When Breaking Bad and Games of Thrones were the most beloved TV shows I watched them with all the joy of a vegan eating an exquisitely prepared lamp chop. Yes, I could see why viewers liked their tense plot twists but their grimdark messages turned me off.
On a NPR podcast, fantasy author Alexandra Rowland defines grimdark as a philosophy “that everyone has an essential core of evil or malice or just petty selfishness that can’t ever really be overcome”, so it’s naïve to fight for a better world, instead you fight for yourself.
I disagreed with this grimdark philosophy and searched for shows that had hope. I didn’t need unrealistic happily-ever-after endings, but I wanted a more balanced view. People in my life are decent – sure we have our flaws – but we’re trying to care for others and do our best. Was grimdark really the best we could hope for? During the Trump years this has been an especially dark message. Where were the well-written stories about people I knew and the hope we have for society?
Thanks to the miracle of streaming TV I found a whole treasure-trove of shows that gave me what I needed. Many of them had smaller followings and less buzz than the grimdark shows but they had the same high quality writing and acting.
Then I discovered a name to categorize these shows.
What is hopepunk?
In 2017 Alexandra Rowland coined the term hopepunk on a Tumbler post that said, “The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.”
Many embraced that term and there have been numerous articles, podcasts, message boards and even classes discussing exactly what hopepunk is. Like most broad categories there are different views on the details.
In the 1A NPR podcast, “Do Get Your Hopes Up…Rocking Out with Hope Punk,” Rowland says that hopepunk is, “…not so much about whether the glass is half full or half empty. It says that there is water in the glass and that’s something that’s worth defending.”
Rowland adds, “…we’re all capable of doing some real atrocities to each other and also we’re capable of choosing to do something better and make the world a better place.”
In the same discussion, podcaster and freelancer Wil Williams says, “This is a time that we need something that is subversively optimistic and pointedly rebelliously empathetic.”
Yes! This is exactly what I want in a TV show during dark times.
In one of my favorite articles on the genre, “Hopepunk, the latest storytelling trend, is all about weaponized optimism”, Aja Romano also speaks with Rowland who says, “Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act.”
Romano also interviews Andrew Slack, the creator of the non-profit Harry Potter Alliance, who says, “Hopepunk is a radical call to arms for us to imagine better.”
The idea that a TV show could explore what a better world might look like —while also accepting that everyone is struggling with their own flaws— appealed to me. I craved shows with main characters that struggle to be better people and often succeed, much like the people in my own life.
Ubiquitous grimdark shows have given me an intimate understanding of the inner workings of troubled white men who give in to their darker impulses, but I was interested in characters usually relegated to secondary status in grimdark shows — people of color, queer people, and/or women. I wanted to see what a world would look like where they got to be the focus. I’m glad that these shows are starting to be made and hope for even more to come.
Here are four of my recent favorites:
This is one of the best TV shows I’ve watched, but I almost missed out because I judged its premise as ridiculous. 23-year-old Jane Gloriana Villanueva is a virgin, saving herself for marriage, when her gynecologist accidentally artificially inseminates her with the sperm of a man she barely knows. I kept hearing how good the show was from people I respected, though, so I gave it a try and fell in love.
Genres about women’s lives – soap operas, telenovelas, and romance novels—are presented as fluff in our society. Issues that affect women are considered niche issues while issues that affect men are considered universal, despite the fact that women are slightly more than 50% of society.
The writers of Jane take their mostly Latinx characters seriously. We feel their pain, sorrow, heartache, pleasure and joy through out each soap opera plot. Yes, Jane has been inseminated accidentally, but now she’s really pregnant. She’s a real woman, with real dreams, and a real boyfriend. How will she handle this? Will she have an abortion? If she continues the pregnancy how would she care for the child while finishing college?
Jane’s relationships with her devotedly Catholic abuela and her fun loving mother, who had her at sixteen, ground the show. The baby-daddy is the owner of a luxury Miami hotel and his life provides a host of colorful telenovela plots and characters. The magic of the show is how it juggles wild soap opera plots with heartfelt human interactions.
The show also cleverly uses a narrator who breaks the fourth wall, catching viewers up each week and expressing dismay at how Jane’s life is “straight out of a telenovela!” The writers use technology in clever ways. Texting is used to create real emotion and one character’s constant hashtags add a whole new level of fun to watching.
Jane’s writers also realize abortion is at the heart of a women’s daily life. Every character— whether pro-choice or devotedly Catholic and pro-life— is respected. There’s a character that chooses to have an abortion and a pro-choice character that chooses to not to have an abortion. Both characters have good reasons for their choice. Abortion isn’t viewed as some abstract political argument, it’s seen as a very real decision in women’s daily lives.
Sex is another “guilty pleasure” that is also taken either too lightly or grimly in our society. In Jane the Virgin, sex and romance are given the thoughtfulness they deserve. Characters take their need for romance, love, pleasure, flirtation, and even lust, seriously.
The series showcases healthy, realistic families in many forms. There are single parents, married straight couples, widows, gay couples, and uniquely blended families. Everyone is flawed, but still trying to do their best.
I also personally loved that the main character has long dreamed of being a romance writer (another women’s genre seldom taken seriously). Throughout the series she struggles with typical writing issues like self-doubt, lack of time, and the frustrating realities of getting a book published and then promoting it. At one point she even gets her MFA and has to defend romance novels to her advisor.
