What are some shows we can watch sporadically without having to follow the story arcs very closely?
May 7, 2010 2:38 PM   Subscribe

My fiancee and I need a recommendation for a TV show that fits the following criteria: (1) Can be watched sporadically without really needing to follow the story arc or characters all that well and (2) is really, really good.

We're horrible at following through with shows, even ones that we like. Rome, Mad Men, Twin Peaks, The Wire, Deadwood - all shows that we really liked but just haven't finished. It's usually because we'll get really busy at a certain point, a couple weeks/months will go by, and then we just don't have the energy to get back in it and re-learn all the story lines and characters and all that.

So, we'd love a show that we can just pop in the DVD player every so often and not have to worry about remembering everything that's going on. The catch is, I'm not into shows like Law & Order, CSI, NCIS, Without a Trace, and the like. Those shows fit perfectly with the self-contained episode idea, but I just don't think they're very high quality.

Examples of shows that fit are The X-Files (does have a larger story arc but is mostly self-contained episodes), Burn Notice (same deal in general). We like shows that are exciting, dramatic, and well-scripted and acted. No sitcoms, or crime scene shows, or legal shows, or hospital procedurals, unless they're really excellent.

Also, I totally understand that everyone's idea of quality is different. Some people think Burn Notice sucks, and that CSI is awesome, and that's fine. So feel free to suggest anything that might fit!
posted by ORthey to Media & Arts (48 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Battlestar Galactica might fit, it tended to run mini arcs within its larger story arc.

Firefly is only lasted for 14 episodes, but is quite good.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:42 PM on May 7, 2010

Castle. It's a detective show, so you might ultimately reject it as a "crime scene show" but it's sharp and funny and much more like Burn Notice than Law & Order. It stars Nathan Fillion (formerly of Firefly) who is superb, as well as Stana Katic. The plots are usually very clever and the dialogue is very snappy. Definitely the best non-arcing show that I watch.
posted by willbaude at 2:43 PM on May 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

30 Rock
posted by gnutron at 2:45 PM on May 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

Are you opposed to science fiction? The Star Trek series and Quantum Leap fit your criteria pretty well. I've heard the same about the modern Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica though I haven't gotten into either of them personally. Firefly was of course fantastic but short-lived.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 2:45 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fringe - which is very X-files ish has an ongoing story arc but each show is pretty self contained.
posted by bitdamaged at 2:47 PM on May 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Dr. Who
In Plain Sight
posted by pyro979 at 2:55 PM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by Spyder's Game at 2:56 PM on May 7, 2010

Flight of the Conchords
posted by mireille at 3:03 PM on May 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

I second Psych. It's similar in construction to Burn Notice. A very different tone. Done very well. I tune in randomly.
posted by lakerk at 3:04 PM on May 7, 2010

Response by poster: I do love good sci-fi! I have watched both Firefly and BSG through to completion - I probably should have mentioned a few shows I've watched already. I loved both of those, although BSG might be hard to watch only occasionally.

Thanks for the suggestions so far, I'm interested to check out some of these!
posted by ORthey at 3:04 PM on May 7, 2010

I've really been enjoying the Swedish detective drama Wallander lately, and I think it fulfils your requirements. Each episode is a self-contained 90 minute film based on Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels. While, yes, it's a crime show, the show has great writing and performances, with well-drawn characters and nuanced plots. If you can't deal with subtitles, there's a British version starring Kenneth Branagh, which is shot in the same Swedish town of Ystad with an English cast (it's not bad, but the original Swedish series is better).
posted by hot soup girl at 3:10 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know you said no sitcoms, but I'd like to recommend It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Each episode can pretty much stand alone, and the humor is not typical sitcom humor.
posted by mmmbacon at 3:12 PM on May 7, 2010

You could watch It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia in random order and it would still be as funny or unfunny as ever. Try one episode. If you like it, there's more where that came from.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 3:12 PM on May 7, 2010

a thousand times 30 Rock.
posted by prior at 3:14 PM on May 7, 2010

How about Freaks and Geeks? Is that too much of a sitcom? I loved that show so much.
posted by anoirmarie at 3:17 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

And It's always Sunny... is on Hulu so you can see if you like it easily.

