We’re all watching more television than ever before thanks to the coronavirus lockdown, but the fact is that much of it’s rubbish. Here, Writer at Large Neil Mackay gives you a rundown of shows which will feed both your mind and your soul

IF we’re going to get through this lockdown with our sanity intact, then TV is essential. But tread carefully, most TV will rot your brain.

However, if you pick the right television, you won’t just be entertained – you’ll be feeding both your mind and your soul, and you’ll certainly be more enriched when it comes to your cultural life.

Of course, there’s plenty of great long-form TV out there – classics like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad – but there’s also a world of undiscovered gems, forgotten classics, and sleeper surprises too.

Here’s a guide to TV, widely available on at least one of the big streaming services, that should make you a happier, cleverer person by the time this is all over.

1 The Sixties.

The first in a series of documentaries which charts the last 50 years of history. A ten-parter, it’s followed up by The Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and 2000s. Produced by Tom Hanks, it’s factual TV at its accessible best – and a great way to educate yourself and your kids.

The opening series explores the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, British pop music, and psychedelia. The Seventies gets its teeth into the battle of the sexes and international terrorism. The Eighties looks at the Cold War and the rise of digital technology, while The Nineties takes in grunge, racism, and the internet.

All in all you’ve nearly 40 hours of great documentary making to enjoy.

2 The Last Man on Earth

We’ll definitely need laughter to get us through this, so what better way to take the edge off than with this delightfully silly series which mercilessly mocks the idea of the apocalypse.

This is a real hidden sleeper of a show which few watched – it never got the attention it deserved. Phil Miller is the last man on Earth after humanity is wiped out. He’s also the biggest jerk who’s ever lived. When left in a world with no people he spends his time stealing Van Gogh and Monet paintings from museums to decorate the mansion he’s squatting in; he fills a paddling pool with margaritas and drinks it; and you don’t want to know what he uses as a toilet when the plumbing breaks.

But then … Phil discovers he’s not alone. There’s a few more people than just Phil left alive. What follows will leave you crying with laughter. It’s also a wonderfully heart-warming story of redemption, and how one man can change from a selfish idiot into a decent human being.

Created by and starring Will Forte, it remains one of the funniest series ever made.

3 I, Claudius

This forgotten gem was one of the greatest TV shows of the 1970s. Still available on various streaming services, it tells the history of Rome from Augustus to Nero.

It’s a historical treat that will broaden your knowledge of the ancient world – but it’s also a creepy, over-the-top, blood-soaked, sexed-up psychodrama. Derek Jacobi plays the limping, stuttering Claudius, an overlooked and sneered-at member of the imperial family who rises by fluke to become emperor.

Along the way, we meet the reptilian Tiberius and the demented Caligula – played by John Hurt, who steals the show with his monstrous take on Rome’s maddest ruler.

4 Deadwood

Not one to watch with the kids, but if you want the absolute best writing ever to grace a TV screen then this is it. Deadwood has a truly Shakespearean flourish.

Visually stunning, historically fascinating, linguistically filthy – the series tells the story of the founding of the town of Deadwood at the height of the Old West. It’s filled with real-life characters like Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. Our focus, though, is on Al Swearengen, played by Ian McShane in a career-best performance as a pimping, plotting, punching saloon owner – one part gentle and kind poet, to 20 parts violent, greedy, exploitative brute.

It’s the script which stands out. The writers elevate swearing to heights even Billy Connolly couldn’t scale. The series ended too quickly after three seasons and 36 episodes but a follow-up film later came out to round off the story and placate bereft fans.

5 Punk

This four-part documentary takes you into the anarchic heart of the music that changed everything. It’s as much a social history as it is a music documentary, and it charts the sounds, fashions, art and ideas of punk’s subculture.

There’s incredible access to some of the biggest names in punk from Iggy Pop to Jonny Rotten, the Ramones, and Debbie Harry. Some of the best sections of the show focus on Jello Biafra, frontman of the Dead Kennedys. Biafra is a provocateur par excellence, who once ran for mayor of San Francisco on a ticket which included making all businessmen wear clown suits. Such interviews get to the very soul of what punk music was all about.

6 Last Tango in Halifax

We’re all going to need something uplifting to get us through this, but nobody wants to sit through saccharine sentimentality.

Last Tango in Halifax shouldn’t work but it does. It’s a kind of All Creatures Great and Small meets Cold Feet, set in the Yorkshire Dales, and tells the story of two pensioners who haven’t met since school and fall in love. That doesn’t sell it much, but it’s beautifully written, funny, darkly subversive when it needs to be, and features a wonderful ensemble cast of oddballs and sweethearts. It’s feelgood TV minus the schmaltz.

7 Disenchantment

This bizarre little cartoon series by Matt Groening – the man behind The Simpsons – is a clever, polished satire on modern life set in a fantasy land of elves, magicians and talking pigs. It tells the story of Bean, a reluctant princess who wants to drink, fight and sleep around, rather than wait around for a handsome prince. Her dad’s a slob of a king, and her best friend is a slightly camp elf called Elfo. Her step-mother is half octopus, and there’s a sex cult secretly prowling the castle.

If you just need something to put a smile on your face, this is it. It’ll also feed your imagination in the way that only fairy tales can.

8 Mindhunter

Sometimes we all need a little catharsis. A good scare in bad times can do wonders – releasing all those negative, pent-up feelings. And this drama series is a genius exploration of the dark heart of humanity.

So, strap in for the true story of the FBI agents who invented the study of serial killing in the 1970s ... by interviewing the actual murderers in their prison cells. Based on the work of FBI profiler John Douglas, Mindhunter brings you face to face with some of the most appalling human beings who have ever lived.

