Some of us techies pride ourselves on not wasting time on TV. However, since the reemergence of serious television drama in the 00s, we think it’s once again well worth a look.
Needless to say, there are better uses of your downtime than TV, such as our previous recommendations of IT learning resources, podcasts of the same theme and scary talks from security conferences. Nonetheless, if your brain feels fried and you really need to tune out, you might deserve some quality entertainment. Here are some artful TV series we think the technically inclined really shouldn’t miss.
1. Mr. Robot
In this year’s edition of the security conference circuit, it was often repeated that Mr. Robot is bringing the paranoid world of IT insecurity to mainstream television. With a tense season two of this series having reached its finale last week, you can now go out and binge on an unrivalled look into the hacker mindset. Mr. Robot provides a look into the messy world of cybercrime, mental illness, societal alienation… and without spoiling too much… delusional revolutionary ideals gone horribly wrong.
Mr. Robot has an unusual ace up its sleeve: since the second episode of season one, the writers started consulting with an entire team of actual information security professionals, making sure the plot is accurate and feasible, setting real-life Linux command lines as the new gold standard on TV.
In the opinion of the show’s creator, Egyptian-American Sam Esmail, getting the tech right was as important as recreating some of the tension of the Arab Spring in a US setting. And with its Emmy-winning lead actor, Rami Malek, Mr. Robot is a must-watch for anyone who feels the urge to explore topics like the fragility of our (f)society and the tech it’s built upon.
2. Silicon Valley
The tech industry, particularly after the dotcom bubble, with its still ongoing centralization around a Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, has undoubtedly created an unprecedented amount of wealth and is quickly changing the frameworks within which human activity operates.
However, on-screen representations of the culture of running tech companies and managing tech talent have been lacking. That’s no longer the case since the aptly named series Silicon Valley was brought to us by showrunner Mike Judge, the mind behind oddball gems such as Beavis and Butthead, and movies such as Office Space and Idiocracy.
By jumping at awkward nerd clishés and entrepreneurial nightmares without being too melodramatic or unfair, Silicon Valley casts a broad… spectrum of eccentric characters, as much as a good-natured, yet stinging critique of the tech industry’s sometimes cult-like, culturally tone deaf desire to be cool. Please skip the reruns of The Big Bang theory and check out Silicon Valley, if you haven’t already.
3. The Big Bang Theory
Speaking of the devil, you really can’t avoid The Big Bang Theory altogether if you’re into science, tech and the people around it. Be warned, though, this long-running sitcom comes with a lot of… rinsed and repeated stereotyping. But that’s all fun and games at first and well worth a look… for a season or two.
Following the daily lives of academics, their careers and love interests, The Big Bang Theory can sometimes be on pretty thin ice in terms of deep thinking about technology. Nonetheless, BBT is a commonly accepted, popularized and much-loved look at how nerds are perceived. And some pretty cool scientists have made cameo appearances on the shows over the years, too.
4. The IT Crowd
If us mentioning The Big Bang Theory feels like we’re scraping the bottom of the obvious barrel, fear not. We have more than a couple more really good catches worth exploring. The IT Crowd offers what you’d expect from a British sitcom in terms of humour. At this point, the early, relatively short seasons also has an air of slight nostalgia, since it depicts a world of corporate IT starting in 2006.
This Channel 4 commissioned non-adventure into the work-avoidance of a rag-tag group of IT people at a fictional corporation, will at least be therapeutic for anyone who’s worked in IT departments with entirely non-technical bosses.
5. Stranger Things
Stranger Things appeared seemingly from out of nowhere this summer and grew into a well deserved viral hit. We include the series here, not because of its exploration of technology.
But if you want nerd and outcast stereotypes that are actually heartwarming and sympathetic, this series has got it covered, with the cast of the younger main characters actually being friends in real life. These guys get to depict a group of junior-high geeks, who turn to their understanding of Dungeons and Dragons and science to deal with… a friend gone missing.
As a horror drama, Stranger Things offers some truly inspired acting all around and offers fun takes at clichés from 80s movies and Stephen King novels. No spoilers here, but if you like monsters and government conspiracies, this just might be your cup of tea.
6. The X-Files
Once we’re into nostalgia, monsters, and government conspiracies, there’s no use not mentioning The X-Files.
This Gen X classic is another series not particularly linked to technology in itself, but rather the original mystery/horror/conspiracy arc, which kept the watcher in a tight grip of grasping for something for the five or six good early seasons.
This is all fun, pre-internet mystery solving with a bizarre twist around a pair of subduedly flirty FBI agents who get stuck on a career-wrecking, dead-end project of unexplainable phenomena, with some interesting philosophical debates on science versus belief, and truly spooky whispering about political corruption.
Without getting bent out of shaped over the lukewarm mini season of the series released this year, we’re pretty sure The X-Files is a strong or partial memory for many of our readers, and it’s worth exploring in all its nineties glory. This is especially true if you can find the remastered HD version on a streaming service of your choice (it’s been featured on at least Netflix in the US).
The early seasons being shot on actual film around Vancouver, The X-Files translates very well to a wide-screen format, with vivid, yet subtle cinematography that, in the early seasons, gives movies like Silence of the Lambs a run for its money in its depiction of spooky Northern US locations.
7. The Wire
To take a break of spooky government cover-ups of MK ULTRA era experiments and Area 51, let’s turn to another picture of The Man entirely. At any party of pseudo-intellectuals, you’re probably going to find The Guy who wants to recommend The Wire, and you need to be prepared.
