In February, I started watching “Schitt’s Creek,” for the first time, at the behest of everyone who told me I’d love it. Then March started and stay-at-home orders quickly fell across America. My usual schedule of once or twice a week became a TV show or movie… Every. Single. Day. It was the only way to unwind my mind after a long day of reporting on COVID-19.
Except I never returned to “Schitt’s Creek” — or any other new show. (Well, I did find comfort in “Killing Eve,” but it’s only because so many friends assured me there was nothing in it that would cause me distress.) To put it lightly, starting anything new — books or movies — has been like pulling teeth. Getting to know unfamiliar characters felt too daunting and time-consuming when I haven’t even been able to see my friends IRL.
According to Katie Lear, a therapist specializing in trauma treatment, it’s the predictability from characters, who feel like friends to us, that’s comforting.
“We’re all dealing with so many uncertainties: How much is the virus circulating in my community? How will it affect me and my family? When can I go outside again? That’s why watching a familiar TV show or movie, or reading a familiar book can help provide us with some of the predictability we may be craving right now,” she says.
Lear also confirms that, for many people, predictability = safety.
“Dealing with worries about safety when our predictable routines have also been thrown off is a recipe for anxiety,” Lear says. “We rely on the routines in our lives to add some shape and structure to our days.”
I’ve now rewatched “The Bold Type” in full twice, and have seen all my favorite movies again, more than I ever have before. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Others I spoke with have found comfort in a similar routine.
Alaina, a communications manager in Massachusetts, has been revisiting things that feel comfortable and known, like “Gilmore Girls,” Studio Ghibli films, Harry Potter movies, “Mean Girls,” and Disney movies from childhood.
“As my dad texted me COVID-19 updates from Massachusetts, we started rewatching old movies,” say Alaina, who found herself stuck in D.C. with her wife, and no way to get home just as shelter in place began happening. “We bought two bottles of wine and hunkered down in our hotel room just in time for a ‘Twilight’ movie marathon weekend. We drank and tried to focus more on the bad plots instead of the pandemic.”
Since then, diving into a familiar piece of media has helped them feel like being home.
“It feels like returning to a time when I originally watched it. There is a lot to love about being alive despite all that fear,” says Alaina. “I find myself turning to nostalgic comfort media […] because for a few hours, I actually forget about what’s happening in the real world.”
For Kaitlin, a writer from New York, the fictional town of Stars Hollow reminds her of the innate safety she felt, as a kid, in her own small neighborhood in Queens which feels so different from the lack of safety and certainty she feels today.
“I have a whole list of things [and new shows] I want to watch but I can’t get myself to actually press play on them. I just watch ‘Gilmore Girls,’ again and again,” she says. “As soon as I hear the theme song, it feels like someone is wrapping me in a fuzzy throw blanket and handing me a mug of peppermint tea. When my mind is racing, as it almost always is, watching this show allows me to pause and focus. I don’t think I’m going to be the person who comes out of this pandemic with some new skill to show off, but I will have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things ‘Gilmore Girls.’”
Watching new things takes a lot of energy, Lear says. “It may be too overwhelming to have to cope with more uncertainty in the media we consume, especially if the TV show is a drama.” When fates are all unknown, in real life or on screen, it can be hard to find the energy to be invested, especially after you’ve spent all day wondering whether you should cook or order delivery, exercise at home or go for a run, trust the news or find another source.
If you’ve found yourself also watching a show for the billionth time, it’s because you already know what happens. Kaitlin already knows where Rory goes to college, and what happens in Luke and Lorelai’s relationship. Knowing is what lets her relax and enjoy the show. It lets us be fully present.
Our attention spans are also inherently shorter when we’re experiencing trauma or extremely difficult or anxiety-inducing experiences. Right now, your energy is likely spread thin across thoughts of:
- how to survive and when it will be over
- how much worse it can get before it gets better
- who do we know and love who is at risk for sickness or death
- our jobs and way of making money
- the loss or postponement of personal goals, career dreams, vacations or trips
All of this can come with a loss of hope, which unfortunately also plays into our decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue is when we’re faced with too many choices in a short amount of time and our ability to make choices becomes impaired. Between work and a pandemic, you’re probably left with very little brain space at the end of the day. You might choose a show you don’t like, especially with the way that platforms like Netflix and Hulu present their content in an endless scroll.
Avoiding decision fatigue is why renowned thinkers like Steve Jobs famously choose to wear the same black turtleneck every day. So those oldie but goodie shows, movies, or books? They are our black turtlenecks of the pandemic. They’re our “automated decisions” that don’t require us to summon extra energy to process.
Automated decisions and promise of hope is also why Ravynn, a PhD candidate from Virginia, has returned to her old favorites like “Smallville,” the WB/CW show about Clark Kent as a teenager in his hometown in Kansas.
“Comics-inspired media takes me to my happy place,” Ravynn says. “And perhaps it’s silly, but one of the many reasons I love ‘Smallville’s’ Clark Kent is his staunch belief in hope — and with everything going on in the world right now, I just want to align myself with someone whose life philosophy is hope… even if he is fictional.”
So if you’re sticking to the same shows, books, and movies, that’s okay. That’s bringing you comfort, certainty, and predictability, like a childhood mac and cheese dish that brings us back to a time and place where we felt good.
For me, there’s also some hope in rewatching, that I can also find some sense of who I want to be and where I want to go from here.
Plus, new shows, movies, and books will still be waiting for you after all this. Nobody needs the added pressure of keeping up with the crowd right now. And seriously, where are those shows going to go?
Elly is a New York-based writer, journalist, and poet who also loves to host parties for her friends. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here or follow her on Twitter.