Every year, we invite staff and regular contributors to nominate TV series for Greater Goodies, the awards we give to movies and shows that might help us to be our best selves. Here’s what we came up with this year!
The True-Self Award: American Born Chinese (Disney+)
At first glance, American Born Chinese appears to tell the familiar story of a high school kid trying to fit in. But, in fact, the series consists of two separate yet entwined tales—one in suburban America, the other in the Heavenly realm of Chinese folklore. And the goal isn’t so much about fitting in as it is about embracing your true self and forging your own path.
Jin Wang, an American-born Chinese, yearns to be just a “normal” kid—playing on the soccer team, hanging with the cool kids (all white), and maybe even dating the pretty girl (also white) in his biology class. But his parents are immigrants. His mom insists that he wear shirts that are on sale; and he likes manga, even though he won’t openly admit it. Still, as far as Jin is concerned, he’s making progress. That is, until exchange student Wei Chen shows up.
The principal introduces the two of them because they have “a lot in common.” But, actually, Wei-Chen exudes boundless confidence and pride in his heritage. Turns out Wei-Chen is the son of the great Monkey King (a character from the Chinese classic Journey to the West). He has descended to Earth in search of the Fourth Scroll, in order to stop an uprising by the Bull Demon, and he’s convinced that Jin will be his guide.
Confused? Don’t worry. It will all make sense when you see all the drama unfold onscreen. Unlike Disney’s offerings from the Star Wars and Marvel universes, there are no superheroes in this series. But as we later learn, everyone has a superpower. You just have to say “yes” to the journey that feels authentic to you, and use your strengths to help others along the way. — Joanne Chen
The Food-as-Bridge Award: The Bear (FX)
There’s something so therapeutic about cooking—and in The Bear, we see just how essential food can be when you come from a dysfunctional family.
We catch glimpses of what food means to other characters throughout the season, like in the storyline revolving around sous-chef Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri), who struggles to articulate to her father why cooking is her life’s calling. We see line cook Tina Marrero (Liza Colón-Zayas) owning her new life as a sous-chef when she indulges in a soulful karaoke rendition of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” by Freddy Fender.
But the most dramatic scenes of the second season happen when we see the extended Berzatto family getting together for Christmas dinner—and we come to understand just why this family needs something (like food) to focus on besides each other. The family matriarch Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been in the kitchen all day preparing a traditional Italian meal—and when she starts to mentally unravel before our eyes, she triggers everyone at the table in unique ways. In the chaos that follows, food—cooking it and eating it—becomes the only thing that keeps them afloat as individuals and together as a family.
Is the restaurant industry fraught with fostering a toxic, chaotic atmosphere? Sure. But at its core, suggests The Bear, cooking reconnects us with ourselves; it forces us to pause and ignore all of the stresses of the outside world to focus on the task at hand. — Serena Maria Daniels
The Empathy Award: Beef (Netflix)
Amy Lau (Ali Wong) is a successful entrepreneur married to stay-at-home dad George (Joseph Lee). Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) is a much-less-successful entrepreneur living with his brother, Paul (Young Mazino). When the two meet, they explode.
The purpose of Beef is to explain why that happens—and what the consequences are. We start to get answers when Amy arrives home “riled up” after her run-in with Danny. George says to her: “Amy, before you spiral, take a breath, pause. You gotta start focusing on the positive, OK. You know, maybe we should start doing the gratitude journals again.”
Amy smiles. Amy always smiles. We get to know that smile, over the course of the show—and we come to recognize the trouble it signifies. In the next scene, Danny rages to his brother: “That’s what’s wrong with the world today, man. They want you to feel like you have no control. Like you’re gonna eat shit with a smile on your face . . . I’m so sick of smiling, dude.”
Amy and Danny both are; that’s what they have in common, at the beginning. Beef is about the rage that can grow behind smiles, and the dishonesty created by that distance between inner and outer life. George means well; you can tell he’s read all the Greater Good articles. But when he asks Amy to focus on the positive, he’s making her feel even more alone.
