Is there a TV on in the background? Are you working from home, reading this when you’re supposed to be doing work, with a TV on in the background? Are you ignoring your better half, reading stuff on your phone while they’re watching prestige TV? Do you find yourself scrolling through Netflix and Hulu options for 5, 10, 15 minutes, never settling on something you’re going to ignore anyway?
The following is a list of some of our favorite TV you can sort of ignore. We didn’t include The Simpsons or The Office or Friends or Seinfeld or late night television since most everyone has seen too many episodes of The Simpsons or The Office or Friends or Seinfeld or fallen asleep to late night television.
Inclusion in this list is not a knock on any of these programs. Sometimes you just want something on in the background that isn’t garbage. Or Modern Family. This will most likely be the only time we say positive things about Modern Family.
One of my favorite background shows right now is Abstract. I found it on Netflix after watching Chef’s Table, and it’s essentially a low commitment documentary series that profiles some of the world’s foremost designers and design-based thinkers. As someone with no design know how, it’s very cool to watch these people work, and the format of the series means that each episode gets surprisingly deep into each person’s creative process. It’s insanely visually appealing, and it’s easy to just check in every couple of minutes to see what’s on screen. It doesn’t demand your active attention, and it’s definitely my go-to when I want to look at something pretty. All of the episodes are fantastic, but my 2 favorites are the episodes on Paula Scher and Es Devlin. -Josh Waldman
The genius of The Bachelor franchise as background TV is multi-fold:
1. There are 800 seasons of it (approx)
2. All 800 seasons of it are more of less interchangeable but often happen in quite pretty locations
3. Every episode in the 800 season arc is as long as a Lord of the Rings movie (again, approx)
4. All action in all the episodes takes place in approx 40% of the time, the rest is dramatic recaps, dramatic testimonials, dramatic revisits of the episodes past, dramatic foreshadowing of episodes to come, dramatic he-said-she-said-he-said-she-said drama, and trying to figure out which girl named Lauren are we really talking about here
5. It is also pretty funny
In short, there is an unlimited amount of it to play in the background, it is mostly visually pleasing, you are really not missing anything if you are not paying attention and if you are, are often good for a middle of the day ridiculousness pick-me up. -Svetlana Legetic
Like Ina Garten’s food, this show is pure comfort. I’ve cooked several of her dishes, which always involve all the butter, but would never actually cook her food while watching the show, which makes it perfect background TV. I used to love to have this on in the background while I was in college, post-class, eating lunch and about to take a mid-day nap (remember those?!). The jazzy music and the soft focus lighting are super soothing and Ina’s voice is like a chenille blanket. There’s no real story line to follow, just beautiful images of food being cooked and her gaggle of gentleman friends helping her either set a table or create a festive garland. Having Barefoot Contessa on it the background is basically instant hygge and also perhaps will inspire some house cleaning because every room of Ina’s Hampton’s home is aspirational. Whenever you catch Ina saying her catchphrase “how easy is that,” I always feel like I should probably start sweeping. Maybe after my midday nap. -Diana Metzger
Better Call Saul
I think Season 3 of Better Call Saul was Peak Background TV. Don’t get me wrong, I love the show, but Breaking Bad was a roller coaster and sometimes Better Call Saul moves at the pace of the line to the roller coaster. Each episode has 20 minutes that are compelling and memorable, and 32 minutes that are more boring than an actual law school seminar. During almost every Mike scene this year, there could have been a flashing message at the bottom that just said NOW IS THE TIME TO LOOK AT YOUR PHONE- NOW IS THE TIME TO LOOK AT YOUR PHONE. Throughout the show, Jimmy McGill has to put his cellphone in his brother Chuck’s mailbox before entering his home to avoid upsetting Chuck’s electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS); if I had to put my phone away before watching the show, I don’t know if I’d make it through an episode. -Tommy McNamara
Rowan Atkinson is a true genius, and Tony Robinson was the perfect sidekick. Throw in a few cameos from some of Britain’s greatest comedic minds, as well as a few performances from soon-to-be universally lauded performers like Hugh Laurie and Miranda Richardson, and you’ve got 18 episodes of pure comedic perfection. (There are actually 24 episodes of Blackadder, but the first season of the pseudohistorical sitcom is basically unwatchable.) I’ve probably watched seasons 2-4 about 10 times each, and the complete series DVD box set was one of the first things I purchased on Amazon.co.uk with my own money as a 16-year-old theme park employee. It became a comfort blanket of sorts during my late teens. I hadn’t watched it for a few years, and then it magically popped up on Hulu one day and I rediscovered my comfort blanket. It’s not much to look at, thanks to the limitations of the BBC’s taxpayer-funded budget, but it’s great to have on in the background because the jokes flow like cream custard made from cat’s vomit (that’s a reference to a joke in the show. I’m not a madman.) -Norm Quarrinton
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee combines hilarity and familiarity for a peak background television experience. Like listening to a standup recording, Jerry Seinfeld’s witty banter with famous comedians wildly enjoyable. The cool part about background TV is that there are inevitable moments where you’re going to look up at the screen. With CICGC, you might catch a glimpse of an Aston Martin DB5, or you might catch a glimpse of Jerry Seinfeld. I’ll let you decide which one is cooler. -Allison Desy
Embarrassing Bodies is the antithesis to Great British Bake Off. I’ve watched every season available on Netflix. I’ve seen countless anal skin tags, gnarly verruca clusters, and asymmetrical tits. But somehow, someway, it’s still entertaining when I decide to look up from what I’m doing and pay attention. -Morgan Fecto
Lois Griffin’s nasally voice is like a lullaby to me. I originally started watching Family Guy in college when I was home on break and would fall asleep watching Adult Swim. I used to wake up terrified by whatever scary 15 minute show was on at 3 a.m. then the programing would repeat and Family Guy came on. It’s reliable and I’m fairly certain it will never go away. There are a million episodes. I fall asleep to it. I send emails to it. It’s how I gauge time when I’m getting ready. It’s complete nonsense and I’m honestly conflicted with the racism and sexism but I can’t stop using it for noise. Sometimes there’s music that kind of breaks up the dialogue when I zone out. I can put on season 8 and have sound for 2 weeks. I know this because I’ve tested it. -Allison Lane
Frasier is probably the most comforting show ever made. It’s so easy to watch because the characters, despite their individual flaws, are all incredibly likeable. And pretty much every episode follows the same farcical formula. It’s perfect ambient television. It’s essentially a lava lamp. All you have to do is pay attention to a few episodes to figure out the pattern, and the rest you can just have on in the background while you do other, more important things.
