“Comfort Watching” Old Shows During the Pandemic is Chicken Soup for the Weary Soul

Pop Culture

“Comfort Watching” Old Shows During the Pandemic is Chicken Soup for the Weary Soul

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

The last time I watched Modern Family, a sharp but cloying sitcom that chronicled the interconnected lives of a big-hearted American family, I was in journalism school in Chennai. The campus was located in a part of the city that felt like it didn’t need a global lockdown to perpetually remain in isolation, not that Chennai had much to offer in terms of distraction or recreation anyway. All we had was the sea, which was at walking distance; each other, that is a group of 200 aspiring journalists handpicked from across the country; and what in the summer of 2020, would become comfort-watching.

The year that we spent huddled together on campus, simultaneously feeling trapped and liberated, all of us took solace in each other’s company. Even as friend groups and close-knit roommate huddles continued to be formed and broken every other month with renewed vigour, we found ourselves settling into familiar routines with a rotating cast of people.

Each set invented their own peculiar language of socialising: For some, it was midnight smoke sessions behind the hostel and for others, it was terse table-tennis matches that would do the trick. One of my recreation rituals included watching Modern Family – a show that I had first discovered when I’d moved out of home and into an unknown city – with my boyfriend.

These were weekly affairs that were sometimes accompanied by takeout and at times hampered, if we happened to temporarily not be on speaking terms with each other. But we matched each other’s commitment as viewers and were dedicated fans of the show, often timing our disagreements until after we’d seen the week’s episode.

Looking back, I don’t exactly recollect how both of us zeroed in on Modern Family to be the show that came to define our relationship but I do vividly remember laughing harder when we watched it together, deriving pleasure as much from the hilarious one-liners scattered across every episode as much as witnessing someone else have the exact same reaction to the show as me. A year later, when the relationship imploded, I used the breakup as an excuse to not continue keeping up with the show as diligently.

Every publication has drawn up lists of “low-investment, high-reward” shows that guarantee us comfort in the era of Covid-19.

What is comfort watching?

Last month, almost five years later in the middle of a pandemic-imposed lockdown, I finally revisited Modern Family. As I watched episode after episode, laughing at the precise spots I’d laughed at years before and hanging onto the same punchlines, my brain felt the calmest it has been in a while.

Maybe it was because this was a show that I was genuinely fond of but I suspect it was also because the experience of watching it was heightened by nostalgia – of already knowing my way through the show’s landscape. My mind instinctively travelled to memories that I didn’t remember to forget: The rented bedroom I saw the finale of one season in, that college trip with my closest friends where we took turns speaking like Phil Dunphy, and most importantly, how comforted I felt while watching the show the first time around.

It was that very comfort I was looking to recreate when I watched Modern Family in 2020, a year where our present seems surreal and our future almost invisible. At this point, the only part of our lives unaffected by the aftermath of a pandemic that has already turned half the year into dust is our past. It should come as no surprise then, that more and more of us are choosing to cope with the uncertainty that we wake up to every day by trying to replicate the routines of our past in whatever way possible.

I am not the only one – millions of people are discovering the joys of comfort watching. Every publication has drawn up lists of “low-investment, high-reward” shows that guarantee us comfort in the era of Covid-19. According to a Guardian report, Gilmore Girls, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development and Frasier appear high on the list.

Others, however, turn to dark procedurals or horror, as this The Atlantic piece points out. “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.”

In the past two months, my TV diet has strictly been made up of rewatches.

A time to take a break from prestige TV

There’s both a sense of dread and a degree of emotional fatigue that has set in during the last four months, swiftly replacing the initial race of productivity meant to utilise every second that we had to ourselves. Now, baking banana bread or discovering new movies and shows – especially prestige TV – feels cumbersome and altogether pointless, especially when all we crave is to feel like we have a semblance of control over our own lives.

I’ve noticed that turning to comfort watches, essentially shows and movies that we’ve watched so many times that there is really no good reason to watch them all over again, can provide us that reassurance.

In the past two months, my TV diet has strictly been made up of rewatches. Much of the reason for that is that I know exactly how these shows and movies will pan out, which is to say, that there is no room for twists or turns, something I can’t guarantee about the narrative of real life right now. In that sense, I am not watching Modern Family as much as I am taking refuge in its familiarity, using it to counter the jarring days of instability ahead.

I may not recognise the state of the world when I wake up tomorrow. But that’s easier to digest when I can take consolation from the fact that Phil and Claire’s Valentine’s Day plans will get screwed up exactly the way I remember it.