Amy and Danny both start out as jerks in Beef, and then proceed to make each other worse—to the point where they alienate everyone around them. In the end, they can only find understanding in each other. But the funny thing is that we understand them, too, and we’re reminded that behind every bad behavior, there’s a hidden world of pain. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The Black Joy Award: Harlem (Amazon Prime)
In its second season, Harlem builds off of the momentum of the first by centering the lives, challenges, and triumphs of four friends: university professor Camille (Meagan Goode); Quinn (Grace Byers), the fashion designer from a wealthy family; Tye (Jerrie Johnson), the queer successful business owner of a dating app; and Angie (Shoniqua Shandai), the free spirit and aspiring entertainer.
Through their stories, Harlem reveals joy in the cracks of complexity. Camille balances her desire to excel in academia, while reuniting with her now-engaged ex-fiancé. Quinn continues to try to prove she can make it in the fashion industry and embarks on her first queer romance, which eventually ends in a breakup. Tye risks losing her business to a jaded ex-husband, while Angie struggles to assert her value in the entertainment industry and her own self-worth in love.
But life doesn’t only have rough surfaces and sharp edges for the quartet, because they are buffered by friendship, alcohol-infused brunches, full-belly laughter, and love for each other and themselves (even when it feels hard).
Many of the scenes in Harlem remind me of the textile art of Bisa Butler, whose visually complicated multimedia work shows Black people in all their joyful humanity. Similarly, Harlem shows what it means to weave the experiences of being a Black woman with the enduring, healing power of joy. — Shanna B. Tiayon
The Civic Kindness Award: Jury Duty (Freevee)
Believe it or not, television’s greatest testament to human kindness this year was on a quasi-reality show that reveled in deception, irreverence, and poop humor.
That would be Jury Duty, which follows a real guy named Ronald Gladden over three weeks as he serves on a jury in a civil trial. What Ronald doesn’t know is that everyone else involved in the trial—from the defendant to the judge to the witnesses to his fellow jurors—is an actor. The entire case is a ruse just to mess with him and see what happens.
Jury Duty presents Ronald with all kinds of ridiculous scenarios—and each time he responds with empathy, decency, and good cheer. When Ronald is (reluctantly) made jury foreman, he tries his best to run the deliberations with integrity. One fellow juror, Todd, is a social misfit whose main purpose on the show seems to be to test Ronald’s tolerance, but Ronald consistently treats Todd with compassion. And when actor James Marsden—appearing on the show as himself, serving as an alternate juror—clogs the toilet in Ronald’s hotel room, Ronald takes the fall to save Marsden from public humiliation. (Yes, you read that last sentence right.)
Though the show mocks our judicial system, Ronald never stops taking his civic duty seriously. He seems to feel a genuine and selfless commitment to doing right by the defendant, the system, and his fellow jurors—really, anyone who crosses his path. Ultimately, Jury Duty is uplifting simply for showing us that someone like Ronald Gladden exists. — Jason Marsh
The Self-Love Award: Not Dead Yet (ABC)
Nell Serrano (Gina Rodriguez) is a late 30-something newspaper reporter who returns to her old newsroom, the SoCal Independent, looking for a fresh start in life after a painful breakup.
She’s assigned to write obituaries—and begins to encounter the ghosts of the people she is writing about. The spirits not only offer an insider’s view into their former lives, but provide our jilted protagonist with advice about how she can improve her own life, make friends, and navigate her friendships with the workmates she left five years prior.
Not Dead Yet is about letting go of expectations and mistakes. But above all, Serrano needs to learn to love herself even in the throes of a heartache. — Serena Maria Daniels
The Midlife Cross-Gender Friendship Award: Platonic (Apple TV)
Platonic starts out awkwardly. Sylvia (Rose Byrne) discovers through social media that her estranged college bestie Will (Seth Rogen) is getting a divorce, and so she reaches out to him. In a moment that proves telling, Sylvia pretends to Will that she doesn’t know about the divorce, that it’s just a friendly mend-fences social call.
In fact, the characters in Platonic lie to each other all the time—and the lies often result in hilariously ferocious fights that would forever end real-life relationships. But Platonic isn’t real life; the situations are so over the top that I gradually came to realize that they had an artistic purpose.
As Sylvia and Will renew their friendship, they guide each other through many difficult transitions and into the next stages of their lives. That task is not accomplished by being nice, quite the opposite. These two might not always tell the truth, but they’re always completely real with each other. And if that realness requires pushing each other right to the edge of disaster, so be it.
