For when you need a mental break from the endlessly cozy cheer of Hallmark’s holiday line-up…
There are few things more dependably challenging during the winter holiday season than finding something to put on the TV that the whole family—Mom! Dad! Grandma! Adult Cousin Jay! Kid Cousin Tay!—will actually enjoy.
Sure, you can always just tune to Hallmark’s wall-to-wall holiday movie line-up (which this year includes feature-length nods to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the uniquely warm irreplaceability of every Midwestern town’s favorite immigrant-run Chinese restaurant being open on Christmas Day), but what if your family is looking for a break from the festive some snowy afternoon? What if you—gasp—find yourselves all Hallmarked (et al) out?
That’s where this list comes in. From bonkers comedy game shows to mesmerizing (if cheesy) magic, cozy animated ghost stories to, well, cozy live-action ghost stories, if you’re looking for something the whole family can agree to watch that *isn’t* sponsored by Balsam Hill and covered in fake August-in-Atlanta snow, we’ve got something here for you.
Welcome to Wrexham
Where to start: Episode 1
The World Cup may be over, but as pretty much any streamer with a documentary budget will tell you right now, football is forever. Disney+ has David Beckham’s Save Our Squad. The Smithsonian Channel’s got Fever Pitch. Vix has Al Grito de Guera and Informe Qatar. Apple TV+ has (or at least, starting in January, will have) Super League: The War for Football—plus, you know, all of Ted Lasso. But because I’m the one in charge of this list, the soccer-themed docuseries I’m going suggest you bring home to your family this holiday is FX’s Welcome to Wrexham, which is as thrilling and heartwarming as you’d want from an underdog-focused sports story, and as funny and weird as you’d expect from a project led—both creatively and financially—by Hollywood’s own Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. Is there a not-so-subtle undercurrent of professional hubris and co-option of corporate synergy to the whole project? Sure! But that’s how commercial television, professional sports, and Hollywood work. Also, the story it’s telling about the people of Wrexham, and the way it’s telling it, is nevertheless deeply compelling television that will suck your whole family in.
City of Ghosts
Where to start: Episode 1
City of Ghosts is almost impossible to describe. One part gentle animated kids’ series, one part deeply humane city documentary, one part wild artistic experiment; animator Elizabeth Ito’s short, six-episode love letter to the richly storied, non-famous neighborhoods of Los Angeles landed on Netflix so quietly back in early March that literally no one I’ve raved about it to has even heard of it, let alone seen it floating in amongst their personalized recommendations. Sure, part of that might be that few of those same people I’ve raved to live/share a Netflix queue with kids under the age of eight (City of Ghosts’ most obvious target audience), but for as complex, funny, and emotionally overwhelming as the innovative series is, it really deserves to be thrown in front of the widest audience possible.
No other show, after all, is experimenting so productively with the animation styles it uses to tell its story: The majority of City of Ghosts’ backgrounds consist of real, stylized photos of Los Angeles, while different episodes incorporate everything from stop-motion animation to borrowed footage from live-action shows from the 1970s (see this clip; for the latter). No other show, after all, is experimenting so effectively with how it uses dialogue to tell its story: In true documentary style, both the kids who make up the core Ghost Club and the L.A. residents (ghostly and living) who they interview over the course of their project to document lived experiences across L.A. speak like real people—which is to say, awkwardly, and with many pauses, repeats and ums. This would be a compelling enough approach on its own, but Ito takes the ‘real people’ idea a step further, echoing her use of real photos as background illustrations by casting actual neighborhood experts from around the city as the adults her fictional kids go out to interview—legendary punk rocker (and Atomic Café owner) Nancy Sekizawa, included.
Talk about range! Bonus: you can watch the entire series in a single snowy afternoon.
Where to start: Episodes 1 & 2 for the basic premise, but “The Thomas Thorne Affair” and both the Season 2 and Season 3 Christmas specials are worth squeezing in.
Originally developed by half a dozen members of the comedic team behind Horrible Histories and Yonderland—Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, and Ben Willbond—the BBC One version of Ghosts has a much broader sensibility than American audiences might generally anticipate, but nevertheless still a drier, more restrained one than is the signature of CBS’s wildly popular American remake, which is now in its second season (and, in fact, just aired its own “Ghostmas” special).
More “house-share” sitcom than anything, Ghosts follows the misadventures of young (living) London couple Alison and Mike Cooper (Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe) as they move into Button House, the dilapidated country manor Alison inherits, in the pilot’s opening act, from an elderly, very distant posh relative she never knew she had. The catch? Button House just so happens to also be haunted by a whole heap of ghosts from just about every historical era imaginable. And Allison, after a particularly nasty bonk to the head at the end of the first episode, becomes the (un)lucky first-ever “Living” to see them. Chaos, hilarity, and a uniquely spooky sense of found family quickly ensues!
There are few things I love in this world more than Taskmaster (a fact which I have shared with series creator Alex Horne and series host Greg Davies, thank you very much), but among them is the fact that every single family member I have shared it with has immediately fallen in love with the pointless task-based competition boondoggle, too—including, most recently, my exhausted-from-raising-an-infant cousins.
In case you’ve yet to be converted to the Taskmaster religion and don’t yet know what it’s all about, here’s a summary, in plain English: Taskmaster is a competition program that asks its panel of comedic competitors to perform a series of pointless tasks over an extended period of time, all with the knowledge that Davies, as the Taskmaster, will eventually hold them each to account for their various decisions, good and bad. Some tasks are silly (“Make this coconut look like a businessman”), others arcane (“Fill an egg cup with tears”), still others so dead simple, the panelists end up certain there must be a trick. (Which is often true.) And the tasks don’t end once their time in the field is done—for every episode they film in the studio (as few as six in Series 1, as many as ten in later series), the panelists are asked to open by bringing in an item for that week’s prize task (“Best Chair,” “Shiniest Object,” “Boldest Belt”), and end by competing head-to-head in a final live task.
