As I head into week six of self-isolation, my binge-watching schedule is approaching the season one finale of The Nanny. When quarantine started, I planned to catch up on all of the new trending shows.
As a self-proclaimed television addict, there's never enough time to be in-the-know on every Netflix release or on-air reboot. Here was my unprecedented opportunity and I was...dare I say, excited? But after an episode into Hulu's new Little Fire's Everywhere, 10 minutes into the bandwagon I never joined, Netflix's creepy thriller You, and completing the Tiger King series, I realized I didn't want to learn new voices and plots and characters right now.
I want Niles jabbing at C.C. for being hopelessly alone. I want Mr. Sheffield giving Grace's imaginary friend CPR because Fran accidentally ate her. If I'm stuck at home for the foreseeable future, I want to at least hear the name "Mr. Sheffield" once a day (and considering this "Pandemic Table Read," I'd say I'm not the only one).
Across the world, comfort television is carrying people through quarantine. Of course, what viewers turn to for that comfort changes from person to person. Fran Fine may be putting me to sleep at night but to someone else, that nasal laugh is worse than nails on a chalkboard.
Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor specializing in media psychology at West Virginia University, told The Atlantic that her comfort show is Black Mirror, while her husband leans for The Great British Baking Show. "It's fun, it's light, he knows when he watches it he won't be stressed," she said.
That low-stakes, feel-good content is one kind of comfort. Another kind comes from watching reruns of a show you've already seen a million times over.
Jason Sternberg, a senior lecturer in the school of communication at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, said he anticipates Australians turning to "emotional blanket comforter" reruns right now.
In 2018, Netflix paid $100 million to keep Friends on its platform. For comparison, the entire last season of Game of Thrones cost only $90 million to make. People take their comfort television seriously (the show officially left the streaming service in America at the start of this year and Twitter has riotted to bring it back amidst the current situation).
While watching shows like Friends, or its companions Seinfeld and Full House, viewers find a much-needed sense of control. Many of us can recite entire scenes from these series just from memory. In a time where we don't know what tomorrow's news will bring, we find solace in knowing what's going to happen next in our show. Sometimes you just need to see Stephanie Tanner drive Joey's car through the kitchen only for Danny to kiss her on the head because, like always, it will all be okay.
"I think the comfort in that is these are everyday situations that you yourselves might be in at home, but through the lens of different characters you can relate and latch on to a certain aspect of it — but they're funny when they do it," says Calderón Kellett, co-creator of One Day at a Time to Variety. "The reason I love the sitcom so much is because it's always centered around a couch — it's always inviting someone into your living room. It's so intimate. [And] right now we all are hanging out in our living room, so it is like, 'Oh, I get to escape into that moment or that time.'"
Escapism. It's almost a dirty word in television. Mindless entertainment that kills your brain cells by the second.
Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg, a documentarian who spent five years making "Bedlam," a film on mental illness that's part of PBS' "Independent Lens" series, told Variety otherwise.
"TV does stimulate something in the brain that's useful," he says. He's referring to dopamine, the chemical that makes us happy. If escapist TV has a time and place, it's right now.
If history proves true, we're about to enter a new escapist era of television. Out of the Great Depression came Hollywood's Golden Age that gave us The Wizard of Oz. During the 1960s, television news broadcasted disturbing updates of the war in Vietnam and President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Prime-time wanted nothing to do with that. The three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC threw escapist, wholesome content at its viewers. Shows such as Gilligan's Island, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Beverly Hillbillies presented perfectly crafted alternate realities to distract from the chaos of our own. Could history repeat itself?
"I'm actually expecting to see an embrace of high-concept fantasy, broad comedies, and aspirational soap opera-style drama," says television critic, Dan Barrett.
All productions have been halted at this point so any shift in tone or new subtext has yet to be seen. What we do know is that there are a lot of screenwriters at home with a lot of time on their hands right now. What comes next could be a light at the end of this tunnel.