What Are the Best Shows to Watch on a Plane, and How Should You Handle Explicit Scenes?

American Airlines won’t be putting seat back video screens into their new fleet of Boeing 737MAX aircraft.

Everyone carries their own devices nowadays, so the argument goes they can save on cost and fuel (because those systems are heavy) by streaming content to you. And they’re going to offer seat power so you don’t run out of juice (eventually).

Though a seat back screen isn’t important to me, I’ve found it’s something that matters along some margin to most readers.

I’ve long brought my own entertainment rather than relying on the airline to have something on board I really want to watch. I don’t want ever want to watch something just to watch, it needs to be really well done and engaging or I won’t waste my time. I’ll walk out of a movie theater if the film disappoints rather than sitting all the way through. Sure I’ve paid for the ticket but that’s a sunk cost.

Here are some shows I’ve found worth downloading, with the caveat that The 100 was really only good in the first season, House of Cards was best in the first season as well, and The Walking Dead tires a bit several seasons in (though I’m now enjoying Fear the Walking Dead).

I’m looking for well-written, well-acted shows that are really engaging — and often that hide crucial details, dropping hints at the end of an episode. That way I don’t get bored and want to keep watching as each one ends, pulling me into the next one.

That means as much as I enjoy Silicon Valley, Ballers and Brooklyn 99, I’m looking less for comedies than for drama.

We’re living in a golden age of television, shows aren’t just trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator for widest audience possible on a limited number of network television channels. The constraints are off, meaning a few of these shows — and some that you’ll see on inflight entertainment systems systems around the world — can be a bit ‘racy’.

Here’s the awkwardness: What do you do when your airplane movie has sex scenes in it? (HT: Paul H.)

Last week, I was on a flight to California, flipping through the various movies I could watch on the headrest. Boogie Nights was available. Great movie! Thing is, more than a few parts of it might have made the family sitting next to me a little uncomfortable.

I thought about that scene with Mark Wahlberg in the parking lot… Pretty bleak on its own. Watching that next to a dad and his three-year-old? Probably not the coolest thing I could ever do. I ended up watching Bridge of Spies.

A flight attendant in my Facebook feed recently shared a story about a man taking such a long time in the lavatory that another passenger expressed concern and eventually the crew started to suspect a medical emergency. After much knocking he came out, iPad in hand. He went in there to watch a movie.

I’m never watching that kind of movie. And I’m usually sitting in a premium cabin, so I have a little more space at least. But when I’m in coach I lean on inflight entertainment a bit more since it’s harder to get work done.

Up front I’m rarely sitting next to young children, usually it’s a middle-aged business man. Still, I’ll fast forward through any of the more explicit scenes. Sitting in back I’ll avoid those shows altogether.

Do you bring your own shows? If so, what shows do you rely on to keep your interest on a long flight? I’m always looking for recommendations.

And how do you handle a more explicit scene?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’ve never thought of it as an issue. I just watch it; if the airline considers it appropriate to be on their entertainment system without cuts, then that’s fine.

  2. On a recent BA flight from JFK to LHR, I had no choice but to watch the IFE. The seat in front was reclined so far back I couldn’t even use my own device.

  3. Many airlines show edited versions that take out or change views of highly explicit scenes. For example I watched the.Vince Vaughn movie Unfinished business when it was first released to IFE and then came home to watch it again with my son and his teen girlfriend only to find out that the funnier IFE version excludes the unneeded and unfunny glory hole scenes. Not awesome to say the least. With BYOD you have to be careful I guess. I try not to watch such movies but sometimes there are scenes you don’t expect.
    I don’t watch many TV shows but do enjoy most you list. I like top gear and try to have a few shows for shorter flights. I usually just download movies from Vudu or iTunes.

