Now that summer has started (at least in terms of TV seasons), it’s the perfect opportunity to start the shows you missed out on over the year or already canceled shows you’ve been meaning to get to but don’t have time to watch over the regular season. It’s also an excellent time to catch up on some reading and discover new favorites. I started these posts last year as a way to share some of my own favorites with you (and I stand by all of those recs if none of these appeal) but this year, it’s also given me a chance to examine what it is that I’m looking for from my fiction right now.
To put it simply, all of these shows make me feel hopeful in some way. Many of these stories involve people fighting back against oppressive or unjust systems. Many involve characters figuring out who they are and learning to love that person. All of them show that we’re better with others, that vulnerability and connection are our best strengths. Those are the messages I want to hear. I want to remember that we can all make a difference and leave the world and people around us better because we’ve been there. I hope you all can find something to enjoy and potentially try in this list, and if you do, I’m always here for discussions about them either in the comment section or via Twitter.
Sweet/Vicious You could isolate a lot of the different components that make up this show and it would still be good. Jules and Ophelia being paired together as roommates or lab partners who become friends would still have been an entertaining show. The concept of women teaming up to be vigilantes who target men who assault women is still appealing even if the only focus was the job and not on their friendship. The story of a young woman recovering and beginning to heal from her own sexual assault would still have been powerful and compelling on its own. To combine all of those elements into the same show and to blend them so well is nothing short of masterful. It was a show that could make you laugh, make you cry, and make you angry (at the characters, not the writing) all in one episode and it is better for it. It tackles rape culture head on and does so through these compelling characters and their relationships with each other. It was a special show and deserved more than one season but it achieved a lot in only ten episodes. It will be a show that stays in my head for a long time to come.
Leverage This show was everything I could have asked for in one beautiful package. It was only supposed to be one job. They were hired for a purpose and that was gonna be it. Seventy-seven episodes later (with more cases implied that we never see), Leverage came to an end. There were heists and cons and trying to bring bad guys (often the heads of corporations) to justice. People fell in love and discovered the person they wanted to be. They found acceptance and family and purpose in each other and in the acts they did. It was a remarkably consistent show, even in later seasons as it played around with its general format. As a showrunner, John Rogers understood that people are often there because they’ve become invested in the characters and he rewards that investment. This show doesn’t lose sight of who they are and the emotional payoff is truly wonderful. It is one of my favorite pieces of media I have ever consumed and I would love for everyone else to see and enjoy it too.
Queen Sugar If a show can make me cry in its first episode, I’m probably gonna be sold and that’s exactly what Queen Sugar did. This show is beautiful, both in its cinematography and its content. After losing their father, the Bordelon siblings come together to save his struggling sugarcane farm. It is a story of perseverance, of rebuilding after varying struggles. It’s about coming to terms with who you are and reclaiming your history and your story. In addition to saving the farm, each member of the family (along with their Aunt Vi) has their own personal journey to undertake. This is a show of incredible empathy that it extends to each of its characters. It understands that people are never just one thing and are more than the mistakes they’ve made and the hurt they’ve caused in the past. They are allowed complexity. They have strengths and flaws and sometimes those are the same thing. While more dramatic (and a little faster paced) than Rectify, it shares a similar core of humanity that touches me deeply.
Superstore Nothing on TV makes me laugh harder than this show. That would be enough for me to recommend it since there are very few shows that actually make me laugh out loud, especially not multiple times an episodes. But it’s merits don’t lie solely in the comedic moments. From the first episode, it’s shown a willingness to wear its heart on its sleeve. It’s those moments of beauty that drew me in but it’s the characters that keep me invested. They can be completely ridiculous, as many comedy characters are, but they are more than just caricatures. They feel lived in and real in a slightly over-the-top way. This is the show you should start if you need more laughter in your life, and really, who doesn’t?
