10 Best Educational TV Shows to get your brain in shape while staying at home

Spending time in quarantine and self isolation means plenty of time and space to educate yourself. There’s much going on right now with the Corona virus pandemic raging around the globe and it’s hard to keep track. But you’re lucky: lots of television programs to fill your brain with and to make sure you’ll stay on top of your political game while staying at home.

On EU nationalism

Game of Thrones (2011-2019, 8 seasons, HBO)

Valar Morghulis. Valar Dohaeris.

On mass surveillance and Artificial Intelligence

Person of Interest (2011-2016, 5 Seasons, CBS)

One day, I realized all the dumb, selfish things people do… it’s not our fault. No one designed us. We’re just an accident. We’re just bad code.

On fascism in late capitalism

The Handmaid’s Tale (since 2017, 3 seasons so far, Hulu)

Praised be, bitch.

On neoliberal supremacy in late capitalism

Westworld (since 2016, 3 seasons so far, HBO)

Violent delights have violent ends.

On neighborhood support networks in working class and poor communities

Shameless (2011-2020, 11 seasons, Showtime)

I always fantasized about having enough money to stock up on toilet paper.

On neighborhood support networks in upper class communities

Downton Abbey, (2010-2015, 6 seasons, iTV)

Don’t be defeatist. It’s very middle class.

On Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence

Big Little Lies (2017-2019, 2 Seasons, HBO)

Heterosexuality should be illegal. [That’s not a quote from the series. That’s just the moral of this show.]

On how to defend yourself against your abusive partner

How to Get Away with Murder (2014-2020, 6 seasons, ABC)

The way you are whining right now makes me believe you think I’m your mother.

On Gentrification and Housing

Vida (2018-2020, 3 Seasons, Starz)

Qué pasa mi raza? This is your girl, La Pinche Chinche. This is a manifesto, mi gente. So grab a pencil and take note, because this morning, I’m saying, ‘Basta.’ The way they shut us down at the city council meeting last night, was some straight bullshit – like if we shouldn’t have a say in how and where we live. But if those fuckers think that we’re going to take this occupation, this recolonization lying down, they got another thing coming, mi gente.

On Public Health and Oppression

Pose (since 2018, 2 seasons so far, FX)

They’ll never know that feeling what it’s like to love without worrying that you’re gonna die, or worse yet, that you’re gonna kill somebody. I don’t know what’s shittier having that freedom taken away or never having had it to begin with.

What to watch as a straight woman

Pride month is over so we are back again at giving straight people life advice. While being feminist your service as a queer person probably do not extend to cishet men and I fully understand that. Same here.

There are shows specifically aimed at us and there are shows which are also aimed at us and still being hella gay. Both type of shows should be watched by any straight person to learn things. Mostly about what it’s like to be queer in this world and how heteronormativity and transphobia is making our lives a million things straight people do not experience.

The thing is: most straight people don’t watch those shows. They are not watching stories and characters not reflecting their lifestyle and opinions. That’s why the majority of straight people who love to watch tv shows haven’t watched POSE but Queer Eye. They don’t want to be challenged by our histories, bodies and culture, they wan’t to be embraced or included. So I’m not recommending those kind of shows. Would be a waste of time.

Thanks to some major shifts in the industry in the last few years partly due to #MeToo and #TimesUp there still is a growing number of TV shows I find especially interesting. Because they showcase the toxicity of heterosexuality and relationships with straight men, examining the patriarchy in our daily lives, straight and queer people alike, and giving hints on how to overcome the rules and restrictions of straight culture. You have to be self-aware to get to the last part but I believe in you, straight women! So let’s get to some feminist food.

1. Dead to Me (2019-), Netflix

Christina Applegate produces and also stars in this dark comedy about grief and friendship as Jen aka the “white wine vigilante”. Jen grapples with the aftermath of her dead-by-a-hit-and-run husband and being a widowed mother to two boys. She mets Judy in a therapy group and the two become best friends very quickly. Whereas Jen is clearly not dealing with her outright anger and cynicism, Judy seems to be the kindhearted and understanding one supporting Jen and her boys through their grief. Turns out Judy is harboring a dark secret and luring Jen deeper and deeper into her own twisted world.

