Christmas is almost here, and for many people that means a time of festivity, food and family. And while we may love our families — both biological and chosen — some of us still have to face an unfortunate truth about going home for the holidays: they’re going to make us watch terrible TV. Whether they insist on flipping to The Real Housewives of Whatever City They’re in Now or have a DVR full of Blue Bloods they want to turn on, coming face to face with the questionable taste of your loved ones can be an ordeal.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. While the police procedurals or reality shows that your family flips on may make you want to bang your head against the coffee table, there are shows out there that can deliver far better versions of what they enjoy — and save your sanity in the process. Here are a few humble suggestions for how to course correct when your family’s TV selections are going off the rails.
Show your family wants to watch: Big Bang Theory
Better Alternative: Freaks and Geeks
Why: Ah yes, Big Bang Theory: my old nemesis. My family’s insistence that I watch this show with them has lead to many a desperate tweet, as had their perennial insistence that I will like it because I enjoy “nerd stuff.” And I do! Which is why I prefer not to watch people dressed up as nerds mugging around a soundstage like dancing clowns. A far better alternative is Freaks and Geeks, which also happens to be one of the most perfect seasons of television ever filmed. Starring actual teenagers — including James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel — it hops back to 1980 and tours the lives of Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), a mathlete exploring her rebellious side, and her younger brother Sam (John Francis Daley), a scrawny nerd trying to survive high school. It’s as funny and true to life about nerddom and adolescence as anything you’ll see on the small screen.
Show your family wants to watch: The Punisher
Superior alternative: Batman: The Animated Series
Why: The Punisher is not a very good show, which I have previously discussed at greater length. But if your family does want to watch The Punisher, chances are they either want to see kickass action or they’re fans of superhero comics. Skip the violence porn and go straight to one of the best superhero action shows ever made — not just cartoons, shows — Batman: The Animated Series. With its elegant, film noir aesthetics, thrilling combat and narrative complexity, the show is often hailed as one of the greatest animated series ever made, and a far better foray into vigilante crimefighting than anything the more murderous Frank Castle has on offer.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
Show your family wants to watch: Shooter/Valor/The Brave
Better alternative: Generation Kill
Why: The new crop of military TV shows can be a little trying if you’re anything less than rah-rah patriotic about the American armed forces. But if you’d like a very human look at the struggles of fighting overseas with none of the jingoism, try Generation Kill. Helmed by The Wire creator David Simon, it’s a television adaptation based of the similarly named book by a reporter who embedded with Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It’s honest and unflinching about the horrors of combat and the cultural complexities and struggles faced by these men; bonus material created by HBO actually features the men each character was based on in a roundtable. A great watch for both those who would critique the military and those who love it. Also, it features a young Alexander Skarsgård in one of his earliest roles, as Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert.
Where to watch: HBO Go
Show your family wants to watch: Real Housewives, or any bad reality show
Better Alternative: Terrace House
Why: I don’t think I need to explain why you might want to avoid the Real Housewives franchise; the name of the series has become a punchline unto itself. But if your family wants to watch some reality TV and you want to avoid the catty backstabbing and vapidness, try Terrace House, the nicest reality show on television. Its premise is simple: three men and three women live in a house together, go to their jobs as normal, and go on dates. Sometimes couples form; sometimes they don’t and whenever they’re tired of it they leave and get replaced with a new roommate. The twist is that they are almost uniformly respectful and considerate of each other, and the friendships they form are often as compelling as the romances. The rare instances where serious drama occurs are actually kept offscreen, and only described afterwards in their solemn group discussions about the importance of empathy. There’s a strong ethic of supporting each other in achieving their dreams — which have involved tap dancing, modeling, opening a restaurant and becoming a champion surfer — and the best part is, sometimes they do. But they manage to be kind along the way.
Show your family wants to watch: Blue Bloods
Better Alternative: The Wire
Why: Starring former New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg and Tom Selleck’s mustache, Blue Bloods is the story of a humble, red-blooded American family in New York City that runs most of the city’s police department, which is in no way racist. Its predictable, worldview-affirming lullaby looks especially flimsy next to The Wire, a gritty, brilliant look at the Baltimore PD and how bureaucracy and injustice are baked into so many of the city’s systems and institutions. Everything is connected, everything is complicated, and nothing is neat — especially not race, poverty, drugs or law enforcement. It may not make you feel better about the world, but holy hell will it compel you; it’s nothing short of a masterpiece. Oh, and it stars Idris Elba and a young Michael B. Jordan!
Where to watch: HBO Go
Show your family wants to watch: EastEnders, or most soap operas really
Better Alternative: Jane the Virgin
Why: Here’s what I know about EastEnders: It’s a seedy British soap opera, and lots of Brits on Twitter complained about it when I asked about the shitty TV shows their families make them watch. So while I can’t speak to the unique badness of this particular show, I can recommend an excellent alternative: the soapy, subversive Jane the Virgin. It’s a meta-romantic comedy tale about a young woman who wants to write romance tales, and both satirizes and indulges in telenovela tropes: accidental pregnancies, long-lost fathers, double-crossing blackmailers, evil twins and shocking deaths. It’s also smartly written, funny and full of heart, thanks in no small part to the glowing performance of Gina Rodriguez as Jane, a young woman who has decided to save her virginity for marriage (don’t worry, it’s not preachy) but ends up pregnant thanks to an artificial insemination accident.
Show your family wants to watch: Any NCIS, CSI or Law & Order show
Superior alternative: Scott and Bailey
Why: If you’ve seen one episode of of these franchised crime dramas, you’ve seen them all. And hey, some people — cough cough, my parents — find the repetitiveness comforting. But if you don’t and would prefer a police procedural that feels a little less rote, try Scott and Bailey. It’s different from typical police shows in several ways: 1) It’s set in Britain, 2) it focuses on two female detectives who are partners in the major incident squad of the Manchester police, and 3) none of them have guns (see: Britain). One of its heroines, the 40-something Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp), is an impressive detective who struggles to balance her career with her marriage and two daughters; the other, Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones), is both brilliant and a bit of a trainwreck, a tension that persists through the show’s run. If your family loves their crime dramas and you just wish they were better, this BAFTA Award-nominated drama can offer you all more than the usual fare.
Where to watch: Hulu
And a bonus suggestion, from our weekend editor, Andrew Liptak:
Show your family wants to watch: Family Guy
Superior alternative: Bojack Horseman
Why: Family Guy is a show that seems designed for family gatherings. Like any family-oriented sitcom, it’s loaded with easy jokes and hijinks from the show’s extremely familiar cast of characters, and it’s easy to plop down on the couch with and burn through a couple of seasons. But Family Guy is also an annoying show, and now that it’s been on the air for 16 seasons and just shy of 300 episodes, it’s lost any of the subversive shine that it might have had. If you’re looking for another animated comedy, Bojack Horseman is a much better option. While it’s quite a bit more depressing — it’s about an alcoholic former sitcom star who is also a horse — it’s an engaging and surprisingly deep show. It’s easy to root for its flawed characters as they screw up and try to improve their lives, and its pop culture references and jokes land quite a bit better.