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 Fighting-Burnout-with-Connection Award: Abbott Elementary (ABC)
Abbott Elementary follows a group of teachers and administrators in a West Philadelphia public elementary school as they navigate the challenges of everyday life in the classroom—and the teacher’s lounge.
The teachers are doing the best they can, but the threat of burnout is real. So, how do the Abbott staff take care of themselves? By connecting with each other and with their students.
For example, after a student reveals she is scared to come to school because of a flickering hallway light, idealistic and enthusiastic second-year teacher Janine (Quinta Brunson) tries to fix it herself and causes a school-wide power outage in the process. When the lights are back on, Janine admits that she just couldn’t stand to see the look on her student’s face—and she asks how the veteran teachers at Abbott can stop themselves from “caring too much.”
“It’s the opposite,” replies a teacher named Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter). “We care so much that we refuse to burn out. If we burn out, who’s here for these kids?” The teachers of Abbott Elementary know that setting and maintaining healthy boundaries at work is critical to teacher well-being and sustaining an open heart in the classroom.
Later in the year, Janine grabs some tasty takeout and corrals her coworkers in the teacher’s lounge for some team-building activities. There’s some science that backs her up: Teachers who build strong relationships with school coworkers are more likely to be engaged and satisfied with their jobs and less likely to experience burnout.
Abbott Elementary highlights the very real challenges of teaching without adequate resources. Despite the fact that they don’t have all of the supplies they need, or the money for special programs, the educators at Abbott get through each day by caring deeply for their students and each other. The second season launches on September 27! — Mariah Flynn
The Bridging Generations Award: Hacks (HBO Max)
Much has been written (and muttered) regarding the chasm between Gen Z and the rest of us. And at first glance, the Emmy Award–winning comedy series Hacks seems to be about that.
Deborah (Jean Smart) is an aging stand-up legend who is on the brink of losing her residency at a splashy Vegas resort. She shares a manager with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a twenty-something comedy writer whose rising star comes crashing down when she gets canceled for an inappropriate tweet. In an attempt to save the careers of both women (each self-obsessed and outspoken in her own way), the agent gets Deborah to hire Ava as an associate.
It seems to be a win-win situation: Ava has a job; Deborah can tap into Gen Z sensibilities to freshen up her outdated schtick. Hijinks—and blowups—ensue. But, eventually, so does a friendship. As the facades and misconceptions fall away, we discover that the two actually share plenty of qualities that make them (very deep down inside) good people.
In one episode, Ava leaves Deborah an achingly thoughtful gift; in another, Deborah teaches Ava (who doesn’t know how to swim) how to float on her back. Through the successes and disappointments of their careers and the stresses stemming from (often nutty and messy) relationships with family, friends, flings, and frenemies, they ultimately show up for each other.
Sure, that connection is tenuous at times, with bad decisions on both sides. But it’s a friendship nonetheless, marked by tender small moments, both authentic and sweet. Hacks starts its third season next year—so you’ve got time to get caught up! — Joanne Chen
The Fierce Community Award: Ms. Marvel (Disney+)
Kamala Khan (played by Pakistani-born Iman Vellani) is living the mundane life of a daydreaming high schooler, creating YouTube videos that only her best friends watch and trying to pass her driving test. She’s also part of a vibrant Muslim community in New Jersey, a cultural context that Ms. Marvel makes hilariously ordinary.
Of course, Ms. Marvel is a superhero show—and Kamala soon finds herself with extraordinary powers. She quickly faces two threats: federal agents charged with controlling superpowered beings and the Clandestines, refugees from another dimension chasing the source of her power.
Ms. Marvel shines a light on how our survival—against great odds—can depend on our communities. Through a combination of flashbacks and time travel, Kamala (and viewers) discover the horrors of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in the wake of violent British rule. As Kamala’s brother Aamir explains, “Every Pakistani family has a Partition story and none of them are good.” Through this history, we learn how people needed each other to survive and thrive.
Superheroes can’t do it alone, either—they need community to fully manifest their powers. In a trip to Karachi, nimble warriors fight alongside Kamala against the Clandestines and teach Kamala something of her heritage. When federal agents close in on her, Kamala rises because of her best friends, aunties, and mosque community in Jersey City. The ties we have to one another—including to our ancestors—help us face our challenges.
I don’t read comics, but Ms. Marvel got me hooked with its combination of universal coming-of-age shenanigans, colonial history, comedy, painful American Muslim cultural experiences, the beautifully integrated poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, and the compassion of community. — Maryam Abdullah
The Accept-Yourself Award: Paper Girls (Amazon)
Paper Girls has an intriguing premise: four 12 year olds from the year 1988 are sent into the future where they must confront…their own, older selves.
Based on the comic-book series by writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Cliff Chiang, the Amazon series can be clumsy at certain points. Each of the girls fills a specific social type: the smart, ambitious Black girl; the shy Asian girl; the tough, working-class white girl; and the affluent Jewish girl. The first episode is largely consumed with bridging those stereotypical differences.
