Comfort TV: 9 comedies to binge as an escape from our nation's madness

Don't anguish over our reality alone. Retreat for a while into these comedies instead

By Melanie McFarland - Ashlie D. Stevens - Hanh Nguyen
November 3, 2020 12:41AM (UTC)
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Zita Hanrot and Marc Ruchmann in "The Hookup Plan," "Harley Quinn," and Jason Sudeikis in "Ted Lasso" (Netflix/DC Universe/Apple TV+)

Television is an essential worker right now. At a time of amplified anxiety and uncertainty, it offers solace and escape, and as millions contend with the emotional toll of being separated from family and friends, or stuck with same, it can be a bulwark against loneliness.

Admittedly these factors are the reason people knocked TV for decades, but in case you haven't noticed, the state of the world has been anything but normal for years, and now we're in a pandemic. Waking life shouldn't make a person yearn for a long bath in one of those "Westworld" tubs filled with viscous goo – something emollient, encompassing and sound-deadening sounds wonderful, doesn't it? – and yet, here we are.

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That said, although yearning for "Westworld"-style hydrotherapy (minus the flesh-building needles) is normal, HBO can keep its accompanying dystopia thanks much. The live horror show that is life in early November 2020 is checking that box already, and as our nerves continue to unravel, we can't think of many dramas other than "This Is Us" that can soothe them.

Bring on the comedies instead, and please, also thank you.

Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams created a wonderful list of soothing comedies in July, which feels like a year ago. Besides, during this Election Week the more comedy options we can enjoy the better. Here are few our Culture team will be watching to help ease the stress of waiting for voting totals to come in from swing states. May they comfort you through this week and long afterward.

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"A.P. Bio" (Peacock)

Sometimes, you just want to give into your trash impulses, and "A.P. Bio" is where you can see them played out. Disgraced Harvard philosophy professor Jack Griffin ("It's Always Sunny" star Glenn Howerton) loses his dream job to his rival Miles, and must resort to working as an advanced placement biology teacher at a Toledo high school to stay solvent. Instead of teaching these overachieving kids anything on the syllabus, however, he exploits their brains and desires for an A to devise elaborate ways to exact revenge on Miles. Patton Oswalt co-stars as the school's ineffectual principal, while queen of comedy Paula Pell steals scenes as his assistant. The show's stellar ensemble cast – including a trio of fellow teachers and a colorful group of students who demonstrate an affinity for something other than studying – only add to the gleefully enjoyable performances.

NBC canceled this schoolroom comedy after only two seasons, but they're now streaming for free on Peacock, the network's relatively new streaming service. This move also revived the show, and its third season is also available but only for subscribers. After watching the first two installments, you'll have a good idea if you'll find that investment worth your while. – Hanh Nguyen

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"Dash & Lily" (Netflix)

This is a bit of a cheat since the show doesn't premiere until Nov. 10, but assuming there's life after the election this still could fly under some viewers' radars amidst Netflix's other November offerings. Add it to your queue now. In this adaptation of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's novel (the same folks who wrote "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist"), two teenagers anonymously pass a notebook back and forth, within which they open up about their hopes and fears while daring each other to perform tasks around New York that take each of them out of their comfort zone. The pen pals – the perpetually disgruntled Dash (Austin Abrams) and the awkward, Christmas-loving Lily (Midori Francis) – begin to fall for each other, but it remains to be seen if they can continue their connection off the page. 

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Now that it's officially November, you don't have to feel too dirty about giving into Christmas creep, and the story's nods to "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler" gives it that nostalgia factor. The series is a love letter to all the New York locales we're missing right now and boasts a killer soundtrack that doesn't dip into the overused yuletide well. How can you not appreciate needle drops for Joni Mitchell, the Pogues, and Sufjan Stevens? With only eight short episodes, it's a quick hit of eggnog to your veins. – H.N.

"Harley Quinn" (HBO Max)

It's high time that Gotham had a crime queen. That's the spirit in this secondary origin story for Harley Quinn (voiced by Kaley Cuoco, who also executive produces) rallies around – you know, the one that develops after she breaks it off from the Joker (Alan Tudyk). The fantabulous live-action movie "Birds of Prey"  also teases us with that possibility but – no offense to Margot Robbie, who slays the role – this animated series more fully realizes the magnetic appeal of Harley apart from the Clown Prince of Gotham's crime world.

