Wherever you spent the 2020-21 school year — in class, or texting while pretending to listen to Zoom lectures, or working while trying to get your children to listen to their Zoom lectures — there were distractions stealing time from your television viewing. Maybe your bandwidth extended only as far as the buzziest series — “The Queen’s Gambit” or “90 Day Fiancé.” Now that summer’s here, we’re offering a selection of worthwhile shows that kept a lower profile this past season. From an old-fashioned network sitcom to a wacky anime sending up yakuza movies, here are 10 things to catch up on now that you have the time to binge.
An amalgam of Euro-horror (Vatican assassins, tight dresses, spider creatures out of a Guillermo del Toro nightmare) and Scooby-gang mystery-adventures, this HBO Europe series from the Spanish sensationalist Álex de la Iglesia is rich with empty but entertaining calories. Megan Montaner and Miguel Ángel Silvestre play a veterinarian and a small-town mayor who find themselves in a succession of skirmishes with demonic forces, like a civilian Mulder and Scully; the Catalan star Eduard Fernández stars as a priest with a questionable past and a wicked left hook. De la Iglesia throws in a Renfield reference here and an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” reference there, and cheerfully piles indignities onto the Roman Catholic church — at one point a congregation is kept happy and obedient through the use of cursed communion wafers, making religion the literal opiate of the people.
‘Bob Hearts Abishola’
Looking across Chuck Lorre’s long and improbably successful career as a sitcom producer, one thing you can say — and not the least thing — is that he has generally been coming from a place of humanism and tolerance, even if it might have been hard to keep that in sight during, say, “Two and a Half Men.” It wasn’t clear at the start how gracefully “Bob Hearts Abishola” would execute its premise — a romance between an immigrant Nigerian nurse and a white Detroit businessman — but over two seasons on CBS it has been genuinely warm and sardonically amusing more often than not.
‘C.B. Strike: Lethal White’
In the largely British field of literary, character-based mystery series, “C.B. Strike” (just “Strike” in its original BBC showings) currently takes top honors. It has devoted two to four episodes to each of J.K. Rowling’s first four Cormoran Strike novels, which she publishes under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Strike, the sadly watchful ex-soldier and private eye, and Robin Ellacott, his anxious but intrepid partner, are splendidly played by Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger. The mysteries are smart and absorbing, but they’re secondary to the actors’ delineation of the evolving relationship between Cormoran and Robin, buttressed by Kerr Logan in the challenging role of Matthew, Robin’s undeserving boyfriend. “Lethal White,” the fourth installment, picks up just after Robin and Matthew marry and, while unspooling a case of child murder and political scandal, takes the central characters into even deeper emotional waters.
‘City on a Hill’
Soaked in grubby 1990s ambience, this mildly addictive show has the tangled plot you’d expect in a series trying to give Boston the “Wire” treatment — the full panorama of politics, crime, law enforcement, religion, neighborhood activism — and the high-quality prestige-naturalism typical of Showtime dramas. Its tendency to speechify has been tempered in its two seasons by an excellent cast, led by Kevin Bacon as a cheerfully corrupt F.B.I. agent and Aldis Hodge as an uneasily idealistic prosecutor and including Jill Hennessy, Lauren E. Banks, Gloria Reuben and Michael O’Keefe. In Season 2, the fallout from a drug-related shooting revealed something resembling a conscience in Bacon’s Jackie Rohr; there was strong potential for phoniness, but Bacon made it entirely believable.
‘Driving While Black’
Gretchen Sorin, working with the filmmaker Ric Burns, adapted her book “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” into this disarmingly personal, moving PBS documentary that’s part history, part wistful travelogue. Sorin and other scholars and writers tie their own stories of the not-so-open road into the larger tale of Black mobility in America, a 400-year history of fighting for the freedom simply to move. The film continually frames the paradoxes of the automobile’s role in Black life: that an essential tool of economic empowerment has also decimated neighborhoods; that a key means of liberation can at any moment become an arena for humiliation and deadly violence.
‘Drunk History: Black Stories’
The “Drunk History” franchise has been around in one form or another for 14 years. If it’s been a while since you indulged, this series of online shorts produced by Comedy Central UK is an invigorating reintroduction. The familiar “Drunk History” formula — inebriated demi-celebrities give rambling, hopefully humorous accounts of historical incidents or notable lives, parts of which are acted out by costumed performers lip-syncing the narrator’s improvised dialogue — is applied to Black figures from British history like the boxer Len Johnson and the nurse Mary Seacole. It feels as if this is what “Drunk History” was made for: The comic incongruity of the re-creations and the furious concentration required of the storytellers makes the format an apt way to capture the absurdity of the racism the subjects faced.
One of the most highly regarded crime dramas in the history of British TV, Jed Mercurio’s almost fetishistically intense BBC series about an internal-affairs unit in an unnamed northern city remains more of a cult item in the United States. Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar play the two central detectives and their gaffer (boss), seemingly the last honest cops in town, if they are indeed honest; the characters’ mutual devotion and suspicion have been cannily orchestrated over six seasons to maximize the audience’s emotional investment. While each season features a new target of investigation, Season 6 (with Kelly Macdonald as a possibly corrupt detective) continued the heroes’ series-long, ever frustrated attempt to identify the top cop who’s in league with organized crime. (If you’re not caught up, that gangster-opera through line is a good argument for starting with Season 1; luckily, most of the seasons are just six episodes.)
Scott Ryan’s dramedy — or really, really dry comedy — about an Australian hitman-next-door is a small marvel of sustained tone. The slightest overstatement or sentimentality could capsize the delicate sendup of tough-guy clichés, but Ryan (who writes all the episodes and plays the protagonist, Ray Shoesmith) rarely makes a wrong step. He’s increased his own degree of difficulty in the show’s third season, which has three weeks remaining on FX: Ray’s stomach for his job is showing signs of weakening, as the violence builds and his daughter (the marvelously matter-of-fact Chika Yasumura) begins to ask more difficult questions.
‘The People v. the Klan’
Among the many projects rediscovering and re-evaluating chapters of Black life in America, this CNN documentary series was notable for both the horror and the inspiration of the story it brought to light. As astonishing as it might be that a Black teenager, Michael Donald, could be lynched in a residential neighborhood of Mobile, Ala., as recently as 1981, it’s even harder to believe that his mother, Beulah Mae Donald, successfully sued the Ku Klux Klan over his death and forced a local chapter into bankruptcy. The series tells the story in an efficient and quietly impassioned manner, largely through the voice of the Harvard professor and former N.A.A.C.P. president Cornell William Brooks.
‘The Way of the Househusband’
Netflix deserves points for the variety and occasional idiosyncrasy of its lineup of original anime series; this yakuza parody from the animation studio J.C. Staff (“Food Wars!,” “The Disastrous Life of Saiki K.”) is a prime example. It plays continually amusing and highly stylized variations (admittedly in a brief five-episode season) on its central joke: that Tatsu, a brutal gangster nicknamed the Immortal Dragon, has retired young and now applies his warrior code to grocery shopping, sorting laundry and preparing bento boxes for his wife to take to work.