Allison LaSorda is a writer based in Toronto.
Last summer, a friend confided that when her partner’s depression worsens, he rewatches The Office on Netflix. It got to the point that, over the course of their relationship, when she hears the show’s theme song, she’s overcome by a feeling of dread. The show, viewed from beginning to end dozens of times, seems to signal her partner’s mood spiral. But to her partner, the consumption of a familiar show is a kind of balm.
It’s purely anecdotal, but I can’t help but notice that in the current pandemic, many people are turning back to television series they’ve already watched. One reason for this is likely because most of us are unable to go to the movies (or anywhere). Another reason might be the nature of television itself: the formula and condensed storylines of episodes, which offer a briefer time commitment, if one does not choose to binge; a deepening relationship with characters over several seasons; and knowing what lays ahead. Repeating something sounds dull or unimaginative, but it might serve a purpose for us.
While some shows might warrant obvious rewatching – for example, thrillers with plot twists, the clues and foreshadowing of which might be revealed on another go-round – simple sitcoms also seem to be among the standard fare for a second viewing – or more. On Crave, the most popular shows during the first four months of the pandemic were Seinfeld, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and Homeland.
I’ve contributed to this statistic, having rewatched The Sopranos last year. It holds up. It had been long enough since first viewing that its arc and characters felt fresh. Tony Soprano’s mother, narcissistic and depressive, shook some of my self-pity loose with her villainous role. “Oh, poor you.” With Tony in the psychiatrist’s chair, I was inside someone else’s head. There were episodes that I’d missed, subtle and crucial moments I’d overlooked. What do Tony’s dreams mean? How could I not have previously crushed on Furio and his ponytail? It didn’t seem to matter that the show was, well, bleak. I felt the familiarity of the families, the language and food, the brawls, the track suits and pinky rings.
Finding something new to watch, which may not deliver a positive experience, requires work. There’s figuring out one’s mood, googling IMDB ratings and top 10 lists, and diligently avoiding that actor whose voice you cannot stand. It takes time to calculate and act on even a low-stakes risk, and that window of time for evaluative browsing can be avoided by giving in to a familiar viewing experience. It’s more relaxing. In fact, like routine, it eases our cognitive load, which is suffering after all these months of immediate and implicit uncertainty.
Writing for the BBC last November, the psychologist and author Christian Jarrett suggests that Cognitive Load Theory may provide “a useful framework for understanding the different ways the pandemic could be playing havoc with your mental function.” First, we’re taking on unfamiliar and strange routines; second, emotions like anxiety can interfere with cognitive function and problem-solving; third, extraneous cognitive load, such as distractions while trying to complete a task, is inevitable for most. And while adjusting to our ever-changing, dangerous situation, the fewer problems to be solved in our leisure time, the better.
Rewatching shows speaks to what we’re capable of. We’re anxious, stressed and isolated. Let’s not ignore the comfort of a reliable plot line – expected emotional highs and lows, predictable deaths, a certainly impending romance – all things that are no longer accessible in our daily lives away from entertainment. Over the holidays, one friend let Road to Avonlea wash over them; another rewatched The Leftovers, and once it ended, wanted to start it over again. For some of us, this tendency to rewatch existed well before the pandemic, but since COVID-19 has forced us inside and overburdened our cognitive load, now it seems to be common, or slightly less embarrassing to admit.
There’s nostalgia at play in the impulse to re-view – nostalgia for the past itself, perhaps. A friend told me that while watching a series set in New York, he got teary, as if entering a time capsule. Some people have enjoyed revisiting the fluffy hair belonging to the cast of Cheers, or the dated, almost cutesy technology of 1980s espionage dramas. There’s also personal nostalgia related to a rewatch. Queuing up Must See TV like you once did on a school night. Where were you at in your life when Mr. Burns was shot? Or when Carrie was right about Sgt. Brody? Pop culture encourages newness: there’s always more being produced – new shows, new characters, new finales. Yet rewatching isn’t an exceptional practice. Even when times are good (or if not good, at least not mid-pandemic), this habit has function for us.
In a 2014 Atlantic article, “On Repeat: Why People Watch Movies and Shows Over and Over,” Derek Thompson cites behavioural psychologists Cristel Russell and Sidney Levy who research what is more academically called “volitional reconsumption.” They outline four reasons people participate in rewatching: the simple reason – psychologists have found that repetition breeds affection, as in, the more we re-view something, the more we seem to like it; the nostalgic reason – think of a show you adored as a kid, or watched with a family member, or that felt exciting during a time you were unburdened; the therapeutic reason – rewatched material can be regulating, as it never surprises or upsets us, and familiar material is easy to mentally process; and the existential reason – “the dynamic linkages between one’s past, present, and future experiences through the re-consumption of an object allow existential understanding,” Dr. Russell and Dr. Levy write. It’s interesting to think of rewatching this way: how did I relate to this character on first viewing, what did I take away from the show and how does that inform what I am experiencing now? Part of me wonders if in rewatching, we’re studying ourselves: Are we figuring out what’s so great about the familiar thing? Or maybe we’re resisting our culture’s insistence that repetition aligns itself with apathy and dullness?
If I try to look closer at my own draw to a show whose conclusion was already resolved in my memory, sure. I can see how The Sopranos gave me some emotional regulation, because despite all the violence and murder, it was expected. The knowledge that I’d be following this cast as they grew or failed or were killed off just as I anticipated was part of what compelled me to return and re-consume. I liked the characters more because I knew them better – yes, even the baddies (are they all baddies?). I picked up on the screenwriter’s choice to have characters often misspeak their idioms (“I was … prostate with grief!”). The show made me sentimental about meals shared with my extended relatives, who happen to be non-Mafia Italians. Yes, it’s true: Everyone misses gatherings at this point, introverts included. But the on-screen manicotti made me vulnerable and it carried therapeutic associations. Finally, The Sopranos gave me Tony, in all his complex charisma and brutality and toxic Godfather-loving power, and in those early pandemic times, he leant a certain “I’ll take care of it” reassurance.
Novelty, to me, has become overrated in most categories. I don’t miss new as much as I long for the same old familiar places, like the bar where I was a regular and coffee shops and my friends’ apartments. Many of us are missing or mourning people on a deeper level than we can articulate; we replay things, in part, to keep what’s comforting in the present. I could see missing new potential, maybe holding space for regrets and opportunities not taken, but when I drift toward daydreaming, what I want to revisit are scenes I can already assign experiences and feelings to.
I’ll likely keep rewatching things. Personally, my cognitive load and persistent brain fog needs this option. In some respects, replaying a show and indulging in the sameness has more soothing power than that of a newer distraction. Over its six seasons, The Sopranos played out questions of prejudice, rage, morality and whether life really is “a big nothing.” In the background of the series was the aftermath of 9/11 (the title sequence removed scenes featuring the twin towers), psychological trauma and the early-2000s concern over widespread use of anti-depressants. Even this felt reassuring, somehow. Though what we’re living through is on an enormous scale and intensely devastating, the rewatch held a subliminal message that threats and losses become less acute, they shift and change, or we do, morphed by time and distance.
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