For many Canadians, television is a daily ritual. After a seemingly endless day of awkward zoom meetings, inconsiderate roommates (or family members) and a sink full of dirty dishes, the couch can feel like paradise. Once you find what to watch, of course.
Between hundreds of cable channels and a multitude of streaming platforms, such as Netflix, Prime Video or Crave TV; the sheer amount of new and original content to choose from can be overwhelming. And, if you choose wrong, you’ve just sunk a good chunk of your free time into an absolute dud.
In moments like these, Canadians like Zoe Flores, find solace in “comfort TV” — shows that they’ve already seen and enjoyed, and provide an instant boost in mood. These shows are easy to watch, familiar and provide a much needed escape from reality. As the name suggests, they’re comforting. In fact, people even have “comfort characters,” that make them feel safe and relaxed.
“Comfort TV is anything that I go back to when I’m feeling stressed or anxious or sad, because I know it’s always going to make me happy,” said Flores, a research assistant in Toronto. “It’s a foolproof way to make me feel better.”
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Flores’ go-to shows to rewatch are Modern Family, Cosmos, Sex Education and Love Island, a romantic reality TV show.
“For me, it calms my anxiety and stress because it’s so dramatic,” said Flores of Love Island. “It kind of makes me think like, ‘Wow, these people are really going through it,’ even though from an outside perspective they’re really going through nothing.”
While watching reruns isn’t anything new, the concept of comfort TV means people are using television to regulate their emotions and feel good, says Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor at West Virginia University who specializes in media psychology. “We do all sorts of things to manage our stress and it just so happens that our media diet is a really effective way that can help us cope with things,” she said.
“Especially nowadays, with on-demand TV, we can select whatever we feel like we’re in the mood for and we can watch as much or as little of it if we want, we can fast forward through things. So, it’s actually a really effective mood and emotion regulation tool,” she added.
Finding comfort in the familiar
To Nicole McRonney-Apaw, who works in PR and communications in Toronto, comfort TV is anything she can turn to whenever she’s in a “mood” — depending on what that mood might be. “You know what’s going to happen and you know you’ve enjoyed it once so there’s no risk in watching it again,” she said. “Sometimes when Netflix is like, ‘Oh, you might like this,’ I’m like: ‘No, I won’t! You don’t know me’.”
The penchant to rewatch isn’t unique to McRonney-Apaw or Flores, in fact, Nielsen’s list of most streamed shows in 2020 suggests that people like to return to what’s familiar. According to the global measurement and data analytics company, The Office dominated streaming services in the United States last year, racking up more than 57 billion minutes streamed on Netflix.
Other long-running favourites such as Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds and Schitt’s Creek even had more minutes streamed than some of the most well-known original series last year, like Tiger King. “While original content can generate buzz and draw in audiences, library content is what viewers find comfort in, watch casually and often return to,” said the company in a post on its website.
With the exception of RuPaul’s Drag Race, most of McRonney-Apaw’s comfort TV shows were cancelled or have ended, like NBC’s Happy Endings, a sit-com which follows the lives and adventures of a group of six best friends in Chicago; Veronica Mars, the hit mystery series about a teenage private investigator; and The Office.
“Veronica Mars is one that I’ve watched a lot, a lot. And for me, I think that I just love the character. I think she’s a little badass, and I guess parts of me in her and so I like watching her just champion whatever she’s doing,” she said.
Returning to TV shows we’ve already seen can also provide a much needed dose of nostalgia — reminding us of simpler, pre-COVID times. A 2012 article in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that people find a feeling of comfort in rewatching or revisiting familiar TV shows, movies, books and places.
It's a foolproof way to make me feel better.Zoe Flores
“Depending on how old the things that people are rewatching, sometimes there’s an aspect of nostalgia that can be comforting for people. Maybe it’s things that remind them of a better time … (It) kind of gives them a warm feeling, just because it triggers other nice memories,” said Cohen.
As the authors of that 2012 article noted, people may nostalgically “re-consume” things in order to validate their feelings or beliefs, or to reaffirm memories. In other words, rewatching a show can remind us of someone we loved, take us back to a happier time, or help us cry out our sadness.
“It’s familiar and because of COVID, everything is so unfamiliar and everything’s so unprecedented. So going back to these shows, reminds me of a better time,” said Flores.
Since the onset of COVID-19, Canadians have been reporting a decline in their mental well-being. In February, 76 per cent of people who responded to an online Angus-Reid poll said the pandemic has caused stress, anxiety or depression. A month later, 36 per cent of respondents to a poll from the Ontario branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association reported experiencing “high” or “very high” stress levels.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty with our current public health and geopolitical realities. And in the face of uncertainty, I think sometimes it’s really comforting to have things that are certain to watch and know how they’re going to end,” said Cohen.
Over the last year, Jessie Chatha, who says she’s an avid reader, has found herself struggling to concentrate on books — which is “very unusual.” For her, it’s been easier to return to comfort TV shows and she’s found herself returning to it more during the pandemic.
“Everything else happening in the world is new and scary and I would rather just, instead of trying something new, go back to something I know that I’m going to enjoy,” said the lawyer, who works in human rights.
To her, comfort TV is escapism and humor, that’s why her go-to shows are Downton Abbey and The Office.
“With Downton Abbey, I love history, but also it’s just like, it’s like an escapist melodramatic soap opera with just beautiful visuals. It’s just totally different from my life and anything I would know,” she said. “They’re wealthy, they don’t usually have huge problems … I would say it’s the spectacle of it.”
A 2014 study in the Journal of Communication, looked at how entertaining media, like TV, can have a positive effect on those with “ego depletion,” — or, as Cohen puts it, burnout.
While a growing number of studies have found that entertaining media can help individuals recover from stress by “replenishing” their “depleted psychological resources,” researchers of the 2014 study suggest there might be a caveat to these benefits. Those who feel guilty about picking up the remote may not get the same psychological rewards as individuals who see their TV-time as a “deserved reward” after a day of hard work.
You've enjoyed it once so there's no risk in watching it againNicole McRonney-Apaw
“For years and years and years, we’ve talked about television as kind of being a guilty pleasure,” said Cohen. “But the truth is, if we feel guilty about indulging in television and enjoying the entertainment and stories that it provides, we can’t actually reap some of the … legit benefits that come from it, to help us recover from burnout.”
Amid provincial lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions, watching TV is one of the few things that Canadians can enjoy right now — and comfort TV is a big part of their viewing habits.
“I think it’s just wanting to go to an activity that I don’t have to think about or over-plan for, you know. It’s instant decompression, instant relaxation,” said Chatha.