fried on politics and pandemic news, but I have to stay plugged in.
James Keane, Senior Editor
I read books, book reviews and dense theological essays all day long. Therefore, I deliberately don’t watch anything that feeds my mind, unless it’s contemplating the sublime brilliance of Clayton Kershaw’s 12-to-6 curveball.
The pandemic has been my chance to binge-watch “The Office” and “Shameless” (American versions) for the first time. The former is just sort of mindless fun (with a lot of reminders of last decade’s cliches), while the latter is an interesting mix of comedy and very, very dark ruminations on human nature. The characters are simultaneously so charming in their pluck and honesty and love for each other, and so repugnant in a lot of their everyday actions, that it almost feels like reading an old Graham Greene novel.
James Martin, S.J., Editor at Large
I’ve been watching “The Crown” (again) on Netflix. It’s so literate and well acted and beautifully staged and, to boot, a reasonably good précis of the last few decades in world history. The first season seems to be the best, but I do like Olivia Colman as the middle-aged Elizabeth, who I also watched this pandemic in “Broadchurch.” (“Old bat” is the first thing she says in Season 3 when she sees her new portrait on a stamp.) I’m in awe of the CGI, unless they built a scale-model version of Buckingham Palace. Also in Season 3 is the episode “Bubbekins,” about Princess Alice (who became a Greek Orthodox nun), played by Jane Laportaire, which is surprisingly moving. Looking forward to Season 4, starring Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher.
For fun: reruns of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”on YouTube of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s comedians like Bob and Ray, Jonathan Winters, Rodney Dangerfield, Louie Anderson, Ellen DeGeneres and anyone else of note. Why? Hysterical.
It’s so literate and well acted and beautifully staged and, to boot, a reasonably good précis of the last few decades in world history.
Kevin Clarke, Chief Correspondent
I can’t say that I have watched much that fed my mind as much as I collapsed into acceptance of many, any-old distractions. I rewatched “The 400 Blows” for like the 300th time, revisited “The Deer Hunter” and “Jaws” and finally saw “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (an embarrassing omission).
Like all of America, we watched “Tiger King,” a jaw-dropping rubberneck of atrocious behavior, as the lockdown began. I caught up with the serpentine plot line of “The Good Place.” We saw lots of Marvel and DC stuff (four kids)—“The Umbrella Academy” and its more vulgar, less interesting offspring, “The Doom Academy.” The kids revisited “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and liked the series about contemporary teens “On My Block”; three generations of Clarkes enjoyed the gleefully vulgar “Derry Girls.” You could not beat mindlessly-fun-with-Catholic-overtones “The Warrior Nun.” Whole family liked “Hanna” and “Lost in Space,” and we are late to this party but enjoying it—“Schitt’s Creek.”
Tim Reidy, Deputy Editor in Chief
Ken Burns’s “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Yes, I came for the pretty pictures of open spaces, but I stayed for the stories of American dreamers (John Muir, in particular) who knew that this country’s greatest asset was the virgin land beneath their feet. Muir is one of those rare American characters who had tremendous vision and the savviness to help bring that vision to life. We have Muir to thank for the majesty of Yosemite.
I came for the pretty pictures of open spaces, but I stayed for the stories of American dreamers who knew that this country’s greatest asset was the virgin land beneath their feet.
“Red Oaks.” The story of a country club in 1985 New Jersey was irresistible to this New Yorker who spent his summers and college years in the Garden State. I tuned in because of the music, a stew of lesser-known ’80s B-sides and one-hit wonders with the occasional classic thrown in. I was hooked by the story of an aimless assistant tennis pro (Craig Roberts) and his stoner friend (Oliver Cooper), who both know pretty well what they don’t want in life. They just can’t quite figure out what is worth taking a risk for. Like “GLOW,” this is an ’80s show that is much more than an excuse to trot out leotards and questionable perms.
Kenneth Arko, Director of Advertising Services
“PBS Newshour” with Judy Woodruff is a rare offering of actual professional, in-depth journalism without the ridiculous flash of 24-hour cable news sources or shows. I feel a person on the opposite side of their inherent political bias will still feel respected and heard.
The real “Avatar” series, not the James Cameron blue people. This series is an amazingly deep, funny and truthful arc of some of humanity’s ultimate truths and struggles. Presented in the most entertaining way possible… cartoon! To have these series available for bingeing is a real gift. When these first came out, they took three years to complete the entire story. Usually at 22 minutes per week!
Erika Rasmussen, O’Hare Fellow
I tore through “The OA” on Netflix in six days. When I graduated college and returned to my family to enjoy the summer-in-limbo at home, this series reawakened a sense of wonder and playfulness that I had been missing. After watching the first couple of episodes one afternoon, I went on a solo walk to my favorite park and felt more at peace than I had that entire month—because I was reminded just how spectacular and strange and vast our existence really is. That is the sort of effect that a piece of art can have that I really treasure: a reminder of how very little I know, a reminder that no matter the circumstance, existing is a wild, miraculous, curious adventure.
“How to Get Away With Murder” has kept me at my fingernails (and up late into the night). It’s very stressful, in all the good ways that make a story riveting and un-abandonable. The plot masterfully weaves relationships and events that span an entire decade. I will say, there doesn’t seem to be a single character who doesn’t lie almost pathologically. But, as with all good stories, the creators of this one know how to make you love the characters like good friends, no matter the deeds they commit.
Kerry Weber, Executive Editor
“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” There may be no better program for helping one manage the mix of emotions that come with parenting in a pandemic. Fred Rogers urges us to “look carefully, listen carefully”; to wonder “why.” He reminds us that “it's not easy to keep trying, but it’s one way to grow.” It’s been lovely to rewatch these episodes with my 4-year-old, 2-year-old and a newborn at home. Apparently the show is popular among their crowd as well.
Fred Rogers urges us to “look carefully, listen carefully”; to wonder “why.” He reminds us that “it's not easy to keep trying, but it’s one way to grow.”
“Glow Up: The Next Makeup Star.” With a newborn at home and a pandemic still going, I have had considerably fewer social events lately. In fact, I have not had an occasion to wear makeup since March. Even pre-pandemic, I wasn’t particularly fond of it or skilled at applying it. Yet somehow, I’ve been fascinated by this British reality competition among amateur makeup artists on Netflix. The participants elevate makeup to an art form using the face as a palate. It’s heartwarming to see the ways in which their embrace of this art form has allowed many of the contestants to find a deeper understanding of themselves and their tribe. It’s also a very uncomplicated show to follow while feeding the newborn at 2 a.m. And 4 a.m. And 6 a.m.