For the past month I’ve been existing mostly on Broadchurch, Frasier, and the earliest seasons of The Great British Baking Show, to the dismay of the needy, precipitous pile of unwatched screeners in my various digital libraries. Apologies, new shows, but bleak times call for comfort television: familiar, pacifying, predictable episodes of 1990s sitcoms, crime procedurals, and cooking contests. I don’t want active emotional engagement, or intricate plotting, or even particularly well-crafted performances. I want David Tennant frowning ominously and slurring several extra syllables into the word Miller. I want grandmotherly math teachers constructing full dollhouses out of pâté sucrée and fondant. Most of all, if I’m going to be inside for several months, I want regular access to Frasier’s apartment.
Comfort TV, at this point, is such a well-worn idea that it’s spawned countless lists over the past few weeks, all guiding viewers toward low-investment, high-reward shows such as Schitt’s Creek, Parks and Recreation, and Bones. On Twitter, people have posted their own lists, heavy on decades-old sitcoms (Seinfeld, Cheers, The Golden Girls), teen-oriented dramas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars), and gloomy network staples (Law and Order: SVU, The Twilight Zone). Apart from the fact that almost all of these shows are old and reassuringly familiar, they don’t have much in common. This isn’t as strange as it might seem: People cope with trauma and anxiety in very different ways, which makes the shows they turn to for comfort equally incongruous and dependent on the emotional response they’re hoping to provoke. In any given moment, one woman’s palliative might be another’s saccharine TV toothache.
For Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor specializing in media psychology at West Virginia University, her favorite rewatch is Black Mirror, while her husband prefers to relax with episodes of The Great British Baking Show. “It’s fun, it’s light, he knows when he watches it he won’t be stressed,” she told me over the phone. Series like that one—low-stakes, light, uplifting fare—make up the first category of what people watch when they’re feeling depleted or anxious. The most obvious balm for troubled souls is television where nothing bad really happens and everything will almost certainly be okay, a model Amy Sherman-Palladino has mastered with Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. On an awful day, you can visit Schitt’s Creek or Pawnee, Indiana, safe in the knowledge that no crisis greater than a gay-penguin scandal or a bed-wetting incident will occur.
A different kind of comfort comes from watching reruns of shows that you’ve already seen over and over: The Office, Friends, Cheers. It’s “definitely nostalgia,” Cohen said—watching to try to return, momentarily, to a different time, or a moment when everything seemed easier. But also: “There’s a lot of comfort in knowing when something’s going to happen. You don’t have to exert a lot of cognitive energy, so it doesn’t feel taxing.” The familiarity of, say, Frasier’s ego leading to some kind of misunderstanding, or Carla hurling rapid-fire insults at Cliff, is part of the process. Watching this kind of television, Cohen said, that doesn’t require you to invest too much attention or brainpower, can be very effective for relaxing. “It can make you feel replenished,” she noted, with one important caveat: “If you feel guilty about your pleasures, this study shows that you can’t reap the benefits from them. But if you’re able to give yourself the opportunity to indulge, it can actually be really beneficial.”
Counterintuitively, people can also derive psychological comfort from dystopian or bleak entertainment: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Twilight Zone, true-crime series, murder mysteries. One 1992 study found that some viewers who felt lonely or unhappy enjoyed watching shows about people in similar situations, because they found comfort in seeing others facing experiences akin to (or worse than) their own. For these people, series about happy, thriving characters can actually cause emotional distress, due to something called social comparison. This particular theory explains why so many viewers over the past month have streamed Contagion, Outbreak, and other grim-but-topical movies: They’re hoping to be reminded of all the ways in which their own lives could actually be worse. Not to mention that there’s cheer in the idea of efficient, selfless people solving crises in time for a happy ending.
None of this is good news for the people debuting new series now, who may find audiences at home too emotionally depleted and anxiety-prone to watch them. (One bright note: So many shows currently in production are on hiatus because of COVID-19 that there might be a television vacuum to fill in a few months’ time.) But there’s another reason why contemporary dramas, in this moment, might turn viewers off, and that’s how the nature of TV storytelling has evolved in recent years. “With all the prestige TV out there, I think a lot of the narratives that we’re used to seeing have been turned on their heads a lot,” Cohen said. She remembers finding TV frustrating during the ’90s because of how formulaic it was, yet that sense of predictability is precisely what people might be seeking out now, in legal procedurals and other series with specific genre conventions. “When you turn on an episode of Law and Order, you know exactly what you’re going to get,” she said. “Is the story different every time? It is, but it’s not … I think it’s important that there are still places people can get that sense of security.”