But the much more interesting difference the girls must bridge is between who they are and who they become. This creates some harrowingly complicated psychological situations, as each girl initially resists the grown-up woman she meets.
Why do they resist? One of the truths Paper Girls reveals is that God laughs at most of our plans; the girls find that life never quite meets their hopes and expectations.
What they wanted as girls was formed by their environments: their families, social class, culture, and more. As time went on, America and their families changed—and the girls changed in response. But as they adapted, something else happened, too: They rebelled against the constraints they faced, which allowed truer selves to emerge.
I can’t get into details without spoiling the plot lines, but I will say that none of this is as simple as I’m making it out to be. There’s complexity and tragedy in Paper Girls—and the only way the girls are able to navigate their complicated lives is to accept what’s happened to them and who they are, hard as that can be sometimes. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The Bridging Differences Award: Queer Eye (Netflix)
In a country more divided than ever, there are few things that bring Americans together quite like a highly bingeable Netflix series.
Enter the wildly popular reboot Queer Eye, which follows the “Fab Five”—Antoni, Jonathan, Bobby, Tan, and Karamo—as they make their way through the Deep South, one makeover at a time.
Here’s how the show works: Family and friends nominate someone for a top-to-bottom makeover by the Fab Five, who each have different skill sets. But the makeovers aren’t just external; they’re also opportunities for helping their charges to better understand themselves and the world.
In the very first episode of the series, we meet Tom, a 57-year-old dump-truck driver in Georgia. During the episode, Tom asks the married Bobby who is “the husband or the wife” in his marriage. Instead of shutting him down, the Fab Five use this as an opening to better educate Tom about same-sex marriage. Their conversation highlights just how simple it can be for two parties to find common ground when we approach each other with compassion and understanding.
The makeovers may be captivating, but it’s the story of bridging differences in a highly divided country that keeps us watching.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Now coming up on its seventh season, we can expect to see the team meet with more unsuspecting people elected by friends and family for some much-needed TLC. — Taylor Fisher
The Healing Award: Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu)
Season one of the runaway hit Reservation Dogs was about a group of Muscogee Nation teens unpacking the suicide of one of their mates, Daniel, who killed himself before he and the crew could escape their Oklahoma surroundings and run away to California. Season two, currently unfolding, is a lesson in the power that grief plays in our ability to heal from trauma. Whereas the first season exudes an air of mystery over what happened to Daniel, in the second season, series creator Sterlin Harjo gives each character space to grieve and somehow find healing.
The first episode of the second season opens with Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) sharing the latest gossip on what’s going on in the community. A tornado ripped through the town where the Rez Dogs live and Willie Jack feels responsible for it, convinced that all the wrong that hit the crew’s village was somehow a curse that she needs to reverse. Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs) has run away to California with a rival of the group, Jackie (Elva Guerra). Meanwhile, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) feels betrayed by Elora for leaving without him or the rest of the gang.
Healing takes place when Bear gets a job roofing and he’s paired up with Daniel’s father, Danny, who assures him that his friend’s suicide wasn’t his fault, that it was Danny and the other adults in Daniel’s life who failed him. Meanwhile, Elora returns home when she learns that her grandmother Mabel is ill and close to death. She not only confronts her friends’ sense of betrayal for abandoning them, but learns to forgive her own mother, Cookie, who died and forced her into living with Mabel. She comes closer to healing after bonding with a long-lost aunt, Tini, who (like Elora was trying to do) left home in the rear-view mirror years prior. Tini reminds Elora that she looks like her deceased mother.
The second season is not quite halfway through its 13 episodes, but the Rez Dogs have already made incredible progress in the face of immense grief. I’ll be sure to continue following along each Wednesday when a new episode streams on Hulu. — Serena Maria Daniels
The Accepting-Your-Limitations Award: The Sandman (Netflix)
At the beginning of The Sandman, writer Neil Gaiman pulls off a neat trick: He takes the immortal, cosmically powerful being Dream—aka Lord Morpheus, Oneiros, the Sandman—and puts him in a prison.
It’s the best way to make Dream (Tom Sturridge) relatable for the rest of us mere mortals. And that’s the tension at the core of The Sandman: between the power of dreams (embodied by the character Dream) and the limitations imposed on everyone (including Dream) by the universe.
It’s an ambitious, complex story to tell. Gaiman famously pulled it off in the comic book—and the first season of the Netflix adaptation comes awfully close to matching that achievement.
In the first half of the season, Dream escapes his bondage—only to discover that he feels imprisoned by his purpose as caretaker of humankind’s collective unconscious. The theme comes most into focus in episode six, which consists mainly of a conversation between Dream and his big sister, Death.
