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25 Shows That May Actually Make You Smarter

Sit back, relax, and stream mindfully.
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Can watching TV actually be good for the mind? I’d like to think so. While TV can be a major time-waster, it doesn’t have to be if you’re tuning in mindfully. While what you’re watching plays a major role, how you’re watching it matters too. Yes, binge-watching can be a distraction and too much television can kill productivity, but it can also be good for the brain. Though obviously, some shows are better to learn from than others.

It’s now believed that a lot of us learned about human behaviors from our favorite shows growing up. Those early experiences of empathy might’ve even increased our emotional intelligence. And the benefits don’t stop there. When we’re paying attention, all shows have the potential to make us think and help us learn. But a special few were designed with sharpening your wits in mind. Here are 25 shows that just might make you smarter.

How It’s Made

Discovery Channel/Z

If you think watching the process of making contact lenses or lipstick could get boring, think again. On How It’s Made, you’ll learn how everyday items are manufactured. Even if that doesn’t seem like your cup of tea, keep watching. You’ll be surprised by how engaging and eye-opening each episode turns out to be.

This hit Discovery series has a knack for taking objects you likely never thought much about and showing you why they’re special and fascinating. By the end of one episode, you’ll walk away more knowledgeable about the world of stuff around you, and you’ll likely become a random trivia bank in the process.

The Big Bang Theory

CBS/Warner Bros.

This Outstanding Comedy winner is a crowd-pleaser for its humor. Thanks to its super-smart characters, it’s also pretty good for the brain. The more we tune in, the more we come to know this goofy gang of lovable geniuses, forever spouting brainy facts and quick witticisms. But in the realms of emotional intelligence, basic social cues, and pop culture, they’re not so well versed. Which only makes them more endearing.

TBBT continuously exposes its ever-growing audience to real-world science and of-the-moment discoveries. Adding more layers, Penny (played by Kaley Cuoco) is always there to help her nerdy neighbor pals sharpen their interpersonal skills in one way or another. All in all, this one makes learning effortless and entertaining, never tedious. Here’s a list of the 18 smartest episodes ever, compliments of Vulture.

Explained

Netflix

In the mood to Netflix and learn? You will be once you start watching Explained. This is by far one of the best shows for learning something new that Netflix has created in a while. I seriously can’t get enough. In a nutshell, the premise is “the search of understanding ourselves” within the world we’ve cultivated.

Why are dogs man’s best friend? How does cryptocurrency really work? What does our obsession with beauty and youth say about us? Weaved together by insightful commentary, each human-centric topic is broken down in ways that are easy to understand and thought-provoking.

Our Planet

a spider monkey sits in a branch looking off into the distance
Netflix

Narrated by David Attenborough, this groundbreaking docu-series will change the way you look at the world and all of its inhabitants. A two-time Emmy winner, it’s one of the most visually breathtaking shows you’ll ever experience, and it’s full of food for thought.

Here’s the plot, per Netflix: Experience our planet’s natural beauty and examine how climate change impacts all living creatures in this ambitious documentary of spectacular scope. One way or another, I promise you’ll be moved by this one. Also, it’s family-friendly.

Survivor

two contestants talking in hammock with subtitle across screen that says "it's me and you til the end"
CBS

Obviously, we can learn what it takes to hack it in harsh conditions from Survivor. But there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye. Think back. The best seasons of this reality hit aren’t just the most entertaining, they’re the ones where personal growth becomes just as crucial as remembering to boil the water before drinking it.

Every contestant comes in with different strengths, weaknesses, and things to learn along the way. It’s also amazing (and sometimes scary) to see what people can accomplish when they come together as a team. Here are 10 life lessons we can learn from Survivor, compliments of Screen Rant.

New York Times Presents

close up of Britney Spears in her late teens
FX

Endlessly “on the pursuit of truth,” each powerful episode is a stand-alone documentary, focusing on “the stories of our time.” Currently, many critics are calling this one timely reporting at its finest.

Bringing on the best minds for the job, the show boasts 1,550 journalists reporting from 160 countries. If you’re looking for a place to start, watch The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears.

Drunk History

Aubrey Plaza as Cleopatra
Comedy Central

Salon once called this award-winning series “the most necessary show on TV.” Hosted by co-creator Derek Waters, it’s a history series created for a comedy channel, recapping the most famous true stories of all time, as told by some of the funniest comedians on earth. Over drinks. Adding to its entertainment value, each historical tale is acted out by huge names in comedy and Hollywood. You never know who might be on Drunk History.