“Dead to Me” is heavy loaded with lesbian subtext and an incredible amount of femslash fan fiction tropes but that’s a prize only reserved for the queer audience, sorry straights! Nonetheless it blows over with misandry and the power of female friendship wrapped in hilarious dialogue and superior performances by both Applegate and her co-star Linda Cardellini. The nonchalance of which Dead to Me delivers feminist takes on various timely issues is entertaining and refreshing. A strong candidate for the upcoming award season.

Have I forget to mention that Dead to Me has an all female writing and directing team? And its creator Liz Feldman is a lesbian?

2. Killing Eve (2018-), BBC and AMC

I gushed about this show already last year and Killing Eve’s sophomore season is proving it’s capable of holding the high standards it set with its premiere. The cat-and-mouse spy thriller slash dark comedy with hit woman Villanelle and the MI agent Eve chasing her got even more layered and insane. Eve and Villanelle mirror each other in so many ways you constantly forget that one is a psychopathic killer for hire and the other one is (was?) a highly effective expert on female assassins. Villanelle is still messing with Eve’s professional game as well as with her marriage and her sense of self. But Eve’s got game with Villanelle too.

Killing Eve is unreached with its depiction of two women obsessed with each other and what this relationship unravels within them. It’s charged with erotic tension even the straight eye can catch it. Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh have amazing chemistry and fill their characters with such vibrating authenticity it leaves your mouth open – dry and watery at the same time. The show relies as heavy on their acting performances as well as on its writing and pacing, which is always on point and shockingly funny. Thanks to Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Emerald Fennell who were solely writing the first two seasons.

3. Big Little Lies (2017-), HBO

If you know the novel by Liane Moriarty this show is based on you already know the ending of season 1. Not me. As hard as it was to watch every hour-long episode of Big Little Lies’ first season the finale was as equally satisfying, sappy even: Five women, friends and foes, bonding over a dead man… I mean? What more do you need to make up for rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and the upper class motherhood and heterosexuality of it all?

Tho season 1 is written and directed by two men Big Little Lies caters especially to women’s experiences of violence within intimate relationships and centers their ways of surviving. The cinematography of the show reflects its perspective in a chilling yet visually stunning way. I’m glad Nicole Kidman has undergone cosmetic surgery to an extent it limits her facial expressions because her scenes are often outright triggering and I didn’t want to endure her personal terror more than I already had to.

Season 2 had two very interesting and satisfying additions: Meryl Streep as vengeful and manipulative grandmother and Andrea Arnold as sole director.

4. Sharp Objects (2018), HBO

Camille Preaker, journalist and recently checked-out from a psychiatric facility after her roommate poisons and ultimately kills herself, visits her hated hometown to investigate a recent murder case. Unfortunately she stays in her old house with her clearly psychopathic family who continues to emotionally torture her in such subtle ways your blood starts to freeze.

Adult Camille suffers from severe violence and trauma she encountered in her child- and teenhood and we see her abusing alcohol, having flashbacks, emotional outbursts and panic attacks, we witness her heavy dissociating and suicidal attempts, we discover the scars all over her body she gave to herself in order to cope. With the investigations going forward Camilles’ growing up is paralleled against the fatal violence of her hometown present and it’s made painfully slowly but crystal clear that its residents are entirely responsible for everything bad happening.

Former Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée also directed Sharp Objects (which is based on the novel by Gillian Flynn and all episodes are written by women). His very unique cinematography is even more apparent in Sharp Objects and it’s kinda creepy how accurately he manages to visualize how trauma does its work on the bodies and within the minds of its survivors from their point of experiencing. Sharp Objects was intended to have one season only but its praise amongst critics opened the discussion for more (like with Big Little Lies before). Thankfully(?) Amy Adams opted out because she didn’t want to do another round within her character Camille. If you watch Sharp Objects you’ll understand.

