Searching For TV Comfort Food In An Increasingly Stressful World

So here’s the problem: I am stressed out. Not all the time, and not a debilitating amount, but often enough and powerfully enough that it’s becoming an issue. The news is to blame, mostly. Things are rough out there, divisive and nasty and depressing. Perhaps you’ve heard. And every time I open social media or do, well, anything, I am reminded of it all, and it’s a lot, and… it’s just stressing me out. It got so bad a few weeks ago that I tried to escape the world for a bit by watching the original LEGO Movie, at which point I realized that the bad guy in The LEGO Movie is a character named President Business who has bad hair and uses a militarized police force to try to control people. Even The LEGO Movie is heavy now. It’s not okay.

But this is not about politics, really. I promise. I only led with that because it’s the thing that has been causing me stress. Maybe you’re stressed out, too, but about other things. Maybe your student loan debt is weighing on you, or maybe your new puppy is peeing everywhere, or maybe your job is fraying your nerves all day long, and maybe you just want to sit in front of the TV for a few hours and relax to get your mind off of it all. Perfectly understandable. We’re in this together.

Unfortunately, this brings us to a second problem I’ve been having: Television, my trusted friend, my solace in hard times, my path to a brief little escape from the world, is not very helpful right now. TV, like The LEGO Movie, has gotten pretty heavy lately.

Quick, let’s run down through some of the big, critically-acclaimed current dramas: The Americans is a heart-pounding series about Russian agents trying desperately to protect their cover in America. Black Mirror is a bleak series about how technology is ruining or has already ruined our lives. Three different characters on Halt and Catch Fire have had something resembling nervous breakdowns. Judging only by my Twitter feed and the headlines of recaps, This Is Us appears to be outright emotional terrorism. Westworld and Game of Thrones turn into homework quickly, just to follow along with who did what and why. And The Leftovers, bless its broken black heart, is a series about emotionally shattered people dealing with a Rapture-like event and it is literally teasing its final season with images like this.

Which is fun.

It is also, to be fair, fine, for the most part. There are a lot of TV shows out there right now (perhaps you’ve heard about this as well), so there’s room for all kinds of options, even the stressful, murderous, deeply involved ones. And it’s not like I don’t watch and enjoy most of the shows on that list. They’re really good and I’m glad that we live in a time when networks are taking big swings on high-quality programming instead of just churning out cheap reality shows and garbage aimed at our worst instincts. It’s just that the original wave of stressful, murderous, deeply involved shows that started the trend has led to copycats multiple times over. And while even some of these third and fourth generation prestige-y dramas are high-quality programs that might have swept the Emmys 20-25 years ago, none of them are the type of show I’d want to watch to, like, unwind, in part because of how intense they are, and in part because the heavily serialized nature of them makes a quick, one-episode rewatch a little tricky.

Okay, so then maybe a procedural. A nice, light procedural. Let’s flip over to CBS to see what’s going on th-… aaaand someone just got murdered by a serial killer. Again. That’s what most crime procedurals are now, as far as I can tell. Attractive scientists — sometimes attractive military scientists — hunting serial killers, most of whom are infatuated with creepy dolls. Why does it always have to be dolls, with their dead glassy eyes and faces frozen with an expression that says “You’ll never make it out of this room alive”? Clowns get all the publicity, but if you flip on a light switch and see a room full of life-size toddler dolls staring at you, you’ll wish there was a clown in there. That way, if the dolls come to life they can kill him first. Those shoes make it hard to run away. It’s about strategy.

Heck, even USA Network has gotten dark on us. Sweet, innocent blues skies USA, formerly known for light breezy shows like Psych and Burn Notice and Royal Pains and other assorted programs about a wisecracking hot shot who uses skills learned for one job to do a slightly different, more interesting job. Now the network is home to Mr. Robot (a show about hackers and anarchy and psychosis) and Shooter (a show about Ryan Phillippe solving problems by snipering them), and it just released a trailer for a new Jessica Biel show that appears to be primarily about stabbing.

What seems to be missing in all of this, or at least lacking, is well-made, mostly fun series that don’t require hard work from viewers. Detectives solving mysteries, well-dressed cops catching bad guys, both wrapped up in single episodes. Comfort food for the brain, if you will. It’s a strange problem to have — and an even stranger one to complain about — after the medium was revolutionized by exactly the opposite not all that long ago. And yet, here I am, complaining about it. It’s the reason I ended up discovering the hard truth about The LEGO Movie that I mentioned at the beginning. I had already gone through my entire cable guide, DVR, and streaming site catalogs looking for something fun and new-ish and relatively disposable, that I could enjoy without being sucked into a binge-watch or turned into a sentient pile of anxiety.

(For a while I was dealing with this by watching old episodes of Rockford Files or Columbo on Netflix, which are exactly the types of shows I’m talking about here. You remember Columbo, right? Almost every episode was about a very classy barely-violent murder committed by a millionaire who works in publishing. It’s kind of charming now. I also watched Miami Vice, too, because more crime should be solved via speedboat. But all of those have been taken off of Netflix recently and also I am very young and hip, I swear, leave me alone. So this is not a viable solution.)

And this trend toward the very serious has affected comedy, too, albeit to a lesser degree. The success of Louie led to a bunch of other shows that blend comedy with heavier themes. Examples include BoJack Horseman, Master of None, and You’re the Worst, again, all of which I watch and enjoy, but none of which I find myself turning to for a rewatch, for the same reasons as the dramas. But you’ve also got New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, It’s Always Sunny, Rick & Morty, and many, many more shows like them that are committed to making you laugh above all else, including new ones like The Good Place and Powerless. In a way, this both ruins my point and makes it more clearly than anything else I’ve said so far. Because on one hand, I still have all those shows to watch, so maybe complaining about the dramas is a waste of time. But on the other hand, this wide range of options is exactly the kind of thing that’s missing from dramas.

That’s not to say there are no options. I enjoyed the first season of NBC’s history-filled time-travel show Timeless quite a bit, and Fox’s Lethal Weapon series has been a pleasant surprise. (The key to enjoying the latter is separating it from the expectations that come with the title and treating like a regular buddy cop show. Also, appreciating a good “Enhance!” scene.) And there are a few shows that manage to toe the line between fun and serious in a way that highlight both equally well, like Fargo and Better Call Saul and Amazon’s new series from Bryan Cranston and the team behind Justified, Sneaky Pete. But even those last three are so heavily serialized that it’s hard to be satisfied by a single episode. Can you imagine trying to watch one Better Call Saul? I’m convinced it can’t be done.

Now, there’s a chance here that this is just me, and the nature of this job. I have to watch a lot of TV, and mostly the new, critically-acclaimed, quote-unquote important shows when I do. Some of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But watching all that TV has also made it clear that as more and more resources are devoted to making dark shows with serious themes or gritty reimaginings of projects that were very much not gritty to begin with (at one point a few years ago, there were five different gritty Wizard of Oz reboots in production), the lighter, less intense dramas have been bumped aside, or relegated to deep deep cable where they’re difficult to find in a crowded field. That’s a shame, and bad for me, personally, because the next few years look like they could be a stressful ride. I could really use a fun, well-made, high-quality drama to watch in the evenings to help me wind down. A prestige procedural, you could call it. One about… oh, I don’t know. Let’s say, a private detective who has a speedboat.

I think that might help.