A few weeks into the strange days of social distancing, your household has probably watched popular streaming titles like “Star Wars” shows on Disney Plus, “The Aeronauts” on Amazon Prime, and unavoidable cultural phenomenon “Tiger King” on Netflix.
Regular readers of The Federalist may have also sampled culture editor Emily Jashinky’s comedy recommendations, Brad Jackson’s quarantine watchlist, or entries from Emma Freire’s queue of binge-worthy series.
In the current age of peak TV, options are unlimited. FX reports that 532 scripted series were produced in 2019, while Nielsen notes that more than 646,000 shows are currently available to U.S. audiences. One telling statistic from research firm OnePoll: the average media consumer will spend 2,943 hours of his life just deciding what to watch.
Perhaps an overview of hidden gems on streaming services can help. While there are a few TV-MA selections in the mix, this list seeks out series and films all ages will enjoy—most titles with inspiration, comedy, and deeper themes to consider. This overview closes with seven streaming options that are available completely free.
Currently on Netflix
- Self Made (2020)
Hair care becomes the ticket out of poverty in this limited series, as Madam C.J. Walker (Octavia Spencer) portrays an African-American washerwoman who builds a beauty empire.
- Brian Regan: Nunchucks and Flamethrowers (2017)
A contemporary of Jerry Seinfeld, Regan should enjoy a much larger following for his brand of aw-shucks observational comedy drawn from growing up in the American South.
- The Pharmacist (2020)
Revealing the current opioid crisis as few series have ever attempted, viewers are drawn into one young man’s struggle with drug addiction that soon opens into a national narrative.
- Kate and Leopold (2001)
The sort of film Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, this fantasy romcom tale has a high-powered ad exec (Meg Ryan) being swept off her feet by a time-traveling duke (Hugh Jackman).
- The English Game (2020)
Writer/producer Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) dramatizes the origins of football—or soccer, as we say here in the States—which crosses class divides to become a global phenomenon.
- The White Helmets (2016)
If the upheaval and ongoing conflict in Syria seems a world away, this documentary brings the lives at stake a lot closer through on-site footage of daring medical rescue operations.
- The Hundred Foot Journey (2014)
From producer Steven Spielberg, this comedy pits Helen Mirren as owner of an upscale French restaurant against a newly arrived family whose fresh Indian cuisine begins enticing her customers.
Currently on Amazon Prime Video
- Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams (2018)
Songwriter Chris Martin and his pop-rock band, who defined a sound and ecstatic style of showmanship for a generation, unpack their story of skyrocketing to global fame.
- Marshall (2017)
Fans of Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther”) should not miss his turn as lawyer Thurgood Marshall who defends those wrongly convicted during the Jim Crow era.
- The Court Jester (1956)
With a mastery of physical comedy rarely seen, Danny Kaye (“White Christmas”) heads up this madcap medieval Robin Hood parody packed with laugh-out-loud set pieces.
- Vindication (2019-present)
Filmed in the Dallas area on a shoestring budget, this crime drama delving into a detective’s personal and professional life deals with weighty issues including a skeptic’s view of faith.
- Joni (1979)
With visual moments and insights on suffering that stick with viewers long afterward, disability rights advocate Joni Eareckson Tada (today age 70) portrays herself in this classic biopic.
- One Child Nation (2019)
The heaviest—and perhaps most important—entry on this list follows one young Chinese woman back home as she investigates the horrors of her homeland’s One Child Policy firsthand.
- Psych (2006-2014)
Psychic-but-not-really detective Shawn (James Roday) and his partner in crime-solving Gus (Dule Hill) walk the line between cop procedural and outrageous comedy, usually leaning boldly into the latter.
Currently on Disney Plus
- Secretariat (2010)
Alongside sports films “Miracle” and “Remember the Titans,” this drama from director Randall Wallace (writer of “Braveheart”) starring Diane Lane and John Malkovich highlights an unlikely Triple Crown winner.
- The Imagineering Story (2019)
Director Leslie Iwerks presents an insightful six-part series on Disney’s uniquely American creation of theme parks—one that’s honest even about missteps of the Magic Kingdom.
- Sister Act (1992)
A surprising find on Disney Plus, this comedy is premised on a lounge singer (Whoopi Goldberg) hiding from pursuers in a Catholic convent—creating mayhem and organizing a gospel choir.
- Encore (2019-2020)
Shining a spotlight on small-town America, this reality show reunites diverse high school theater troupes a decade later to restage their play as adults; “Oklahoma” is a standout episode.
- The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
As the chorus calling for “The Muppet Show” to release grows louder, at least we have this London-based heist parody—with Jim Henson’s felt creations at their height of comic genius.
- Boy Meets World (1993-2000)
One of few ABC shows on Disney Plus, this long-running sitcom has simple life lessons and, in later seasons, some worthwhile truths about making relationships work.
- Shop Class (2020-present)
While Netflix has “Blown Away” and “Nailed It” as competition shows, this STEM-focused build contest features teams flexing their design, robotics, woodworking, and other creative skills.
Currently on Hulu
- Instant Family (2018)
A family comedy carefully crafted with help from adoption experts, Mark Wahlberg (“Lone Survivor”) and Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids”) star as hilariously overwhelmed parents fostering three young charges.
- The Looming Tower (2018)
- The Beatles: Eight Days A Week (2016)
Director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) reassembles rare and never-before-seen footage of the Fab Four in a fast-paced narrative that brings to life the mid-1960s British invasion.
- I Love Lucy (1951-1957)
Just about every sitcom since has mimicked the relational dynamics of divergent personalities Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel—although few stars will ever land as many laughs as Lucille Ball did.
- Chicken Run (2000)
In this stop-motion animated comedy, chickens on a Yorkshire farm refuse to be left to their fate as a cocky American rooster (Mel Gibson) hatches a plot to help them fly the coop.
- Batman & Bill (2017)
A deep dive into the world of comics, watch as one investigative journalist forces the world to recognize how a forgotten New York illustrator co-created Batman.
- The Best of Enemies (2019)
In 1971, a community crisis in Durham, North Carolina forced a spirited black activist and mother (Taraji P. Henson) to work alongside a local man (Sam Rockwell) who led the Klu Klux Klan.
Currently on YouTube And Free Platforms
- Star Trek: Picard (2020)
This action-packed miniseries—available free via a month trial—uses the Borg, Romulans, androids, and an aging captain’s dreams to speak into current questions of bioethics and the value of every life.
- The Chosen (2019-present)
Envisioned as a multi-season journey through the ministry of Christ, “The Chosen” (free app here) delves into first-century political and cultural realities by drawing out each disciple’s distinct responses to the emergent Messiah.
- Bandits (2001)
While none of the 100-plus films available free on YouTube can be called great cinema, this heist comedy starring Bruce Willis, Cate Blanchett, and Billy Bob Thornton is good for a few laughs.
- The Pilgrim’s Progress (2018)
- Drive Thru History: Holy Land (2012)
To understand the Hebrew scriptures in context, take a ride with quick-witted host Dave Stotts as he discusses biblical people, places, and events on-location in Israel.
- The Torchlighters (2005-present)
Introducing kids to prominent faith figures from history such as Harriet Tubman and Eric Liddell need not be a burden. All 19 half-hour animated episodes in this series are currently free.
- Dry Bar Comedy (2017-present)
In a time when most people are in need of a laugh, this ongoing series features top comics sampling their best material that the entire family can enjoy.