I liked White Collar which is another USA show, so if you like Burn Notice it might do.
posted by grapesaresour at 3:18 PM on May 7, 2010

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace
The Prisoner
posted by benzenedream at 3:26 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Episodes from before Adrian Lester left and came back are best, although it's like my favorite show ever and I still like the other episodes.
posted by juv3nal at 3:27 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Leverage is kind of the American version which IMO isn't as good, but still watchable.
posted by juv3nal at 3:28 PM on May 7, 2010

Oh minor caveat with Hustle, there are occasional instances of Brits doing horrible American accents, but if you buy into the notion that they only have to be good enough to fool another Brit and roll with it, it's not a big deal. I can imagine that it would annoy some people though.
posted by juv3nal at 3:33 PM on May 7, 2010

I have to second the Fringe recommendation -- it's SO good and the episodes are very self-contained. FWIW, I would have suggested it even if you haven't specified that you like sci-fi.
posted by kate blank at 3:33 PM on May 7, 2010

Dr. Who and Torchwood :D
posted by Neekee at 3:41 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dead Like Me
posted by lizbunny at 3:41 PM on May 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Nth Psych.

Are you specifically looking for fiction shows? Because when I want to watch something but don't want to worry about needing to remember plot arcs, etc., I go right for Mythbusters. Earlier episodes are charmingly awkward; later episodes are more scripted but have larger explosions.

(Another option is Star Trek: The Next Generation. You can get through at least the first three seasons without needing to remember too much about what's going on or pay too much attention to character development and plot arcs.)
posted by shamash at 3:51 PM on May 7, 2010

pours a little beer out for Dead Like Me

and Wonderfalls

posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 3:52 PM on May 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd think most of USA's programming would be up your alley, including White Collar and Psych (which I don't think is particularly good but people find it pretty entertaining.) Also something like The Closer on TNT maybe?

And I know you said you're not into network procedurals, but from the creator of Rome comes The Mentalist and that Simon Baker is pretty damn watchable.
posted by buzzkillington at 4:05 PM on May 7, 2010

Nthing 30 Rock. There are some references to previous episodes, but they never seem crucial.
posted by bendy at 5:29 PM on May 7, 2010

It might be because I'm rewatching it now, but I'm going to put in a vote for Slings and Arrows, a very, very well-written darkly comedic show about a Shakespearean theater company.

Okay, okay, so it has a story arc -- each season is about the production of a specific play (Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear) -- but, on the other hand, each season is six episodes long, so there's not much to keep up with. And it's really, really good.
posted by sineala at 5:30 PM on May 7, 2010

Supernatural has the benefit of having only two main characters, so even if it's been weeks, it's still not difficult to keep track of them (ha!). The mythology gets slightly more complicated as it goes along, but it's still like the X-Files in that there are a lot of Monster of the Week episodes.

Doctor Who is fabulous, and if you like it, hey! there are like 27 more seasons you can watch. Start with the beginning of the new series (Series 1 from 2005 w/ Christopher Eccelston).

Monty Python's Flying Circus is completely self-contained episode to episode, but you have to like sketch comedy to enjoy it.

Jeeves and Wooster with Stephen Fry and a young Hugh Laurie. They're both completely brilliant in it, but Laurie is particularly fabulous.
posted by colfax at 5:43 PM on May 7, 2010

nthing Castle. Yes, it looks like a crime procedural, but it's closer to Moonlighting (though without the meta) in its writing and feel. And if you haven't seen Moonlighting, maybe try that on DVD, especially the first couple of seasons: I know it has the occasional airing on some cable channel or other, and it requires tolerance of shoulderpads, but its influence can still be seen in so many different places.
posted by holgate at 5:49 PM on May 7, 2010

It's a bit dated, but the first few seasons of Moonlighting are amazing-- it's where Bruce Willis got his first big break, and perhaps the venue in which he did the best acting of his life. The dialogue is quick and funny and he and Cybill Shepherd are great as a team of detectives who constantly bicker with each other. The actual plots of the episodes can be a bit silly, and her outfits are over the top '80s, but the show is much smarter than you'd expect, and the two of them are the only characters you need to remember, which is pretty easy.

