Most of us have watched more TV than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic—while depression and anxiety went through the roof as isolation and layoffs have taken their toll.
That was true for those who worked in show biz. Even as viewership spiked, television production slowed almost to a halt. Actors, directors, editors, writers, location managers, camera and boom operators, grips, and gaffers were stuck at home, just like the rest of us, surrounded by disease, facing uncertain economic futures.
But, speaking only for myself, the stories they created before the pandemic gave me some degree of escape and comfort during it—a wonderful illustration of the necessity of art, especially in hard times.
The Greater Goodies are awards we give to movies and shows that highlight something about the best in human nature. Not every show I enjoyed during the pandemic made me feel good or nudged me to be a better person—but some of them did. That’s why we asked Greater Good contributors to suggest Greater Goodies for TV series that appeared during the past 20 months that inspired them to become more compassionate, empathic, mindful, courageous, forgiving, and more. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The Accept-Yourself Award: Doom Patrol (HBO Max)
The Doom Patrol started out in 1963 as an unusually wacky DC Comics series about “the world’s strangest heroes.” A writer named Grant Morrison reinvented it in 1989 as a sinister phantasmagoria. Then, in 2019, DC launched Doom Patrol as a TV series that manages to combine wacky, sinister, phantasmagoric elements with compassion, humor, and psychological insight.
This is best exemplified by a character named Danny the Street, who is a sentient, teleporting, genderqueer…street…who is sometimes an alley…or even just a brick. The people who live on Danny can’t fit into human society, but Danny gives them unconditional love—which helps the Dannyzens (as they’re called) to accept themselves.
This makes Danny the “secret hero” of Doom Patrol. The secret hero is what I call the character who is already what the heroes need to become. The members of the Doom Patrol—Larry (Matt Bomer/Matthew Zuk), Rita (April Bowlby), Jane (Diane Guerrero), Cliff (Brendan Fraser/Riley Shanahan), Vic (Joivan Wade), and “the Chief” (Timothy Dalton)—all start out loathing themselves, for various reasons. They are, to outward appearances, freakish, but they also suffer from what psychologists call moral injuries: They have all done terrible things to other people.
That’s why, while there are conflicts with supervillains in Doom Patrol, the fiercest battles rage inside the heads of the anti-heroes, as they struggle to accept their misdeeds and repair the damage they have caused. Will they succeed? The third season of Doom Patrol premiers on September 23. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The Community Award: Gentefied (Netflix)
As a U.S.-born Latina who came of age in Southern California, I rarely see a TV show or movie that reminds me of my community and reflects the nuances of who we are. So when I heard that there would be a Netflix series called Gentefied, I was instantly intrigued. “Gentefied” is a play on the word “gentrified,” and it refers to the ways in which Latinxs engage with changes in their communities, as battles are waged over who gets to benefit (and who gets left out) when a neighborhood suddenly goes from “barrio” to trendy.
The show is set in Boyle Heights, which in recent years has become a hotbed for gentrification in Los Angeles. In Gentefied, the Mexican-American Morales family—Pop and his three adult grandchildren—struggle to keep their taqueria Mama Fina’s in business even as real estate developers are swooping in to buy up properties on the cheap.
Grandson Chris (Carlos Santos), a professionally trained chef, is begrudgingly roped in to help redesign the menu to appeal to hipsters on Instagram, even as his cousins pressure him to not abandon the taco shop’s roots (Mama Fina refers to the deceased matriarch of the family). He finds himself conflicted between wanting to break out in the world of fine dining and honoring his family’s legacy. For many Latinxs in the United States, his is an all-too-familiar struggle.
Gentefied leans into these themes authentically, thanks to series co-creators Linda Yvette Chávez and Marvin Lemus. We walk away from the first season with a better understanding of the importance of community. After all, without a sense of community, of home, how can we stay grounded and true to ourselves? — Serena Maria Daniels
The Perseverance Award: Mariposa de Barrio (Telemundo/Netflix)
Mariposa de Barrio premiered in 2017 on Telemundo. It follows the real life and struggles of Janney “Jenni” Rivera Saavedra, the iconic norteño singer who was tragically killed in a plane crash almost a decade ago.
The story spans Rivera’s entire life, highlighting her high school years when she gave birth to her first child, Janney “Chiquis”; her first marriage to and divorce from abusive husband Trinidad “Trino” Marín; her subsequent two marriages; her growing family (Jacqueline, Michael, Jenicka, and Juan Angel); and her winding journey in a male-dominated musical genre. Throughout her life, Rivera (played by multiple actresses as she ages) endured all manner of struggles, and the show never shies away from showing that in graphic detail.