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The show's sharp, wicked humor vaults it into the must-watch circle, and as the writers push harder into evolving the ride-or-die friendship between Harley and endlessly patient bestie Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) into something more profound in Season 2 the action transforms into something more soulful as well.

Along the way "Harley Quinn" series creators Patrick Schumacker, Dean Lorey and Justin Halpern liberally bounce scads of tongue-in-cheek humor into the Gotham universe's mythology and have a veritable hootenanny with the ludicrous nature of the heroes and villains in Batman's orbit, granting an odd amount of development the likes of Kite Man and the Condiment King in addition to plenty of queer subtext. (Ever muse about the true nature of the Joker's obsession with Batman? This show does.) The unrepentantly blue streak threaded throughout makes "Harley Queen" very much an adult-style treat, and with each of its 26 episodes coming in at around 20 minutes long, you can somersault through the entirety of its two seasons and bust a gut without breaking a sweat. – Melanie McFarland

"The Hookup Plan" (Netflix)

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If you were among the hordes who watched the problematic Darren Star confection "Emily in Paris," then this French series will give you a far better picture of the city and its people despite the show's ridiculous premise. Elsa (Zita Hanrot) is a quirky, marine biology-loving young woman who can't stop pining after her ex-boyfriend even two years after their breakup. Her pals – the pregnant and uptight Emilie (Joséphine Draï) and nonconformist Charlotte (Sabrina Ouazani) – secretly hire male escort Jules (Marc Ruchmann) to take Elsa on a couple dates to raise her self-esteem. Of course, human nature intervenes, and feelings become rather entangled.

The show, which is fueled by the refreshingly flawed characters' lies and deceptions, has a bit of a "Friends" vibe with a tight-knit group of six pals, with a few more oddballs orbiting. With only eight half-hour episodes in Season 1 and six in the second, it's a quick and breezy binge. Plus, there's a bonus "Lockdown Plan" episode coming to Netflix on Nov. 6 for a satisfying if surreal "Where are they now?" conclusion. – H.N.

"Kim's Convenience" (Netflix)

Here's another Canadian comedy with a big heart that unabashedly presents a vision of the world as it is for anyone who has a favorite corner spot in their neighborhood. The Kims own such a place in Toronto, a convenience store run by parents "Appa" (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) and "Umma" (Jean Yoon) (or "mom" and "dad" in Korean) along with their daughter Janet (Andrea Bang), who aspires to be a professional photographer. While she attends art school, Janet also helps out with the store and maintains connection with Jung (future Marvel star Simu Liu), her older brother who is estranged from their father. 

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Jung works at a car dealership with his friend and roommate Kimchee (Andrew Phung) and harbors a crush on his manager, the sweetly awkward, Shannon (Nicole Power) that definitely proves to be mutual. That's pretty much the gist of "Kim's Convenience," and its classic sitcom simplicity is its power: it is another place where everybody knows your name, and even if Appa isn't always glad you can he eventually shows how much he appreciate your and your business.

That also make "Kim's Convenience" a show about immigrants where the folks are living their lives and dealing with the same screwball situations as mainly white sitcoms. And while various subplots throughout its four seasons and 52 half-hour episodes touch upon xenophobia, anti-immigrant politics, and white privilege, the series' strength is in its diligent focus on the Kims and their individual quirks.

Its sweet, kind-hearted spirit provides a view of the world as we know it can be – and better yet, as it still exists in many communities. In this sense, "Kim's Convenience" does more than make us laugh. It gives us hope. – M.M.

"Lodge 49" (Hulu)

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Dud — a charming, genial beach bum played by Wyatt Russell, Kurt Russell's youngest son — is searching, in his own languid way, for . . . well, something. Maybe it's answers surrounding his father's mysterious death, or insight into his own freak accident that took place on a Costa Rican surfing trip, a snake bite left him with a long-lasting, noticeable limp. Maybe it's a pathway back to the middle-class existence he enjoyed growing up, or at least out of the pawn shop sell-and-buy-back cycle. 

His seeking eventually leads him to the doorstep of Lodge 49, a not-so-secret fraternal society that appeals to Dud on two levels. There's the social aspect; he becomes fast friends with "Luminous Knight" Ernie (Brent Jennings), a world-weary plumbing salesman on the hunt for a career-changing client, and the two quickly run up their tabs at the lodge bar. And then there are the metaphysical underpinnings of the lodge. 

The lodge was founded on Old World alchemical lore and, to the delight of trippy apothecary owner and lodgemember Blaise (David Pasquesi), Dud stumbles into some evidence that those teachings may not just be myths, after all. 