Also, another vote for both Wonderfalls and Dr. Who, mentioned above. I would vote against House, though; I watched the first few seasons, but whenever I try to watch a random episode from the current season, I'm totally lost. There's a lot of arc-y interpersonal stuff, and while Hugh Laurie is awesome, the episode-specific plots are incredibly repetitive. If you want Hugh Laurie, watch Jeeves and Wooster.
posted by dizziest at 5:52 PM on May 7, 2010

Perhaps a bit different, but The First 48 on the A&E cable channel would seem to fit your criteria. It's nonfiction/documentary featuring actual police officers, etc., but otherwise fits: completely episodic (each week features a different murder case(s) that gets resolved by the end of the hour), although the settings and major characters/people recur during a given season, and pretty compelling drama, although there's no blood/gore to speak of; all the narrative tension comes from the investigation of a crime after the fact. The drama does operate a bit differently than the heavily scripted fictional plots on a lot of shows, so much so that if you watch it enough, other "police dramas" can get to seem somewhat artificial and overdone.
posted by 5Q7 at 6:19 PM on May 7, 2010

Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me have been mentioned but not Pushing Daisies? It's arcier than Dead Like Me (not sure about Wonderfalls), but still fairly self contained.

Also N+1 Castle. One of my favorite shows on TV right now, and one of the two I recommend to everyone

The other is How I Met Your Mother, which is the opposite of an answer to your question but is still awesome.
posted by natabat at 6:42 PM on May 7, 2010

I enjoy Bones - it has the procedural aspect of it that makes it easy to jump in and out of, but I like it for the characters. It's pretty much the television equivalent of the cozy mystery book.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 7:06 PM on May 7, 2010

Seconding The Prisoner (the sixties version). It has a very, very loose arc and a distinct beginning and end ("Arrival" and "Once Upon A Time"/"Fall Out"), but it's episodic and largely about atmosphere, design, and character. It's even kind of anti-continuity in that it contradicts itself freely and flips genres a lot (spy thriller; parody spy thriller; heavily allegorical spy thriller; spy thriller that's actually an arty stage play about two sweaty, angry men saying nursery rhymes; wacky Sixties sci-fi; Western). It's not always great, but it's brilliant when it is, and Patrick McGoohan holds it all together with sheer clenched-yet-vulnerable manly force.
posted by thesmallmachine at 7:37 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's probably too early to recommend this, but I just watched the first disc of Joan of Arcadia. I'm a guy in my mid 30s, and watched it on a whim thinking I probably wouldn't like it. I was very pleasantly surprised. So far they seem like self-contained episodes each moving toward achieving a larger overall goal or two.

Life on Mars (British). Slate.com described it as a combination of Law and Order, Mad Men and the X-Files. The episodes are all self-contained procedurals, but with the sci-fi twist. There's an overall arc, but I don't think you'd get confused. I don't even think there's even really any episode continuity at all until the last few episodes of the 2nd (final) season.

Lie to Me is pretty good. It's a procedural of sorts, but the investigations aren't just "ok, we have a body, who killed him?" More like, "did this basketball player take money?" or "how can we convince this negotiator to release the hostages?" There's something of an arc going on in the background, but it's very slow burning and not likely to confuse.

Also, what about a miniseries?

I thought Jekyll was fantastic. Obviously the whole thing is an arc, but it's only 6 one-hour long episodes, so you don't have to worry about keeping up with a 13+ episode season. Seriously, James Nesbitt is amazing here.
posted by cali59 at 8:14 PM on May 7, 2010

Nthing Castle and seconding Bones and Lie to Me (coming back in June).
posted by deborah at 8:23 PM on May 7, 2010

Law & Order for sure. There's little to no story arc between episodes, and it's always on at least 3 channels at any given time (which is awesome if you freaking love L&O like we do!)