  4. I had a similar situation on a recent United flight in 2-4-2- dormitory-style biz-class. i was flipping through the IFE and saw something that I was never going to rent but that the trailer made me guffaw at its juvenile humor: “Sausage Party”

    I started watching it and, while funny, it was even raunchier than I expected. After about 15 minutes I was too uncomfortable watching it given the lack of privacy of an aisle seat, and switched to something else.

    I rented it at home. It’s a damn funny movie! But I felt weird subjecting anyone walking by to it.

  5. Gary,

    This post is almost like a cry for new shows. Not to fret: you need to watch The Magicians and The Expanse ASAP – they’re available via Amazon. both very different, but both are very, very good. Also, Designated Survivor is campy, but if you want one that leaves cliffhangers at the end of an episode to push you into the next, look no further.

  6. When watching a show on my own device, if there is an explicit scene, I usually just lay the screen flat or turn it to the window if in the window seat until the scene is over.

  7. I’ve watched some of Designated Survivor, it’s a little too campy for me, the rest of the cast isn’t up to Kiefer Sutherland’s performance although it’s good to see Ashley Zukerman post-Manhattan

  8. The thing I find about American (not sure about other US carriers) is that they don’t ever edit their content. Personally I like that. Though admittedly things can get awkward when body parts start coming out everywhere

  9. As long as there’s not a child sitting next to me, my thought is, “Meh, whatever.” I’m watching something R-rated and the person sitting next to me is an adult.

  10. You should check out person of interest on netflix. Jonathan Nolan is the creator, who also created Westworld and I would assume you’ve watched Dexter?

  11. I remember once about 10 years ago flying back from London to Dulles and watching Freddy Got Fingered on my laptop. This was long before everyone had a device, and the proper Englishman next to me couldn’t stop laughing at the horse masturbation scene. He looked over and was totally baffled at this American nonsense.
    Personally, the most intense thing I’ve ever watched on a plane was United 93, flying in first from LAX to EWR, right after the movie came out. It’s a hell of a movie and that was a helluva theater to watch it in. Pretty powerful stuff.

  12. As has been posted American tends to show Films and TV shows unedited on their IFE. I flew with Qantas CNS-SYD last year and they have started the Streaming, multiple times before we left they were telling pax to download the app.

    To answer the question – I tend to just flip down my tablet until I know the scene in question is over – because Murphy’s Law Dictates that is when the family sitting next to you will look over and/or the flight attendant comes by…

    I know you weren’t asking but I would check out the original BBC Version of House of Cards – to me all 3 series were better than the Netflix version, and I know you said no comedies, but have a look at HBO’s “Vice Principals”

  13. As the Badger said in The Fantastic Mr Fox movie, “In summation, I think you just gotta not do it, man.”

  14. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Westworld, Fargo (FX show), Legion (just finished season 1 on FX)..I could go on but those are quality shows right there.

  15. One way to privatize your viewing is to purchase a privacy screen. Zagg makes them for most devices.

  16. If such a scene appears while you’re watching the IFE, look around you. If anyone in the vicinity appears to have noticed and has become offended, make eye contact with them. Smile, and while smiling, do not break eye contact for at least 30 seconds.

  17. I was watching Girl with the Dragon Tatoo in AA business. When the Stewardess asked me for food choices, I paused it. Unfortunately, I paused it on the full nude scene. The Stewardess did not even raise an eyebrow. I guess it is not a big deal, but then again, I am relating it here.

  18. I turn the brightness way down. I’ve been watching Shameless on flights lately, and it has lots of nudity and sex scenes. If I’m convinced so one else can see my screen without going out of their way to do so, then I leave it going. Else I slide the brightness down to where it’s very hard to see what’s going on.

  19. Not just nearby children. Was watching an ‘Archer’ episode on my iPad with my 12 year old daughter in economy. Yes, it has plenty of inappropriate content – but she’s seen all of the episodes before on TV and we’ve even discussed some of the more adult concepts, so it’s all good. We are using headphones and laughing. The older women across the aisle is looking at our screen and is thoroughly appalled by the video.

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