All of the hardships she endured could have been enough to stop anyone from going forward. But that’s not Jenni.
The show’s message is that no matter what is thrown your way, perseverance can help you overcome it. Jenni not only persevered but used those past traumas to go on to be recognized as one of the important female artists in regional Mexican music history, a prominent philanthropist, and a TV personality. The relaunch of the show on Netflix has introduced a new wave of fans to the musical legend and given Latinas from all walks of life a moment to see complex representations of our real selves in the spotlight. — Serena Maria Daniels
Authenticity Award: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)
I was late to the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel craze (the Amazon series is expected to air its fourth season possibly in December), but after exhausting just about all of my other pandemic-era TV binging options, I clicked over when I noticed the show on my feed.
It tells the story of Miriam “Midge” Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan), an affluent mid-century Jewish Manhattan housewife whose seemingly perfect life is upended after her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) abruptly announces—right after he’s bombed a standup comedy set at an open mic night—that he’s leaving her for his secretary.
A distraught Miriam drunkenly stumbles onto the same stage hours later, only to verbally drag him for his indiscretions in front of an audience who are at the same time astounded and mesmerized by the raw anger and vulnerability that she somehow expertly exudes (before she’s pulled off stage by police when she exposes her breasts). That impromptu comedy set turns into a promising career at a time when women were largely excluded from the industry.
Sometimes it takes tragedy to break apart the protective facade that we assume as we go about our daily lives, the armor that projects whatever it is we think of as a sign of success. In Mrs. Maisel’s case, she learned that without the wealth and support of a husband and all of the expectations that go with that, she was finally free to explore deeper inside and found a new sense of self and happiness. — Serena Maria Daniels
The Stronger-Together Award: Pose (FX Networks)
“The category is live, werk, pose!”
If you’re familiar with this line, chances are you’re a fan of the TV drama series Pose. It focuses on the 1980s to 1990s New York City underground drag ballroom culture, where those ostracized by family and society could rebuild community and choose their own kin.
The series, that just finished its third and final season, centers on four central characters—transgender women Bianca (MJ Rodriguez), Angel (Indya Moore), and Elektra (Dominique Jackson), and a gay man named Pray Tell (played by the award-winning actor Billy Porter). For the most part, they live in “houses” where older “mothers” like Elektra adopt young members of the LGBTQ+ community as their “children,” serving in a caregiving role and training them to compete in ballroom competition categories like “Femme Queen” or “Bring it Like Royalty.” Through these chosen families, they support each other during times of sickness, addiction, death, and discrimination.
The characters in Pose are stronger together—and that’s a lesson for all of us. — Shanna B. Tiayon
The Sweetness Award: Sex Education (Netflix)
“I am learning from my brave son.”
This is a line uttered in the first season by the father of Eric (played by Ncuti Gatwa), the gay child of ardently Christian Nigerian/Ghanaian immigrants. In some ways, it’s a moment that encapsulates this very odd and very endearing series, which is mainly about a young man named Otis (Asa Butterfield) who offers unauthorized but surprisingly successful sex therapy to his high school classmates. His sole qualification? His mother (the formidable Gillian Anderson) is a famous sex therapist. The irony? In the first season, not only is Otis a virgin—he isn’t even able to masturbate.
There’s a lot of learning in Sex Education, which lives up to its name—but there’s nothing pedantic about it. As you might expect, Sex Education is fairly explicit about sex, though it is never, ever pornographic. Instead, the series looks at human intimacy through the lens of seemingly unlimited sweetness, playfulness, and compassion.
It takes place in a bucolic, affluent, unreal Anglo-American Neverland, a cross-pollination of John Hughes comedies and British sex farces reshaped by egalitarian, multicultural, science-based values. That’s why you can’t watch Sex Education as being literally about high school students. The characters are kids discovering their sexuality and gender identity because that’s an ideal vehicle for exploring these issues for a largely adult audience—because we never strop struggling with those things, do we, my fellow grown-ups? When it comes to sex, every adult has an insecure teen somewhere inside of them. Just like Eric’s dad, we have something to learn from these kids. The third season will arrive on September 17. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The Diversity Award: Star Trek: Discovery (Paramount+)
Vulcans believe in “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”—the idea “that beauty, growth, progress all result from the union of the unlike,” as Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry explains.