Legend of Korra I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender last year and fell in love with this universe. The beautiful animation, worldbuilding, and wonderful characters have made it a show for both children and adults to love and much of that is continued in Legend of Korra. Though they occupy the same universe and events in Avatar are referenced and certain characters make an appearance, you don’t need to have seen Avatar to watch Korra. The series is quick to catch new viewers up on any important mythology and quickly establishes a tone of its own. The characters in Korra are older, as was the intended audience, and it’s reflected in the topics it takes on (though Avatar didn’t shy away from heavier topics either). It looks at prejudice and oppression throughout the series and spends the best arc of the series looking at healing from trauma and reclaiming your power and identity. This is a female-centric show that shows us so many different types of women all with their own strengths and abilities in a way that few other shows do so if that appeals to you, I would encourage you to try out the show even if you’re not typically a fan of animated shows.
One Day at a Time This is how you reboot an older show. It honors the spirit of Norman Lear’s original show but gives it new energy and perspective by centering the show around a Cuban American family. Like Lear’s other shows, it tackles issues like sexism, PTSD, and sexual orientation with a lot of heart and more than a few laughs. It is warm and smartly written and everything a person could want in a comedy. It also features the exceptional Rita Moreno who would be enough reason on her own to watch because she is a treasure. It’s been my pick for best show of the year since it aired in January and at only 13 episodes, it’s the perfect pick for a summer show.
The Good Place A high-concept, serialized comedy about a fictional afterlife was always going to be a challenge to pull off well but as we have become accustomed, Mike Schur pulls it off. It was an entertaining show from the beginning. Ted Danson makes a pretty fantastic higher-being acting essentially as a building manager and Kristen Bell is as delightful as you would expect her to be in a role where she gets to play a medium person who was selfish and self-absorbed but has to learn how to not be in order to keep the afterlife from crumbling before her eyes. There was friendship, romance, laughter, and the best song choice with the flawless use of “Digital Get Down” by NSYNC. It was an incredibly clever first season with an ending that made the show impossible to forget before its return in the fall.
Person of Interest If you can make a difference, if you can save a life, would you? That’s the question Finch asks Reese at the beginning of Person of Interest. Reese had the skills Finch needed to use his knowledge to help people and he needed a purpose after becoming disillusioned by the government. What started as a partnership of necessity grew to the deepest friendship. It not only gave those two a home and family after years of isolation but that family grew to include others as well as their missions shifted into quietly saving humanity. It was a show that believed in the importance of agency and the idea that no life is irrelevant. While it starts out as largely procedural with small pieces of a larger mythology, the show later becomes much more serialized without ever fully losing the initial goal of saving who they can when their number pops up, handling both the case-of-the-week and mythology episodes with ease. The acting is fantastic, as you might expect from a cast that includes Michael Emerson and Amy Acker, and the journey these characters go on from start to finish was truly special to see.
Wynonna Earp From the first episode, this show reminded me of Buffy in a lot of ways. It takes a familiar genre (in this case, Westerns), centers it around one woman with a destiny, blends a monster-of-the-week format with an overall myth arc, and has a whole lot of fun. As with most things I will recommend, the characters are the first and best reason to watch this show. On their own, or in any combination, they are just a delight to watch. There is banter and friendship and flirting and sisterhood and for me, it doesn’t get much better than that. The chemistry between these characters makes it something really special to watch and it adds a lot to the tone of the show. Unlike Westerns that feature a rogue hero who has to go it alone and rid the town of outlaws, Wynonna’s group of people who care about her and want to help her has only grown as the show has gone on. It’s the kind of stories I want being told and I am eagerly awaiting the show’s return on Friday.
Spartacus This is not a show for everyone and I don’t think it ever wanted to be. The world Steven DeKnight created is full of sex, violence, schemes, and heightened language that you will either love or hate.Underneath all that is a story about attempting to reclaim power and autonomy over your life and body while dismantling the larger societal systems of exploitation and oppression. As the name would imply, it focuses on the uprising led by Spartacus in the Roman Empire though it never concerns itself too much with historical accuracy. It’s much more concerned with spectacle that’s grounded in feeling for these characters and their varying situations. It is dramatic in every way but not to the point of sacrificing character. They are intense and excessive but it is what makes them feel alive. It’s that spark that gives them the anger and ability to fight and to hope that they might win and make a difference. They love fiercely, whether it be the bonds of brotherhood shown between Gannicus and Oenomaus or romantic partners like Nasir and Agron, and the show is better for highlighting these connections in the midst of the fighting.