On why he created this hilarious and educational series, Waters has said, “I always wanted to be a teacher, so this makes me feel like I’m close. I’m helping people learn something. And I also am proud that, you know, I can do a show where the people that think it’s fake can look it up and see that it is real. So it does make me feel good, like I’m telling history in my own different way.”

Black Mirror

Netflix/Channel 4

Black Mirror may be a brilliant work of fiction, but its ominous predictions about the fate of humanity touch eerily close to the present. This one will really make you think about where we’re going and the darker side of tech. And the visuals are stunning.

Here’s the plot, per Netflix: This sci-fi anthology series explores a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide. Reflective and forward-thinking, it puts the scary in scary good.

Forensic Files

Forensic Files cover image
HLN

“No leads, no witness, no problem.” I’ve been watching Forensic Files for years, and while I’m definitely no forensic scientist, I’ve learned a lot from watching them crack cases entirely through science.

Do you know what a pyrolysis gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer does? Did you know that you can figure out how much arsenic someone ingested by examining their hair follicles? You’re welcome.

House

Dr House in chair in his office
Fox

House is a stimulating medical drama that follows a snarky antisocial doctor with a mixed bag of issues. His calling card is coming up with out-of-the-box solutions to unusual ailments, usually on the fly. Truly, I’ve learned more about real medical issues and mishaps from this one than I even knew existed.

It’s basically the WebMD of TV shows but with way more humor, spunk, and heart. Chances are, keeping up with the highly intelligent, fast-talking doctor and his brilliant team as they tackle each peculiar diagnosis will sharpen your thinking (and listening) skills. And of course, it will freak you out on occasion.

Chopped

Food Network

Watching four chefs prepare three courses with limited ingredients and time constraints just might give you a world-class education in cooking. If nothing else, you’ll learn which ingredients work wonders together, which ones never do, and how to meal-multitask like a pro.

Also, there are not enough knives in the world to cut through the tension in this competition show. The endless adrenaline, inspiring creativity, and cutthroat feedback from judges will keep you on edge. Things can also get incredibly awkward. Here’s a clip for reference…

Shark Tank

Shark Tank Sharks posing for promotional picture on black back drop
ABC/Shark Tank

Ready for a crash course in entrepreneurship? Enter the Shark Tank. This critically acclaimed and multi-Emmy Award-winning reality series gives startups the chance to grow their budding businesses whilst inspiring its audience to dream bigger and learn from contestants’ mistakes.

Per Entrepreneur, “Sharks mostly give out valuable advice on the way forward, on what went wrong and what can be done, especially, when there is no offer. Listen and learn from what you missed out and perhaps you could have a better chance next time around.”

Breaking Bad

Walter White in season 1
FX/AMC

Breaking Bad didn’t cause much of a stir when it first came out, but it gradually grew into a TV phenomenon. Rolling Stone ranked it number three on its list of the 100 best shows of all time. On the surface, it’s about a high school science teacher who starts a drug empire after being diagnosed with lung cancer. But it’s an accessible human story at its core.

Critics and fans agree that while not all depictions are totally accurate, they’re close enough to be informative for the massses. However, what really makes this show so smart lies in the complexity of its characters, the relationships that unfold, and the tangled webs it masterfully weaves. Here are 26 fascinating facts about Breaking Bad, compliments of Mental Floss.

Through The Wormhole

Science Channel

Through The Wormhole explores the mysteries of existence and dissects the questions that have puzzled mankind for all of eternity. Oh, and it’s hosted by Morgan Freeman. Need I say more?

The series aims to get to the bottom of the infinite universe, its truths, and its myths. And it does so with the help of some of the most brilliant minds that have ever lived, both past and present.

Mad Men

Peggy and Don in pitch meeting on Mad Men
AMC/Weiner Bros. Productions/Lionsgate

Don’t let the title of this one fool you. While Mad Men might be about men working in a Manhattan ad agency in the ’60s, it’s just as much about smart women, if not more. Thanks to its endlessly nuanced layers, this true-to-life AMC hit has also been called “visual literature” by critics.

When creating Don Draper’s arc, the series creators have admitted they had an ulterior motive. Draper’s journey was a veiled lesson in empathy for the audience. Per Slate, well-developed dramas like Mad Men may actually increase emotional intelligence, and it’s not hard to see why.

Doctor Who

BBC

One of the best science fiction shows of all time, Doctor Who is a pop-culture staple for good reason. Arguably, it’s also great for the ole noggin. Whether you get into the classic or the revived eras of this Brit hit, you’re bound to start pondering the great beyond in mind-expanding ways.

For those unfamiliar, this BBC classic focuses on the cosmic explorations and findings of the Doctor – an interdimensional being who appears to be human and is capable of regeneration. What will you learn from Doctor Who? The better question is – what won’t you?

