If you want to learn fluent English, you should probably get about 6 hours of spoken input a week. This usually means that you need a constant supply of interesting audio/video content to listen to/watch at home.
It is not always easy to find new sources of input every week, so it is a good idea to watch and listen to episodic content. That way, rather than wonder “What movie am I going to watch today?”, you can just tune in to your favorite show regularly and get your dose of English.
With this in mind, I have decided to publish a list of episodic content (TV shows, podcasts, etc.) that I have found exceptionally entertaining or informative. I will add to this list as I discover new shows, so check back in a while.
- The Office (UK) – 14 episodes
David Brent, a middle manager at a paper trading company, is convinced that his employees love him because he is an expert business leader and the funniest guy in the office at the same time. In reality, Brent is an anti-manager who constantly embarrasses himself with his incompetence, horrible leadership, and unsuccessful attempts to be funny. The Office is not a traditional sitcom, where every line is supposed to be funny. Instead, it creates a believable office environment with characters that are just slightly over the top. The humor is subtle and many scenes are simply painful too watch, as we feel sympathy for both Brent (who’s trying so hard to be admired, yet fails so miserably) and his employees (whom Brent often hurts through his insensitivity and selfishness). I recommend watching this show with subtitles, as the non-RP British accents of David Brent and several other characters can be quite challenging.
- The Office (US) – 201 episodes
The American sibling of the UK show is surprisingly successful at developing its own unique characters and storyline. The US version generates less pain and more laughs, without compromising on intelligence. It is also easier to understand than the UK version, as the actors speak standard US English.
- The Wire (US) – 60 episodes
The Wire is an extraordinary show that works on many levels. First, it tells an epic story about police detectives trying to take down dangerous gangsters. Second, it exposes, with an almost documentary realism, the mechanics of police work and drug trade in the streets. And I don’t mean just the fact that everyone swears like a sailor and and uses slang straight from the streets of Baltimore (by the way, subtitles are a must!). In The Wire, as in real life, cops lie and cheat to get the evidence they need, and their success depends on personal connections, internal politics and lucky accidents as much as on their wits. Drug lords, as vicious as they are, have many of the same headaches as any other business people: how to find smart employees to manage sales in the streets? how to deal with competitors who have a better product? But The Wire is more than that. Through its five seasons, it examines the various mechanisms which contribute to the tragedy of the American inner cities: police commanders insisting on meaningless arrests to inflate departmental statistics and shutting down investigations when they get too close to their political friends, teachers struggling to control violent 12-year-olds as their most promising students slip through the cracks, politicians who would rather sweep problems under the rug than try any solution that might make them look bad in the media. A lot of bad things happen in The Wire – people die senseless deaths, clueless people get promoted to positions of power, the truth is ignored, good solutions are dismissed. But what makes it truly horrifying is that it not only shows you those things – it shows you why they must happen over and over again. According to many, The Wire is the best show in television history. I’m not going to disagree. The only problem is that it spoils you – after you watch it, every other police show will feel like a sitcom.
- South Park (US) – 209 episodes (and counting)
Violates social taboos and satirizes American life and politics. Extremely funny and insightful, it goes to places no other show has gone before. If you haven’t seen it, you have missed a cultural phenomenon. Can be watched for free on the Web.
- Extras (UK) – 13 episodes
Features Andy Millman, an unsuccessful, cynical 40-year old extra (or “background artist” as he’d rather refer to himself) who’s doing whatever he can to make it big in movies, his Scottish friend Maggie (also an extra), and his comically incompetent agent Darren. Each episode also features a celebrity who plays a sort of parody of themselves. Made by the same people who made The Office, Extras contains more straightforward humor while not shying away from poignant social observations and genuinely moving moments. It is a comedy with a brain and with a heart. Possibly the best comedy series I’ve ever watched.
- Arrested Development (US) – 68 episodes
Depicts the life of a rich California family who is going through rough times as their family business comes under federal scrutiny. An innovative comedy with clever humor, quirky characters and memorable lines. Has a cult following on Reddit, and deservedly so. I watched all the episodes in a week while recovering from minor surgery – it worked better than any painkiller.
