choosing DISTRACTION
Fairlady|July 2020
Pandemic lockdowns, mass unemployment, murder hornets… now that we’re living in an episode of Black Mirror, is it any wonder we’re cocooning in our homes, watching endless repeats of low-stakes ’90s sitcoms and baking banana bread? Now’s the time for some well-deployed mindlessness.
LIESL ROBERTSON

We’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, so obviously there are serious issues to discuss.

Which TikTok dances get the most likes? Should you put choc chips in your banana bread? And did Carole Baskin really kill her husband?

If you have no idea what I am talking about on that last one, kudos to you. I wish I could go back to a simpler time when the name Joe Exotic meant nothing to me. For a while there, Tiger King was the most-watched show on Netflix; and DStv launched a channel dedicated solely to Tom Cruise movies. To my mind, there are now clearer signs that we are living in the end times.

With streaming, we have endless options at our fingertips. Now is the time to watch the classics. Confession time: I have never seen The Wire. I have never seen Shawshank Redemption (pause for collective gasp). I have never seen Casablanca or Gone With the Wind or The Godfather(s). (Although I can quote lines from all of them, for what it’s worth.) And yet, here I am, rewatching all nine seasons of The Office for what must be the millionth time. That Jim. Such a prankster. Just one more, then I’ll go to bed.

For years, Friends was my go-to. (Yes, I know: Gen Zers discovering the show for the first time find it problematic – but let’s not pull at that thread for the moment, okay?) My brother and I watched it endlessly as teenagers. In later years, I would put it on in the background while I folded laundry. I know most of the words, and yet, when I stumble onto an episode on DStv, I’ll rewatch it. I guess it’s part nostalgia, but there’s also something oddly soothing about rewatching old sitcoms. Nothing truly terrible ever happens. Sure, Ross and Rachel break up, but that’s about as bad as it gets. (‘We were ON A BREAK!’)

Apparently, I am far from alone in my TV watching habits. We are living in the age of comfort TV.

Netflix will tell you all about its most popular original shows and movies, but when it comes to their ‘acquired’ content, they are notoriously cagey about their viewing stats. But in the past they have let slip that The Office is wildly popular, recently stealing the top spot from Friends. Other top performers include Parks and Recreation, Schitt’s Creek, The Good Place, and That ’70s Show.

There’s a term for what you’re doing – it’s called ‘anxiety baking’. A quick scroll through Instagram will show you that everyone is suddenly churning out ‘isolation loaves’ and ‘quarantine cookies’.

In 2019, Netflix reportedly forked out about $80 million to keep Friends on their roster, so it must be a money-spinner for them, even after all this time. In 2017, they also revealed another interesting little nugget: their most ‘binge-raced’ show (the shows viewers binged the fastest) were both revivals of nostalgic broadcasted shows: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life and Fuller House.

The Guardian sums it up very succinctly: ‘It seems that, in this time of unprecedented choice and quality, the so-called golden age of prestige television, most of us still want to watch half-hour shows about vaguely likable people in which everything turns out okay. Ideally from the ’90s, but maybe the ’00s. And preferably something we’ve seen many times before. Welcome to the age of non-event TV.’

According to Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor specialising in media psychology, people who are feeling drained or stressed tend to opt for ‘low-stakes, light, uplifting fare’; think Gilmore Girls or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – in series creator Amy Sherman Palladino’s world, the worst things that happen are Rory having a fight with Lorelei or Midge struggling to work out the kinks in her comedy routine. Nothing too serious; nothing that can’t be fixed.

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