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5 TV Shows That Require Reflective Thought

Thought-provoking TV shows for when you can't think of a movie to watch.

As you may recall from a few of my previous posts (e.g., films that require reflective thought part 1 and part 2), I’m a big fan of cinema. However, when asked recently if I had "seen anything good lately," unfortunately, I had no recommendations. Perhaps this is a "side-effect" of COVID-19, which stalled filming a fair bit. In light of that, however, there seemed to be great gravitation toward "binge-watching" shorter-form serials.

Though I had nothing to offer film-wise, I had plenty of TV series suggestions. Of course, at the top of my list will always be Lost and Twin Peaks, but I also had a few lesser-known recommendations. So, consistent with previous lists I’ve posted here, with the focus being on those that require deeper thought for full appreciation, I present five great TV shows that benefit from applying reflective thought.

1. Dark

Many people are initially turned off by Dark because it’s dubbed. Don’t be; it's done very well. Still don’t like dubbing? Turn the subtitles on. Don’t like subtitles either? Then you’re missing out.

Dark was the first show on Netflix that gave me faith in its ability to make truly gripping content. Simply, the show follows a small German community in the aftermath of a child’s disappearance. People going missing is going to be a running theme on this list…maybe there’s something about the trope that’s particularly reflection-inducing, but I digress.

If you haven’t seen Dark, it’s one of those shows where the less you know about it, the better. I knew nothing about it before watching, other than the short synopsis on the Netflix menu, and I think it wound up being much more entertaining that way. There are connections to be made and surprises revealed around each corner as viewers traverse what is a brilliant example of phenomenal world-building.

2. Better Call Saul

OK, so many of you know this one—a spinoff of Breaking Bad but better. I know: I’m surprised myself. I wasn’t expecting much when anticipating the comedic-relief character of Saul Goodman taking center stage, but this prequel really took on a life of its own. Saul Goodman, or Jimmy McGill, as he was once known, is anything but comedic relief in Better Call Saul—rather, it follows an intriguing transformation into what eventually becomes the titular character. The character build has many layers, with phenomenal development throughout the show.

Unlike other shows on this list, there are no real mysteries to unlock. Sure, there are some Easter eggs for fans to spot, but what really makes this show something to reflect on is the fact that it’s a prequel: We already know, in many ways, how it will end. Thus, what we’re actually watching is a tragedy. It’s our engagement with the "downfall" from events occurring in the show to what we know will happen that makes it a thought-provoking experience.

3. The OA

On the surface, The OA is not a show I would generally be interested in—far too much fantasy and spirituality for my liking. However, like Lost, there’s a great infusion of different genres and perspectives (e.g., sci-fi and mystery), and so it was the genre-twisting, almost surreal happenings that got me hooked. The OA follows the return to normality (for a short while, anyway) of a young woman who had previously been missing for seven years. Unfortunately, I’m not equipped to synopsize any more than that without getting into cures for blindness, dimension-hopping, torture, and the befriending of a group of high school students through the art of dance and spiritual entanglement. With that, The OA certainly gives you a lot on which to apply reflection.

One caveat, however, is that the show was (apparently) canceled after two seasons because…reasons (none of which were due to popularity). So, with that, don’t be surprised by one of the craziest cliff-hangers you'll ever see at the end of season two never getting resolved. With that, I’ve come to peace with this ending and have found closure; it works in many ways as a final curtain to the series. For me, though the end is disappointing (knowing that there was more planned), it does suffice in ways. However, something tells me there will be more.

4. Mad Men

Mad Men is perhaps the best-known show on this list and probably has the most straightforward narrative—a stylish period piece following an ad exec during the 1960s. The only real mystery in the show is the protagonist himself, Don Draper. From the outset, we learn who he is and what he’s about. But there’s more under the surface, and it turns out viewers genuinely need the full seven seasons to figure out what makes him tick. And that’s why Mad Men is included on this list: It’s a character study.

We are presented with a man—neither a good one nor a bad one—and are asked to consider him, his actions, his beliefs, and motivations, all the while watching him live his life and deal with the consequences of the decisions he makes. Obviously, to pull such a study off, character development is the foremost concern, and Mad Men does this expertly. I cannot recall the show really dragging at any stage over its seven seasons, and that’s a compliment to the writers and actors. Every episode and every season served a purpose, that being to reflect on and better understand Don Draper.

5. The Leftovers

This is probably my favorite show on this list. Created by the author of the source novel, Tom Perrotta, and Lost producer/writer Damon Lindelof, The Leftovers follows a small community, and, in particular, the Garvey family, three years following the sudden disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population. The premise inherently bleeds with mystery and finishes the novel’s structure within the first season.

Though season one was excellent—setting the scene and introducing a number of interesting concepts to consider—arguably, the show kicks into high gear for seasons two and three. In light of past criticisms of Lost, perhaps show co-creator Lindelof cautiously supported the push for a shorter series—which ultimately benefited the show’s impact. The Leftovers will definitely make you think about the questions it poses, but satisfying answers are provided along the way. There is also a well-timed and well-told conclusion to the series.

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