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Twenty years ago, back in March, I started feeling a nebulous but very intense aversion to watching anything longer than 25 minutes. There have been some exceptions—I can get through movies under the right circumstances, and I would probably watch another 10 hours of The Last Dance, despite knowing nothing about basketball, Michael Jordan, or the intricate politics of sports franchises (but being deeply committed to pettiness). A 57-minute episode of television, though? And then nine more just like it? Now?

It’s no secret that prestige television, for the most part, has gotten flabby in its later years. But as streaming services and premium-cable networks have stretched out dramas toward tedium, they’ve also been enabling experimentation in the half-hour format. Here, you can find dreamlike odes to the work-life balance, bleakly comic explorations of what it means to be a better person, fragmented portraits of the rot in the American dream, and Hitchcockian mysteries that look like nothing else on the small screen.

Practically, shows whose episodes run 30 minutes or less are also easier on viewers whose attention spans are frazzled, whose emotional bandwidth ran out during the eighth Zoom call of the day, and whose current side hustles as math teachers, peacekeepers, and Bob Ross might leave them with little left at the end of the day. This list of 25 series compiles some of the most original and affecting shows from recent years; all of them run at about half an hour per installment, or less. Rather than include sitcoms or outright comedies, which have been exploring the boundaries of the 30-minute episode forever, this list focuses on dramas and shows that blend genres. Each series is worth the smaller amount of time it takes to watch them, and some even have themes that align with this deeply strange and very exhausting era.


Shows About Family Ties

NICOLE WILDER-SHATTUCK / FX
Better Things

Pamela Adlon’s FX series about an actor and a single mother raising three daughters in Los Angeles just wrapped its fourth season, and the show has never been better, more creative, or more perfectly tuned to the cacophony of family life. Sam Fox (played by Adlon) is a veteran performer trying to do meaningful work in an industry hyper-focused on youth and novelty; her daughters snipe and scream and infuriate her, but they offer Sam, and one another, moments of pure joy. Adlon has directed every episode since the second season, and her combination of forthright storytelling and a fragmented, evocative style makes Better Things consistently one of the best shows on TV.

Watch it on: FX and Hulu


Catastrophe

The idea that life can be upended instantly is enshrined in Catastrophe, in which Sharon (Sharon Horgan), an Irish teacher living in London, accidentally gets pregnant after a weeklong fling with Rob (Rob Delaney), an American on a business trip from Boston. Uniquely, the pair decide to try and make things work, and their fractious, ebullient life together makes for raucous comedy as well as moments of real pathos. Over four compact seasons, Catastrophe tackles subjects from aging parents to addiction to abnormal pap smears, but its affirming, absurdist sense of humor is always in the foreground.

Watch it on: Amazon


Forever

Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard’s slightly surreal eight-episode examination of marital ennui was canceled after one season, but it might have new resonance now, as lockdown days clump into one another and time itself seems to stretch and contract. Without spoiling the show’s major twist, it features a couple (played by Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph) who suddenly find themselves committed to spending an indefinite amount of time together in a comfortable but undeniably dull and confining reality. Forever is often audaciously strange and visually striking, but as it reaches its unpredictable conclusion, it offers plenty of space for imaginative, heartfelt interpretation.

Watch it on: Amazon


State of the Union

Long before Quibi, Nick Hornby tested the art of bite-size TV with State of the Union, a 10-episode mini-portrait of a London couple (played by Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike) trying to decide whether their relationship is worth saving. Each installment is 10 minutes and is set in the same location—the pub where the characters meet before their weekly marriage-counseling appointment. In these snippets of time, they discuss personal news, topical issues (remember Brexit?), and what exactly went wrong. Directed by Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen), the series masterfully combines ordinary intimacy with a sense of what’s at stake, and Pike and O’Dowd have a chemistry that’s delightful to watch.

Watch it on: Sundance Now


Trying

Trying is the latest installment in a glut of British sadcoms poking at tragedy within a comedic setup (see also: Fleabag), but it’s also the rare series to tackle infertility as a theme, which it handles with care and good humor. Jason (Rafe Spall) and Nikki (Esther Smith), after trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant, decide to adopt, a process that plays out next to their attempts at self-betterment and the pursuit of “real” adulthood. The story lines can be farcical, and Trying turns London into an unrealistically idyllic backdrop, but the show’s sweetness and endearing optimism set it apart.