I’ve been watching Frasier for a long time. It was on TV a lot when I was growing up. I’m from England, and something about the show really resonated with audiences over there. The UK is obviously full of pretentious, snooty people like Frasier and Niles, but there’s plenty of working class towns that are full of Martins too. And then there’s Daphne. Lovely Daphne. An actual British person! (Fun fact: Although the character of Daphne is from the north of England, Jane Leeves, the actress who played her, is from the south. However, John Mahoney (RIP), the actor who played Martin, was born in Blackpool and apparently helped Leeves perfect her northern accent prior to the show’s launch. Although I can’t find a citation for this so it’s probably #FakeNews.) -Norm Quarrinton
The Great British Bake Off
I have said it before and I’ll say it again – The Great British Bake Off is like the TV version of Xanax. I’ve watched all of the seasons (including the newest one, sans Mary and Sue and Mel), but somehow it never gets old to play them back. Having watched all the episodes many times over, I feel comfortable with putting them on as background noise; I already know Iain Watters throws his baked Alaska in the garbage can, that Paul Hollywood plays favorites when it comes to Ruby Tandoh, and that Candice makes a dope ass gingerbread pub, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on any of the action. I can just sit back, listen to the relaxing sounds of British people being very polite to each other whilst baking inside of a tent, and go about with whatever else I’m working on. IT IS V. PERFECT AND GOOD. -Megan Burns
House Hunters International
I can still actively hate the the people on the program just from listening to them bicker about the size of a kitchen and whether or not a tiny house in the woods works for a family of five. It doesn’t matter if you won’t move to Chile unless you’re in a treehouse, Chad. Your wife will leave you because you think indoor plumbing is optional. And Brenda, all of those houses are within a 10 minute walk to the ocean. I don’t even have to look at the screen, I already know what house they should have picked just from the whining about the lack of a dishwasher. -Vesper Arnett
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Watching twelve seasons of most any shows means you’ll understand the beats and characters, regardless of your attention level. It’s Always Sunny may be the best comedy to observe in the background. Since loud noises and loud people don’t bother me, hearing Dennis or Dee or Charlie or Mac or Frank shriek isn’t distracting, it just means you’re most likely in the third act. The five-some always gets their comeuppance so their dastardly deeds are justly punished and the universe remains in balance.
