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I was recently home recovering from a brief illness — not COVID — and had a lot of time to watch TV. But I didn’t want to watch only my familiar shows. The combination of tedium and stress from the illness had left me drained, and I needed a boost. So, like a museum curator, I selected a collection of shows that would make me feel better physically and mentally.
I started the process by remembering Norman Cousins’ book Anatomy of an Illness, in which the journalist treated his depression from a debilitating illness with a regimen of hundreds of hours of sitcoms and comedic movies. While comedy was part of my plan, I knew that I also needed to include dramas to engage my mind and reality shows to engage my compassion, in addition to the sort of life-affirming sitcoms that make me appreciate humanity.
Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building is a delightful surprise. Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez star as amateur sleuths trying to solve a murder in their exclusive New York City apartment building. There’s a clear debt to Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, in that solving the crime is really a way to address their own loneliness and desperation. The fantasy moments in which the characters confront their own conflicts — which could have been cloyingly precious — are actually sublimely touching. Metaphorically, they are also dead bodies that are rejuvenated by their quest. The mystery plot is not just an excuse for comic bits, it’s complex enough for mystery aficionados like myself. But each episode also delivers first-rate comedy.
I deliberately missed Ted Lasso on Apple TV+ when the first season came out. The idea of a sitcom around an American college football coach being hired to lead an English Premier League soccer team seemed like manufactured wholesomeness. I feared there would be a lot of stories about how simple American values trump British sophistication. I was wrong. The character of Ted (Jason Sudeikis) is indeed a wholesome all-American Jimmy Stewart type, but he’s much more: funny, charming, moral and sly — but mostly compassionate. There’s a lot of my old friend Coach John Wooden in him (he even hangs a copy of Wooden’s Pyramid of Success in his office).
I’ve read some criticism of the second season as being “too nice” because it lacks the villains who provided the conflicts in the first. I disagree. While the first season did have Ted facing off against external foes, the second season is about Ted and the others battling internal insecurities that sabotage their lives. It was a bold and effective choice, proof that you can focus on the good in people without sacrificing suspense or comedy. After each episode, I feel a renewed hope for humanity. That’s some serious medicine.
Netflix’s The Chair follows Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) through her first weeks as the new English department chairperson at an Ivy League-type university. She’s the first woman and first person of color to hold the position and quickly finds out how much strife comes with the job — from faculty, bosses, students and her own family. I enjoyed the campus politics that live up to the famous saying “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” But the show is quick to embrace the larger stakes as well: the institutional misogyny and racism that have the student body ready to explode. They also try to deal with the complexities of teaching on today’s politically volatile campuses, if sometimes too simplistically. Yet I found the brief discussions of Melville, Dickinson and Camus intellectually stimulating just as I feared my illness was dulling my brain.
I have praised The Good Fight on Paramount+ before, and the new season is just as dynamic as the previous four. Sometimes when you’re ill, you can feel withdrawn from the outside world. Although the show never retreats from the tough contemporary issues, I find the characters’ unwavering commitment to fighting for social justice uplifting and somehow healing. The writing is among the best on television: witty and suspenseful with sharp dialogue and unforgettable characters. Plus, it rouses us to join in the “good fight.”
Lupin on Netflix is a French series about a Black master thief whose life of crime has been inspired by the fictional adventures of early 1900s character Arsene Lupin. I love stories about people whose lives are dramatically impacted by fictional characters because my own life was influenced by Sherlock Holmes, the Three Musketeers, the Count of Monte Cristo and others that made a young boy in New York long for adventure. Though I didn’t get to sword fight my way through Europe, those novels did instill in me a conviction to fight for what’s right. Lupin also has that attitude, plus a jaunty, charming protagonist and clever heists.
As for competition shows, my old favorite, The Challenge, is back for season 37 with an even more diverse cast, most of whom are fierce athletes. While the show is filled with personal drama around romance, treachery and fragile egos, the put-up-or-shut-up moments always come down to physical competitions that are intensely challenging and often result in minor injuries. Game strategy is complex and betrayal inevitable, which makes for an exciting show.
Win the Wilderness: Alaska pits six British couples against one another to see who will win a magnificent house secluded in the wilds of Alaska. The house was hand-built by Duane and Rena Ose and is accessible only by small plane and the Oses’ self-constructed landing strip. I was especially touched by each of the couples’ motivation for wanting to live in such magnificent isolation. I couldn’t help but root for each of them because they were so sincere and decent. They have to endure a series of survival-type challenges to impress the Oses to give them the house and land. Like many, I toy with the idea of living a life of solitude at one with nature — until I realize how cruel nature can be. And how far from medical care they are.
Though personally, after watching these shows, I feel better already.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an NBA Hall of Famer and the league’s all-time leading scorer, is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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