Watch it on: Apple TV+


Shows About Coping

LUKE VARLEY / SHOWTIME
Back to Life

At the beginning of Back to Life, Miri (Daisy Haggard) is released from prison after serving an 18-year sentence for a crime whose specifics form the mystery at the core of the show. Miri is sweet and goofy and understandably bewildered by how much things have changed since she last saw the outside world; at the same time, she’s a figure of loathing in her community, which hampers her attempts to start living normally again. Haggard, who co-wrote the show, communicates Miri’s vulnerability but also her irrepressible optimism. And after six episodes, the show’s revelations offer a moving and hopeful conclusion.

Watch it on: Showtime


Barry

Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s black comedy about a hit man who just wants to be loved contains multitudes—including genial Chechen mafiosi, psychotic children, and one of TV’s best portrayals of the narcissism inherent to performance. But its biggest asset is Hader as Barry, a Marine who learns to kill in the military, then learns to leverage those kills as an assassin, then discovers acting class and realizes what a “normal” life might look like. The question of whether people can really change and make amends for past offenses hangs over the show, and Hader’s ability to make Barry both endearingly sympathetic and intermittently terrifying keeps viewers from getting too comfortable.

Watch it on: HBO


Russian Doll

Another show that’s achieved eerie new resonance over the past few months, Russian Doll, from Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, and Amy Poehler, is still one of Netflix’s jewels—a brilliantly ambitious piece of storytelling that offers more and more every time you watch. Nadia (Lyonne) is a video-game developer in New York’s East Village who, in the first episode, dies, and finds herself reverting over and over again to the same moment on her 36th birthday. The more she tries to cheat death, the more convoluted the mystery of what’s happening to her becomes. Whether you read it as a metaphor for the cyclical nature of addiction or for the Groundhog Day sameness of life under lockdown, Russian Doll makes an argument for human connection and kindness that feels more powerful now than ever.

Watch it on: Netflix


Sorry for Your Loss

On another platform, Sorry for Your Loss might have found the viewers it deserves, but Kit Steinkellner’s compact, humane drama about life after grief is worth braving the glitchiness of Facebook Watch. Elizabeth Olsen is very good as Leigh, an advice columnist who’s reeling from her husband’s unexpected death, and navigating not only the existential destabilization of profound loss, but also the bureaucratic small stuff that comes with it. Making jokes about death is hard to do well, but Steinkellner finds a tone that’s just right, portraying the comedy of Leigh’s emotional oscillations, the poignancy of her family’s efforts to help her get by, and the flashes of hope that peek through.

Watch it on: Facebook Watch


This Way Up

Aisling Bea (Living With Yourself) created and stars in this six-episode dramedy about a woman, Áine, trying to recover after a “teeny little nervous breakdown.” Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe), who executive produced, plays Áine’s sister, and the bond between the two is one of the show’s biggest assets, along with Áine’s nascent flirtation with a starchy single father played by Tobias Menzies. This Way Up is loaded with comic absurdity: Áine makes farcical errors while trying to help people and engages in a spectacular Cranberries sing-along at one family gathering. But the show never loses sight of how vulnerable Áine is, and how her openness and empathy are strengths, even if they make everyday life that much harder.

Watch it on: Hulu


Shows About the Joy of Before

QUANTRELL D. COLBERT / FX
Atlanta

Arguably no show does as much in as little space as Donald Glover’s whimsical, brilliant series about a Princeton dropout named Earn who’s trying to live up to his name and master the hustle of modern life. Over two seasons (with a third coming in 2021), Atlanta has satirized the music industry, probed police brutality, created a fictional talk show complete with advertisements, and crafted a standalone work of horror about a former music star and his eerily controlling brother. Hiro Murai’s direction makes the series a visual feat, and Glover and his brother, Stephen, who co-writes, set Atlanta’s ambitions as a dazzling exploration of time and place.

Watch it on: FX and Hulu


GLOW

Basically everything that’s verboten right now is featured across GLOW’s three seasons—congregating in large groups, engaging in wanton physical contact with others, making a television show, Las Vegas. The pivotal themes of Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s ’80s-set series about a women’s wrestling league (inspired by the real-life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), though, are timeless. Ever since Ruth (Alison Brie), a struggling actor, channeled her frustrated creativity into originating the role of “Zoya the Destroya” in Season 1, GLOW has used its spandexed, psychedelic setup to explore subjects from female friendship and identity to harassment in the entertainment industry and closeted sexuality. It’s (almost) always a blast.

