I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately. I’m guessing I’m not the only one.
There are a number of reasons why we as a society are bingeing on TV during this time of COVID. Here are some of the most obvious:
Boredom. Sheer, utter boredom. The kind of boredom usually reserved for kids who get their first taste of the sweet freedom of summer vacation, only to discover that they can’t think of a single thing to do except whine to their parents, “I’m bored!” That’s how bored we are.
Not every type of TV watching can satisfy boredom. The best boredom-busting shows have some interactive element to them, like a game show where you can guess the answer or a competition where you can vote for your favorite by texting the number at the bottom of your screen. Flipping through the channels does not count as an interactive element — it actually increases boredom by hammering home the fact that not only do you have nothing worthwhile to do, you have nothing worthwhile to watch.
Desire to escape reality. Are you feeling that these days? I know I am. Surprisingly, reality shows often satisfy this need. I favor cooking or home improvement shows — things I can relate to. I cook pretty much every day, and I have been known to indulge in the odd home improvement project. That’s where the comparison to my own life ends. I don’t have a two-million-dollar budget for upscale home renovations, and I can’t cook anything fancier than rice in twenty minutes on the clock. I can enjoy all of the wild culinary creations and the before-and-after home makeovers for the pure fantasies that they are.
Longing for the good old days. We would love to turn back the clock and return to the carefree days of 2019, back when face masks were a Halloween accessory and a cough could be treated with a cough drop. Since we don’t have a time machine or a way to slingshot around the sun to create a time warp to return to a former point in time, we must turn to television, in particular reruns. Nothing says “comfort TV” like a rerun of your favorite sitcom. Give me a good episode of “Cheers” or back-to-back-to-back Seinfeld episodes, and I can lounge on the couch all day. Chances are I can quote at least one line from any given episode—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Craving reassurance that things are not spiraling out of control. Good luck with that one! Still, the best thing to watch to get that kind of reassurance is sports. Sports offer rules and routines that you can count on. Despite some minor adjustments to the times, like empty stadiums with piped-in cheering mimicking a sitcom laugh track and announcers debating the strategies a coach uses to de-fog his face shield, sports remain a metaphor for the American experience. Heroes and losers, physical feats of strength and flagrant rule breaking—it’s all there on the sports channels.
News. You might watch TV in order to keep up to date on current events. But let the viewer beware. There’s only so much news you can consume before you get caught up in the dreaded news vortex, where you’re fated to spin around uncontrollably, buffeted by breaking news until it breaks you. Your only hope at this point is the commercial break.
Traditionally the commercial break has one important function—to give you time to walk away from the television set. The content of the commercials is immaterial for this purpose. But if your snack plate is full and you’re too cozy to get up, then you’re at the mercy of the ad writers, who don’t seem to grasp the concept of escapism. You might be lost in the quirky antics of Jerry, George, and Elaine, transported back to the nineteen-nineties when a show about nothing could touch our collective soul. Cut to commercial, and bam! You’re hit with a parade of PPE-wearing heroes proclaiming, “We’re all in this together” as inspirational music plays and the website soliciting donations scrolls across the bottom of the screen. You’re yanked back into the year 2020 with all of its trauma and drama. So much for escape!
A final motivation for watching TV is simple avoidance. Okay, there’s nothing unique about these times to make us want to engage in some classic procrastination. TV provides the perfect outlet to put off doing your chores, shirk the responsibility for walking your dog, or hide from your child’s distance-learning struggles. Just a few more minutes, maybe one more episode…
Hmm, I have an essay due tomorrow. Anything good on TV?
• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life.