How television has changed. During the ’90s and early 2000s, everyone pretty much watched the same shows, on the same nights, on the same channels. Before PVRs, if you knew you had to miss a must-see episode of your favourite show, you had to haul out a VHS tape and hope it recorded.
In this semi-regular series, Free Press arts writers tell you what you should be watching.
The advent of streaming and PVRs sounded the death knell of "appointment" television. These days, everyone’s watching different shows, on a variety of different platforms. TV watching, like everything else, has become more individual and siloed. And the veritable buffet of streaming content is designed for the binge-watcher who can crush a whole season in a weekend. If you’re a more moderate consumer, well, good luck avoiding spoilers — and keeping up.
In 2018, there were 495 English-language scripted original series on TV; 160 of those series were produced for streaming services. And 2019 is on pace to crack 500.
It can be hard to decide how to spend your time when there’s just so much out there. There’s even a scientific term for this: choice paralysis. So, let us help you scale Peak TV. Welcome to Don’t Sleep on This: a new, semi-regular series in which the Free Press Arts & Life department will offer up (spoiler-free) recommendations of the shows you should be watching. In this instalment, we focus on three Netflix comedies with big hearts.
Number of seasons: 3
The Netflix series from Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch has really hit its stride in its third season, which dropped at the beginning of August. Based on the real-life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a gimmicky cult-hit women’s wrestling TV show that aired on Saturday mornings in the 1980s, GLOW is about a group of women who find out the wrestling ring is an arena for empowerment.
In Season 3, the women are in the midst of a residency at a Vegas casino called the Fan-Tan, performing the same show night after night after night (this season captures the mind-numbing monotony of months-long performance runs). This season zooms out from the lives of its leads, frenemies Ruth Wilder/Zoya the Destroyer (Alison Brie) and Debbie Eagan/Liberty Belle (Betty Gilpin), to tell the stories of the ensemble cast.
Sheila the She-Wolf (Gayle Rankin) sheds a persona that’s been holding her back and finds creative freedom. Jenny (Ellen Wong) contends with her wresting alter-ego Fortune Cookie — a mishmash of Asian stereotypes — and finds common ground with Melrose (Jackie Tohn) through their shared intergenerational trauma: for Melrose, the Holocaust; for Jenny, the Cambodian Killing Fields. And two nuanced, intersecting LGBTTQ+ storylines — underscored by the homophobia and paranoia of the 1980s AIDS crisis — are both devastating and satisfying. GLOW has always been worth your time, but now is the perfect time to start watching.
Number of seasons: 2
Come for the ’90s nostalgia and amazing Irish slang, stay for the touching coming-of-age tale. Set in Derry, Northern Ireland, during the Troubles, this laugh-out-loud, U.K.-made sitcom from writer/creator Lisa McGee has become a runaway hit across the pond since its debut last year, and is making major waves internationally via Netflix.
Erin Quinn (Derry native Saoirse-Monica Jackson) attends a Catholic girls school with her cousin Orla (Louisa Harland) and best friends, the nervous Claire (Nicola Coughlan) and rebellious Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell). Michelle’s cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn) — "the wee English fella" — comes to live with her, and attends school with the girls. Together, the gang navigates growing up during turbulent times, and all the hilarity and heartbreak that comes with it.
What makes this show a must-see is the strength of both the whipsmart writing and uniformly excellent cast — special shout-out, here, to Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney), the girls’ straight-talking, sarcastic headmistress, who is the unsung MVP of this show. It’s sweet without being saccharine, and addresses the highs and lows of adolescence without being an after-school special.
Note: you’ll rip through this one quickly. Each season has only six episodes. Luckily, it’s been renewed for a third.
Number of seasons: 2
This Australian comedy follows Audrey (show co-creator and writer Alison Bell) as she grapples with new motherhood and ends up finding a real support network in the mums’ group she reluctantly attends.
The genius of The Letdown — which is a play on the let-down breastfeeding reflex and the feeling of disappointment — is that it offers an unvarnished look at the challenges and hardships mothers go through, but does so without being soul-crushingly bleak. It tackles a broad range of issues — the loss of sense of self; wine as "mom juice"; the Venn diagram of abortion, miscarriage and infertility — with honesty and, sometimes improbably, humour. The second season, in particular, is sharply focused.
And while Audrey can be a frustrating protagonist, you’ll find yourself rooting for her. And you’ll also develop a soft spot for the most experienced — and therefore most DGAF — mom of the group, Barbara, played by Celeste Barber, the Australian comedian known for her viral parodies of celebrity Instagram photos.
Note: Like Derry Girls, these seasons are only six episodes apiece.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.