Only Happy TV

I was talking with my daughter and my husband yesterday about the TV shows they’re both into; Game of Thrones came up, and the prequel to it — something about dragons — and also the Walking Dead franchise, and then all the upsetting NCIS-type shows, and the Chicago series (Hope, Fire, etc.) that’s all about people dying, or almost dying.

Anytime either one of them would bring up a show they’re excited about, my daughter would say, “Mom, you’d hate that one.” And I found myself once again defending why I just can’t handle some of the universe’s most popular shows, despite the fact that they’re obviously quality productions that I’d certainly appreciate on an intellectual level.

It comes down to this: I can’t watch things that are upsetting, because real life can be upsetting enough.

Hear me out. I’m no lightweight; I’ve never seen an episode of Real Housewives. I used to be OK with upsetting shows, but that was before anything truly upsetting had happened in my actual life. Now, as truly upsetting things go, I’ve been fortunate; sure, I’ve had cancer a couple times, but all is fine now. Messy divorce? Check, but it’s in the distant past, and everyone’s OK as far as that is concerned, too. But somehow, in some way, we’re all dealing with hard things. Why should TV make them harder?

I work a lot. I’m tired. So when I watch TV, I want to escape real life.

I watch shows that make me feel great, and shows that teach me things. Sometimes they’re one and the same. Think Ted Lasso, documentaries about people who make a difference in the world, Ghosts (still on the fence about the BBC one), and Last Tango in Halifax. I watch some shows that I’m mildly embarrassed about — more on that later. And I don’t stay away from reality TV entirely.

Oh, and one other thing: The title of this blog is a lie. The shows I watch are not altogether happy ones; for instance, The Crown is a favorite, and it’s not terribly uplifting these days. And I can’t promise that I’ll never watch Grey’s. But I don’t want to watch shows that kill people, that include violence that could intentionally kill people, or that make me too anxious to sleep.

So if this sounds like you, join me, won’t you? We’ll have some fun.


Ghosts that make me happy

My husband’s name is Kevin. You’ll hear about him here. We’re empty nesters, but we’re not all that old. We live in Iowa. Sometimes we watch TV together, and sometimes we don’t.

Here’s when we don’t: When he’s watching a show that I refer to as “one of your horrific shows,” or “one of your upsetting shows.” And by either of those, I mean: Shows that everyone else in the world is watching, and that I won’t watch because I’ve heard that gross and violent things happen in it. Thankfully, we have a nicely finished basement with a big TV in it, and he likes to hang out down there.

But we do have a few shows we watch together. Most recently, it’s Ghosts — the CBS version, not the BBC version, although I love me some British TV and I am trying with that show. We’d scrolled past CBS’ Ghosts many a time in our YouTubeTV queue; one of us would say, “We need to watch that.” But we didn’t until last week, and we binged it too quickly and now I am missing those characters.

Danielle Pinnock and Brandon Scott Jones in Ghosts

(It probably makes sense here to insert that Kevin maintains I cannot “just watch a show.” He’s right. If I like a show, I feel compelled to research it, dissect it, discuss it on Reddit, and generally like it more than perhaps a normal person would. But I’m a writer and I’m interested in how the person telling a story crafts that story, and if that story catches my attention, I am all in. So here we are.)

So, Ghosts. It’s a simple premise: A young couple inherits a huge, spooky house that is, of course, inhabited by spirits. At first, the couple isn’t aware of the ghosts — but then the lead female character (Samantha, played by Rose McIver) falls down a flight of stairs, spends a couple weeks in a coma, and wakes up to the startling realization that she can see dead people.

Her husband, Jay, played by the fabulous Utkarsh Ambudkar (of, for me anyway, Pitch Perfect fame), can’t see the ghosts, and at first, he thinks his wife has lost it, as one would, right? But then — and this is key — he decides he believes her because of a conversation involving a furnace, and he’s all in. ALL in. He comes to love the ghosts, in fact. And that’s a huge reason the show is as charming as it is.

Yes, I know how this sounds. (Really — a network show?) But, you guys … these ghosts. They are played by a bunch of people I had never heard of, and their performances are just so good. It would be easy for this show to be stupid — think of every show in the history of TV with a supernatural premise — but the writers somehow manage to straddle the line between “amusing” and “this will hit you in all the feels,” and it works.

Each ghost has a backstory, of course, and a persona. Pete is the nice guy, in spite of having to spend eternity with an arrow through his neck; Trevor is a ’90s Wall Street jerk. Flower is a hippie; Sassapis is a Lenape Tribe storyteller who died in the 1500s. Hetty is a late-1800s “lady of the manor”; Isaac is a closeted Revolutionary War soldier who really hated Alexander Hamilton and has a crush on a ghost who lives in a shed out back. Alberta is a 1920s lounge singer … and maybe a bootlegger who once threw someone off a bridge? And Thorfinn, my favorite, is … a Viking.

They’re all trapped on the property because they died either in the house or just outside of it. The fact that they can’t leave the grounds is one of the “ghost rules.” There are others: They can walk through walls, but not through a vault. They can sit on furniture. They can smell food — Sassapis loves a good pepperoni pizza — but they can’t eat it. And on and on.