This sociological masterpiece depicts a run-down and corrupted city of Baltimore through several seasons of frustrating police work. As a TV series, The Wire is as important as The Sopranos in putting US premium cable channel HBO on the map in the new golden age of television, qualifying the idiot box as a cinematic art form.
The reason we feel like pushing The Wire on the tech community is exactly of what it’s not: a technology show. Rather, the main character being the corruption of an entire city, the series takes a stab at logistics, bureaucracy, and human infrastructure in a way that’s bound to take us back to the real world of people and their social problems.
As a police officer, you can try to authorise a bunch of advanced wiretaps and go after surveillance footage all you want, but you’re going to be out of luck when no-one’s equipped to deal with the 00s rise of burner phones and colleagues who hardly can use computers…
Of course, real-life Baltimore’s police department has since moved on to whole-sale, warrantless mass surveillance of all phones in under-privileged, minority inhabited parts of town.
8. Serial Experiments Lain
Some readers of this blog may be familiar with anime, as a catch-all name for Japanese animated entertainment. Those less well-versed in this field may have prejudices against these cartoons as being either way too “adult oriented” (let’s not even go there) or way too childish with big-eyed, yelling characters. Or, that it’s all just too weird somehow.
The truth is of course that Japan has a rich industry of animated movies and TV series, geared towards very different audiences, but with common characteristics, one might recognise from the drawing style.
Decoding visual vocabulary outside the anglo norm may be a challenge in itself for many of us who’ve grown up on western media. But that’s just scratching the surface of our next recommendation, Serial Experiments Lain. Aired in 1998, Lain is a cyberpunk masterpiece, in which an adolescent, atechnical schoolgirl gets emerged into a The Matrix meets David Lynch mind-bender. After all, that’s what you’d expect after getting e-mail from a classmate who committed suicide.
Lain will push the spectator towards deep questions about the nature of reality, the relationship between the virtual and the real world. All this happens in a style that combines almost childish 90s fascination with the potential of the internet “The Wired” with strikingly well-aged visions of smartphones, the internet of things and the cultural implications of constant interconnectedness. Well-placed nods towards Apple and BeOS are included as well.
The rest of this low-key, chill, yet occasionally creepy cult series, is for each and everyone to figure out for themselves. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing while we’re waiting for the new season of Twin Peaks.
If you’re at all a film nut and you’ve ever been curious about Japanese animation of any genre, Lain is probably the most intense introduction you can get. The series is available remastered in glorious HD on Blu-ray and certain other sources. Just as with anime in general, consider watching Lain with subtitles, because the dubbed voice acting can be far from stellar.
9. Halt and Catch Fire
What’s with the 80s? Well, it’s the origin story of the computer industry as we know it today. Halt and Catch Fire retells the story of the early PC era from a fictionalized, alternative history point of view and features a story arc and cast that’s not bound to please purists.
However, we feel that the series, fluctuating as its writing sometimes is, still captures the excitement of an era when hardcore product design went into making sense of the dream of a personal computer on every desk. The acting is good, and if you happen to like 80s music, particularly on the punkier side, this series is worth giving a shot, with leaving a music recognition service such as Shazam open on your smartphone…
10. Better off Ted
Before we get all dystopian again, let’s take a slight detour to the world of R&D engineering at… an unethical multinational conglomerate. ABC’s Better off Ted may have gotten cancelled after two seasons due to low ratings, in terms of viewership. But looking at reviews online, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better sitcom with dark humour.
Telling a fast paced, breaking the fourth wall, story of a single father leading product development in a hilarious but emotionally oppressive environment, we think Better off Ted can be therapeutic, especially for anyone working in a big organisation that may churn out good, well tested and totally non-lethal products, despite or thanks to all the flawed and stifling bureaucracy.
11. Person of Interest
How about a superhero series without the capes? Backed by big name directors/writers Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento, Interstellar) and JJ Abrams (Lost, Fringe, Alias, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) brought us just that with Person of Interest, which ended its five-year run this year.
The premise is that of a vigilante group of law enforcers who tap into a back-door of a secret, all-seeing AI-powered mass surveillance system that sees and knows everything, but deems regular crime too unimportant. Yes, for a pre-Snowden show, the exploration of this topic shows some insight on the part of the writers, and we feel that this part techno-dystopia, part hero story and AI freakshow is worth a look if it’s not familiar to you.
Aforementioned Jonathan Nolan is also involved with the soon-to-be-premiered HBO Drama Westworld, based on a 70’s Michael Crichton film, where tourists go and explore seedy AI-powered theme parks to get to play heroes. How could any of this possibly go wrong, in a Jurassic Park sense?
While us mere mortals can’t comment on Westworld just yet, Rotten Tomatoes reports that initial early access critics from major newspapers, depict Westworld in very favorable light, as one of the most promising TV events to look forward to this year. With the trailers touching upon somewhat Blade Runneresque themes, we’re waiting early for Westworld’s debut in early October.
There we go: some quality visual programming to entertain your brain, even after you’re burnt out watching all the educational stuff. And for the record: watching TV shows really is most enjoyable with a couch, a big screen some simple little device with a remote control.
If you need a streaming box for an older, non-smart TV (or a new one with a terrible interface), we think Apple TV or Roku are your best bets! In addition to Youtube, Netflix, HBO and other apps, these devices have app stores bursting with players for local streaming from PCs and file servers with Plex, DLNA or plain old SMB file shares.
Enjoy! As always, if there’s any series you think should’ve been on this list, feel free to share in the comments section below.