It’s said midlife can be like a second adolescence, and I for one have certainly found that to be true. Sylvia and Will are Exhibit A. They’re both fully adult, in the sense that they know how to take care of themselves, but they’re also testing limits and trying to figure out who they are as they face the second half of their lives. I wouldn’t call them role models (oh hell no)—but I would say that we all have something to learn from the ways these two drive each other forward. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The Vulnerability Award: Shrinking (Apple TV)
Jimmy (Jason Siegel) is a therapist grieving the death of his wife in the most inappropriate ways, boozing it up and hiring sex workers to keep him company. Worse, he’s neglecting his also-grieving teenage daughter, Alice (Lukita Maxwell), who is infuriated by his lack of emotional support.
This doesn’t sound like a good setup for a comedy, which Shrinking is. Nor does it seem like the strongest candidate for a Greater Good TV series, especially given how poorly it depicts the practice of psychotherapy. But the show gets so much right in how it depicts the messiness of grief, the importance of admitting vulnerability, and the power of friendship and love. Plus, it’s damn funny.
The humor comes largely through side characters, like Jimmy’s work colleagues, Gaby (Jessica Williams) and Paul (Harrison Ford). Gaby is a straight-shooter who doesn’t take bullshit and delivers hilarious one-liners. Paul is the stabilizing force at Jimmy’s office, who can wax wise when it comes to helping others. such as when he soothes Alice’s overreaction to losing her mother’s plant by telling her, “Grief’s a crafty little fucker. It sneaks up on you.”
Jimmy’s attempts to re-connect with his estranged daughter are the show’s main focus. He’s got much to answer for—and without self-understanding and self-compassion, he is doomed to failure. His journey toward redemption makes the strong case that expressing emotional vulnerability and relying on the support of others is not a weakness, but a necessary step toward healing. — Jill Suttie
The Varieties-of-Resistance Award: A Small Light (National Geographic TV)
A Small Light tells the story of Anne Frank and her family during the Holocaust—not from the perspective of the Jews in hiding, but from that of the people who helped them hide: Miep Gies (Bel Powley) and other employees of the company that Anne’s father, Otto (Liev Schreiber), directed in Amsterdam.
The series is called A Small Light because of a quote that Gies often repeated after the war, as she gave talks spreading the message of hope in Anne’s diary: “Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, in their own way, turn on a small light in a dark room.”
Her courage as an “ordinary secretary” is at the heart of the show, as we watch her risk her life to save the Franks and the others in hiding. But her form of resistance is not the only one we see. There is the resistance of countless shopkeepers, who keep quiet when Miep buys suspiciously large amounts of food; the resistance of some Nazi officers, who look the other way or actively help Jews escape; and, of course, the resistance of the persecuted Jews themselves.
“We are rebelling in our own way,” says Hermann van Pels (Andy Nyman), who is in hiding with Anne’s family, during a poignant Chanukah dinner. “Because despite their attempts to get rid of us . . . we’re here living and celebrating that life right under their noses.”
In the very first episode, Miep tells Anne’s sister Margot, “You are so much stronger than you think you are.” There is a hint that she is also talking to herself, but I think she is talking to all of us. — Kira M. Newman
The Body Positivity Award: Survival of the Thickest (Netflix)
Mavis (Michelle Buteau) is a fashion stylist whose dream of dressing famous full-figured bodies initially seems improbable. Then she discovers her long-term live-in boyfriend Jacque is cheating on her—and not only does Mavis rid herself of an unfaithful relationship, she starts to stand on her own newfound confidence in her talents, abilities, and sexuality.
Survival of the Thickest features a beautiful full-figured woman of color as the main character in an industry that typically features women over a size eight only as supporting character, best friend, or asexual witty sidekick. In Survival of the Thickest, Mavis is the complex, vulnerable, and stylish center of attention. Through post-breakup flirting, dating, and boundary setting, Mavis is able to explore her sexuality and emotions.
The series doesn’t just confine itself to Mavis’s point of view, promoting body positivity in others ways, by engaging with how social norms can erase trans and queer bodies. One episode in the series features an alternative prom scene for queer high school students denied the right to dress the way they wanted at their high school’s prom.
“Plus-size women are always being told to shrink,” says Mavis. “Literally, everyone is telling us to lose weight, be smaller.” Survival of the Thickest is all about taking up your space and flourishing—while encouraging others to do the same. — Shanna B. Tiayon