Critic's Notebook: What TV to Catch Up on Before the Holidays

Watch these essential shows now or fall further behind, THR's chief television critic counsels.
Courtesy of Netflix
Netflix's 'Mindhunter' is riveting.

Your window of opportunity just opened. Climb through it quickly before it smashes down on your ankle and breaks it.

As December begins, there's not likely to be as good an opportunity to play catch up with your TV viewing as there is now.

And no, of course you won't catch all the way up. That's impossible. But at least you can get acquainted with a good deal of the series that will be discussed on the holiday party and dinner circuit you'll be dragged toward, not to mention many of the shows that will end up on critics' 'Best of 2017' lists.

As a reminder, my list was 38 deep in 2016. With a separate list of 13 more for network television. I fear there's going to be even more for this year. I'd tell you definitively right now but I am underwater, drowning.

Ah, but you're in the Gen Pop — the general population, as they say. And you're not required to prop up your eyelids with toothpicks and watch deep into the night, every night, fruitlessly falling short of the pace, curling into a ball of frustration, a shell of failed expectations and marrow-deep disappointment... oh, sorry, I digress.

No, your only task is to maniacally attempt to watch at least a few episodes of a couple of dozen series that are in the zeitgeist and have left you unable to contribute to water cooler conversations both real and metaphorical: "Wait, what's Mindhunter, you guys? Is that the quiz show from Norway everyone's talking about?"

Basically now's the opportunity to do better.

There are no truly slow periods in TV Land but the gears are grinding a little less crushingly. It's not until Dec. 8 that we get a series you absolutely need to watch and that's season two of The Crown on Netflix. If that news just triggered you because you never finished season one, apologies. You should do that. Maybe that's where you start.

After that, there's a lowered percentage of your friends and family members and co-workers who will dive into Amazon's comedy, Jean-Claude Van Johnson. on Dec. 15. In terms of urgency, that's not large — but if the buzz grows, I'll get back to you. On Dec. 17 is the must-see holiday special for Last Tango in Halifax. Wait, what? You've never heard of it? I'm using admirable restraint on my judgment face right now. But just jot it down and we'll move on. OK, next essential is Dec. 22 and that's Peaky Blinders coming back (yes, on Netflx) for season four. I'm not even going to ask if you know about it or have seen it and instead point you to the big picture: If you are the average Gen Pop viewer and haven't seen any of those shows, well, we're almost at Christmas and nothing essential for your life has popped up, and frankly it won't be until the Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time special that literally airs on Christmas Day (on BBC America). If that's not your thing, well, congratulations, there's nothing at all in December, hence the notion that your window of opportunity has opened.

It's an exciting time — if binge-watching countless hours of television and ignoring your loved ones and not doing Christmas shopping and foregoing some essential bathing is your idea of an opportunity, which of course it should be. And here's my advice on how to make the most of it. First, like bills coming to your house, those that came in last go on the bottom of the pile. Prioritize others first. That means that even though Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Sundance Now's Back, Sundance TV's The A Word, Showtime's SMILF and Netflix's Godless and She's Gotta Have It are totally worth your time (arguably essential), it's more important to go back a little further to, say, Mindhunter and Stranger Things (yep, both on Netflix) and knock those off your list. I'd start there.

After that, well, then you can be a tad pickier. Luckily, I've done some of the winnowing out for you. After reviving The Power Rankings!, two iterations of must-see dramas and must-see comedies were assembled. If you peek at the drama list, you'll see that both Mindhunter (No. 11) and Stranger Things (No. 2) are already on there, so you'd only have another 15 to go from that list, plus the 18 on the comedy side.

Totally doable!

I'm being serious about that, by the way. You've got a month, more or less (it's less, don't kid yourself), before all of these critics' lists start appearing and you feel ashamed for not having seen enough to feel connected. I'm doing this for you. Otherwise I'd just make you sit down and watch all three seasons of The Leftovers, but I'm not because I know you won't. I'm being practical. That said, I'm going to offer up a pro-tip — a life-hack, if you will — for making the most of your time. While I stand by the need to see all the shows on both of those lists, plus the newer ones I suggested putting off temporarily, here's a cheat sheet of those with arguably the highest priority for looking like you know what you're talking about at whatever holiday parties or dinners or family hootenanny you'll be attending:

Stranger Things (Netflix): It just got predictably renewed for a third season. You'll be looking at your feet or your plate a lot if you haven't seen this one. Others have and, trust me, they won't shut up about it.

The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu): There's only one season. You can knock this out. It's relevant (government control, lack of rights for women, gays and minorities, a dystopian religious nightmare on your doorstep!). It's bleak. It won an Emmy. Dive in.

The Americans (FX): Again, relevant (Russians!). Also completely and comfortably in the mix for best drama on TV. If you haven't already started this, well, you've got a lot of episodes ahead of you. But it's worth totally throwing away December for.

Mr. Robot (USA Network): I'm going with this because it's great again in this third season and, trend alert, relevant (hacking!). Theoretically you could watch the first season, skip the second and get into this third one. I rarely endorse that concept, but that window's not going to stay open for long.

The Deuce (HBO): You'll get points because not everybody has seen it and it's from smart people (George Pelecanos, David Simon), with great acting (Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Franco) and it's about the dirty New York of the 1970s, which isn't relevant but is, in fact, intriguing.

Mindhunter (Netflix): I'm choosing this not only because I really enjoyed it — the series is about the nascent behavioral science team at the FBI, which would then blossom into churning out profilers, a field yet invented — but also because, like The Deuce, it increases your odds of being ahead of the pack since most people have already seen the other entries and will be high and mighty and chatty about it.

On the comedy side, you can get through a lot — double the speed! — so that's not a bad strategy. Again, you should watch them all, but this is your pro-tip for maximum effect:

Better Things (FX): It's going to be on everyone's list and it's a fantastic study of three generations of women and what it's like to raise all girls, with the added bonus that (relevancy alert!) you can bring up the topic of rampant sexual harassment and whether it's possible to separate the artist from the art because Louis C.K. co-wrote most of the season and has been involved with the show from the start. Enjoy dinner!

American Vandal (Netflix): I chose this because chances are the people you'll be around haven't seen it, but they probably have seen either The Jinx or Making a Murderer and this is a spoof of that docudrama genre done with exquisite and hilarious detail, so you can lord it over them and increase their FOMO anxiety.

The Tick (Amazon): Two things here — The Tick is sneaky fun and will make you feel great. Odds are nobody you know has seen it. And if you fail to watch most of the relevant dramas listed above, you can always counter everyone's breathless discussion of Mindhunter, The Handmaid's Tale or The Deuce by saying, "I was just really trying to go less dark. The world is messed up enough and I thought it would be helpful to give my mind a little happiness, a respite. You should all try it because you look tense and stressed."

You're welcome.

By the way, once January starts, you're pretty much screwed if you haven't caught up on a ton of TV. The next wave will hit, and it will hit hard. Get through that window now.

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