Holiday TV Cheat Sheet

A multigenerational guide for the family

Holidays, done right, involve a lot of downtime. A packed schedule is a smart buffer against drama, but too much activity can bring the pressure up just as quickly. You are dealing with forces that are very old and invisible, which is why family time and tradition deserve the respect and reverence we all feel expected to give.

So, TV: everybody's eyes pointing in the same direction, laughing at the same jokes, neither silent nor strident, just sitting there being told a story. That's creating memories. You're only as deadened by screens as you allow yourself to be. Besides, nobody said you had to stop drinking, or even really pay attention – and if they did, they are doing this wrong. No need listen to them.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions of first-rate TV shows for your many combinations of relations. Chiefly, you are going to be thinking about your target relative(s), but it's also worth thinking about the adultness of the behavior, so you know where to sit if you don't want to look a given person in the eye, and some other talking points in case you are not looking for a fight, or if you're concerned the subject matter might hit a little too close to home.

Mr. Robot

Mr. Robot is a pretty excellent show, with great leads and a few intriguing twists. It's essentially gripe-proof: Dumb tropes are outweighed by strong, young female characters, the computer stuff is mostly treated in a way your programmer nephew would have to stretch to complain about it, and the "big twist" is telegraphed so strongly from the start that it's clearly a built-in proposition rather than an inevitably disappointing, Lost-style mystery. Above all, it's the most beautifully filmed show in years: If it weren't for the snappy dialogue and lovable, uncanny characters, you'd be just happy watching it with the sound off.

For Fans of: The cinematic artistry of AMC, the literary complexity of HBO, the dark humor and offbeat leads of Showtime and/or the formalistic experimentation of Netflix.

Rated M: Dudes getting down for real. A good deal of drug abuse, sex, and violence. A fair amount of droning cynicism and Gen-X whining.

Talking Points: The politics are front-facing, considered, and eloquent. If you're looking for a Bernie Sanders fight this year – or a Trump one, for that matter – here you go. Serious mental illness, sexual assault, miscarriage, domestic abuse, bisexuality, and BDSM.

Best For: Your disaffected cousin who just discovered economics. Anyone who likes the idea of hackers but doesn't care about the boring parts. Fans of artistic cinema, for sure.


Unreal is simply one of the best shows of 2015. Overlooked because it comes at the head of an ongoing rebranding attempt by its network, Lifetime (and because of the nearly all-female cast) but absolutely adored by critics, it tells the story of a reality TV producer with a head for manipulation. Incredibly dark and equally hilarious, with stuff to say you have not heard before.

For fans of: Mad Men, Orange Is the New Black, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, House of Cards

Rated TV-14: Basic-cable steamy, not too awkward, but there is a lot of sex, drugs, bulimia, suicide, sexuality questions, and a super-scary controlling mom.

Talking points: Feminism, racism, "marriage" as a concept gets kind of shredded at points

Best For: Showing a young person you "get it," or using the high-tension suspense to slip a feminist story and female protagonist past an uncle/bro who thinks girl stuff is boring.


Transparent is about what it's about – the adult children of a transgender woman in the first year of her new life – and you can't push that away to talk about other things it is also, not instead, about. But that field is so wide, it contains everyone: A story of gender is the story of sex, and of marriage, and sexuality. It's also a way to get to all the other established and unquestioned underpinnings of our lives: our spirituality, our obligations to one another, our part in an endless line of emotional and physical family. It's one thread that can pull everything else apart, and this show yanks the hell out of it.

For Fans of: Casual, Togetherness, Home for the Holidays; Lynn Shelton and Joe Swanberg.

Rated TV-14: Language, some sexual explorations might be tricky to explain.

Talking points: The obvious, but there's also sexual and relationship fluidity, an incredibly powerful ongoing meditation on spirituality, and balancing obligation to self with those to others.

Best For: Your highly verbal, well-intentioned stepmother or uncle whose attempts to understand the lives of others tend to go down in flames. Apologetic parents, rebellious tweens, or really: anybody who quietly needs a lifeboat, and wouldn't want you standing up for them directly.

Gilmore Girls


For a surprise curveball your teen guests will be bringing up every time they see you for years to come, you can't go wrong with the soapy, smart, dramatic classics they missed the first time around: The O.C., Gilmore Girls, and Once and Again are all "guilty" pleasures that go down easy, because the holidays happen outside time and space. Remember that teenagers are looking for any reason to cry, anything at all, especially boys: That's why these shows work, and it's also an interest that Friday Night Lights serves perfectly. It is wonderfully written, nearly flawless in execution, has local Austin interest, and makes you a better person when you watch it. These and Firefly all have a demonstrated four-quadrant slam-dunk appeal: The key is to start watching, no debate or apologies, and just let the magic happen.

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More by Jacob Clifton
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Holiday TV, Mr. Robot, UnReal, Transparent, Gilmore Girls, The O.C.

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