I found myself incredibly overwhelmed in late June. I had gone on two failed dates, many of my friends had stopped talking to me, I was moving in only a few days, I was having difficulty with a medication I was on and my sister was having family issues at home. I was becoming exhausted after only minutes of conversation, was dreading the summer term starting and had spent several days in a loop of anxiety and stress.
Enter “Schitt’s Creek,” Season 5, Episode 13, titled “Meet the Parents.” This particular episode of the show is something I find myself coming back to time and time again, even though I know nearly every line of it by this point. I refer to this as my “comfort episode,” and I reserve it only for the most difficult or stressful days.
I began to think about this idea of a comfort episode near the end of June once I had stopped spiraling and realized that, for me, this phenomenon was not limited to single TV show episodes. I’ve watched the entire mini-series “Good Omens” probably five or six times; each time it brings me as much joy as the first time I watched it. My go-to comfort movie is “Thor: Ragnarok,” which seems like quite a bizarre choice, but the movie contains a sort of unhinged chaos and comedy that always grounds me. My current comfort book is “Red, White, and Royal Blue,” by Casey McQuinston because it’s a light-hearted rom-com set in an alternative 2020 where a pandemic didn’t happen, and that version of reality gives me some means of escape. I have read that book three times since March 2020.
The comfort phenomenon is applicable to any form of media that can bring us a sense of escapism and positive familiarity. For example, in the last year, I’ve re-listened to Hozier’s self-titled debut album countless times, but I haven’t gone back to his second one, “Wasteland, Baby!” because I have more anxious memories attached to that one, such as having a panic attack coincide with listening to the song “As It Was.” I’ve listened to Bastille’s “Bad Blood” album again and again because it has weaved itself through so many of my best memories, but I almost can’t listen to their next two follow-up albums anymore because they were explicitly connected to my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, respectively — from which there are many moments I do not like reliving.
There are also several podcasts that I’ve listened to multiple times, despite most episodes being an hour long. It’s often difficult to set aside this amount of time to just listen to audio. However, I’ve listened to “The Penumbra Podcast: Juno Steel and the Monster’s Reflection” four times and I’ve cried each time, but always felt so much better afterward. I have such a personal connection with this podcast because of how much I can see my own life and experiences reflected in it, and how the characters come out stronger after facing those challenges. I listen to it when I find myself needing this reminder.
I know I’m not the only one to find a bit of peace in re-consuming older or more familiar media. There’s a reason people my age still watch old episodes of “Friends” despite it airing before many of us were even born; or why my generation seems to be obsessed with “The Office,” even though the series had finished its entire run before the majority of us were old enough to understand the comedy of it. They are shows that we keep coming back to, even when we know every line and there’s a meme attached to nearly every joke. It is not only comforting to return to these kinds of shows, but there is also a plethora of internet culture surrounding them, connecting people from different places and ages.
Likewise, there’s an entire generation of people who grew up on the Harry Potter movies and re-watch them once a year to evoke this same familiarity. We know Harry will always defeat Voldemort, but the stakes are still enjoyable even if we know the outcome. Even my family watches “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” every single year in the week leading up to Christmas; if we miss it, it feels like the holiday season is incomplete.
A friend of mine has talked to me about using stand-up comedy (a genre I used to hate but became very attached to in the past few years) to help them through panic attacks. Quoting long-memorized John Mulaney bits always helped ground them. Netflix comedy specials are certainly something I find myself drawn to during these kinds of moments as well. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched “Middleditch and Schwartz” because I find myself cracking up even when I know every bit.
Another friend told me about their connection to the Japanese television show “Sailor Moon.” As a child, they would stay up late and watch it on Cartoon Network without their parent knowing. They told me about how it became something they looked forward to every night and how they were able to see a bit of themself in the main character, who was a superhero, but still had human qualities: an intricate mixture of nostalgia and personal connection.
I also brought this subject up with my mom recently, and asked her what her comfort media would be. Her answer didn’t surprise me in the slightest: the 1994 Dave Matthews Band album, “Under the Table and Dreaming.” This was a record that was constantly on repeat throughout my childhood. So many of my own early memories are infused with those songs — many of which I didn’t even realize I was familiar with until much later. And if that album had such strong secondary effects on me, I know my mother’s feelings towards it are almost exactly what I feel towards so many of the pieces of media I’ve already mentioned.
We live in a world where time is precious. Even though working anything over 40 hours per week is considered overtime, the United States does not have limits on the maximum length of the workweek, and the vast majority of Americans work more than the standard 40 hours. With less and less personal time, one would think that there would be no reason to keep watching the same things over and over, not when there could be other books to read, or an educational documentary to watch, or new music to discover.
