As Thanksgiving weekend approaches and holiday season looms around the corner, you might be looking for some quality television to snuggle up with in the cold winter. Whether you’re looking for something to watch with your family or a way to escape from them, we’ve got some picks for you.
Polygon put our heads together and come up with a list of compelling television that can be watched in a day (or a weekend, depending on your stamina). These are contained, single seasons of television — some are limited series with only one season, while some are multiple-season shows but with a single season we’ve picked that stands alone and is well worth your time.
We’ve got a similar list for the best single-season anime to watch, if you’re looking for that as well. But without further ado, here is some excellent TV you can watch quickly during the holiday season.
The Little Drummer Girl
How much? 6 episodes, 57 minutes each
Why watch? Did you know Park Chan-wook adapted a John le Carré story, it stars two of the biggest movie stars in the world, and it’s one of the best limited series released this century?
Now you do.
A young actress (Florence Pugh) meets a handsome stranger (Alexander Skarsgård) while on vacation. What appears at first to be a summer fling soon comes into focus as a recruitment operation — the stranger works for Israeli intelligence, and he brings the young woman into the dangerous world of espionage.
The Little Drummer Girl is a pitch-perfect match of talent and source material. Le Carré’s espionage stories are intricate and nuanced, never inclined to take the easy way out. Park’s filmmaking operates in much the same way, and his attention to detail and skill in creating tense moments and memorable images make this transcendent television. Add in a group of generational talents in Pugh, Skarsgård, Michael Shannon, and Charles Dance, and you have spy television at its finest.
And it felt like a special treat for me, too. Le Carré is my favorite author — I grew up with his books and have fond memories talking about them with my dad — and Park may very well be my favorite director working today. It’s rare to get a combination like this, and The Little Drummer Girl delivers on that opportunity.
Need more? For more Park “dangerous romance” intrigue, check out Decision to Leave in theaters near you or when it comes to Mubi, or The Handmaiden on Prime Video. For espionage TV, check out Slow Horses on Apple TV Plus. —Pete Volk
Derry Girls season 1
How much? 6 episodes, 24 minutes each
Why watch? The 20ish-minute comedy is the ever-elusive recommendation of the TV world; by its very nature it is easy to blow through, and thus gone too soon when (hopefully) your face still hurts from laughing that hard. By that standard, Derry Girls is a double-edged sword: It’s hysterical, easy to watch, and, thus, over far too quickly.
Each episode is its own impeccably designed Rube Goldberg machine, taking the titular Derry Girls (including the one British boy cousin who’s dragged into their mess) from what should be a simple conundrum to absolute chaos in just a handful of minutes. It’s all the more impressive since Derry Girls is set against the backdrop of the Troubles in the ’80s. It’d be easy for Derry Girls to completely disregard the time past a few period jokes, but the show is very much of its time and its place, informing everything from its characters’ sense of religion to their commutes. This is a show in which Irish Catholicism can get you through your exams, and also inadvertently lead to a fake miracle that rocks the churchgoing community. What a world!
Ultimately what makes Derry Girls so perfectly delightful is that it’s just simply zany and farcical and the platonic ideal of what a half-hour comedy should be, troubles or no.
Where to find it: All three (that’s right, three) seasons are on Netflix.
Need more? As established above, there are blessedly two more seasons of Derry Girls after you finish the first, each superb in its own right. Bad news: They go just as quickly. Here’s to many rewatches. —Zosha Millman
How much? 8 episodes, 56-60 minutes each
Why watch? Looking for an international crime thriller with a strong emotional throughline and a talented cast of actors delivering absolute A-game performances? Allow me to introduce you to Giri/Haji.
Written and directed by Joe Barton (The Ritual, The Lazarus Project), the series follows Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira), a Tokyo detective who journeys to London to find and arrest his allegedly deceased brother, Yuto (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a former yakuza accused of murdering the nephew of a high-ranking yakuza member and subsequently eliciting an all-out gang war. Arriving in London under the pretense of attending a criminology course, Kenzo meets and eventually teams up with Sarah Weitzmann (Kelly Macdonald), a detective constable ostracized by her peers for being a whistleblower.
The death of the Yakuza boss’s nephew in effect becomes a gravitational sinkhole, drawing the disparate lives of several colorful and interesting characters together in unexpected ways, including Kenzo’s rebellious teen daughter Taki (Aoi Okuyama) and a charismatic, fast-talking half-Japanese/half-British drug addict named Rodney (Will Sharpe).
Giri/Haji is the rare kind of thriller that has a little bit of everything — action, comedy, romance, drama — done extremely well. It’s a genuine gem of a series whose obscurity is not on account of its own merit, but at the fault of the streaming landscape inundated with an overabundance of content. Honestly, you’ll have to force yourself not to watch the entire thing in one weekend — it’s that good.
Where to find it: Giri/Haji is available to stream on Netflix.
Need more? Unfortunately, Giri/Haji was cancelled midway through the broadcast of its first (and only) season. If you’re looking for an international thriller of a similar bent, we heartily recommend the first episode of Tokyo Vice, directed by Michael Mann of Heat fame and based on Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir of the same name. —Toussaint Egan
How much? 8 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. —Tasha Robinson
Russian Doll season 1
How much? 8 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 surefire 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 now a second 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. There’s also the martial-arts-meets-Groundhog Day short Rope-a-Dope, by and starring the motion capture stunt man for Kratos. —TR
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 “OK, 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 postapocalyptic 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? A second and third season are both on Netflix now! —TR
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.
How much? 6 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? A second season is upcoming, expected for 2023! In the meantime, for more Neil Gaiman adaptations, check out The Sandman on Netflix and American Gods on Starz. —Petrana Radulovic
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 catering to 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, and a second and third season are out. Additionally, Disney Plus is full of old Disney Channel shows like The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and Lizzie McGuire, if you want to relieve the feeling of a Disney Channel original series. —PR