Best TV shows to half pay attention to?
July 10, 2013 7:27 AM   Subscribe

I spend a lot of time drawing and painting. I like to sort of half-watch TV while I do this, mostly listening while looking at whatever I'm working on and occasionally glancing at the screen. What TV series are good for this?

This has worked well with shows where most of the entertainment comes from the dialogue, and there aren't many long quiet parts that you need to be looking at the screen for:
- Buffy and Angel
- Firefly
- West Wing
- Studio 60

It works okay with some police procedurals (Waking the Dead), but not so much with others (CSI)

It has worked very poorly with shows where dialogue drops out and you need to pay attention to the visuals:
- Alias: too much quiet sneaking around, dramatic shots of important objects.
- Dollhouse: that screen where it told you that something like two years had passed? Missed it. Rest of show made no sense.
Generally I like sf, horror, and witty things.
So, suggestions for clever, engaging, dialogue-heavy TV? Ideally available to stream from Netflix?
posted by Adridne to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
posted by mcstayinskool at 7:33 AM on July 10, 2013

Rocky And Bullwinkle
Most Star Trek
30 Rock, mostly
posted by thecaddy at 7:35 AM on July 10, 2013

How It's Made is perfect for this. I also DVR episodes of cheesy true-crime shows from the Investigation Discovery channel so I can listen and half-watch while knitting or whatever.
posted by sarcasticah at 7:37 AM on July 10, 2013

I find that a lot of sitcoms work well for this - Frasier, for instance (except for the excellent Three Valentines episode) is heavily dialogue-based and still fun to watch after countless viewings. I'm also a sucker for old Seinfeld episodes; while that show isn't on Netflix, you can get the audio track to several seasons of it (as well as a bunch of other TV shows and movies) from Listentoamovie. (via)
posted by DingoMutt at 7:37 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding sitcoms - How I Met Your Mother and Cougartown are usually good for this.
posted by Gordafarin at 7:40 AM on July 10, 2013

If you want to go the reality TV route, I find that "Chopped" is so formulaic and yet so interesting that I can put it on while I write or do some work. Looking up to see what the food looks like occasionally is fun, but mostly, hearing descriptions of the food is enough.
posted by xingcat at 7:41 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

It depends on your standards, I guess, but I watch TV while I cook and cheesy sci fi is perfect for this - I watched every episode of all the Stargates this way and am now working on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
posted by something something at 7:42 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

We've been doing this with the first season of The X Files. Good while you're eating a quick dinner and looking at your plate half the time, and easy to turn off midway and return to later. Their 3 basic plots make it a cinch to follow:

- Aliens
- Science Outta Control
- Some Weirdo
posted by Beardman at 7:44 AM on July 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

I like Burn Notice for this very purpose - it's definitely in the "this is what we're going to do, this is what we're doing, that is what we did" camp of television. It's also a surprisingly smart show considering the format.
posted by muddgirl at 7:44 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

The Booth at the End (online-only series, free on Hulu). No action whatsoever. The dialogue is pretty much it.
posted by duffell at 7:47 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing Frasier.

Also, The Golden Girls.
posted by Hanuman1960 at 7:48 AM on July 10, 2013

I find the court shows are perfect for this. Most of it is verbal testimony, with just a bit of it pictures.

I like People's Court the best, it's not full of screaming lunatics. It's just small claims.

Perfect for cleaning, playing games on the phone and the treadmill.

Oh! And Maury, for the 'who the baby daddy' drama.

I have appaling taste in television.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:49 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I tend to watch really formulaic competition shows for this: Top Chef,'s Next Top Model (don't tell anyone). Also Ken Burns documentary stuff.
posted by inertia at 7:52 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Frasier is practically a radio play. Also-- Murphy Brown, I Claudius, Law and Order?

Speaking of radio plays, have you considered radio plays? If you like sci fi and horror, can't hurt to see if you enjoy some free episodes of Escape-- try 'The Man Who Loved Dickens' or 'Leiningen Vs The Ants'. I draw all day long to audiobooks and radio plays!
posted by Erasmouse at 8:05 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sitcoms can be hit or miss, because they often depend on something you see being a joke. I usually go for procedurals, where if you miss seeing the piece of evidence, no big deal because it will be repeated as explanation 20 times anyhow.
posted by jeather at 8:05 AM on July 10, 2013

Also, you might consider switching to fiction podcasts.
posted by jeather at 8:06 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do exactly this! And as such, I disagree with anyone who's suggesting animated shows, even Archer. Also, my list is mostly Netflix based.

How I Met Your Mother worked pretty well. I had to resign myself to missing some sight-based gags every now and then, but there was just so dang much of it that I wouldn't have watched the series otherwise. I tried to do the same things with Parks and Recreation, but ended up loving the characters so much that I just couldn't half-ass it.

Glee worked VERY well; poppy musical numbers mixed with interpersonal relationships that I gradually cared less and less about.

Right now, I'm going through Supernatural; it's not a super important series, so unlike Buffy or the X-Files, I don't feel like there will be a social quiz on it later. There's usually a creepy little intro that I take time to watch completely, and then I go back to my work for the rest of the show and let them resolve the mystery.

