Despite the tragic scarcity of parties and the sad state of dating, there is some good news: I have noticed a sharp uptick in the quality of television this year. Here is a list of my lifetime favorites. I especially like documentaries, given my desire to learn something in the endless hours of this endless year.
- NXIVM cult: There are now no less than five documentaries or series about this now-famous psychotherapy cult by Keith Raniere. My favorite remains The Vow which is available with a free HBO trial on Amazon Prime. It’s long (9 episodes), but I could not stop watching it as cult psychology is a fascination of mine (so much so I might write an article about this). If you want something shorter, try the first episode of Cults and Extreme Beliefs which covers NXIVM. Similar to this are Wild Wild Country on Netflix (about Osho and the crazy woman who ran the place – I finished this one at 2am in one sitting), and American Commune.
- American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner story – 10 (short) episodes on Amazon Prime. The man is undoubtedly, one of the greatest cultural creative geniuses of the 20th century and this series is very well-done. It’s easy to critique him these days (he definitely had some blind spots around patriarchy) but those were different times. The best episodes are at the early ones where he started a magazine in his living room with 3 people which sold 70,000 copies, and continued to score ever-increasing business success for 20 years, until changing cultural and business demographics nearly bankrupted him. It’s an incredible story. If you are a guy you will also like the sexy footage, of course.
- Bruce Springsteen on Broadway on Netflix: A live concert and story-telling show. If you are into Springsteen this is a slam-dunk, but even if you are not, it is quite moving and powerful.
- Bob Dylan — No Direction Home (2005). This 3 1/2 hour documentary by Martin Scorsese is not perfect (the footage is not in historical sequence making it difficult to track the progression of his career; and also ends at his age 27); but it’s a riveting documentary about the man and the history of the US protest movements and how the music was such a bit part of that. Great footage of Joan Baez (I am in love), Allen Ginsberg, Pete Seeger etc. Also check Rolling Thunder Review which is more music and less documentary.
- The other one: the long strange trip of Bob Weir. About the phenomenon of the Grateful Dead. As a band they had (untypically) their hearts and heads in the right place, and they never lost their principles even as they became icons. I did not know this, but Gerry Garcia was diabetic, heroin and cocaine addict and died from it. He was as close to a musical God as they come.
- Genius of the Modern World by BBC. Hour-long takes on Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Thought-provoking.
- Cuba Libre on Netflix. Very long (8 episodes) historical series which tells the story of the saddest and most oppressed nation in the world, Cuba. The “funniest” episode is the one where Fidel Castro “invades” the country in a single overloaded leaky boat from Florida, loses 2/3 of his forces in his first fight, and then proceeds through good PR to take over the country and turn it into a brutal 30-year dictatorship. Funny and sad, but I guess he was better than the people who came before him, who were mostly scum. He really had no chance due to US attitudes and policies, but he fought on, and fairly successfully.
- The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns – Prime Video but not free. This is mostly for history-documentary buffs like myself, but everything by Ken Burns is good. I also recommend his Vietnam series. Both very moving and powerful.
Best new movies & series
- Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Fictional story of a female chess prodigy, although loosely modeled on Bobby Fisher. I like Aspie girl-geeks, but it’s not about that. Great dialogue and story.
- The trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix (Aaron Sorkin). Fast-paced courtroom and 60’s social activist docudrama. Interesting to me (which was subsequently revealed) is that the Chicago police department was actually responsible for the riot. But they lost the first court case due to a biased and incompetent judge.
- Molly’s Game on Netflix (also Aaron Sorkin). The secretary / organizer of a celebrity poker ring breaks off on her own (at great risk) only to run into trouble with the Feds. Very well-done and (I believe) true story.
For the rest: I am generally not big on long TV series. I have tried to watch The Crown and Outlander, both on Netflix, but they are both way too long and soap-opera-ish for me. My idea of an irresistible show is Game of Thrones, the best series ever made. It’s on HBO and bittorrent (don’t mention I said that).
Best classic movies & series
Call me a sucker for traditional romance and pretty girls, but I must admit, I love Jane Austen (even long-ish Jane Austen series, can you believe it). The following are hard to get a hold of, you will need to buy or use bittorrent. There are other versions of all these, and also Emma including Emma (1996) with Gwyneth Paltrow; but the two below are classics.
- Price and Prejudice (1996) – 6 episodes on Amazon Prime. Very true to the novel, good dialogue and characterizations (and occasionally brilliant, such as the break-up scene between Elizabeth and Darcy). Drags on a little at the end (when the conclusion is known), but it’s still guaranteed feel-good.
- Sense and Sensibility (1995) with Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson – on Amazon Prime with Starz trial. Star cast, more guaranteed feel-good soppy romance
- Poldark on Amazon Prime. Seasons 1 through 5 are free, the others I don’t know. It’s long but really entertaining and sexy. The girl is fantastic. Its the only multi-season series I have been able to watch aside from Game of Thrones
- Jewel in the Crown – Amazon Prime with PBS Masterpiece trial. 14 episodes and impossible to turn off (although a bit slow to get started). Arguably the best TV series ever made (after Game of Thrones, but this one is a chick-flick too). Very suspenseful, although understated (British-style).
Add your own in the comments! And/or check out 25 Feel-Good Films You’ll Want to Watch Again—and Again