The delightful, life-loving character of Death (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste) embodies the ultimate limitation on life. “When the first living thing existed, I was there,” she says. “When the last living thing dies, I’ll put the chairs on the tables, turn off the lights, and lock the universe behind me when I leave.”
Death knows her place, and in this episode, her goal is to remind Dream of his. As Dream accompanies his sister on her errands, helping mortals make the transition from life to whatever comes next, he comes to accept his purpose, with all its limitations, just as mortals must accept what they are given. The cumulative effect is genuinely beautiful—and for me, unsettlingly comforting. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The Un-Macho Award: This Fool (Hulu)
Within the first couple of minutes of the opening of This Fool, which premiered August 12 on Hulu, it’s pretty clear that it’s poking holes into a fraught aspect of Latino culture: toxic masculinity.
“Studies show that the life expectancy of a gangster, on average, is 24 years old,” says Julio, the main character (played by series cocreator Chris Estrada), to a former gang member who’s looking to get his life together. “But the life expectancy of a punk-ass bitch? 76 years old.”
The show is set in South Central Los Angeles and Julio, with his penchant for pour-over coffee from his Chemex, gives off nerdy “whitewashed” Mexican vibes. Opposite to him is his cousin Luis (Frankie Quiñones), a bald-headed cholo who just got out of prison.
Unsurprisingly, the cousins clash. Throughout the first season, Julio is confronted with his pushover tendencies, while Luis must learn to unpack the problematic behaviors that got him into trouble. In the second episode, for example, an old rival steps up to Luis (and subsequently realizes the loose ends he left behind when he’s confronted by debts to several of his old homies). Meanwhile, Julio must also learn boundaries by not letting Luis and his on-and-off romantic interest Maggie (Michelle Ortiz) push him around, while still resisting the toxic traits that his cousin uses to get his way.
Estrada isn’t afraid of touching on these heavy topics and more (the prison-industrial complex, therapy, income inequality, philanthropy, just to name a few), but he also doesn’t take things too seriously, making for a comedy that succeeds in pushing back against toxic masculinity in a way that doesn’t feel preachy. — Serena Maria Daniels
The Resilient Compassion Award: This is Going to Hurt (BBC/AMC)
I made the mistake of watching the first episode of This is Going to Hurt with my partner, an emergency-room physician. She refused to watch another one, because this show was just a little too close to her real working life.
My partner likes gently escapist doctor shows, like Doc Martin, where the pace is bucolic and the cases are always interesting. Alas, there’s nothing escapist about This is Going to Hurt.
I’d say its nearest relative is the 11-season sitcom M.A.S.H. Though a comedy, M.A.S.H. dealt extensively with the moral injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by physicians and nurses serving in the Korean War. This is Going to Hurt takes place in 2006, but it was made in the past two years—and just as M.A.S.H. was really about the Vietnam War, so This is Going to Hurt resonates because of the terrible pandemic conditions health care workers faced.
It’s based on a memoir by Adam Kay, an OB/GYN with the U.K.’s National Health Service. Kay (played by Ben Whishaw) is working in a resource-starved system that expects heroism but doesn’t reward it, which grinds him down and brings out the worst in him—at work and at home. There’s no war happening in This is Going to Hurt, but Kay is on war footing all the time, with no end in sight.
In the end, both M.A.S.H. and This is Going to Hurt are about how compassion persists in the face of systems that try to crush it. Kay never becomes a hero, but over the course of the show, he finds ways to be compassionate even when that’s the most difficult choice. — Jeremy Adam Smith
The Curiosity Award: The United Shades of America (CNN)
CNN’s The United Shades of America, hosted by stand-up comedian W. Kamau Bell, just wrapped its seventh eye-opening season. So much of what we get from the news doesn’t feel good. So much is jabbing and yelling to make a point. But Bell takes a different approach, traveling around the country to very different groups of people, asking the big, tough questions of race, culture, religion, class, gender by listening and learning.
In one particularly relevant episode, “The Woke War,” Bell explores critical race theory and how it became so politically and racially charged. To dig in deeper, Bell goes to Arizona, a swing state and one of the hotbeds of racial and cultural clashes in the US. He starts by asking white people about being “woke”—and then he talks with Black people. It is interesting that they both have very negative opinions but for different reasons. It is fascinating and curious that the word has become a line in the sand for so many people. This discussion, warts and all, gives us a chance to dig in on our similarities and differences.
The United Shades of America gives those who want to know more and do better a bird’s-eye view into how people live and see each other. I am still thinking about Bell’s interview with a white man who gives his take on the importance of the Confederacy, and hints at the value of slavery. When Bell asks him how he would feel about slavery if the slaves were his ancestors, he never gives an answer—but looks as if that is just a ridiculous possibility. Bell also goes to Hawaii to talk with Native Hawaiians who are marginalized in the place that is their home. As Bell shines a light in so many corners of the United States that are hidden to many of us, he helps us all to better understand who we are and who we might hope to be. — Andrea King Collier