- Curb Your Enthusiasm (US) – 80 episodes
Larry David is a screenwriter who co-created Seinfeld, the most popular American sitcom of the 1990’s. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a show about his life in Los Angeles. The main theme of the show is Larry’s getting in trouble because of social norms. For example, one episode sees Larry at a dinner where some acquaintance asks him to write him a letter of recommendation for a job. He doesn’t want to recommend someone he barely knows, but how can he refuse the request in front of all the guests? In another episode, a little girl at a party asks him to give her doll a haircut. Larry obliges, but minutes later the girl bursts into tears as she realizes the doll’s hair won’t grow back. The girl’s mother gets furious at Larry: what was he doing in her daughter’s room, why did he cut the doll’s hair, and why didn’t he warn the girl that the hair wouldn’t come back? She expects him to replace the doll, which turns out to be very rare, leading to further misadventures. A lot of Larry’s problems result from the existence of “hidden” social norms that everyone except Larry seems to know. In one episode, a friend invites Larry to a birthday party, insisting that he shouldn’t bring a present. When Larry arrives at the party, it turns out that everybody else has brought a gift, and his friend gets offended. When he confronts his friend, he is told “Everybody knows that’s bullshit. You say ‘no gift’, you bring a gift.” We’ve all been in awkward social situations like that, and Curb Your Enthusiasm exploits them for full comedic effect with a cleverly constructed plot and perfect acting.
- Futurama (US) – 101 episodes (and counting)
This animated sitcom follows the adventures of a pizza delivery boy, Philip J. Fry, who wakes up in the 31st century after being frozen for a thousand years. The show uses a wide variety of humor but a lot of it comes from a satirical depiction of the future – a world where robots can be alcoholics and womanizers, there are automated suicide booths on every corner, and sewers are populated by mutants. There is satire of our times as well, as many of the issues in the 31st century are extrapolations of our current issues (global warming, pollution, bureaucracy, etc.).
- Blackadder (UK) – 24 episodes
Each series of this show takes place in a different historical era, starting from the Middle Ages and ending during World War I. In each series, Rowan Atkinson plays a cynical, scheming character (named Blackadder) who hatches complicated plots against his (usually dumb) superiors. While Blackadder’s misadventures are enjoyable to watch, the show’s strongest point are his snide remarks (an example exchange: “If we do happen to step on a mine, Sir, what do we do?”, to which Blackadder replies: “Normal procedure, Lieutenant, is to jump 200 feet in the air and scatter oneself over a wide area.”). The first series is not very good (in fact, I recommend skipping it), but each subsequent one is better. The final two are just great.
- The Simpsons (US) – 618 episodes (and counting)
Just in case you haven’t heard of it, The Simpsons is a brilliant animated sitcom that satirizes American culture and society, as well as more universal topics. Many people think the first few seasons were better than the more recent ones because they had touching moments as well as funny ones.
- Onion News Network (US) – over 300 episodes
A video version of the brilliant “fake” newspaper The Onion, the ONN produces parodies of TV shows that make fun of everyone and everything, but most of all the idiocy of American media. Example stories: CIA’s ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cut Agency’s Costs, Scientists Successfully Teach Gorilla It Will Die Someday, and How Can We Make The War In Iraq More Eco-Friendly? My favorite show on the network is Today Now!, a parody of morning TV shows, with topics such as Ex-Pedophile Shares Tips On How To Make Your Kids Less Attractive and How To Pretend You Give A Shit About the Election. As far as I’m concerned, the humor, the production values, and the acting couldn’t be any better.
- Desperate Housewives (US) – 180 episodes
This comedy/crime show is about the things women do to get what they want. One of the most intelligent series in recent TV history, it impresses with its perceptive observations about people, especially those living in American suburbia. Easy-to-understand American English makes it a good choice if you’re new to watching TV in English.
- House, M.D. (US) – 177 episodes
While Desperate Housewives is about people in general, House revolves around one central character – but what a character! Dr. Gregory House, head of a diagnostic team at a New Jersey hospital, is legendary for being able to solve difficult medical cases through a mixture of subtle insight, dogged persistence and utter disregard for the rules. He’s the kind of doctor who will have his subordinates break into your apartment to look for environmental toxins, find your girlfriend’s former sexual partners to rule out STDs, figure out the rare condition that, in conjunction with your steroid use (which you tried to hide from him), is making your heart accumulate an excess of calcium, and finally make you agree to a highly dangerous test to confirm his hypothesis, in violation of hospital regulations. House is a complicated personality – at the same time a formidable intellect, a dedicated physician, and an arrogant, childish jerk who does whatever he wants to, whenever he wants to. Fortunately most of the time he wants to solve interesting cases.
- Northern Exposure (US) – 110 episodes
Focuses on the life of a New York doctor who is forced to take up practice in a small town of Cicely, Alaska. Northern Exposure is a unique show on TV because it references ideas from philosophy, spirituality and art. With its array of people of different background and attitudes living peacefully at the end of the world, Cicely represents an unattainable hippie dream, but it is a dream well worth showing (and watching). Note: You may be a bit frustrated if you watch this show without subtitles, as it has a few hard-to-understand characters such as Dr. Fleischman, who talks fast and uses a lot of intellectual vocabulary, or Maurice Minnifield, who uses a lot of colorful antiquated expressions.
