Television just keeps getting better and better. It also gets worse and worse.
It’s the frustrating paradox of reviewing television. While TV-based stories have gotten more nuanced and complex, they’ve also become more needlessly foul and salacious—and sometimes it seems like Emmy awards often go hand in hand with withering content. Which leaves discerning viewers in a lurch. And you’d be right to wonder, “Are there any good shows out there that I can actually watch?”
Maybe. Few television shows come without problematic content of any sort, here are a few gems I uncovered last year that just might fit the bill (even if some of them are now only available in your Netflix or Hulu queues).
The Flash (CW): The bad guys are running the show over at Fox’s Gotham. ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is getting grimmer by the episode. Good old Oliver Queen is still his brooding, shadowy self on CW’s Arrow. It’d sure be great to see a superhero who’s a super nice guy too, wouldn’t it? Meet Barry Allen, the titular speedster on The Flash. Oh, sure, he has his moments of inner angst: What modern superhero doesn’t? But in an age in which flawed antiheroes often wear the capes, Flash is refreshingly old-school—a do-gooder more at home in a black-and-white world. The Flash is known for being able to outrun anything, of course. But to outrun most of his show’s potential shadows? Pretty remarkable, that.
Girl Meets World (Disney): A sequel to ABC’s much-beloved Boy Meets World—starring original leads Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel as parents of their own feisty daughter—Girl Meets World is a sweet, mostly innocent look at the adventure of growing up. Riley Matthews is a good kid who sometimes wanders off the right path. Maya’s her true-blue friend who’s been known to lead the way. But rarely do they stray for long and, when they come back, the girls have Riley’s ever-so-patient parents around to help fix whatever’s wrong … even if it means telling the kids to fix it themselves. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this show, and its messages might occasionally conflict with your own (which should trigger a family conversation). But it’s always refreshing to see a family not only filled with love, but a little bit of structure, too.
Gracepoint (Fox): This Americanized take on the much-lauded BBC miniseries Broadchurch is a bleak mystery that focuses on the death of a 12-year-old boy and along the way deals with serious issues like infidelity, pedophilia and incest. And the town of Gracepoint’s very own priest is one of the murder’s main suspects. But here’s the thing: Even though this show grapples with ticklish subjects in a realistic manner, it rarely shoves unnecessary content in your face. The camera never loiters on an illicit encounter. It does not dwell on gore. What makes the show so compelling is not its salacious asides or gimmicky trips to the autopsy table, but rather mind-bending twists and raw, human emotion as it explores how a little boy’s death can tear apart individuals and even a whole town.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (Hub): This latest iteration of My Little Pony will wrap up its fourth season on May 10. For years, we didn’t bother covering it. I mean, the show’s just a marketing device for Hasbro to sell toys, right? And perhaps that’s what it started out as. But in the hands of executive producer Lauren Faust, Friendship Is Magic has become one of television’s buzziest shows—and one of its best. The animated program draws as many teens and twentysomethings as little kids who follow it with an almost cult-like verve. (Its male fans are known as Bronies, and I’ve seen pictures of even Marines with My Little Pony tattoos.) If you take the show on its own terms, you’ll find it to be sweet, clever and rooted in the time-honored values of hard work, mutual respect and love. I’ll note that there’s a little magic here, just as the title hints. But the real magic is that this show is both quality and clean.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered (Hallmark): A group of quirky “detectives” from the U.S. Postal Service’s dead-letter department hunt for folks who never got their mail. Sure, the premise seems a little antiquated, given the only thing we get via the post office these days seems to be envelopes stamped with “YOU MIGHT BE A WINNER!” stickers. But this simple conceit opens up a world of possibilities. Produced by Touched by an Angel creator Martha Williamson, Signed, Sealed, Delivered was an episodic mystery series without the crime, CSI without the blood. Every episode revolved around resolving some lingering issue or righting a wrong, but never pulling a gun to do it. Pretty refreshing in a day when most dramas buy their fake blood by the tanker truck. And while Signed, Sealed, Delivered won’t be back as a regular series on Hallmark, it will live on as a series of made-for-TV movies. We might be a winner after all.