Watch it on: Netflix


High Fidelity

Back when Hulu’s TV gender-flipped adaptation of the Nick Hornby book High Fidelity came out in February, the questions I had while watching it were mostly practical. How does a record store that seems to bring in about $20 a day pay for three full-time employees and a Crown Heights storefront? Why is the musical taste of Rob (Zoë Kravitz), a 20-something American woman of color in 2020, indistinguishable from the musical taste of Rob, the 30-something white British protagonist of the 1995 novel? Does High Fidelity make more sense if you accept that Rob’s dad might be Lenny Kravitz in real life? Now, though, the show feels much more wistful, with its divey bars and Tinder dates and random hookups and serendipitous encounters—a reminder of everything people took for granted until it was out of reach.

Watch it on: Hulu


Master of None

As with High Fidelity, to watch Master of None now feels like escapism. Over two seasons, the struggling actor Dev (Aziz Ansari) flies to Nashville for a day trip, takes a pasta-making sabbatical in Italy, watches John Legend perform in a celebrity’s loft, and takes a dozen women on identical dates in a single episode. Some scenes feel like experimental vignettes; others abandon Dev to focus on supporting characters and strangers, as in the second-season episode “New York, I Love You” and the Emmy-winning “Thanksgiving.” Deftly, Ansari and his co-creator, Alan Yang, mine the archives of classic film for stylistic inspiration while engaging with contemporary themes: monogamy, everyday racism, coming out.

Watch it on: Netflix


Vida

As Tanya Saracho’s three-season series about two sisters in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, comes to an end, it’s never felt more necessary. The uptight Emma (Mishel Prada) and the free-spirited Lyn (Melissa Barrera) return home after their mother’s death, only to discover a wealth of secrets she’d kept from them. The story of what happens next is intimate yet expansive: Saracho weaves nuanced considerations of gentrification, sexuality, heritage, and generational change into the plot, while keeping Emma and Lyn’s relationship in the forefront. The result is joyous and funny, fiercely relevant but somehow timeless.

Watch it on: Starz


Shows About Self-Discovery

MARK JOHNSON / NETFLIX
Chewing Gum

Michaela Coel (Black Mirror) adapted her one-woman play Chewing Gum Dreams into this two-season comedy, the sweetly raunchy story of Tracey (Coel), a devoutly religious 24-year-old who becomes determined to lose her virginity. Broadly based on Coel’s own experiences as a Pentecostal Christian in London, Chewing Gum offers a raucously funny, frequently cringeworthy, sharply written coming-of-age story that’s also a specific portrait of a working-class East London community that’s rarely seen on British TV. With Coel’s newest project, I May Destroy You, set to debut on HBO in June, this is a chance to catch up with her talent.

Watch it on: Netflix


Dickinson

The most distinctive of Apple TV+’s first wave of series, Dickinson reimagines the life of the reclusive 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson as a kind of bonkers Gen-Z fever dream, complete with anachronisms (twerking and Billie Eilish), opium parties, and overt feminism. Wiz Khalifa plays Death (the guy with the carriage); John Mulaney has a memorable arc playing Henry David Thoreau as a cosseted blowhard. The real reason to watch, though, is Hailee Steinfeld, who imbues Emily with earnest intensity, relishing the character without getting lost in any of the surrounding absurdity. The result is a show that, in the words of Dickinson’s creator, Alena Smith, aims for spiritual accuracy rather than historical exactitude, and is all the more fun for it.

Watch it on: Apple TV+


The End of the F***ing World

When the first eight episodes of Charlie Covell and Jonathan Entwistle’s stylish, strange series debuted on Netflix in early 2018, they felt strikingly unique. The story of two disaffected teenagers (one a wannabe serial killer and the other a belligerent grump) who run away together, the graphic-novel adaptation had the cinematic vibrancy of an indie film but also an oddball sense of humor. Its nostalgic, analog aesthetic and mood have since become de facto among quirky Netflix shows, but this one still stands apart for its audacity and its unexpected sweetness.