- The X-Files (US) – 202 episodes
This classic show of the 90’s follows the story of two FBI agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, investigating supernatural phenomena. While the main storyline involves Mulder’s search for proof of the existence of aliens and related government conspiracies, there are many “standalone” episodes where the show covers other topics, such as liver-eating monsters, rogue supercomputers, Satanists, timewarps, and people with supernatural powers. For the first few seasons, the main storyline seems to work well, as we are being revealed one piece of the UFO puzzle after another. Unfortunately, the show went on for too long (as is often the case with successful series) – in the final two seasons (8 and 9) the storyline became an insult to the intellect, with the most ridiculous and illogical explanations being given for the characters’ actions, life-changing events happening and never being mentioned again in future episodes, etc. The show’s strengths are its likable characters, an aura of mystery, and many cleverly scary moments (warning: you may get nightmares!).
- BBC Crusades (UK) – 4 episodes
Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) takes a fascinating look at one of the most cruel episodes in history – the crusades. It appears that the crusaders weren’t the smartest bunch, and Jones does a great job of highlighting that. I’ve seen a lot of documentaries, but this one takes the prize.
- Top Gear (UK) – 133 episodes (and counting)
In theory, this is a show about cars. In reality, it is a high-budget entertainment show for men. Each episode is divided into several segments, many of which involve crazy challenges (e.g. a race from Italy to England – one person drives a sports car, the other flies in a small airplane), tests (e.g. three people spend 24 hours in a Smart Forfour), stunts (e.g. snipers shooting at a driver in a Porsche) and experiments (e.g. what will happen if lightning strikes your car with you in it?). All this is sprinkled with politically incorrect British humor and some breathtaking cinematography.
- Look Around You (UK) – 15 episodes
The show comprises two very different series: the first is a parody of British educational videos from the 1980’s, introducing scientific concepts through experiments. The second series is a parody of 1980’s pop-science programs showing the world of the future. A word of warning: the first series may be a little hard to “get”, unless you like science and parodies, and were alive in the 1980’s.
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (US)
A daily satirical take on US politics, world news and the news media.
- This American Life (US) – over 400 episodes (and counting)
Probably the best podcast on the Internet, This American Life features regular people talking about important things that happened to them, short pieces of literature, and documentaries on important social topics. The nice thing from an English-learning perspective is the fact that you can listen to how regular people talk in various parts of the US. Here are two of my favorite episodes: Starting from Scratch, The Cruelty of Children. See also other favorites.
- The Bugle (UK) – over 200 episodes (and counting)
British comedian Andy Zaltzman delivers his hilarious commentary on current events. Tune in for a healthy dose of fine British humo(u)r, reminiscent of Douglas Adams.
- Car Talk (US) – over 1,000 episodes (no longer produced)
Extremely popular public radio show about cars and car repair hosted by two Massachusetts mechanics (and MIT graduates). I listen to it for the hosts’ infectious humor and the Massachusetts accent.
- Nature Podcast (UK) – over 70 episodes (and counting)
Produced by the renowned science journal Nature, this podcast highlights the most important scientific research going on right now. Every week, listeners can hear scientists of various disciplines explain their work and the results they have achieved. The interviews go into a bit more scientific detail than what you get in the mainstream media.
- Radiolab (US) – 44 episodes (and counting)
Stories and interviews from the boundary between science, philosophy and human experience. If you like pop-science books, you should like Radiolab. Here are two of their most popular episodes: What is music? & Memory and Forgetting
- You Look Nice Today (US) – 39 episodes
Basically three funny guys chatting with lots of dry humor and references to the Internet, pop culture and other things that only someone living in America would understand. I probably shouldn’t be recommending this to learners, as even I cannot understand some of what they’re talking about. Too bad a new episode hasn’t come out in months.
- Idle Weekend (US)
Do you play videogames? Would you like to listen to two videogame critics talking about videogames, not just about current releases, but also about videogames as an art form, with a healthy dose of discussion about books and TV shows? Check out Idle Weekend! You may also like its sister show, Idle Thumbs.
Other shows worth checking out:
- Mr. Show (US comedy show with innovative sketches of various quality, ranging from hilarious to mildly entertaining)
- James Burke’s Connections (explores surprising connections between various inventions and their effect on history)
- Medieval Lives (BBC show narrated by Terry Jones tells you what it was like to live in the Middle Ages)
- The Genius of Photography (BBC show on the history of photography as an art form)
- Stephen Fry in America (British actor Stephen Fry visits all 50 American states)
- Apocalypse: The Second World War (4.5-hour history of WWII, with unique color footage)
- The Peter Serafinowicz Show (parodies of TV shows by the talented creator of Look Around You)
- Flight of the Conchords (two guys from New Zealand come to NYC to start a band; sitcom with funny musical interludes)