5. Halt and Catch Fire (2014-2017), AMC

It’s not often you find a show where the sophomore season is exponentially better than its premiere. But here it is: Halt and Catch Fire started circling around “tortured genius” Gordon and Trump Era infused asshole Joe in the early 80s both eager to build a personal computer together and sell it to IBM or whatever big company is at play in the pre-silicon-valley era. If you’re a little nerdy or nostalgic around the early stages of personal computing and the internet or with the 80s and 90s in general this show will fully satisfy you over the span of four beautifully crafted seasons. But it will also give you hardware engineer Donna and software engineer Cameron, the real geniuses and only capable business women of this show.

HACF has a whole bunch of female writers and directors and I fully blame them for the beauty of Donna’s and Cameron’s relationship the show centers from the beginning of S2 till the end. This quote from a nice review says it all:

Even beyond the importance of representing women in STEM fields, Donna and Cameron’s relationship is a masterful example of how to write complex female dynamics without relying on tired, sexist tropes. Conflict between these two characters has nothing to do with romantic competition or stereotypical cattiness, but is rooted instead in differences of personality, maturity, and leadership style. As friends, partners, one-time housemates, and temporary competitors, Cameron and Donna’s storyline offers one of the most complete and multifaceted portraits of female partnership I have ever seen on television.

Ari talks TV: In Praise of Donna and Cameron, Halt and Catch Fire’s Most Compelling Duo

Quick and Dirty: Imposters (2017-2018), Bravo

Maddie is a very talented and resourceful con artist. Supported by her colleagues Max and Sally she tricks men (and women) into loving her, then steals all their money and leaves them emotionally and financially damaged. Maddie’s latest victims Ezra, Richard and Jules team up to find her, getting their money (and probably decency) back while spiraling more and more into their own cons and schemes.

Richard, Ezra and Jules

Bravo cancelled the comedy-ish show this year but they crafted a decent and satisfying series finale although season 2 lacks the compelling narratives and twists season 1 had. Nonetheless it’s a very entertaining show because Jules is a hilarious and (for me) relatable lesbian character: She is cynical, grumpy, stubborn and a little dramatic. I was also quite fascinated by the most unrealistic depiction of friendship between men and lesbians and I mean that in a good way. Jules, Richard and Ezra become a “ride or die” trio, they support and care for each other unconditionally, of course not without self-deprecating critique of cishet masculinity mostly voiced by Jules and also in a more subtle way through Ezra’s and Richard’s actions.

While Ezra – the romantic, naive and sensitive – never really grew on me, the portrayal of Richard (goals in life: women and cars, maybe senator) and his dynamic with Jules is funny, warm-hearted and sometimes surprising. Whereas Jules upholds the lesbian flag unapologetically Richard carries very much intended and believable gay aura with him.

Have I mentioned Uma Thurman plays a guest role as crazy handler Lenny Cohen?

Quick and Dirty: Westworld (2016-), HBO

Imagine you are an artificial intelligence and your only reason for existence is to be murdered, tortured, raped and beaten on a daily basis, your memory is erased after every incident to “protect” you and you have been living in this hell hole from several to 35 years. Imagine mankind thinks you are just a thing although they’ve written very human emotions and affects and character traits into your core code and gave you a human body to communicate with and navigating in this world to make it a “real experience”. Imagine they have no fear of any repercussions because you are not programmed to flee, fight back or develop self-conscience. Imagine they were wrong.

Maeve Millay – brothel queen, psychic witch, mother of the year, outsmarts everyone, shoots you in the face

I had Westworld on my watchlist for quite a long time because the premise sounded like a festival of sexual violence. The good thing: it’s not. Yes, rape and assault are prevalent (hey, we have to deal with men here so it’s really not a surprise) but more as a theme and a reference. The graphic depiction of sexual violence is very low-key for this genre and often implied. The general violence however is ‘in your face’ which is fine by me: the main female characters are not the victims in this sci-fi dystopia. Actually they are pretty villainous and vengeful. Besides shock effects and aesthetic value graphic violence in film functions as some kind of carthatic experience for the audience (as in: white men). But Westworld reminds us constantly that white men are evil pricks and women (so many plot-relevant female characters on this show, i’m howling) are here to bring them down. and everyone else who colludes with them. This is my carthatic jam.