Bewitched’s animated Samantha

If you’re my age, you for sure remember Bewitched. There are similarities between the two shows: Both have protagonists named Samantha. The Bewitched Samantha is a witch, and her husband is mortal, so he’s never in on the joke; Ghosts‘ Samantha is able to fraternize with spirits and her husband isn’t.

I was a little kid during Bewitched’s run, and my little-kid self loved it, but Ghosts is different — and better, for sure — because the ghosts themselves are so layered. We learn, for example, that when Alberta was alive, she was mistreated not only because of her race and sex, but because she was a larger person. Isaac has been closeted for 250 years and isn’t sure whether to really believe that life is easier in the 21st century for LGBTQ people. Flower was alienated from her family. Pete’s wife had an affair with his best friend. Thor was abandoned. And on and on.

Which leads me to what the premise of this show appears to be: that the spirits are stuck in a kind of Purgatory and must resolve their unfinished “living” business before they’re assigned to their forever afterlife. Is Sam’s purpose to help them make that happen? It seems so. The ghosts refer ascending as being “sucked off” — a running gag, and one that renders my husband to a 16-year-old boy every time he hears it — and that’s the goal of every spirit in the Ghosts universe.

That will likely happen when the Ghosts actors begin receiving offers they can’t refuse, but I hope we’re given a couple more seasons, at least, before that happens. New episodes are shown at 8 p.m. CDT on CBS and the next day on Paramount+. Give this week’s a watch.

Billy Gardell, always a reason to be happy

I went years without being aware of Mike and Molly. I watched it for the first time on, of all places, a 12-hour plane ride to South Africa. I can’t say I loved it — it was problematic for me in a few ways — but I kind of fell in love with Billy Gardell.

So when I learned about CBS’s Bob Hearts Abishola — I know, I know, here I go again with the network TV — I had to watch. We’re in the fourth season now, and elements of this show make me really happy.

One thing that does not make me happy: It’s a Chuck Lorre sitcom, and some of the jokes and gags lean toward the sophomoric, especially anything involving Bob’s mother and siblings. Just yuck on some of that stuff. But what saves this show for me is that you buy 100 percent that Bob, somewhat boring middle-aged sock impresario that he is, is head-over-heels for strong, smart, take-no-prisoners Nigerian-born Abishola. Their chemistry is exactly what you want it to be.

Full disclosure: This show also makes me happy because Abishola reminds me of my daughter-in-law, Katleho, who is from South Africa. Kat is also strong and smart, and she for sure takes no prisoners — and I adore all those things about her. I’ve learned so much about her culture in the last dozen-plus years she’s been with my son, and although Nigeria and South Africa are very different, the similarities resonate with me, and the depictions of Abishola’s culture ring true.

Chalk that up in part to the talented Gina Yashere, who co-created the show, writes for it, and acts in it. I’ve read interviews in which she discusses her insistence — and the insistence of Folake Olowofoyeku, who plays Abishola — that the Nigerian-based elements of the show are much more than ideas created in the head of some white person. Nigerian actors figure prominently in the cast, lending authenticity to a show that easily could have gone in a different direction.

Gardell as Bob; Travis Wolfe Jr. as Abishola’s son, Dele; and Olowofoyeku as Abishola

Rather than try to assimilate entirely to a new culture, Abishola and the show’s other Nigerian characters hold proudly to their own beliefs and customs. When stepdad Bob tells Abishola she’s being too hard on her son, Dele, Abishola tells Bob where he can stuff his opinion (although she softens later, for reasons not having a lot to do with her husband’s words). In a refreshing turn, Bob is the odd-man-out here, having to work mightily to win over Abishola and, to a large degree, her family and friends.

Lorre’s signature, however, is all over the characters of Bob’s mom, Dottie Wheeler, and siblings, Douglas and Christina Wheeler. They all work for the family compression-sock business, and the any storyline involving any Wheeler except Bob is mostly abysmal. Douglas is a one-note stoner (who appeared to be growing a bit last season, but we’ll see), Christina is cringe-worthy every time she’s on screen (the actress plays the part well, but what a mess of a part; she’s viewed as an emotionally volatile loser), and Dottie — although she has a nice moment with her kids every now and again — is portrayed as harsh and almost cartoon-villain-ish at times. Played by the accomplished Christine Ebersole, Dottie needs reworking.

It’s obvious Yashere’s influence is all over the best characters — not only Bob and Abishola, but Abishola’s aunt and uncle (played by Shola Adewusi and Barry Shabaka Henley, respectively), and Abishola’s son, Dele, played by Travis Wolfe Jr. There’s real familial warmth there. Abishola’s hospital co-workers — she’s a nurse studying to become a physician — are amusing without becoming cloying; one is played by Yashere and the other by perpetual TV nurse Vernee Watson-Johnson. And two particularly bright spots are Bayo Akinfemi as Goodwin and Anthony Okungbowa as Kofo; both are employees at the Wheelers’ company and teach the family a thing or two about rewarding loyal team members for hard work.

Bob Hearts Abishola is a different show, and one worth trying. Watch it on CBS on Monday nights. But consider fast-forwarding through the parts about the Wheelers.