Coronavirus might see us savour the pleasures of reruns and comfort TV

Article by Paul Donoughue /
ABC News /
March 24, 2020 /
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To paraphrase the Prime Minister: how good are re-runs?

Monica and Chandler hooking up in London, again.

The Soup Nazi, again.

That familiar “dun-dun” at the start of Law & Order.

Buffy! Coach Taylor! Nine-Nine!

With much of the entertainment industry, from cinemas to bars to music venues, shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak, you’re probably going to be spending a lot more time on the couch.

And now, with the constant low hum of fear and uncertainty — and given audiences are already nostalgia-hungry — it’s likely that watch time will include the shows you already know and love.

Will that make this the golden age of the re-watch?

Ross Geller thinks Friends is still relevant

Nostalgia for a time when we were younger, less stressed and more carefree is part of the appeal of re-watching shows, says the University of Melbourne’s Lauren Rosewarne, author of the new book Why We Remake.

She believes consumption will increase.

“I’ve personally found myself putting The Gilmore Girls on in the background for example, when I’d normally work with CNN on,” she said.

Even before the pandemic, Netflix, Stan, Amazon, Disney and others were filling their libraries with the complete catalogues of old TV shows.

Netflix has every season of Offspring and The Big Bang Theory. Stan has every episode of Breaking Bad and the 1990s supernatural drama Charmed.

It’s a cost-effective way for the services to supplement the new, original series they are pumping their production budgets into — or at least they were, before coronavirus effectively halted all film and television production.

It is also particularly useful in the age of the reboot and the remake, when nostalgia drives box office success.

In 2018, Netflix paid a reported $US100 million ($168 million) for the rights to Friends in the US. That’s more than the cost of producing the last season of Game of Thrones.

Last year, Stan promoted an Australian tour by the couch from Friends — the couch! — which gives you some indication of how important it thought that 15-year-old show was to its audience.

In January, former Friend David Schwimmer (aka Ross Geller) said he thought the series had endured because it captured friendship at a time before smartphones and social media.

“It was six people who actually sat and talked to each other,” he told The Guardian, a comment that feels nostalgia-inducing during this time of social distancing.

The comfort of knowing what’s going to happen

Jason Sternberg, a senior lecturer in the school of communication at the Queensland University of Technology, said he expected Australians to be turning to re-runs during this time, calling them an “emotional blanket comforter”.

“We are gravitating towards sitcoms, and that makes perfect sense,” he said, citing the fact The Office was the most popular streaming title on Netflix in the US in 2018, according to Nielsen data.

“They are short, the emphasis is on laughter. Something is wrong at the start, and within 25 minutes, it’s resolved.

“If only the world could be like that at the moment.”

Research around the use of spoilers when discussing plotlines has shown that knowing the ending of a TV show or movie doesn’t significantly impact your enjoyment of it.

“There’s a lot of comfort in knowing when something’s going to happen,” Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor who specialises in media psychology at West Virginia University, told The Atlantic recently.

“You don’t have to exert a lot of cognitive energy, so it doesn’t feel taxing.”

Dr Sternberg said research had also shown that one of the appeals of horror movies among young people was that they provided a safe space in which to gain control of emotions like fear.

That might explain the recent popularity of Contagion, the 2011 thriller about a deadly pandemic, which surged back up the iTunes charts last month.

A Netflix spokesperson would not say whether it was experiencing stronger demand for certain kinds of titles, but its Australian top-10 on Monday — a list of the most popular titles on that day, according to Netflix — listed the docuseries Pandemic at number eight.

Dr Sternberg said audiences were good at separating factual viewing, like Pandemic, which might prove useful, from a fictional story like Contagion that simply provides gratification.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all that someone would watch Contagion and embrace the feel-good Hollywood blockbuster ending, and all those sorts of tropes, but at the same time go to a series like Pandemic or actual news.”

Another aspect that might factor into renewed interest in pandemic storylines right now is a theory of psychology called social comparison.

It suggests that we seek out situations where other people are faring worse than us to make ourselves feels better.

Essentially: we’re glad it’s Gwyneth Paltrow dying from a contagious pathogen, not us.

The pandemic will affect the stories you see on your screens

Another important question: given the significance of this event, will we get a whole lot of pandemic-themed content in 18 months?

Dr Rosewarne thinks so.

“Not only do we have a slew of screenwriters currently on lockdown with time on their hands and news headlines circulating around them, but Hollywood just has a track record of using these kind of world events as springboards,” she said.

Series like Homeland and 24 were directly inspired by a post-9/11 culture of fear around terrorism and the politicisation of immigration.

Before that, we had late-90s films like Outbreak, Armageddon, Independence Day and Deep Impact that drew on anxiety around the end of the world in the lead-up to the new millennium.

Television critic Dan Barrett, who writes the newsletter Always Be Watching, said that rather than drawing from reality, a new crop of post-COVID-19 shows might try to distract viewers from it.

“I’m actually expecting to see an embrace of high-concept fantasy, broad comedies, and aspirational soap opera-style drama,” he said.

“Expect TV to feel more like Magnum PI and less like True Detective.”

Critic Luke Buckmaster, who writes for The Guardian and, said there would certainly be an impact from this pandemic on the arts, but the more interesting question was what form that would take in terms of tone or the use of subtext or metaphor.

“The dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, for instance, hugely influenced Japan’s anime stories and their apocalyptic undertones,” he said.