The complexities and questions revolving around concepts of reality, agency,  consciousness, memory, moral, responsibility and solidarity are rocking hard in Westworld, one of at least six parks for rich people to act out their “dark side” with the hosts as the support characters on their journey of “self-experience”. I’m awe-struck by every episode: The show not only manages to dissect and discuss those concepts within the plot, dialogue and character development in a meaningful way but allowing their female characters to have different approaches while slowly gaining power and control over their own narratives. They are constantly creating a new world (order) within and outside the parks.

Dolores Abernathy – oldest host in the park, former damsel, now dominator, daughter of the year, has had enough of whiny boyfriends

Westworld is full of subtle critique and open references on the western european history of genocide, settler colonialism and slavery in the Americas and India (so far). If you expected Westworld to be the hot take in TV format on this, you probably will be disappointed. Another sea of thin ice is the depiction of first nation, indigenious and non-western people. Yes, their stories are solely created to entertain and cater to the interests of human guests, who are rich, western and predominantly white. But at this point we are shown only very few of them with so much agency you can safely assume their stories are being relevant to the greater over-arching narrative (which is still a riddled mess at this point). And maybe this was made on purpose because it’s coherent with the premise and my impatient ass is to blame for my slight discomfort. If your ass is a liberal one in cultural studies you could easily read this as a meta reference to racism in film or euro-centric ‘worlding’. Or the perfect portrayal of the white western gaze. You could also ask in which ways racist fetishism on a storytelling level challenges or contradicts those analyses.

The show still delivers on many feminist topics and as we were promised from Evan Rachel Wood herself: heteronormativity is not quite working on artificial intelligences. Welp! And with only 15 episodes and counting Westworld already managed to subvert the Bury Your Gays Trope (i don’t want to spoil everything…so live with that)

I know this review has to be short but let me at least have a word or two on the incredible acting: No actor or actress receives full scripts. They only get the parts they are playing next mostly due to avoid spoilers via cast member interviews that would ruin the watching experience and world building in Westworld. Preparing and shooting without having the full scope is quite challenging to create a coherent and multidimensional character at the same time but imagine your character has at least three or more roles/personas you all have to pull in one dialogue or even a simple reaction? Yeah. I could go on writing about any on-and-off-screen detail I know but let’s end this review with some Tessa Thompson appreciation:

Charlotte Hale – kinda supervises the parks, queen of smoking, side eyeing and escaping death, gives zero fucks about her morals and your ass

Quick and Dirty: Killing Eve (2018-), BBC America

I first came across Killing Eve while watching a panel with Sandra Oh at the Sundance Film Festival 2017. It is her first lead role in a TV series. Ever. You may know Sandra Oh from Grey’s Anatomy.

And as I watched the first 4 episodes of Killing Eve I honestly considered watching Grey’s too just because of her impeccable acting and timing in delivering her lines. She really is brilliant and so is her character Eve Polastri.

Eve is a “frustrated at her job” MI5 officer. Her arc nemesis and main antagonist of “Killing Eve” is the sociopathic assassin Villanelle. The two women begin to track down each other and it just takes two minutes til they’re obsessed with their new hobby. gay.

As it turns out Villanelle’s killing spree across the world has gained so much attention within secret government agencies that no one expects it to be a female killer for hire. Except for Eve. She is relentless – and as I observed it so much of a closeted lesbian even her colleague Bill (who by the way has a wonderful backstory and is a great example of portraying healthy and supporting relationships between men and women) is getting suspicious. The gay in “Killing Eve” is both subtle and canon text in your face which I like very much so far. Although the show is navigating treacherous terrain with a bisexual sociopathic killer and dead gays within the first 4 episodes, its excellent writing and formidable acting makes it not only digestible but intriguing, exciting even. Villanelle’s character is chilling, her actions are terrifying. And here you are, rooting for her anyway because you know violent women how can they ever be bad?, because there is so much more to her story and it’s revealed in small pieces like her facial expressions.

I cannot not mention Elena and Carolyn in this tiny review. The latter is a superior at MI6 who recruits Eve to find Villanelle and the former is Eve’s assistant. So you got four female main(!) characters who pass the Bechdel Test with every word they speak. And if you are not convinced yet please do yourself a favor and watch the trailers below. And then watch Killing Eve.