A lot of people have spent their coronavirus quarantines looking for projects, which has included marathoning classic TV series they always meant to get around to. But sometimes, you’re just looking for a short-term distraction instead of a commitment. Not every story needs to be War and Peace or Infinite Jest. Maybe you just want an approachable, immersive visual story with a lot going on, but without the sense of a massive 12-season commitment.
With that in mind, here are some recommendations for entire, complete TV seasons that are short enough to get in and out of over the course of a day, or even an evening. Some of these seasons are only as long as an average movie, while some take a little more investment. But they’re all short enough to binge if you need a palate-cleanser between bigger projects.
How much? Eight episodes, 22 minutes each
Why watch? ABC’s fantasy sitcom musical feels like an attempt to parody Game of Thrones by packing it with tongue-in-cheek songs, and giving it the self-aware meta tone of The Princess Bride. Initially the story of a medieval hero whose beloved is kidnapped by a ruthless king, Galavant starts upending its tropes well before the first episode is over. Creator Dan Fogelman (who wrote Disney’s Tangled and Bolt, along with This Is Us) and his crew keep the writing light and lively, but this wouldn’t work without the stars’ over-the-top commitment to the goofy material — particularly Timothy Omundson as the king, and frequent screen thug Vinnie Jones as his surprisingly soulful enforcer. The first episode launches with a song that rushes through the setup, boasts about Galavant’s hot sex life, and describes the story as “epic, wild, a real butt-clencher.” By the end of that first song, you’ll know for sure whether this series is for you.
Need more? Season 2 is also available on digital platforms. It isn’t as punchy, but its 10 episodes take more time to develop the characters and bring in elaborate new situations for them to navigate, and the songs are just as bouncy and ridiculous.
How much? 10 episodes, about 30 minutes each
Why watch? Steve Carell and Greg Daniels, star and showrunner of the American version of The Office, reunite for another workplace comedy. But this one’s a lot more outsized because the stakes are higher — Carell’s character, General Mark Naird, is trying to launch the United States Space Force, with a mandate to “put boots on the Moon by 2024.” Advance warning: the pilot episode is pretty rocky and not entirely representative, but the first season quickly falls into a comfortable rhythm, with Naird and his chief scientist (John Malkovich) jockeying to meet or defer the demands being placed on them.
Where to find it: Space Force is streaming on Netflix.
Need more? The first season ends with a cliffhanger, and it leaves some open questions, so viewers probably will want more. The show has “reportedly” been renewed for a second season — meaning there hasn’t been an official announcement, and with most shows not in production right now, it’s going to be a while before the saga continues.
The Office (UK)
How much? 6 episodes, 30 minutes each
Why watch? For those who want the original Office experience, the drier, sharper British version is easy enough to find online, and it’s a lot more bite-sized than the American version of the show. (And also a lot less likely to become the subject of an aggressive bidding war and disappear behind a paywall.) Ricky Gervais has kind of aged into a smarmy parody of his character here, a simultaneously self-congratulatory and self-effacing office manager who’s so caught up in his imaginary version of himself as a jocular, beloved leader that he can’t comprehend how everybody else sees him. Future Hobbit star Martin Freeman is his excellent foil, as the weak-willed good guy in their office. After so many years, it’s worth looking back to see where a worldwide phenomenon got its roots, and how little has changed since then when it comes to petty dictators, officious middle managers, and squirm-inducing discomfort humor.
Need more? There’s a second six-episode season on both Amazon and Hulu, and Hulu also has the two-part Christmas special.
How much? Eight episodes, about 25 minutes each
Why watch? There’s an eternal appeal to the idea of the Groundhog Day story, where someone gets stuck living out the same day over and over. It’s a terrific story device for exploring possibilities, considering the roads not traveled, and digging into how much the choices we make do matter. It’s also a sure-fire way to really hork off a protagonist. Natasha Lyonne, in the starring role in Russian Doll, is particularly hork-offable: she’s a hot-tempered, hard-partying addict who gets furious when she realizes she’s stuck in a loop that keeps ending with her dying. There’s a little comedy and a little drama to Russian Doll, and a lot of admirable specificity in the setting and characters. Mostly, though, the roughly four-hour story is like a more in-depth, elaborate movie, telling one specific story about human responsibility and the burdens of life, but in a funny, bruisingly cynical way.
Where to find it: Russian Doll is streaming on Netflix.
Need more? There’s only one season of Russian Doll, but streamers who are antsy for more Groundhog Day-style stories could also watch the horror-comedies Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U, a pair of surprisingly lively, entertaining films starring Jessica Rothe as a college student who keeps reliving the day of her murder, and has to figure out who’s killing her.
How much? 10 episodes, 11 minutes each
Why watch? Infinity Train is a masterclass in how to balance the needs of a TV series with the needs of a movie. The overall story is well within the runtime of an average feature film, but the bite-size chapters emphasize rapid change, cliffhangers, big emotional shifts, and an overall feeling of a story moving forward with the reckless speed of, well, a train. Set almost entirely on a train where every car is its own pocket dimension with wildly different rules, the first season tells a start-to-finish story full of weird characters and big reveals. It’s colorful and attention-grabbing fantasy, with the story cut down to the bone — there’s plenty of material here that invites more exploration, but nothing that would get in the way of the protagonist trying to unravel the train’s big mysteries. It’s both playful and surprisingly grim for an American animated series. Fans of Steven Universe in particular shouldn’t miss out: This series goes for similar big emotion and big catharsis, without nearly as many side roads and byways.
Where to find it: Infinity Train is streaming on HBO Max, or available for digital purchase on Amazon and other streaming platforms.
