As of this writing, season 4 of Manifest is the top-rated English language TV show in the world. At the bottom of the list is season 1 of Manifest. Combined, the two seasons have been watched for nearly 80,000,000 hours on Netflix alone.
I was first introduced to this show at my parents’ house while they binged it. My parents do not “binge.” They tastefully curate select shows from a distance because everything is best in moderation.
But something baffling happened the moment they clicked onto Manifest. They lost themselves in a realm often whispered of, but rarely seen.
They had entered the realm of the shows your parents watch.
You’ll catch a glimpse of these shows every once in a while. An advertisement on the side of a bus for something called La Brea. Another spinoff of what they call Yellowstone. A television ad for a NEW episode of Law and Order: SVU (with Christopher Meloni!).
You’re going to be seeing these shows this holiday season whether you like it or not. It’s going to be on in the background as you come into your uncle’s house and he vaguely gestures a “hello” at you from the couch. You might even welcome it as a distraction to stop your second cousin from going too deep into the poster he’s making that draws red string between Elon Musk and QAnon.
So let this be both a primer and a ranking to understand possibly the most successful genre in the history of American television, and help you figure out what to watch these holidays.
Rule #1: If there’s going to be science fiction, let’s keep it light please
This isn’t Arthur C. Clarke or William Gibson. If there’s going to be sci-fi in the show, it must be a premise that sounds cool, but is ultimately impossible.
Rule #2: Monster of the week
Every episode must be a new adventure. Even if is seems impossible that there are that many murders for Jessica Fletcher to solve in Murder, She Wrote, every episode must be self-contained. Why worry yourself with trying to watch things in order or keeping up with characters arcs?
Rule #3: An attractive male star, preferably from the 80’s
Mark Harmon. Scott Bakula. Don Johnson. Richard Dean Anderson.
It’s not always true, but if you have a male star from the 80’s who might be a good actor (but maybe not!) starring in your TV show, your parents might watch it.
Rule #4: Is Produced by Donald P. Bellisario
If Navy criminal justice is something you’ve seen too often on your television, it’s because of this man.
Now that we have our lexicon, let us decide the greatest of them to help you navigate your viewings during this holiday season.
It’s only fitting to start with an apparently global phenomenon that has also had no cultural impact whatsoever.
Is this show on this list because it’s a good show? No. It’s on this list because there’s a high likelihood you’ll be watching it over your dad’s shoulder this holiday season. And you deserve to be prepared.
It has a cool premise that feels ripped from a short story Stephen King knocked out in a long weekend.
A flight leaves Jamaica. When it lands in New York City, the passengers realize their trip, which appeared normal to them, took five and half years in the outside world. They were presumed dead, and most of their families and loved ones have moved on.
Pretty interesting, right?
But as the show tries to explain its premise, it all begins to fall apart. A lot of serialized sci-fi shows with interesting premises run into the same conundrum after their first season.
There’s just no way to explain the premise.
They nibble at the edges of the premise with various supernatural feelings or events. The writing can occasionally flesh out a good plot, but it rolls out complex subplots to obfuscate the fact that it can’t answer the show’s central premise.
Manifest seems to share the same production design as Suits, where the sets look stolen from a newly rich family’s apartment in New York. Lots of whites, lots of sharp angles.
Will you enjoy watching it? Probably not. Will you end up watching it? Almost certainly.
The Metamucil of serialized television. I’ve watched more episodes of JAG in retirement homes than any person should, yet I remember none of them.
A handsomely-produced show shot through what looks like a pair of Victoria’s Secret midnight collection silk stockings, JAG follows a well-worn formula. A criminal justice procedural show (Judge Advocate General) set within the Navy’s military law division, it starts like Law and Order and ends like True Lies. In every episode, there a crime to prosecute. The bad guy gets caught. David James Elliot and Catherine Bell share some flirtatious banter.
Every. Single. Episode.
The actors are attractive in the way that every star from the 80s was attractive. Your father will watch this show because of Catherine Bell.
This show also has the distinction of being the seed from which the NCIS universe sprung forth.
Which leads us to…
It’s the Tom Brady of parents’ shows, the Manchester United of series your parents have on in the background while they do the ironing.
NCIS might be the most-watched TV show ever, rapidly approaching 450 episodes. There are three spinoffs, and one in the works called NCIS: My Apartment As I Work From Home.
It’s a show where Mark Harmon plays a character named Leroy Jethro Gibbs.
Leroy. Jethro. Gibbs.
It’s a show where a group of agents from a fictional Navy Criminal Justice unit investigate crimes. The plotlines are nothing special.
So why does it work?
Its massive revolving cast feels like a found family. Like Firefly, you invest in them as a team. Their charm and camaraderie are done more efficiently (not necessarily better) than almost any other show. They have the patina of being professionals just doing their job while also being just quirky enough.
There is no stopping this train. It has maintained steady ratings for almost 20 years. In the distant future, after we are long gone, aliens will arrive on Earth, pick out a season 3 NCIS box set from within the ruins of a Goodwill, pop in an episode, and be able to enjoy it in the background as they iron.
Boy, your parents love solving crimes, don’t they? And boy, do they love an 80s male lead past his prime.
If you had told me that James Spader, Mr. Crash and Sex, Lies, and Videotape himself, was the anchor of a criminal investigation show where he plays a former Navy officer (yes, Navy again) turned criminal informing on his associates, I would have told you that Robert Downey Jr. was going to be a superhero icon.
But, to my surprise…
it’s pretty good
There is yet to be a James Spader role that he has not elevated. Every episode oozes with his strange, off-kilter charisma. The large, multi-ethnic cast is talented and forms, for my money, an even better found family than NCIS. The writing is tight and the plotlines make sense.
You may find yourself sitting on the couch bingeing it with your parents.
1. Quantum Leap
Which brings us to the platonic ideal of a parents’ show.
Lite sci-fi premise?
Handsome, 80s male lead?
New adventure every week?
Produced by Donald P. Bellisario?
At the start of every Quantum Leap episode, they neatly sum up the show’s premise:
Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished… He woke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so Doctor Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home…
What follows is probably the best TV theme song ever written, and a rock-solid formula. In every episode, Sam leaps into a different body and solves a problem. Almost always, the problem is not obvious. He has to suss out what’s wrong with the person whose life he’s leaped into. Others, such as the episode where he leaps into Lee Harvey Oswald’s body (who Bellisario met at Naval Academy), are more obvious. His overall goal is intangible: bring better circumstances into the world, hoping that it may, somehow, get him home.
Two things held this show together.
First: Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell’s chemistry.
It may be controversial, but I would argue that there has never been a better duo in TV history. Al is the friend you’ve always wanted, played by the criminally-underrated Stockwell. Bakula is affable and humble enough to always seem to be in the right. You want to watch them hang out as much as you want to see them solve their tasks at hand.
Second: This is a kind-hearted show.
It certainly has missteps (Dr. Beckett jumped into a woman this week! And now he’s in the body of a person of color! Isn’t that crazy?!). But this is a show that genuinely believes that every action that Dr. Beckett takes brings good into the world.
The final episode is incredibly contentious. I love it. And I believe it suggests how strange and weird the show could get when it wanted to.
Your parents got it right with this show, and few serialized shows have come close since.
I hope this guide is a light for you this holiday season, a primer to help you navigate the long silence between you and your father while on the couch, a beacon to help buffer awkward conversations with your mother about why you haven’t given her any grandchildren, while CSI plays in the background.
Depending on the show, you may even enjoy yourself.