Indeed, Star Trek has pioneered diversity on television ever since the original series first aired in 1966. As the franchise advanced through the decades, Star Trek didn’t just feature multiple, stereotype-breaking characters of color; it gave them authority over white characters, and it depicted complex relationships within and across racial and cultural lines. Star Trek also put women in positions of authority and tentatively explored issues of gender and sexuality in ways that were new for network television.
Star Trek: Discovery seemed to take all that diversity to the next level when it premiered in 2017. Sure, the central character, Michael Burhnam (Sonequa Martin-Green), is a Black woman, and her surrogate mother-figure, Captain Georgiou, is played by Hong Kong action-film legend Michelle Yeoh—but powerful women, Black, and Asian characters are nothing new on Star Trek. What makes this Star Trek different from the others is the way it weaves this now-standard gender and racial diversity in with sexual multiplicity, too.
For example, there’s an interracial gay couple played by gay actors (Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz) who bicker, kiss, and hold hands like, you know, all couples. When one of them dies, the survivor connects with a widowed lesbian (Tig Notaro) in a way that feels completely natural and touching; it quietly matters that they’re both queer, and yet their sexuality is never the focus of their conversations—or of the plot. In Star Trek: Discovery, they’re just another combination in the galactic kaleidoscope. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The Best-Version-of-Yourself Award: Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Like many people, I expected Ted Lasso to be dumb and forgettable. Also like many people, I was shocked by how good it is—and how Greater Good it is.
The show, which launched last summer and is now in its second season on Apple TV+, follows an American college football coach (played by Jason Sudeikis) who is hired to coach an English professional soccer team, even though he knows nothing about the game.
Sports nuts and soccer hooligans might be disappointed: The show maintains only the slightest pretense of being about the sport. Instead, its real focus is on coaching—or, rather, on the social and emotional skills that a good coach—or a good friend, colleague, or partner—can nurture in someone else.
“I love coaching,” Ted says early in the series. “For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves, on and off the field.” For Ted Lasso, that means treating others with kindness and decency, seeing the best in them, taking responsibility for your mistakes, and forgiving theirs.
Lest the show seem too naively in love with its title character, it does suggest the limits of his worldview. His “constant optimism” seems to be too much for his (ex-)wife and is implicated in their divorce. And, ultimately, his assistant coach chews Ted out for putting his players’ feelings above the competitive needs of the team.
But those caveats also point to one of Ted Lasso’s biggest takeaways: Being the best version of yourself takes practice, and you’ll screw up (often) along the way. — Jason Marsh
The True-Inclusion Award: Them: Covenant (Amazon Prime)
The 2021 series Them: Covenant takes place in 1950s Los Angeles and centers on the Emory family. They’re similar to millions of other Black families who migrated from the South to western and northern cities during the Great Migration.
They settle in East Compton, an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles, that is bound by racial restrictive covenants that tried to ban Black families from living there. The family is harassed at their residence, the husband’s job, and the daughters’ schools. And amid everything else that is going on, there is a mystic backstory of a ghostly man from the early 19th century who in exchange for immortality has agreed to mentally torture any Black person that moves into the East Compton community. In fact, he is the psychological embodiment of what the family faces in their physical reality.
At first glance, Them is a horror story—but the horrors are racism and white supremacy. Traditional horror stories intentionally create feelings of fear; the characters who survive are the ones who are able to overcome their fear.
In Them, the Emory family integrate the neighborhood by standing up to the horror of white supremacy. If there’s a lesson here for people of all cultures and races, it’s that integration without true inclusion can be very dangerous. That insight can lead viewers to a more positive affirmation: Life will be better for all of us when we learn to live together in constructive ways. — Shanna B. Tiayon
The Love-as-a-Skill Award: Trigonometry (BBC/HBO Max)
The BBC series Trigonometry is about the birth of a polyamorous triad. However, viewers who might feel sexually titillated by the idea of three people in a romantic relationship will be disappointed in Trigonometry, which is not an idealized fantasy of a ménage a trois.
Indeed, everyone in this series is flawed and struggling. Some of the characters are extremely frustrating; so are many of the situations. There’s a scene in which the sex fails for one of them, and the conversation that follows is intense. And yet, it’s through scenes like that one that we understand how Ray, Kieran, and Gemma could come to love each other, despite all the emotional and social obstacles in their way. They fight, but they also fight to understand each other. These scenes reveal that what each one wants is to help the other two be well and happy, by becoming who they are meant to be.
If Trigonometry has a message, it’s this: Love is an ongoing task that demands skill, acquiring skill involves failure—and that’s why love cannot survive without forgiveness. That’s a message everyone needs to hear, polyamorous or not. — Jeremy Adam Smith