The 10 Best Background TV Shows

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The 10 Best Background TV Shows

Like Kenneth Parcell, TV is my best friend. The sound of television can act as a soothing white noise, quieting my mind and filling up the silence in my home—or drowning out noise I don’t want to hear. But when I search for something to put on while I’m folding laundry or staring at my phone, it needs to meet certain criteria.

To be a good background TV show, the storylines must be simple, or it has to be a show that has big story beats so if you miss some you can fill them in later. (I also call this “napping TV”—you can fall asleep and wake up a few episodes later, and it’s fine.) This is why HGTV shows and cartoons are good background TV: they are formulaic and reset at each episode. It’s also why Friends or The Office works for so many people; there’s small jokes to miss, but a large storyline like Jim loving Pam remains clear.

A background show has to be good, but not too good; medium TV is best. Good TV that is familiar will also work. With the strain of the pandemic, background shows tend to be my go-to when I can’t focus on anything that needs my full attention. Below are the best background TV shows when you just need some pleasant sound to half-watch.

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Beat Bobby Flay

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Watch on Hulu

There are two rounds to the competitive Food Network show Beat Bobby Flay: one where two visiting chefs go against each other, and then a second where the winner goes against Flay. The winner chooses a signature dish that Flay doesn’t know about ahead of time, and they each make their own version of it. A panel of judges does a blind taste test to decide the winner. This is perfect background television because no matter how many times I’ve seen an episode, I forget it immediately after I’ve watched it. There is absolutely no need to pay attention to every second of Beat Bobby Flay—I have enjoyed it immensely while having no idea what the signature dish was until the final judging. Just let the emptiness wash over you and check in every once in a while to see if someone looks like they could be a better chef than Bobby Flay.


Bones

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Watch on Hulu Watch on Amazon Prime

Bones is a procedural about a forensic anthropologist, her team, and the FBI agent she eventually falls in love with. I saw a lot of episodes of Bones before I realized the main character’s name (played by Emily Deschanel) wasn’t actually Dr. Bones. (It’s Dr. Brennan—Bones is a nickname from the aforementioned FBI agent.) The bad guy usually gets caught, you get to watch smart people be very good at their jobs, and the crimes can be pretty unusual: the perfect background TV crime show trifecta. I have never seen a full season of this show in order, but I can tell you the arcs of every major character, including one who gets arrested for aiding a serial killer. Procedurals are great background TV because the consistent episodic structure means you know exactly what to expect, even if you miss some of it.


Jeopardy

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Watch on Netflix

Jeopardy has no plot, no loud explosions, and nothing to keep track of except points that are added up for you. It’s definitely fun to play along with Jeopardy as host Alex Trebek quizzes three contestants on a variety of trivia as they compete against each other, but it’s also fun to just listen to people talking calmly as they list off obscure facts and win money. The most important part of Jeopardy as a background show is its calming effect, unlike other game shows with lots of bells and whistles.


American Ninja Warrior

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Watch on Hulu

American Ninja Warrior has a simple premise: people compete against each other to run an obstacle course as fast as they can. But the obstacle course is really hard, and the people all seem to have heartwarming stories. The appeal of American Ninja Warrior is similar to live sports, except its episodic nature make it even easier to drop into while only paying attention some of the time.


Bob’s Burgers

Watch on Hulu

Bob’s Burgers is almost too good to be background TV. But the cartoon about the Belcher family running a burger restaurant and the shenanigans of kids Louise (Kristen Schaal), Gene (Eugene Mirman), and Tina (Dan Mintz) are more fun to half watch than other shows are to closely watch. Jokes may be missed—like Bob’s (H. Jon Benjamin) burger of the day puns or the brief appearance of Pocket Sized Rudy—but the simplicity of a family that loves each other provides uplifting background noise. And if you miss a part of an episode, the family and storyline reset when the next one starts.


Love It or List It

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Watch on Hulu

An HGTV staple, Love It or List It is a blend of House Hunters and a generic home renovation show, with the homeowners deciding at the end of the episode if they’ll stay in their renovated home or buy a new one. The format never changes, and the banter among between designer Hilary Farr and real estate agent David Visentin is medium at best. But the houses are pretty and the renovations are fun, especially when the show adds up how a renovation adds value to a home. The homeowners get what they want whether they stay or go, making it a low stakes competition show, perfect to throw on and forget about.


Rugrats

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Watch on Hulu Watch on Paramount+

As I get older and return to one of my childhood favorites, I found I was much more concerned with the parenting on Rugrats than I was when I was a kid. Luckily, the animated adventures of Tommy Pickles (Elizabeth Daily) and his friends always turn out well, and the babies stay safe no matter what trouble they get into. This gentle nostalgia provides great comfort TV, and the 15-minute stories in each episode of Rugrats add up to perfect background television. If Rugrats isn’t familiar to you, I recommend any childhood favorite in its place.


Seinfeld

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Watch on Hulu

Seinfeld is famously about nothing. The sitcom about comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his friends, George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards) living in New York requires no background knowledge to enjoy an episode of the group discussing their lives and recent escapades. It’s funny, the stories can be ridiculous, and paying attention is not at all necessary for it to be a pleasurable watch. While there are some longer running storylines and jokes, the relationships between the friends can be understood no matter how many or how few episodes you have seen.


The Crown

Watch on Netflix

The Crown is luxurious background TV, with actual palaces and crown jewels, that tells the story of the British royal family starting with the rise of Queen Elizabeth II. There’s plenty of detail to absorb if you want to watch this show closely—but if you’re watching it with Wikipedia open, you’re only half watching it anyway. The main points of the story are known if you pay attention to pop culture or history, so it’s easy to follow even if you miss the minor points. And if you want to catch up, pull up Google on your phone in between checking social media while The Crown plays in the background.


Live Sports

Remember events? And crowds of people? And the hum of anticipation in a stadium? Live sports provide a buzzing connection to the outside world that can be a comforting reminder that some people are still doing and watching certain things at the same time. In pandemic isolation, it almost feels like a connection to a community—or at least a reminder the outside world continues to operate, even if it’s not quite business as usual. In my household, basketball is the go-to background sport, but any sport will do as long as you’re not too invested in the game. Let announcers and manufactured crowd noises fill the silence with a pleasant murmur as you finally fold last week’s laundry. Look up every once in a while to catch a replay.



Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. Her book All Made Up: The Power and Pitfalls of Beauty Culture, from Cleopatra to Kim Kardashian will come out July 13, 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.

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