"Lodge 49" is a leisurely paced show, but one densely packed with quirky subplots, a hefty dose of surrealism, and a strong cast of supporting characters — especially Dud's sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy). Together, they make the appealing case that everything is, in fact, connected. Both seasons are only 10 episodes each. – Ashlie D. Stevens

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"Lovesick" (Netflix)

The show was previously called the defiantly absurd "Scrotal Recall," and I'm forever sad that it was changed to a more palatable title, but if that helps this lovely series to draw eyeballs, then so be it. Johnny Flynn (known for playing Mr. Knightley in the latest "Emma" and soon-to-be David Bowie in "Stardust") stars as the well-meaning but rather bumbling Dylan, who discovers that he has chlamydia, and therefore must divulge this information to every woman he's slept with. This sends him on a psychosexual 12-step journey as the series hops around in his past, where the viewers begin to piece together his messed-up emotional state and come to guess which lady might actually be his destiny.

He shares a house in Glasgow with his pals – the crass womanizer Luke (Daniel Ings) and sarcastic Evie (Antonia Thomas of "Misfits" and "The Good Doctor") – whom we also get to meet in the various states of their emotional maturity through Dylan's flashbacks. Hilarious but stealthily heartbreaking, the series is a smart take on the difficulties of dating and knowing what's best for oneself. The series is complete in three short seasons, only 22 episodes total. – H.N.

"PEN15" (Hulu)

An Emmy rout for Canada's "Schitt's Creek" resulted in untold numbers of people discovering that comedy posthumously either in syndication or streaming. (It's currently on Netflix.) But this is another Emmy nominee as deserving of our attention right now, and it's especially potent medicine for anyone harboring a nostalgia fix. That's because it isn't an analgesic. It's an antacid.

"PEN15" is created by and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, two thirtysomething actors playing excessively uncool 13-year-old versions of themselves struggling through seventh grade in the year 2000 – you know, when that other contentious election with lasting ramifications upon America played out.

Maya and Anna have much bigger concerns to contend with than politics, though . . . like their crushes, being popular and scoring cool points with their classmates. Remember the careless days of early adolescence? This show takes us back there. Then it reminds us why most of us are relieved that it is a dot in our rearview mirror. Two words: puberty sucks.

No doubt about it, this show will snap your heart in two, but in the best way. It also enables viewers to stumble down memory lane and collectively cringe at the dumb things we did while also forgiving ourselves. Ultimately this makes "PEN15" a healthy kind of comfort, the type that doses us with nostalgia over the 17 episodes that are currently streaming, while successfully arguing that it's better to keep moving forward. – M.M.

"Ted Lasso" (Apple TV+)

I initially held out on jumping into "Ted Lasso" because sports dramas aren't typically my thing, but as the weeks went by, I kept seeing tweets in passing about how wholesome the show was. Things like "Ted Lasso is wholesome hope in a cute little TV box," and "Ted Lasso is a soothing balm in these mean-spirited times." 

And indeed, it is. 

Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis, is essentially Mr. Rogers if Fred Rogers ordered whiskey whenever the opportunity presented itself. Saturated with well-trodden fish-out-of-water tropes, the show follows American football coach Ted, who is recruited to move across the pond by the new Richmond FC owner, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), precisely because he doesn't know the basic rules of soccer. Rebecca inherited the already-floundering team from her philandering ex-husband and she wants to destroy the thing he loved most. 

But the story quickly turns away from the obvious jokes about Ted's ignorance of England and the game itself, and transforms into a series that quietly proclaims the importance of believing that you can make your community — be that a sports club, a friend group or a more literal community — a better place to be, and the power of pairing that belief with action. 

Ted's the kind of guy who learns names and makes people feel valued. He elevates voices that go unheard, but have important things to say, like that of Nathan Shelley (Nick Mohammed), the team's "kit man" who's deeply shy, but knows a ton about the sport. Ted's cheerful in a way that's unrelenting, but never feels disingenuous. He makes tough choices, like pulling the star player from the pitch because he refuses to be a team player. 

Watching Ted put his goodness into action — even, or perhaps especially, when facing professional and personal adversity — keeps this from becoming just a situational comedy about an average dude failing upwards. Instead, it's a feel-good show about an imperfect, but genuinely good person, which is absolutely a source of hope. Checking out the 10-episode first season, even if it requires an Apple TV+ subscription, is well worth your time since the show will be returning for a second season. –A.D.S.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture.

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Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and food. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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