Every Heart a Doorway (Seanan McGuire) This book just won a Nebula for best novella and the next book in this universe comes out on June 13th, so there’s really not a better time to pick up this gorgeous portal fantasy. What if you found a door to a world that fit you perfectly. Maybe it was full of nonsense or perhaps an Underworld would be more appealing. Regardless of the shape of that world, it was yours. It was a place where you belonged. Then for whatever reason, you were forced to leave. What would you do to get back? This is a story of identity and crafting your own narrative, of knowing who you are and telling your own story, of finding the place where you belong. It’s a rich world with vibrant characters and some of Seanan’s best writing and I can’t recommend it enough.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Benjamin Alire Sáenz) This isn’t a plot-driven book. Things happen as we’re taken through this time in Ari’s life but they aren’t what make this book so compelling. At the local pool one day, two boys with uncommon names met and formed a friendship that would shape their lives. It’s a journey of discovery and self-understanding that these boys undertake, both individually and together. We get to experience Ari’s growth alongside him as he struggles to know and accept every aspect of himself. The writing is almost poetic and it is easy to fall into the story and into Ari’s life. And if you would rather listen to the book, Lin-Manuel Miranda does the audiobook and he’s the perfect fit for this beautiful story.
A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy (Sarah J. Maas) This YA fantasy series has a lot of usual features. There is a curse and war and varying species with differing powers. The plot aspect of the series is enjoyable, if a bit oddly paced at times, but it’s not the reason to read it. What sets these books apart are the characters. It’s Feyre’s internal struggles to regain her strength after her sense of self is shattered that is the most compelling. She’s the reason we care about the plot and the external battles she must face. It’s her resilience and cunning and determination that make you cheer and hurt alongside her. It’s the family and love she finds that is the real draw of this series. It’s ultimately a story of dreamers, who saw the worst in their people and still hoped for something better. Who have all survived trauma and work to heal and keep it at bay, while knowing that some scars never fully leave us. Who fight to ensure a better world and do it alongside the people who care for them. These characters have staked out a permanent place in my heart. Their journeys and friendship and love have brought me so much happiness and it’s because of them that I couldn’t put this series down.
Everything Everything (Nicola Yoon) It’s not enough to survive, we have to be free to take risks and make our own choices in order to truly live. This is the kind of book that you’ll want to spend an afternoon curled up with. We get to experience Madeline’s desire for more than the life she has. Something as simple as running through the grass with her bare feet. Something as big as snorkeling in Hawaii. But leaving the house was dangerous. Existing in a world that wasn’t carefully controlled wasn’t safe. Most of us don’t have medical conditions that keep us locked in our house, but we have comfort zones we’re afraid to leave. We have risks we’re too scared to take. Throughout the book, we feel Madeline’s yearning for something bigger. We get to be scared with her as she makes the decision to do something on her own terms. We get to be with her as her sense of safety is shattered and as she steps forward into a new, fuller life. We feel everything with her and close the book feeling inspired to take our own risks, whatever they may look like, and know that the rewards can be worth it.
The Fifth Season (N. K. Jemisin) This book is incredible. I read it nearly six months ago and that’s still the only thing I can say. Told from three non-linear perspectives, we get an overview of the way this world works. A group of people have the ability to quiet the Earth’s seismic disruptions and make the world livable. They are not a ruling class, nor are they treated with much regard, they are tools and necessities. The world-building was a little confusing at first, as we’re thrown into three stories without any of the connective understanding to see a bigger picture, but as you get further into the book, the pieces fall into place and you see the larger system that Jemisin has built and it is incredibly rewarding. Each of the POV characters is intriguing in their own way and it was easy to become invested in their journeys. It’s the first book in a trilogy, with the final book set for release in August, and it’s clear at the end of this one that the story is far from over but it does cohesively come together from an emotional standpoint in a wonderful and powerful way for me.