Need more? There are two subsequent seasons, which continue the story, but focus on different characters and different mysteries. They’re equally short and taut, and they get progressively more ambitious and mesmerizing. HBO has signaled that the series may not continue because it isn’t kid-friendly enough, but adult animation fans should be fully on board the effort to keep this series going until its planned long-term arcs wrap up.
Love, Death + Robots
How much? 18 episodes, 6-17 minutes each
Why watch? Producers Tim Miller (Deadpool) and David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network) insist on calling Love, Death + Robots a series rather than a shorts collection, and the first batch of shorts a “season” of TV. OK, why not? The shorts, each made by a different team, are about what you’d expect from the kind of touring themed animated-shorts programs that had their heyday decades ago — the Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation type programs, where startling works of animated art alternated with “Okay, that was fine I guess” installments. The advantage of watching one of these collections in a streaming format, though, is that you can just skip past anything that doesn’t grab you.
Some of these “episodes” are funny: “Three Robots,” which has three post-apocalyptic bots on a tour of human wreckage, is a banter-filled hoot. Some are dramatic: “Good Hunting” is visually startling and intense. And some split the difference: “Suits,” about a group of redneck farmers in homemade mechs, fighting aliens, is a total riot, but it’s thrilling, too. Since each short tells its own story, this one doesn’t have the same escapist pull as the seasons here that have one propulsive character arc, but it also supports short bursts of viewing better than most. Warning: part of the theme here was “adult animation,” which quite a few of the animators decided meant “tits and profanity,” rather than, well, stories fit for adults. Individually, it’s no a big deal, but if you watch them all at once, the cavalcade of naked boobs can make you feel like you’re watching something aimed at horny 13-year-old boys who haven’t yet figured out that there’s porn on the internet.
Where to find it: Love, Death + Robots is streaming on Netflix.
Need more? Netflix has given the greenlight to a second season. Given the COVID-related animation boom, it wouldn’t be surprising if season 2 arrived in 2021.
Over the Garden Wall
How much? 10 episodes, about 12 minutes each
Why watch? This surreal animated miniseries follows two young brothers lost in a magical woodland, where sentient animals and magical creatures abound. The people they encounter are often friendly, but also eerie and unpredictable. Worrywart Wirt (Elijah Wood) struggles with the responsibility of containing his impulsive younger brother Greg (Collin Dean), who seems far better adapted to the strange situations they encounter. The animation is luscious, with the deep autumnal look of the forest hovering menacingly over Wirt and Greg whenever they’re alone, then providing a warm and cheery background when they fall in with one group or another. It’s a strange and compelling series, in part because it’s impossible to guess what’s going to happen next — even the seemingly obvious antagonist is a complicated mystery.
Where to find it: Over the Garden Wall is streaming on HBO Max and Hulu.
How much? Six episodes, 51-58 minutes each
Why watch? This one’s on the longer end of short, clocking in at close to six hours total, but it’s a delight every step of the way. Based on the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel of the same name, Good Omens follows a demon and an angel stationed on Earth as the apocalypse unfolds around them. Comfortable with their life on Earth and not ready for Armageddon, they both decide to inhibit the upcoming apocalypse as much as they can without interfering with direct orders. There’s also a witch and a witchfinder, a gaggle of precocious children, manifestations of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and a batty psychic. Starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen as the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale — a pairing fans have seized on to represent everything from a passionate gay couple to the sweetest asexual buddies — Good Omens is a faithful adaptation of the book, with additions that only enhance the story. There’s as much fantasy action as there is humor and heart.
Where to find it: Good Omens is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Need more? Sadly, Good Omens is a limited series. For more Neil Gaiman adaptations, check out American Gods on Starz.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series
How much? 10 episodes, 26-34 minutes each
Why watch? Fans of the original High School Musical, fret not. This series, while catered for Disney Channel’s tween audience, does not disappoint tweens-at-heart. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series follows a drama club’s production of High School Musical, taking place at the high school where the original DCOM was filmed. It’s full of references for longtime fans, a self-awareness that some of the zanier parts of the original lacked, and overall, a more grounded approach to high-school life than the original HSM. The cast of teens is endearing and fully realized. The show reinvents classic songs, but also introduces some new jams which will absolutely get stuck in your head.
Where to find it: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is streaming on Disney Plus.
Need more? There’s a holiday special set for release on Nov. 20, and a second season eventually on the way. Until then, Disney Plus is full of old Disney Channel shows like The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and Lizzie Maguire, if you want to relieve the feeling of a Disney Channel original series.
Yuri!!! On Ice
How much? 12 episodes, 23 minutes each
Why watch? Competitive figure skater Yuri Katsuki gets a second chance at glory when esteemed Russian figure skater Viktor Nikiforov declares himself Yuri’s trainer. Yuri!!! On Ice is a deep dive into the world of competitive figure skating, with beautiful ice-skating sequences set to invigorating music. The show focuses closely on Viktor and Yuri’s blossoming relationship, but also has a colorful cast of side characters from across the figure-skating circuit, such as angsty young prodigy Yuri Plisetsky, self-absorbed J.J. Leroy, and stoic Otabek Altin. Yuri!!! On Ice is also heralded for the portrayal of Viktor and Yuri’s relationship, and of Yuri’s anxiety. The animation is stunning, and coupled with the intricate figure-skating performances, it’s a memorably visual feast.
Where to find it: Yuri!!! On Ice is streaming on Crunchyroll and Funimation.
Need more? Unfortunately, a second season of Yuri!!! On Ice has not been confirmed. For a sports anime with similar competition-driven energy, with a focus on character relationships, check out Haikyuu on CrunchyRoll. The studio behind Yuri!!! On Ice is also behind Bananafish, which is much darker in tone.