CNN | 9/23/2020 | Listen

If you've been watching a lot of 'comfort TV,' you're not alone

Updated 10:54 AM ET, Fri August 14, 2020

(CNN) - At some point last month, during my sixth episode of "Going RV" of the day, I knew I'd fallen too deep.

It had all started when I got sucked into years-old reruns of "Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles" on Bravo. My husband and I are in the early stages of pursuing home ownership in the city -- mind you, nowhere near the coveted "bird streets" in the Hollywood Hills -- so I brushed off my sudden interest in it as research.

But I know the truth.

We spent the first months of the pandemic watching "The Sopranos" for the first time. Some, I heard, watched other "I'll get to it someday" shows like "The Wire." But every moment since "Don't Stop Believing" played and "The Sopranos" cut to black, I've had little interest in any of the excellent television shows (according to people like CNN critic Brian Lowry) that have been released this year.

Typically, I watch a great deal of television for my job covering entertainment, especially during Emmy season, when I have a lengthy list of must-watch prestige programming. Instead, my television choices have alternated between "Grey's Anatomy" repeats (my television equivalent of chamomile tea), real estate shows like "Selling Sunset" and "Million Dollar Listing" or the aforementioned Great American Country series on which couples pick their new recreational vehicle, "House Hunters"-style.

Six months into the worst global health crisis in a century, I'm craving comfort TV, with no idea when I'll hunger for something more.

Jack Hamilton, associate professor of Media Studies and American Studies at University of Virginia, doesn't think this behavior is so weird.

"I think in many ways reality shows allow for a purer form of escapism than more 'prestigious' scripted shows," he told CNN via e-mail. "One of the reasons shows like 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' are so acclaimed is that they actually demand quite a lot from their viewers: attention, emotional investment, critical thinking, etc. Most of the time reality shows or docuseries (particularly of the "feel-good" variety, or of the more sensational variety like 'Tiger King') don't really demand that level of engagement; you just get to lose yourself in the people onscreen and not have to think too much about all of it."

Hamilton said he's been watching a lot of old "Simpsons" episode on Disney+, "which is probably something I would have been doing anyway but maybe not quite at the same frequency as I am now."

"For me, the familiarity of it is comforting and anxiety-reducing, even though (or maybe especially because) I've probably seen every episode dozens of times at this point," he said.

Libby Hill, TV awards editor at IndieWire, told CNN she's also been doing "a ton of comfort viewing during lockdown," particularly rewatches of her favorite sitcoms and comedies, which she describes as "totally respectable stuff."

Then, there was "Top Chef." This, too, is respectable in many ways. The show has been nominated for 32 Emmy Awards and won two, including one for outstanding reality competition series in 2010. But for Hill, who said competitive cooking shows used to be her "kryptonite," revisiting the Bravo series "felt a little like regression and a lot like hanging out with old friends (who just happened to be extremely catty foodies)."

"And while 'Top Chef' is a far cry from some fringe/cringe forms of pandemic self-medicating, the sheer volume and hyper-exclusivity of my consumption was definitely concerning, if not embarrassing," she said. "And yet, in extraordinary circumstances (and, honestly, in ordinary circumstances) it's not so much about things we deem guilty pleasures, but about finding things in this world that bring us comfort and make us feel safe. I guess 'Top Chef' was that for me."

Anecdotally, I'd heard others say they'd found that comfort in shows like TLC's "90 Day Fiancé," a reality show about international couples who have a mere three months to, essentially, decide their entire future. It premiered in 2014 and has since spawned many spin-offs, but multiple friends had told me they discovered it during the pandemic.

Turns out, they weren't the only ones.

In 2020 to date, TLC is the No. 1 cable network in primetime among persons ages 18-49 and women in three demographics, with double digit growth over last year, according to Nielsen numbers provided by the network.

And it's not just women tuning in. In May and June, growth among males outpaced that of females, the network said. For "90 Day Fiancé" specifically, viewership by males ages 25-54 across the franchise's primetime premiere content, was up 52% over last year.

Early in the pandemic, some of that growth among males was attributed to the lack of sports programming and an increase in co-viewing among couples and roommates, TLC president and general manager Howard Lee told CNN. But the growth has sustained, bolstering hopes that they attracted dedicated new fans.

"Although the series spans the world, it is comforting to see how despite culture clashes, in the end, the stories are universal for Americans when it addresses how to love," he said, adding that the network, in fact, sees the show "as a prestige series."

"It's documentary in tone and we approach each '90 Day; episode like feature films, narratively," he said.

He added: "Unscripted or non-fiction is often even more jaw dropping than what can be written or conjured by actors and fictional writing. We may as well witness what is real."

Or, for many of us, what was real.

Los Angeles is still under fairly strict coronavirus restrictions and rightly so. But even in places where businesses and life has opened up in a more significant way, comfort viewing would be justified.

"I think people who are living where places are opening up more are still probably experiencing considerable amounts of anxiety; no one really knows what to expect, and probably people still have loved ones and family members in parts of the country where things are still pretty dire," Hamilton said. "So I think even if things are opening up more, people are going to be inclined to seek out some escapism."

I may have initially told myself that I was an excited home buyer, but I know I'm just a nostalgic Angeleno. A nostalgic human.

Taking Hill's advice, if any moment calls for the removal of guilt from our guilty pleasures, it's now. After all, it's one of the last few simple pleasures we can take part in without worry or a mask.


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