Related, fly Eagles, fly. -Brandon Wetherbee
I’ve seen the three seasons of this early aughts gem over and over again. That’s why it’s my favorite background TV, especially while doing thankless housework. I know all the characters by heart and can recite all the tangled, dramatic web of hookups by memory. Even though the fights are at a fever pitch, it is set in high school after all, there’s something I found much more comforting and easy to watch about LB than it’s spinoff The Hills. Maybe it was the complete manufacturing of The Hills that stressed me out. Maybe it’s the fact that though Lauren Conrad tries to be this comfy chic icon these days, I’ve always found her uptight and tense. This is why LB is so delightful because most of the show is taking Lauren (known on LB as LC) down a peg, mostly at the hand of the delightfully devilish Kristin Cavallari. Cavallari, the queen bee, carries herself with such shocking confidence for a high schooler that I get some residual ease just watching her dominate in her beautiful, California coast beach community. Even in the (highly underrated) third season, when LC and Kristin are gone, I find the show a comforting watch because the local is the same and so is the drama. Even if you’ve never seen the show before, it’s easy to pop on and not really focus on it because it’s high school, it doesn’t really matter who’s dating who because they’ll probably break up by the end of the episode anyway. It’s all dishy drama that feels frothy and fluffy, which is exactly what I want on in the background during tedious tasks. -Diana Metzger
I like to put MasterChef Junior on when I’m doing something like cleaning my room or applying makeup for no reason at 1 a.m. Watching it you find your stride through instinct—I know when to tune out the crying (unless there’s a Gordon Ramsay encouraging speech in which case I’m the one crying), the bizarre but innocent cameos, or the incredibly redundant reminder from an 8-year-old that the cuisine they are preparing is a family tradition they swear they make all of the time in their New Orleans kitchen ever since they learned how to cook two years ago. This show is so over the top from the clear feeding of lines to children, to the dramatic narration of the race to finish scallops on time, but the presentation to the judges is where it gets juicy. I may be vegan, but that sea bass should be moist and glistening on the inside, Sam from Massachusetts and you should know better. -Anna Stevens
I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a “fan” of the show, and I honestly don’t even think I’ve watched an entire episode all the way through. But I’ll be goddamned if there’s a better option to toss on in the background while you’re reading, scrolling through Reddit, cooking, or doing literally anything at all that doesn’t involve mortal peril. It’s been on forever; it’s won hella awards (or so my girlfriend tells me); it seems like there are some pseudo-storylines but most episodes are self-contained; and Phil Dunphy (no joke, I just had to look up that last name) is easily one of the best characters to ever be on television. There’s enough snark and light-hearted meanness that your ears pick up on one-liners without really noticing, eliciting a quick chuckle multiple times an episode, and, outside of the crazy storylines and the fact that they all appear to be super wealthy, it’s a pretty perfect encapsulation of a real family. Come to think of it, that might be why I like it: like my IRL family, I can just tune them into the background and zone out while enjoying something else. -Logan Hollers
Parks and Recreation
No matter the day nor time, I’ll have Parks and Rec on a constant loop in the background. Besides a Li’l Sebastian-strength love for every cold open, each character provides inspiration for the day’s primary task. Pulling an all nighter and need to finish up an insurmountable workload? Make waffles and open up Leslie’s binder “Mission Im-Pawnee-ble: Knope Protocol.” Making dinner for your boo? Go from chicky-chicky-parm-parm to Tom’s Bistro in 3 easy seasons. Roommate forgot to pay your Verizon bill? You’ve seen this show enough to pull an Andy Dwyer and reenact a whole goddamn episode top to bottom. Plus, whenever you’re done facing whatever chore (or Internet outage) came your way, you have full license to kick off your Entertainment 720 slippers and curl up on the couch. When life gives you lemons, steal your grandma’s jewelry and go schlubbin’. -Brandon Weight
Unsealed: Alien Files
Considering it’s a show about aliens, it’s the most boring presentation I’ve seen on TV. The narrator’s voice just floats in a uniform cadence while trying to sound like some kind of secret agent. There’s a lot of low budget spaceship CGI that gets reused again and again that lulls you into a bizarre familiar dream-like state. The episodes are inexplicably 18 minutes long. This doesn’t really have anything to do with how boring it is but what’s that all about? For me it’s even more than background, I put on as white noise to help me sleep. I tried to watch it in earnest recently and I’ve fully conditioned myself to fall asleep at the sound of it now. I’ve seen every episode at least 10 times and I have no idea what it’s about. Something about aliens, from my understanding. Admittedly it’s not top shelf alien TV due to it’s lack of that meme guy with the hair, but that would be too distracting for this show to be effective as the perfect background choice. -Joe McAdam
Since the “powers that be” say my answer of The Simpsons is “too obvious” despite it being my personal security blanket, I’ll go one step removed and say forgotten and otherwise ignored cartoon sitcoms. The Venture Bros., King of the Hill, American Dad, Clone High, Clerks: The Animated Series, Mission Hill, The Critic, Futurama, The Oblongs, Daria, Ugly Americans, hell, I’ll watch The Cleveland Show in a pinch, or even some Rick and Morty. In general I’m a fan of unloved TV shows, the weirder the better (who remembers when Fox tried to turn Kitchen Confidential into a sitcom?!?) More so if they failed a season or two (or less) in and had a stellar if unappreciated cast or some sort of insane writing team getting their first crack at prime time. Having seen these shows over and over and over again means the dialog and beats are burned into my head, I don’t have to watch or even look up to know what’s going on, but they’re esoteric enough that when I’m reminded of some obscure reference, or callback to something I learned about doing the non-required reading in a film class, I can chuckle no matter how serious my actual task. It keeps me humming along, and if I get writer’s block or frustrated, it breaks the tension. -Jeb Gavin
True Crime Docs
I like watching a true crime documentary and then looking up from my phone about 3/4 of the way through. My friends don’t like this, because I spend the remaining minutes of the show asking “who’s that?” and “did they do it?”. I don’t really have the attention span for shows like Making A Murderer or The Keepers, but I really wish I did. I start watching them with the intention of getting deeply invested, but at a certain point (10 minutes in on average if we’re quantifying) I don’t really care that some schoolteacher in town thought the suspect was a creep 30 years ago. That being said, true crime is very “en vogue” right now, and I like to keep up with the culture. I watch enough that I can participate in a conversation. No more, no less. -Tam Sackman
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