The funny, entertaining way Jane the Virgin manages to take women and their issues seriously is a true hopepunk miracle!
5 seasons of 17-22 episodes each, complete with a satisfying series end. Streaming on Netflix.
In this Australian show, 20-something Josh realizes he’s gay and starts dating guys, while dealing with his mother’s mental heath issues. Like many of my favorite shows, this one takes a few episodes to get into. It has a naturalistic vibe that feels like you’re hanging with a group of clever friends, rather than watching a TV sit-com.
In many shows, gay relationships are treated as a subplot, a tragic tale, or steamy soap opera fodder. Please Like Me treats Josh’s dating life like it would the star of a well-written straight teen dramedy. Josh falls into romance, fumbles, and tries to figure out who he is and what he likes, while his straight friends provide subplots. It’s one of the first shows (besides Schitt’s Creek) I’ve seen that treats gay romances with the same importance of straight ones.
The show also treats mental illness in a naturalistic way rarely seen on TV. Josh’s mom is loving, funny, real, and deeply ill all at once. The show has some absolutely fantastic episodes that explore the love and heartbreak of having a parent with mental health issues. As an added bonus, Hannah Gadsby has a small recurring role in seasons two and three, prior to her break out performances in the Netflix specials Nannette and Douglas.
My favorite episode (in season three) involves Josh’s discovery that one of his backyard chickens is a rooster. The way Josh and his friends solve this problem is uplifting and heartbreaking in a realistic way, plus it involves one my favorite impromptu renditions of Adele’s “Someone Like You.”
4 seasons with 6-10 episodes each, streaming on Hulu
With seven recent Emmy wins this is best-known show on my list and proof that hopepunk can be just as popular as grimdark. If you know me personally, you know how much I love this show because I talk about it endlessly.
Why do I love Schitt’s Creek so much? First off, the basic premise is as subversive and hopepunk as you can get. A super rich family loses their money and is forced to have relationships with people they can’t buy. Along the way, they become happier, better people.
Like Dan Levy said in response to his wins: ”Our show at its core is about the transformational effects of love and acceptance and that is something that we need more of now than we’ve ever needed before.” Total hopepunk!
The show’s message that we’re all flawed, but worthy, plays out in such a delightfully funny way, too. Each member of the Rose family is ridiculous but very specific. For instance, former soap opera star Moira Rose (played by the fantastic Catherine O’Hara) dresses like she’s the Queen of the Haute Couture Underworld and speaks as if she’s on old-time movie. She loves her husband dearly, but tends to see other people as audience, and has to learn how to interact with everyone again, to include her own children. It’s a delightful journey to behold because Moira never stops being Moira, even as she grows. The other members of the Rose family have equally satisfying character arcs and quirks of their own.
Schitt’s Creek assumes the best in people. No one in the small town is racist or homophobic and women are not sexually harassed. The quirky citizens are proud of their town and their lives. As a result, the most compelling couple on the show consists of two gay men—whose romance stands in for the romantic feelings we ALL feel, not just the gay community— a very hopepunk sentiment.
It’s one of the few shows on TV where long-term couples don’t bitterly snipe at their partner. Sure couples tease each other about their idiosyncrasies but they also clearly love each other. Those idiosyncrasies are why they’re together.
Lastly, Schitt’s Creek knows how to balance sentiment with humor. The show’s human moments are sweet but never saccharine. Each scene deftly takes you to the edge of feeling and then makes you laugh.
Warning – This show is a slow burn. Everyone’s pretty unlikable in the first couple episodes. The enjoyable show people rave about really starts midway through season three, though season one and two definitely have their moments. Push through season one because they all start growing as people, and that journey is so much fun!
6 seasons with 13-14 episodes each, streaming on Netflix
This show starts out with what seems like a very grimdark premise, 17-year-old James thinks he might be a psychopath and decides to go on a road trip with schoolmate Alyssa in order to work up the courage to kill her. Alyssa is also using James as a means to escape her self-absorbed stepfather and mother.
The neat fake out is that this is a hopepunk show, so instead of showcasing the worst in each other, James and Alyssa’s connection slowly shapes them into healthier people.
I should note that are a couple of very disturbing scenes, and not every one in the show is working as hard at improving their lives as the main characters. But the overall message is surprisingly hopeful, and laugh out loud funny at times.
Warning – Each episode cliff hangs, which means it’s likely you’ll binge the entire series once you start it.
Just 2 short seasons of 8 episodes each. Season 2 ends in such satisfying way I don’t even want a third season. Streaming on Netflix.
Other Hopepunk Shows Worth Watching
Brooklyn Nine-Nine – They’re still making new episodes of this funny, beloved series. Yay! (NBC, Hulu)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – One of the best shows about mental health – with humor and songs! (Netflix)
Parks and Recreation – A Hopepunk classic about value of optimism and local government. (Netflix)
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power – Fantastic new cartoon remake with an emphasis on female friendship. (Netflix)
Sex Education – Set at a fictional British high school, this fantastic show explores sexuality—in many diverse forms—in a frank, healthy way we don’t usually see in teen shows. (Netflix)
The Good Place – An irreverent show about heaven that starts out slow but totally delivers on its hopepunk promise by the series finale. (Netflix)
What are your favorite hopepunk TV shows?