Dexter

Dexter looking at blood slides
Showtime/CBS

Dexter is a blood splatter analyst by day and a serial killer targeting other killers by night, but he only takes out “the bad guys.” What’s more ironic than this Showtime hit’s premise might be how easy it is to empathize with this troubled character. Traumatized as a child, Dexter carries around some heavy burdens. While doing his best to blend in, life only gets more complicated when he allows himself to connect to others and himself.

Dexter justifies what he does as ridding the world of murderers, but blames his “dark passenger” for his desire to kill. Is Dexter a good guy or is he the bad guy? Not even he’s really sure. While he’s killing strangers, we’re somehow still rooting for his happiness. This thought-provoking series complexly and cleverly poses a lot of solid questions about human nature, what it means to be good, evil, and the fine line sometimes between.

Our America with Lisa Ling

Lisa Ling interviewing woman while sitting on bed
OWN

At the opening of each episode, host Lisa Ling says, “America. It can be inspiring and beautiful. It can also be dark and ugly. It’s so many things — but it’s ours.”

This OWN series directly examines unflattering aspects of our culture through a somewhat skeptical, but empathetic lens. It’s a concise, yet confounding portrait of life in the USA as we know it, and I’d highly recommend it.

The Me You Can’t See

Harpo Productions/RadicalMedia

Co-created by Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry, this docu-series aims to open up some long-overdue conversations. The Me You Can’t See takes an in-depth look at mental health, emotional well-being, and ongoing social dilemmas. It’s primarily framed by the co-creators discussing their own mental health journeys.

Stars like Lady Gaga, Glenn Close, and Langston Galloway also sit down for these honest, helpful, and important discussions. The goal is not to create sympathy for suffering celebrities, but to show how nobody is immune to mental health struggles, and above all else, how we are all profoundly connected.

Inside Bill’s Brain

Netflix

Have you ever wondered what makes Bill Gates tick? This three-part documentary on Netflix pieces together a complex portrait of the brainiac billionaire’s mind, marriage, philanthropic endeavors, and evolving definition of success.

As you might’ve guessed, there’s a lot to be learned from the Microsoft co-founder’s career, outlook, and admitted missteps. And it’s all about thinking bigger. Here’s a list of 5 things we can learn from Inside Bill’s Brain, compliments of Thrive Global.

Rotten

Rotten title screen
Netflix

This series isn’t fun, but it’s endlessly informative. Rotten explores the effects of consumerism on the global food supply. It also illuminates how these choices impact the daily lives of everyday people and the world at large. 

While it gets very dark at certain points, it’s unavoidably eye-opening and worth tuning into if you’re ready to learn some very troubling truths that could potentially change the way you think about the food industry forever.

Parts Unknown

Anthony Bourdain having dinner and laughing with friends
CNN

The late Anthony Bourdain goes down in history as one of the greatest storytellers of all time. In Parts Unknown, he set out to tell stories that were “deeper and farther and wider and smarter.” And that’s exactly what he did.

The chef, television host, and author travels to extraordinary locations around the world, sitting down with local chefs and friends to try local cuisines while talking about life and of course, great food.

The Mind, Explained

Netflix

The Mind, Explained uncovers the mysteries of the human brain in fun and educational ways. Narrated by Emma Stone, the hit Vox series is a must-watch for anyone who wants to dig a little deeper into their own head.

In this limited series, each twenty-minute episode tackles how the brain really works with the help of cutting-edge science, visuals, and expert opinions. Plus, it’s designed with the modern attention span in mind.

History of Swear Words

Nicholas Cage hosting History of Swear Words
Netflix

About so much more than swear words, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much you’ll learn from this one. And as you likely expected, it’s both endlessly entertaining and not suitable for all audiences.

Here’s the plot, per Netflix: Nicolas Cage hosts this proudly profane, funny, and engagingly educational series about the history and impact of the most notorious English swear words.

Jeopardy

Jeopardy! board of categories
Sony Pictures Television

Last but never least, there’s a lot to be learned from Jeopardy! Whether you’re watching the iconic reruns with the late and great Alex Trebek or the newer installments, it’s one show that’ll undoubtedly make you more “in the know” the more you tune in, especially when it comes to brushing up on book smarts and testing your basic knowledge.

Often called “The Jeopardy! Learning Effect,” the series has staked its reputation on its ability to inspire, encourage, and cultivate its contestants’ and viewers’ lifelong quests to keep learning. Fans of the show forever give testimonies about how the iconic series built their confidence, often showing them how smart they already were.