Bacteria and today’s television landscape have a lot in common. Like bacteria, television shows seem to be multiplying at a dizzying rate: Networks and streaming agencies gave viewers 409 scripted shows in the 2015-16 season, more than double the number we saw just six years ago, and even more are on track for this year. Pundits call the age “Peak TV,” and no one—not even reviewers whose job it is to watch television—can see it all.
Also like bacteria, some of what we do see isn’t very good for us. Sometimes it can even make us a little sick. But not everything on the tube is harmful. In between Game of Thrones and American Horror Story, I came across programs this year that were interesting, enjoyable and not completely burdened by difficult content.
This is not to say that the shows that follow are as clean as a bottle of bleach. Rare indeed is the series that doesn’t come with a few caveats and content concerns. But to my eye, here were five shows that feel, at least, worthy of discussion. Take a look-see and see if you agree.
Bizaardvark (Disney): The Mouse House’s newest sitcom/star factory stars the funny, talented duo of Olivia Rodrigo and Madison Hu. The two play Paige and Frankie, respectively, producing their own online variety show for the Internet behemoth Vuuugle and hanging out with a wacky cast of fellow online stars: Dude Perfect wannabe Dirk, beauty consultant Amelia and pint-size wheeler-dealer Bernie. The show is not perfect: It dabbles at times in some bathroom humor. But Disney does try to keep its shows age-appropriate, and Rodrigo and Hu’s likeability goes a long way. While meant for kids, Bizaardvark might just be a show that parents can smile and even laugh at on occasion, too.
black-ish (ABC): Remember my caveat that none of the shows on this list are perfect? This might pertain especially to this lauded ABC sitcom. There’s plenty to take issue with here, from the show’s sometimes sex-centric gags to some of the questionable parenting we see in play. And yet. For all those issues, black-ish is one of television’s sharpest, funniest and most insightful comedies, one that gives us a loving mother and father raising their children to the best (or mostly the best) of their abilities. It’s not afraid of tackling big issues like racism and religion with a fearless, funny grace. And it’s not unheard of to see the Johnsons gather around the dinner table and bow their heads in prayer. Yes, this show is far from perfect. But the strengths it brings are worth acknowledging.
Born This Way (A&E): Who says reality shows are terrible? Well, I do sometimes. But they can also provide among television’s most redemptive, heart-warming moments. Born This Way features a cadre of young adults with Down syndrome just … living their lives. They apply for jobs. They go to college. They watch movies and hang out together and fall in love, the normal cadence that makes up most of our lives, too. While the people we meet don’t always adhere to Plugged In-approved ethics—sex can be an uncomfortable topic of conversation—Born This Way humanizes people we all too often avoid. In a world where we can often feel a little slimy after watching a television show, this is a rare program that can actually inspire us to be a little bit better.
Designated Survivor (ABC): Tom Kirkman never wanted to be president. But when terrorists blow up the Capitol Building during the State of the Union address, the lowly Secretary of Housing Urban Development—the government’s “designated survivor” in the case of just such a cataclysm—becomes POTUS anyway. He’s forced to deal with rebellious governors, duplicitous generals and, oh yeah, whoever bombed the Capitol in the first place. Launched during our incredibly fractious and all-too-real election season, Designated Survivor feels surprisingly escapist, despite its grim setup. We’re given a president (Kiefer Sutherland of 24 fame) who aims to be more statesman than politician—an honest, forthright chap trying to make his way through the Washington swamp. He wants what’s best for the country, and most of the people we meet seem to want that, too. Sure there are intrigues and dastardly plots. Yes, the show sometimes can sometimes take a turn to the tawdry (such as an ongoing subplot about whether teen Leo Kirkman is really Tom’s son). But this is a series that seeks to wave the flag a little—that we’re a better country than we sometimes believe or act.
The Jim Gaffigan Show (TV Land): Alas, comedian Jim Gaffigan’s titular program is gone now, lasting just two tidy years (though you can still stream it on Hulu). But the Catholic funnyman’s program wasn’t canned because of poor ratings. Gaffigan and his wife left the show—based on their life in new York raising five children—to better raise their five children. It was, in some ways, a fitting (if premature) end to one of the funniest and most family-affirming sitcoms on television, one in which Gaffigan often referenced his own Catholic faith (while giving it a good-natured ribbing, too). While the show could sometimes stray into territory that’d have parents covering their kids’ ears, Gaffigan—known as one of America’s best “clean” comedians—was far more likely to make fans laugh than wince.