It took a global pandemic, but Courteney Cox has finally joined the millions who binge-watch “Friends.”
Having extra time in an era of “safer at home” and “shelter in place” was an added factor in the “why now” aspect for Cox, as she revealed on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on March 25. But the former star of that NBC sitcom noted she was finally watching her way through her own seminal work because so many others love the show.
In fact, the series has become a go-to source of comfort for audience members who grew up with the original broadcast run, as well as those who found it in syndication or streaming.
On a normal day many television fans find themselves putting on their favorite television shows while they cook or get ready for bed as a way of self-soothing and coming down from the stresses of their workday and the global news cycle. In times of self-isolation, familiar voices of beloved characters can become even more important, especially if one’s loved ones are miles away. Now, comfort television is in more demand than ever, although admittedly what viewers turn to for comfort will vary from household to household.
The classic 22-minute self-contained sitcom story is one such comfortable format for the audience because viewers know that whatever bad thing the characters are experiencing, it will be over soon, and wrapped up in a relatively happy way.
“There’s something about completing a conversation, in whatever form that is, that feels wise and productive,” says Gloria Calderón Kellett, co-creator and co-showrunner of Pop TV’s “One Day at a Time.”
“I think the comfort in that is these are everyday situations that you yourselves might be in at home, but through the lens of different characters you can relate and latch on to a certain aspect of it — but they’re funny when they do it,” Calderón Kellett continues. “The reason I love the sitcom so much is because it’s always centered around a couch — it’s always inviting someone into your living room. It’s so intimate. [And] right now we all are hanging out in our living room, so it is like, ‘Oh, I get to escape into that moment or that time.’”
In July 2019, when “Friends” was still on Netflix, it was among the top 10 most streamed series, along with comedies “Grace and Frankie” and “The Office,” according to a MoffettNathanson-commissioned poll conducted by HarrisX.
“I want to write characters who I want to spend time with. These are people I’m going to spend a long time with, hopefully, as a writer, and I want them to be people that I enjoy,” says Marta Kauffman, co-creator of both “Friends” and “Grace and Frankie.”
While some viewers choose to lean into the light and laughter, others may just want to escape into a world — any world — unlike their own. “The Office” still ranks in the top 10 streamed series on Netflix, according to the streamer’s Top 10 tracker, but in these pandemic times, so does the outrageous docu-series “Tiger King” and the CW drama “All American.” On Hulu, the list includes such comedies as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” but also tear-jerker dramas “This Is Us” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” as well as the procedural “Law & Order: SVU.” Kauffman admits she gravitates to “true crime, ‘Law & Order: SVU’ and science fiction.” Traditional, over-the-air distributors are seeing bumps in programming as well; Food Network ranked as the No. 1 non-news cable network for the weekend of March 28-29, reaching more than 17 million total viewers.
“What people find comfort in is connecting to something that is bigger than themselves,” says Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg, who spent five years making “Bedlam,” a documentary on mental illness that’s part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series. “If you have trauma, you should not ignore it, but obsessing about something and catastrophizing is not a good solution either. You want to be educated but not obsessing. I think there’s some utility in doing what’s comfortable for you.”
While initially viewers may be drawn to lighthearted or otherwise aspirational programming in times of stress, “TV does stimulate something in the brain that’s useful,” Rosenberg says. This is dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical and “reward system,” he explains. As watching TV begins to make you feel better, signals from your brain will tell you to continue the activity — which “can get us into trouble,” according to Rosenberg. “When you’re wrestling with the anxiety of the day, you have to do so in a way that is constructive.”
For those binge-watching through the pandemic, supplemental activities such as exercise and art projects are important.
“I hope that for all of the creatives sitting at home right now, they’re thinking about that,” says Steven Canals, co-creator and showrunner of “Pose.” “So much of what we create is born out of our environments and our experiences and the world around us, and right now we might need things that are more life-affirming and hopeful.”
The effects of coronavirus on the kind of content being produced still remains to be seen. For “Grace and Frankie,” a show with four main characters around the age of 80, Kauffman says she prefers to keep the show rooted in their world, but not necessarily our world. Similarly, after Sept. 11, “Friends” peppered in some pro-NYPD and pro-NYFD imagery but otherwise kept its usual tone and sense of humor.
“Television reflects some microcosm of the world we live in, so it will have to, at some point in the future, reflect that,” Kauffman says. But “it felt really good to do something good when it was all over. And I’m hoping that throughout this other people will do good things for those around them as well.”