Watch it on: Netflix


Normal People

Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit 2018 novel has made waves for the prominence—and intensity—of its love scenes, but also noteworthy is how well the series utilizes its half-hour format to fit Rooney’s hazy, loosely structured story. The entirety of the series is focused on the on-again, off-again relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), who begin sleeping together secretly as teenagers in their small Irish town and whose lives and paths become closely intertwined. Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, who direct, give the show a dreamy, luminescent quality, while the episodes (written mostly by the playwright Alice Birch and Rooney herself) experiment with form and composition in a way that’s deeply watchable.

Watch it on: Hulu


Ramy

The first season of Ramy introduced the central character (created and played by Ramy Youssef), who’s trying to reconcile his hyphenated identities as a Millennial American and a Muslim. Over 10 episodes, Youssef explored both the specific experiences of his Egyptian American family in New Jersey and the universal question of desire—where it comes from and what it can cost. (The juxtaposition was often funnier than it sounds: Youssef’s background is in stand-up comedy, and some of Ramy’s more humiliating experiences played on his propensity to stereotype people as much as anyone else might.) In the forthcoming Season 2, Mahershala Ali plays Sheikh Ali, a new spiritual teacher to whom Ramy attaches in his imperfect efforts to commit to his faith.

Watch it on: Hulu


Shows That Get Weird

JESSICA BROOKS / AMAZON
Homecoming

When Sam Esmail’s eerie thriller (an adaptation of the hit podcast of the same name) debuted in 2018, it felt distinctive for a number of reasons: its star (Julia Roberts in her first major TV role, playing Heidi, an administrator at a government facility for soldiers who’ve returned from combat); a winning performance from Stephan James as one of Heidi’s charges; and Esmail’s extravagant use of split screens, aspect ratios, and music to give the series a Hitchcockian flair. Teased out over five hours, the central conspiracy of Homecoming was unsettling and stylishly rendered. Season 2, which debuted on Friday, under-employs Janelle Monáe in a smaller and less ambitious story that spins off from the first season, and Joan Cusack joins as a ruthless military higher-up.

Watch it on: Amazon


Maniac

One of Netflix’s bigger, weirder swings, Maniac (directed by Cary Fukunaga of True Detective and the upcoming Bond film No Time to Die) starred Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as two strangers in crisis who join a pharmaceutical trial and end up paired in a variety of outlandish dreams. The series is set in an alternate-timeline America with retro technology in which loneliness seems to be a mass affliction; one particularly loopy story line involves a lost chapter of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote that Annie (Stone) and Owen (Hill) are trying to steal. For all its eccentricities, though, Maniac’s stars (including Justin Theroux, Sally Field, and Sonoya Mizuno) keep it compelling, as do its eventual conclusions about how meaningful human connection can be.

Watch it on: Netflix


Run

There’s something suitably escapist about the central conceit of Run, in which two former lovers honor a long-standing pact to abandon their lives and meet on a train at Grand Central Terminal after the text exchange of a single word: “Run.” The show relies on the chemistry between Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) to sell the idea that both would sacrifice everything for a connection they severed 17 years ago, but it also parcels out information in pieces, so you’re never entirely certain of the foundation on which everything rests. Archie Panjabi and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the longtime collaborator of Run’s creator, Vicky Jones, also pop up for unexpected supporting roles.

Watch it on: HBO


Undone

There’s no simple way to describe Undone, which starts as an animated story about an alienated teacher, Alma (Rosa Salazar), before launching into a wildly ambitious and layered narrative about mental illness, trauma, and the nature of reality that travels through time and space. The series by BoJack Horseman’s Raphael-Bob Waksberg and Kate Purdy is tightly contained, with all eight episodes running about 23 minutes, but the combination of its rotoscoped visuals (where animators trace over filmed footage to create eerily realistic images) and its metaphysical ingenuity of concept makes it feel much more sweeping.

Watch it on: Amazon


Upload

Greg Daniels’s first project after Parks and Recreation is this futuristic satire about technology-enabled life after death—a theme that’s worlds away from Pawnee but oddly timely. Nathan (Robbie Amell) is a computer programmer in 2033 Los Angeles (self-driving cars abound) who, in the first episode, dies unexpectedly and is uploaded by his narcissistic girlfriend to a digital afterlife that resembles an upscale country resort. There, he forms a nascent relationship with his customer-service agent (Andy Allo), who pursues the mystery of how Nathan died. But the show is more interested in critiquing how a corporatized heaven might actually become hell.

Watch it on: Amazon

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