Mindhunter is also a fascinating social history of the time – the smoking, the casual sexism, the complete disregard for any notion of health and safety when it comes to spending time alone in a cell with a mass murderer.

9 Bloodride

If you’re looking for a bit of weird – something to fill in the gap left by Black Mirror – then try out this little-known Norwegian anthology series.

Bloodride does what good short stories do – it diverts you for half an hour and gets your imagination pumping.

A good example of the kind of story-telling you’ll get comes from one episode which tells of a young family forced to move to the countryside when their finances go awry. They find themselves among a group of friendly villagers who just happen to be pagans in the Viking-style. The new neighbours also have a suggestion – involving sacrifice – which might just fix the family’s monetary woes.

A very modern version of The Twilight Zone.

10 100 Humans

Time for science. This factual series takes 100 ordinary people and subjects them to a battery of weird tests designed to work out what makes humans tick. It’s done with a light comic touch, but the science is genuine. The show explores age, sex, race, fear and joy. It’s very playful – like a school science class but with stand-up comedians as teachers.

11 Six feet under

A five-season series over 63 episodes, set in a funeral parlour. It may not sound appealing but it’s one of the finest, most emotionally satisfying dramas ever made. If you want a show which explores the human condition in all its wonder, sadness and glory, this is it. And it will last a long time – if you watched this show for four hours a night it would take more than a fortnight to finish.

It tells the story of the Fishers, a family of undertakers. Death is a backdrop, but the story only cares about character, family and relationships. This series is about what it means to fall in love, to be sad and lonely, to have hopes and dreams, fears and weaknesses. You’ll come to think of the Fishers as your own family – and you’ll be bereft when it ends.

12 Lost in Space

"Danger, Will Robinson!"

If you want a series the whole family can come together to watch then look no further. Lost in Space is a reimagining of the 1960s classic space opera of the same name – which was itself inspired by the novel and film The Swiss Family Robinson about a mum, dad and their children stranded on a desert island.

Here, the adventure features the Robinsons as a family of space colonists drifting wildly through the galaxy trying to find their way to a new planet after the destruction of the earth. Like the 1960s version, much of the action centres around an adoptive member of the family – a sentient robot. And of course there’s the evil Dr Smith working to undermine the Robinsons at every turn.

There’s drama, love, jeopardy by the bag-full, fabulous effects – and it’s all family friendly enough for you and your kids to unwind to before bedtime. Perfect escapism.

13 Black Sails

Only a handful of TV shows are able to ladle in plenty of history while still keeping you entertained and on the edge of your seat. Black Sails takes the history of British pirates in the 1700s, melds it with fictional characters from Treasure Island, and turns it all into one of the most barn-storming series ever made.

You’ll meet real pirates like Anne Bonny and Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, and discover the origin stories of characters like Long John Silver and Billy Bones. It’s not for kids though, as there’s lashings of sex and violence. But it’s a rollicking tale that’ll give you a daily fix of much-needed lockdown adrenalin.

14 Dark Tourist

Many us of will be pining for travel over the coming weeks so get your adventures in vicariously with the journalist David Farrier – a master of the weird and wonderful in the style of Louis Theroux.

Farrier only goes where he shouldn’t go, or where no-one else would go. So you’ll journey to the land of Colombian drug cartels, watch a live exorcism, take a trip to Benin to discover Voodoo, and hang out with creationists in their full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark.

Farrier takes on big, discomforting subjects – but always keeps a light, playful tone, so it never gets too dark.

15 My Kitchen Rules

Everyone loves a cookery show – but our British ones are getting a bit stale. Take a trip down under for something different. Australia’s My Kitchen Rules pits ordinary teams of cooks – mum and son, husband and wife, brother and sister – against each other in a dogfight of a cook-off.

The teams have to cook together, eat together and judge each other. It’s brutal and cruel, while still great for learning new recipes. The judges harass and cajole the contestants, driving some to hysterics and others to fury.

Also it’s long – the last series, series 11, had 29 episodes and each episode is about an hour long. In total, that’s about 450 hours of telly. Even this lockdown can’t go on that long.

16 Taskmaster

Game show time. Get a bunch of comedians together, make the sneeringly hilarious Greg Davies the host, and let chaos ensue. You’re guaranteed laughs – and that’s important these days.

The idea is this: Greg and his sidekick Alex Horne think up increasingly ridiculous and pointless tasks for a mixed bag of comedians to complete. The contestants have included Frank Skinner, Katherine Ryan, Sara Pascoe, Mel Giedroyc, and Nish Kumar over the last nine series.

Tasks involve absurdities like getting a toy cat out of a 50ft tree; hide a pineapple on your person; throw a teabag into a mug; and create an exotic sandwich – this last task was so revolting you’re advised not to watch while eating. It’s clever, distracting fun, just when you need it most.

17 Heimat

This is a biggie – a series of beautifully observed films running to, wait for it, nearly 60 hours. Heimat, which means Homeland in German, tells the story of life in a German village between the mid-1800s and the end of the 20th century. This is film in the style of the novel – and not just any old novel, think of Dickens, or Émile Zola, or Tolstoy. You’ll be a cultural behemoth once you emerge from this cinematic cocoon.

The story focuses on one family as their lives play out against the shifting sands of history, society and politics. It’s a masterpiece.

18 Only Connect

Her patter may be awful, but Victoria Coren fronts the smartest quiz show on TV – and there are 15 seasons to binge on. It’ll keep your brain smart as a tack during lockdown. The puzzles – which two teams of uber-geeks compete in – are of the cryptic crossword type so be prepared to struggle and suffer. When you crack a question, though, the sense of achievement is indescribably better than smashing a round of University Challenge.