In addition, in the past ten years, the value of entertainment media has nearly doubled worldwide and is only expected to keep rising. Netflix alone is planning to spend more than $17 billion on new content in 2021. We are constantly being given new content to consume, new worlds to explore, and yet we find ourselves going back to our old favorites. So why would we waste our time re-consuming the same media over and over? What is the value of this?
Well, for one, this seemingly never-ending barrage of new content can feel overwhelming, which can quickly lead to decision fatigue. When we sit down to watch a TV show after a long day, we want to use that time to unwind and relax, but it can be anxiety-inducing to scroll through pages of content before eventually settling on something that we may not even end up enjoying. It is easier to keep going back to something familiar, something that we know we will enjoy.
Another way to resolve the paradox of recycled media is to think about the historical connection between emotion and memory. For much of human history, storytelling and prose were passed down orally, and often these traditions were deeply personal, meaningful or impactful. Take the poet Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” for example — some of the most famous epics ever told began as oral histories passed down through generations.
Oral histories have been around for as long as there have been communities, long before written language had been developed. Today, this technique has been formalized and includes highly detailed interviews and transcriptions, but this methodology stems from orally passing information between generations. These histories were intrinsically important to creating a community. They allowed people to foster relationships and pass down traditions and cultures.
We also have a tendency to memorize things unconsciously. Suddenly, we might know all of the words to hundreds of songs, recite entire comedy bits or quote every line of a movie. For example, just the other day I was re-listening to Taylor Swift’s 2012 album “Red,” for exactly the same reason everyone else is currently listening to it, and realized that I knew every single word to the majority of those songs, despite me not previously being a huge Taylor Swift fan. But because this album was embedded in the zeitgeist of my early teenage years, it had wormed its way into my memory.
This memorization comes from the same place as the oral tradition. Specifically, in relation to music, many oral traditions were passed down in some rhythmic manner, be it singing or chanting, using rhetorical devices like rhyming or alliteration, or linking patterns. Music and memories are deeply intertwined, especially if there is any sort of emotional weight attached to the music. Repetition, perhaps a sort of precursor to content reconsumption, is crucial here and is linked to memorization and retention of important information. So, while memorizing a Taylor Swift song from 2012 isn’t essential information for me to retain, maybe there is still an importance to it.
Perhaps it is this long-held tradition of passing information down orally that leads us to feel safer with content that we are familiar with. When everything feels overwhelming and like we don’t have control, we can rely on these ancient traditions ingrained in our minds to bring us a sense of warmth and normalcy.
Of the top 10 most streamed shows in 2020, only four were airing new episodes that year. The rest of the series had ended up to years prior, yet their streaming numbers still beat out new content. This comes from having some sense of control, and the safety of knowing what will happen. During 2020, control over nearly every aspect of our lives was taken away. Yes, it was necessary for the greater good, but it was still deeply anxiety-inducing for many people. It only makes sense that while people were stuck in their homes for an indeterminate amount of time with no idea how everything would end, that we would gravitate towards the familiar, the things we did have control over. We wanted to know how the story ended without having to worry about that too.
I cannot describe how many friends and family members started playing familiar television shows from the background of everyday life near the start of the pandemic. Growing up, it was not at all uncommon for me to find episodes of “Gilmore Girls” or “Friends” playing back to back in my family’s living room, simply there as background noise. We never thought much of it then, even though we’d seen every episode at least four times. But this rewatching seemed to increase dramatically back in March and April 2020, when we all started to feel the very real fear of not being able to control our own lives anymore. It was a comfort for me to keep on an episode of “Brooklyn 99” while I doomscrolled through news articles.
This phenomenon, called “ambient television,” can be defined as a program that doesn’t need a lot of attention to be enjoyed; they can “(provide) welcome background noise,” to distract from the monotony of everyday life. Ambient television seems to go back as far as the 1930s and crosses many media boundaries. Initially being used in radio dramas, it eventually evolved into current media and took advantage of streaming platforms to create enjoyable shows that don’t need to have complex plots or deep themes. It has a similar usage to airport music, or even elevator music. It is just static in the background that allows us some sort of comfort or familiarity.
The familiarity aspect of re-consuming old media is, in my opinion, what brings the most comfort. We like predictability and having control when everything else feels out of our hands. And this familiarity is different for everyone, which is why I keep rewatching a Marvel movie, and my friends rewatch an anime or a stand-up special, and my mother keeps relistening to an album from five years before I was even born.
Perhaps we are connecting to the roots of the human experience and harkening back to oral traditions and passing down stories. Perhaps there is something deeper, intrinsically human, that leads us into this repetition. No matter what, it feels safe when we have something familiar.
Statement columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org