And stand-up comedy! Stand-up comedy is a good palette cleanser after watching a bunch of other stuff, or when I know I only have ten minutes of work left, so I can watch a little and then watch more later.

Also, not Fringe. Don't watch Fringe this way, it doesn't deserve it.

Non Netflix-based:

Strangely, the Daily Show is my go-to internet streaming content for cleaning, but not for drawing. Still, I love catching up on a week or so of Jon Stewart and co. in one big lump.

Also, I've been catching up on movies and series that I missed when they came out, but have since seemed to be vaguely well-regarded: Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Bridesmaids, Gilmore Girls. Gilmore Girls is working really well; super snappy but not overly dramatic.
posted by redsparkler at 8:08 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ha, Frasier was the first thing that came to my mind, so nthing that.

Law and Order and its spin-offs also great. I watched six seasons of Criminal Intent while falling asleep sporadically while recovering from a surgery; it was perfect for that.
posted by General Malaise at 8:09 AM on July 10, 2013

Pretty much everything from USA Network works well for this; Psych, Monk, Burn Notice, White Collar (if you're okay with not looking at Matt Bomer), even In Plain Sight. Law & Order: SVU is also good. Castle is pretty great.

My husband swears by Top Gear and any Star Trek series.
posted by specialagentwebb at 8:12 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Another big vote for "How It's Made". The Science Channel run an entire evening of it one night a week, and I just turn it on and leave it there all evening while I do other things.
posted by briank at 8:12 AM on July 10, 2013

Midsomer Murders.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:18 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was also going to suggest Gilmore Girls. Its successor in the pleasant family drama with snappy dialogue category is Parenthood.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:26 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're going with West Wing and Studio 60, I'd say complete the Sorkin circuit and watch The Newsroom and SportsNight. The latter is a half hour sitcom and the sports references are outdated, but it's still great.
posted by moviehawk at 8:32 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wipeout is pretty good for this, and Nthing The People's Court. We also have a whole group of late night talk shows we mostly watch in this fashion, Conan, Kimmel, sometimes Fallon.
posted by getawaysticks at 8:39 AM on July 10, 2013


My wife has been watching it, and its a good show that it is entertaining but you don't have to pay a lot of attention to.

They have all the seasons on Netflix.
posted by nickerbocker at 8:39 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

House. Much like the West Wing it's 90% people talking as they stand in offices or walk along corridors, and works amazingly well audio-only. You'll miss some details as they're shown but, like the police procedurals described above, anything important will be referred back to plenty of times so you don't get lost.
posted by metaBugs at 9:12 AM on July 10, 2013

I watch documentaries when drawing. Most crime, psychology, economy and history documentaries have an audio-book like narrator and explain/describe important items, locations and people. (I wouldn't recommend biology, physics and such; too much zooming on molecules to follow without looking at the screen.)
posted by MinusCelsius at 9:15 AM on July 10, 2013

I do this with The Office and 30 Rock.
posted by anotheraccount at 9:35 AM on July 10, 2013

Mystery Science Theater!
posted by a.steele at 10:06 AM on July 10, 2013

One of my friends has a habit of ripping the audio tracks from QI (it's a funny British quiz show hosted by Stephen Fry, almost all the contestants are comedians) and listening to them on long car rides, and there aren't many sight gags you'd miss, but there's a lot of witty dialogue.
posted by Maecenas at 10:16 AM on July 10, 2013

When I paint I must have TV on too. For whatever reason, audio alone doesn't work. My best painting shows, in descending order, are:

Star Trek: Deep Space 9 & Voyager

The Closer

Midsomer Murders

The Last Detective


posted by monopas at 11:22 AM on July 10, 2013

I do this with L&O, Castle, and also Psych. Psych is funny but you really don't need to be LOOKING at it.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 2:18 PM on July 10, 2013

Not a series, but in terms of Things On In The Background That You Don't Really Have To Pay Attention To: I'm pretty sure this is what televised baseball is for. Or, on weekends, the other low-key/"boring" sports (golf, auto racing, etc).

They will let you know if something important happens.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:29 PM on July 10, 2013

All good suggestions here. I do this while knitting.

This thread has a lot of good suggestions for having more fun than knitting.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:09 PM on July 10, 2013

Does it have to have a plot?
QI is great for listening to, as are lots of talk shows--I like Ellen and Oprah. Alternatively loads of podcasts are made for this purpose and they touch on really random but interesting topics so you might find yourself inspired by something that comes up in conversation. I like Fresh Air with Terry Gross and It's That Episode.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 7:38 PM on July 10, 2013

Scrubs! Lots of jokes, plot is always explained in voice-over, and months later you realize that you don't remember where the term "rumple-fugly" came from but boy you sure do like the sound of it. That's a net benefit!

Arrested Development. Oddly enough, ducking in and out will allow you to understand jokes that take repeat viewings to link up.

Mythbusters works well for this, too.
posted by greenland at 8:30 PM on July 10, 2013

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