Some people have comfort foods; I have comfort television shows.
Full House kept me company when I was a lonely middle-schooler. For the last nine years, sitting down to an episode of Gilmore Girls has instantly improved my mood tenfold. I rewarded myself with How I Met Your Mother after school every day during my senior year of high school. Downton Abbey gave me a refuge as a freshman in college. Buffy the Vampire Slayer took me back to America (circa 1995) when I studied abroad. I’ve found that nothing fills a lazy afternoon like many hours of Sex and the City reruns.
I’ve watched my fair share of more critically acclaimed modern television drama as well as these guilty pleasures. I’ve seen House of Cards, binge-watched True Detective, and sat tensely through every episode of Breaking Bad. So no one worry—I have seen plenty of middle-aged white males on TV. I love all of these shows. But the shows that I’ve watched when I’m lonely, stressed, homesick, or apathetic about life are not of this variety. When I’m in any of these moods, I have always tended toward less-action-packed (with the exception of Buffy), more female-centric (with the exception of How I Met Your Mother) shows about the smaller moments in peoples’ lives and their relationships with each other.
My earliest memory of leaning on comfort television is after my parents’ divorce, when I began watching Full House like a thirteen year old boy who had just discovered porn. When I was home from school in the summers or on breaks, I watched the hour block at noon on ABC Family; during a normal school week, I watched the three o’clock hour block. At nine p.m., it was on Nick at Nite in the early 2000s. I watched it at my mom’s house when I was lonely because my mom was at work and my much older siblings were off at college. I watched it at my dad’s house when I was missing the rest of my family. The three Tanner girls, D.J., Stephanie, and Michelle, may have had a dead mom, but they had each other! And they had three father figures! And later a mother figure in Aunt Becky! At the tender age of eleven, I did not realize that I was far luckier than them to have a living mother and not three dysfunctional men running my life. Not to mention, the constant laugh track in their lives must have annoyed the shit out of them.
The next show to take my middle school heart by storm was Gilmore Girls, and this obsession has outlasted that of any other television show; it started when I was twelve and has yet to cease. (Not to mention that I just discovered the Gilmore GUYS podcast. Be still my beating hear!) Rory Gilmore, one of the shows’ main heroines, immediately spoke to twelve-year-old me. How could I not identify with the smart, fast-talking brunette who lived with her single mother? And of course, Rory had other characteristics that I didn’t, but wanted—she knew exactly what she was going to do with her life, she read really dull books for fun, and she drew in many of the show’s young men with her bookworm-ish charms. She and her mother, Lorelei, also lived in the most delightfully quirky small town, where everyone knew everyone and nothing truly bad ever happened. When I got flashed walking home from school one day in eighth grade, I remember thinking, Well, this would never happen in Stars Hollow! To this day, sitting down to an episode of Gilmore Girls feels like sitting down and catching up with all of the residents of Stars Hollow over coffee and doughnuts. (Which we would do at Luke’s, of course.)
While both Full House and Gilmore Girls were obsessions that spanned years, other comfort shows have been more isolated phenomena. During my senior year of high school, when apathy was high and motivation was low, I parked myself on the couch every day after school for a mini-marathon of How I Met Your Mother. The year was 2011, Netflix’s instant streaming was new, and my mom had just acquired a Keurig coffee-maker. Every day, cup of coffee in hand, I watched as five twenty-something friends navigated adulthood in the big city. It was comforting to see people only ten years older than me being (mostly) successful adults but still always meeting up in the same bar every evening to chat about their lives. The message I took out of that show was that there would be a life and great friends beyond school, beyond college. I just had to get there.
Getting there turned out to be harder than expected, and come the fall of 2012, I would look back on my days of senioritis and afternoons filled with How I Met Your Mother with intense nostalgia. I hated my first semester of college. So I found a second home in the aristocracy of early twentieth-century England, with the characters of Downton Abbey. It felt exotic and luxurious, with the sumptuous home of the Lord and Lady Grantham being a far cry from the cinderblock dorm room in which I was living, and their elegant dinner parties with witty repartee seeming worlds away from the beer-soaked frat parties around me.
The next time that life found me extremely homesick, this time in Europe, I once again turned to TV. During a severe head cold and a day spent in bed, I began watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and discovered that watching a perky blonde teenager lay waste to a variety of demons and monsters was one of the most comforting things in the world. Especially when she was accompanied by a close band of friends and mentors, with whom any problems were generally solved by averting the apocalypse together. Buffy could not be set in any place other than the mid-1990s in America, which was exactly what I needed when I was on the other side of the Atlantic.
While abroad, I discovered that my host sisters shared my love for the guiltiest of my guilty pleasure TV shows—Sex and the City. The clothes, the ever-changing hair, the female friendships, the shoes, the wildly unrealistic standard of living of a young sex columnist living in New York City—not to mention the sex and the city—make the show irresistible to me. It’s as much of a different world as Downton Abbey, albeit even more of a fantasy than that. But it is the perfect show to have on in the background while you are doing something else. It’s like white noise with a shot of pure estrogen.
Television is the perfect medium for me to unwind, decompress, and derive comfort. It requires less energy than reading a book, but more than listening to music. You can continue to follow the characters and their stories over many seasons of a show, unlike the two hours to which you are limited to with a typical movie; you can choose to watch just one episode or five. Watching TV can be a solitary or a group activity. Even if you watch a show alone, you can usually find someone else to talk to about it. TV can connect you with other people, or it can be a refuge into which you can escape when you want to be alone but still want the comfort of hearing human voices and watching human relationships unfold.
The same way that eating macaroni and cheese or fried chicken might offer comfort to someone, so does television for me (especially if also accompanied by mac and cheese). When I want to watch something with complex characters, twisty plots, and grisly crimes, I choose different shows than when I want to be comforted. Much like the pairing of a crisp white wine with a slab of greasy Dominos cheesy bread, I can enjoy both House of Cards and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
So, confession, this post is a modified version of something that I wrote for a class last year. But it’s still super relevant to being a worrier and being anxious, right??
Also, it’s a great lead-in for me to demand (a.k.a. nicely request) recommendations for my next favorite comfort TV show! So, send em at me!