Once they’ve gathered in the studio, competitors are given the opportunity to commentate on their performances, after which point the Taskmaster ranks them, generally assigning scores according to how well each person has either executed the task at hand, or explained away their particular brand of failure. And I say generally because, well, the Taskmaster is guided by his whims as much as he is reason, which means half the fun of watching with your family this holiday season will be dissecting where and why he’s gone wrong…
Queens of Mystery
Where to start: “Strangled” and “Death by Vinyl”
Newly starring Florence Hall as the platinum-fringed Detective Sergeant Matilda Stone, the series’ taciturn young investigative lead who’s recently taken a job back in her picturebook hometown, Queens of Mystery finally returned for its long-awaited second season this past January, and immediately proved it wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
Narrated with arch charm by Juliet Stevenson and featuring idiosyncratic, almost Pushing Daisies-like aesthetics (a comparison only helped by the occasional break from reality), Queens of Mystery remains one of Acorn’s most tonally specific Originals to date. As much a family mystery as it is a “case of the week” procedural, Queens of Mystery derives both its verve and its mystery-solving power from Matilda’s three sharp-as-a-stiletto crime writer aunts, Cat, Jane and Beth Stone (Julie Graham, Siobhan Redmond, and Sarah Woodward, respectively), who raised Matilda after her mother’s mysterious disappearance when she was young. (And as Season 1 hinted at and Season 2 drew into sharper relief, the aunts’ knowledge about Mattie’s mom’s disappearance runs deeper than they’ve been letting on…)
While both Queens of Mystery seasons are tragically brief (just three 2-part mysteries each), what time it has it uses well. We want you to watch the whole series, of course, but if you only have time for one, make it the Season 1 two-parter, “Death by Vinyl,” which uses the reunion album of a fictional all-girl rock band, Volcanic Youth, to better get to know ex-rocker, bisexual graphic novelist Aunt Cat (Graham). Bonus? “Death by Vinyl” features a couple of killer original songs—“Strangled” and “Death by Vinyl”—commissioned especially for the episode. Double bonus? The recording studio the band gets terrorized in is set in Britain’s coolest piece of hidden architecture. We mean, nothing is perfect, but in terms of modern takes on the cozy British mystery? Queens of Mystery comes pretty dang close.
Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Anniversary Celebration
Where to start: It’s just one thing!
Disney+, full-stop, is a universal gimme for this festive dilemma: pulling together programming both compelling and anodyne enough for the whole family to watch is pretty much its whole thing. But if you’re looking to narrow it down to ONE title among hundreds (which, duh, is why you’re here), you can’t go wrong with the just-released Beauty and the Beast 30th anniversary special, which stars Josh Groban and an electric-guitar-wielding H.E.R., and features the likes of Rita Moreno, Martin Short, and David Alan Grier in key supporting roles. A delight, through and through.
Penn & Teller: Fool Us
Where to start: Anywhere!
It’s impossible to get around the fact that The CW’s Penn & Teller: Fool Us, a competitive stage magic show hosted by broadcast cable queen Alyson Hannigan that features magicians from all around the world attempting to pull off a trick that stage magic legends Penn and Teller can’t see right through, is corny. It’s so corny! But therein lies at least half its charm, especially as a festive family watch: what parental figure isn’t going to love the dad jokes so much of the patter rests on? As for the other half of its charm, well, that lies in the finesse with which—when the magicians almost always fail to “fool” the legendary pair—the more loquacious Penn talks around the secrets of each trick in a way that the magician on the stage will understand implicitly, while keeping us rubes in the audience still completely in the dark. Nevermind trying to figure out each trick, your family will spend just as much time trying (and failing) to pick apart Penn’s coded language that would give it all away!
American Ninja Warrior
Where to start: American Ninja Warrior Family Championship
Peacock’s got a fair number of titles that could fit this précis—including Making It, Baking It, and (if you’re lucky enough to be home visiting your cool, punk rock family) We Are Lady Parts—but when it comes to something you can stream all day and both watch intentionally or off-and-on in the background (while, say, making cookies), American Ninja Warrior is hard to beat. It’s got thrills; it’s got spills; it’s got a bone-deep belief in humanity’s ability to be excellent. And if things keep going the direction they’re headed, it’s even got a future as the Olympics’ next pentathlon event. Stream it now!
Blown Away: Christmas
Where to start: Episode 1
Peak Streaming means there are *a lot* of niche artisan competition shows out there, but few are as dazzling as Netflix’s Blown Away, which came out last year with a holiday-themed spinoff offering redemption to competitors who had just missed the cut in previous seasons. Exciting, impressive, and with glittering end products that will (pun intended) blow you away, this four-part special is a great pick for all you competition-obsessed families out there.
Where to start: Episode 1
Bug Out is the true crime docuseries for people who hate true crime docuseries. Ostensibly about a massive bug heist that saw $50,000 worth of critters disappear from the Philadelphia Insectarium in 2018, the four-part series ends up being as much a study of unreliable narrators as it is an investigation.
When I first watched the screeners earlier this year, my desperation to talk with *literally anyone* not just about what the docuseries uncovers but how it gets there was almost physically overwhelming. Meaning: a perfect pick for a big, festive family watch. So go! Be overwhelmed! Gather all the safe holiday meal conversation fodder you could ever hope for! And, of course, enjoy some truly wild bugs while you’re at it.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.
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