Real time doesn’t exist anymore. Not for us, anyway. Maybe for real adults who have real jobs, but for college kids whose only structured schedule revolved around in-person classes that were way too early, day and night are now a nebulous, undefined continuum thanks to online classes and social distancing. It’s not like most of us ever had responsible bedtimes anyway, but now instead of nights out at bars and parties, we’re (hopefully) staying in more. In the spirit of embracing your inner couch potato, here are 10 of the best TV shows that are always on late at night, from all over the cable spectrum.
Arguably the most popular show of all time, Friends is on TV a lot. For a couple hours midday on TBS and a spare episode or two on various networks while the sun is up, the show really shines when it comes on for nearly five hours every night on Nick At Night. God knows how much Nickelodeon must have paid for the rights, but they’re definitely making the most of it. Keeping continuity in mind, the network makes sure to pick up in the same place where the previous night left off, meaning that Friends is on a continuous loop until the end of time. Which is what you want from the TV equivalent of comfort food: Friends is unchallenging, familiar, and oftentimes really funny, making it a perfect binge watch with all your own friends who share your obsession with unagi and Smelly Cat.
The Daily (Social Distancing) Show
The competition in the late night talk show sphere is intense. Casual entertainment fans can still get their fix from Fallon and Conan, but the answer for many late night hosts over the past few years has been to get political. Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert have taken previously apolitical shows and focused them into searing indictments of whatever crazy thing came out of Donald Trump’s mouth that day, while John Oliver and Samantha Bee have paired down their productions into once a week deep dives on the current state of disarray. Bee almost took this spot, but the gold standard still belongs to the original mixer of politics and late night comedy: The Daily Show. With Trevor Noah having finally settled in and found his own voice unique from predecessor Jon Stewart, The Daily Show has heightened its attention to focus on minority disenfranchisement and the failures of government leaders who propagate institutional racism. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Noah has pushed The Daily Show into its greatest level of relevance nearly 25 years after it aired its first episode.
Does TruTV have other shows? If they do, I have yet to see them. But if you had a goldmine like Impractical Jokers on your hands, why would you show anything else? As is the case with many of the best shows put on repeat late at night, Impractical Jokers has an incredibly simple premise that doesn’t change in the slightest: embarrass your friends in public settings. Part improvised comedy show, part Jackass, and part Candid Camera, your enjoyment of the show will wholly depend on your enjoyment of the eponymous Jokers and their personalities, all of whom are only slight variations of each other (funny fat guy, funny fatter guy, funny guy with hat, funny skinny bald guy). It can be trying, but if you’re bought in, you could easily find yourself sucked into their vortex for hours at a time, made worse by the fact that seriously TruTV doesn’t show anything else! Ever!
Frequently featured during the early hours of The CW, Supernatural is a rabbit hole just waiting for you to fall down. With fifteen seasons full of demons, ghouls, and every kind of creature you could possibly imagine, Supernatural is the perfect show to alternatively give your full attention or half watch in the background while doing something else. The show has just enough lore and continuity to reward die hard fans, but is repetitive and formulaic enough to allow casual viewers to jump in at any point and still enjoy. The appeal of The Brothers Winchester, along with Misha Collins’ devilish angel Catiel, are the real pull of the show, and like any good procedural, as long as those characters are around, there’s no reason why the show couldn’t keep going forever. The current season is being advertised as the final one, but I have my doubts that the show will stay dead for long. Nothing in Supernatural ever really dies, after all.
Really anything on HGTV could substitute in for House Hunters here. Property Brothers, Good Bones, Home Town, Love It or List It, and so on and so on. It’s all great, but the crown jewel of easy-watching home-based television is House Hunters and its international/beach house/other assorted versions. Fulfilling that voyeuristic desire to see a bunch of great living spaces that we all have, House Hunters is perhaps the least reliant on any actual content of all the shows on this list: no personalities, no narrative, no variation, the stars of the show are how much better it is to have two full baths than one and a half. It doesn’t sound like it should be entertaining, but it’s positively hypnotizing, especially when you’re tired/drunk/sad about living in a crappy apartment. It’s pure escapism, which is what the best kind of TV should be.
Parks and Recreation
Sure, you could go in for the 100th rewatch of The Office on Comedy Central if you like, but if you flip over to IFC, you can catch the nicer, often funnier, and far less awkward sister show from Michael Shure. Parks and Rec is rocky if you happen to jump in during either of the first two seasons (if you see or hear the name Mark Brendanawicz, run far away), but the final five are home to some of the most enjoyable, heartwarming, laugh out loud hilarious episodes of any sitcom ever. From “Treat Yo Self” to “Ice Town Costs Ice Clown His Town Crown” to the legendary Li’l Sebastian, Parks and Rec had some of the sharpest writing on TV, never being afraid to mine silliness or seriousness in equal measure. Mostly there’s just an inherent goodness to the show and its litany of wacky characters, which is exactly what you want during the early hours of the morning. Just like a fresh cup of joe and a waffle at J.J.’s, Parks and Rec feeds the soul.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000
A slightly more obscure pick that is more difficult to find on cable than the other programs, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is the founding father of late night TV in that it couldn’t have existed in any other format. Running some of the worst movies of the past half century with snarky commentary and sarcastic jokes overtop, MST3K was a shoestring production that cultivated an intense cult following over its initial run that sparked reunions and revivals that continue to this day. Catch up with the modern revamped version over on Netflix, but nothing beats coming across a classic episode. The only problem: you’ll have to be an extreme night owl or a really early riser, as most of the episodes these days come on at around 5AM. Still, if your insomnia is extreme enough, there’s no better way to watch the sun come up than to laugh at Manos: The Hands of Fate in all its inexplicable splendor.
Anything on the Trinity Broadcasting Network
Apologies to anyone that might be a true believer, but it is unlikely that you’ll find anything quite as unintentionally hilarious as the various Christian worship programs on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. If you’re lucky enough to pass by TBN while aimlessly channel surfing at 2AM, stick around and you will not be disappointed. Any given program will likely include some or all of the following: random musical numbers with laughably devotional lyrics, orisons so extreme that they look more like exorcisms, and bizarre televangelists extolling the virtues of the good book while admonishing everything from rap music to short shorts as gateways to Hell. Is it sinful to be making fun of these zealots? Probably. But it’s their fault for making their shows so weirdly entertaining. It’s almost enough to make you a convert. Almost.
Ok let’s say you are not exactly into sports. That’s fine, SportsCenter is perfect mindless TV anyway. It’s essential for programs after the midnight hour to keep the pace up to hold the viewer’s attention, and there is no faster paced show than this. Any given segment averages out at about 45 seconds, jumping from team to team, sport to sport, subject to subject so quickly that it’s almost impossible not to find something that interests you. It’s a great way to stay up on your teams, indoctrinate yourself into whatever sport your significant other is into, or just to have on in the background to keep the energy up.
There are few greater moments of pure nostalgic joy better than flipping through the catalogue of Nickelodeon offshoot channels and finding a classic episode of SpongeBob. Most often found on NickToons well after midnight, chances are pretty good that you’ll come across an episode that triggers deep childhood memories: Sandy’s Hibernation, Nematodes, Playing Hooky, Squidward’s Bold and Brash painting, all of these were shown in the past few days alone. The later episodes of the show tend to be more surreal and can even lapse into gross out body horror, but the right episode from the first few seasons can send you straight back to your early adolescence where your only concern was whether Plankton was going to get away with the Krabby Patty secret formula this time.