Don't watch L&O: Criminal Intent though. It's crap.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 9:13 PM on May 7, 2010

Lie to Me is fun and forensicky linguisticky, nthing that.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:24 PM on May 7, 2010

I really liked West Wing for quality, and although there are story arcs, enough episodes seem good on their own for it not to matter too much.
posted by lorimt at 11:41 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lie to Me, The Mentalist (awesome), Dr. Who (I LOVE the new series!), Glee (this one might not be your thing since it's musical, but it's light and fluffy and while there are general arcs, it's very funny and mostly superficial so it's not too 'heady' or complex).
posted by 1000monkeys at 2:45 AM on May 8, 2010

posted by dzaz at 4:42 AM on May 8, 2010

Fringe is fantastic. There's an overall story arc HOVER FOR SPOILER but in general you have the quirky professor type, smart good-looking man, badass detective chick, and the people around them. It's a show about the "Fringe Division" of the FBI, which studies crimes and events that involve the paranormal.

I like Bones a lot, but I don't think it's for you. Right now the pilot episode is available to watch free on Amazon Video on Demand if you want to give it a try.

If you like Burn Notice, you should give Royal Pains a try as well. It's about a doctor for hire in the Hamptons. It's only been through one season but it's very good.
posted by Night_owl at 12:42 PM on May 8, 2010

If you liked The X-Files you might want to give Millennium a shot if you haven't already, at least until all the hullaboo with its scheduling messed it up. And I don't know if cartoons are alright, but Rocko's Modern Life is grrreat. Fishing with John would work too. And The Adventures of Pete and Pete. Eerie, Indiana.

And it's totally a different tack, not written/fictionalized but documentary/travelogue, but Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations is good for this sort of "drop in for a sec" watching.
posted by ifjuly at 3:58 PM on May 8, 2010

Life on Mars (British). Slate.com described it as a combination of Law and Order, Mad Men and the X-Files. The episodes are all self-contained procedurals, but with the sci-fi twist. There's an overall arc, but I don't think you'd get confused. I don't even think there's even really any episode continuity at all until the last few episodes of the 2nd (final) season.



I think you could watch Life on Mars if you were willing to concentrate, as there are only eight episodes per season, and only two seasons. But it is *not* something you can just sort of go in and out of, and each episode is rife with double and triple-meanings to visuals, music cues, and dialog. All of it is leading up to several large, shocking reveals, and it's extremely chewy (you can't just have it on in the background, or pop it in every once in a while).

(Lots of British shows will probably fit your bill in a different way--they often require paying attention, but their seasons are usually very, very short-- like 6-12 episodes per).

nthing Psych, White Collar, Burn Notice--any of the blue-sky USA shows, really.

House, though formulaic and somewhat along the lines of Without a Trace and CSI isn't really about the procedural or the solutions to the medical mystery as it is about Hugh Laurie being freaking awesome, talented, and hilarious.

Quantum Leap, which someone else mentioned, definitely fits your question. While there is a kinda-sorta ongoing storyline maybe-ish, it doesn't matter and they rehash the point of it *so often* that you can't miss it. It's got comedy, it's got drama, it's got seriously moving, and seriously frightening episodes. Something for everyone.

Come to think of it, The West Wing would work, oddly enough. Yes, there are plot and character arcs, but you don't really need the context to enjoy the episodes, and you can likely figure out the context just from what you see/hear.

You didn't mention if you like quiz shows -- and this really isn't a quiz show, actually--I can't quite explain it and do it justice--but I can't recommend QI (Quite Interesting) enough. It's hilarious, and random, and very very smart. Here are a few clips:

How many moons does the Earth have?

What happens when you eat nothing but rabbits?

How did the teacup change the course of Chinese history?

Who had the first driving licence?

Brits play villains in Hollywood films; John Sessions does spectacular Alan Rickman impressions.

What rhymes with 'purple'?

What is the difference between a cake and a biscuit?

Stephen Fry decides its the 'Rag on Alan' episode.

Why can't I remember anything?
posted by tzikeh at 4:02 PM on May 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sorry to QI-spam you, but a few more of my favorites:

Could Jesus walk on custard?

An indulgence for me: random clips of Phill Jupitus, probably my favorite panelist.

What did Thomas Edison unquestionably invent?

And, finally, one of the great moments in QI history: Stephen Fry completely loses control of the show, and himself, when attempting to share a fact about the Acropolis.
posted by tzikeh at 4:17 PM on May 8, 2010

Nthing House. Though, there is some "storyline", it is not super important.
posted by Lizsterr at 7:24 PM on May 8, 2010

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