In Praise of Pop Culture Comfort Shows

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As a self-proclaimed lover of pop culture, I have a dirty little secret:

For every new piece of prestige media that I watch, I rewatch one of my pop culture comfort food staples.

Every nail-biting cliff-hanger on Game of Thrones merits a return to the lovey-dovey wonder of the David/Patrick relationship on Schitt’s Creek.

After an hour of a tense cat-and-mouse game with Eve and Villanelle on Killing Eve, I spend at least two hours in the familiar town of Stars Hollow.

And the delicious home-invasion scares of Jordan Peele’s new movie Us were followed up by a night with the lights on, comforted by my buddies at the Pawnee Parks Department.

They may not be the most groundbreaking or prestigious shows, but each of these pieces of pop culture that are in constant rotation on my Netflix are just as meaningful as any buzzed-about new television show or movie. 

I’m a relatively new convert to the magic that is Schitt’s Creek, but ever since my first binge watch of the series I’ve kept it on a steady rotation in my free time. The third and fourth seasons in particular (and recently-aired fifth, which has yet to hit Netflix) are the ones that I keep coming back to again and again.

My newfound devotion to Schitt’s Creek is in part driven by the adorable David-and-Patrick pairing. At any given moment, I’m happy to turn on one of the episodes that basks in the courtship and love between the ever-practical Patrick and eternally eccentric David. When I don’t have the time or presence of mind to immerse myself in a romance novel, these two provide a love story that is simply the best.

Beyond the fantastic love story, Schitt’s Creek earns its staple in my pop culture comfort watch hall of fame thanks to its cast of ridiculous, lovable characters. It’s a town populated by oddballs, but the energy is one of love, kindness, support and grace instead of nastiness or snark. Even when characters on Schitt’s Creek are annoyed by one another they’re still able to resolve disputes kindly. Wouldn’t the real world be much better if we could all be capable of maintaining friendships with those who annoy us in the same way Johnny Rose puts up with Roland? I certainly think so.

Then there’s Gilmore Girls, which earns a special place in my pop culture hall of fame because it has been a go-to television show for me for over a decade. Rory and Lorelai were there for me during my days of high school drama, my Sunday mornings after college parties and my most stressful nights now that I’m a real adult.

One major draw for romance readers is the predictability of the outcome: A Happily Ever After. Though not all Gilmore Girls episodes and storylines end happily (seriously, Rory? Stealing a boat?!) I’ve now seen them so many times that they provide that same predictable dopamine hit that I get from cracking open a new romance novel.

Plus, even though nostalgia is a potentially toxic impulse, there’s just something so warm and delightful about basking in early episodes of Gilmore Girls. From the soft, glowy lighting of season one to the fancier fast-paced dialogue of season five there’s something about this show that’s comforting in times of stress for me!

And above all others, there’s the crown jewel in my personal pop culture rotation: Parks and Recration. I could go on for days about the show’s wonderful depiction of female friendships, its warm humor, the bonkers inhabitants of Pawnee or the inspirational modeling of public service on multiple levels.

All of those attributes listed above are absolutely wonderful, but the thing that keeps me coming back to Parks and Recreation over and over again is its genuine affection for each and every character on the show (even the jerks, like Councilman Jamm). This quality of affection for all characters is present in other shows produced by Mike Shur like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place.

But there’s something special about the grounded humanity of Parks and Recreation that’s unbelievably reassuring. Characters experience realistic setbacks like breakups or missing out on their dream jobs, but then they pick themselves up and find something even more interesting or dynamic in the future. By the series finale, which I have watched approximately eleventy billion times, each character we care about has their own fulfilling happy ending with a bright future ahead.

I’m not ashamed to say that in some of my personal darkest moments I’ve turned to Parks and Recreation for the inspiration to remember that sometimes life is tough, but with the right people around you and a clear sense of yourself it’s possible to keep moving into a better tomorrow.

Sometimes I’m almost embarrassed that I have watched these three series over and over and over again. Instead of watching something new, game-changing and compelling like Russian Doll or Black Mirror I hit the button on Netflix that says “Yes, I am still watching Gilmore Girls.”

However, I’ve recently taken stock and realized that there’s no shame in my pop culture comfort watch game. We live in an unpredictable, scary and confusing world. Even if you’re not stressed about geopolitical events, just the daily grind can take its toll. I long ago rejected the idea that my romance reading was a “guilty pleasure,” so why would my television habits be any different?

One of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour has a segment that they’ve dubbed pop-culture serotonin. In short, each of these panelists devote their segment to discussing two or three pieces of culture that immediately trigger happiness and contentment. And if the folks at NPR can do whole podcast episodes about this kind of culture, then I can certainly embrace the shows that, to borrow a Marie Kondo phrase, “spark joy.”

In a world full of seriousness and complication, there’s no shame in seeking out media that’s cheerful, comforting and inspiring. For me, it’s these three shows. For you, it may be a song, a favorite movie, a treasured book with a spine worn down from re-reads in your most trying times.  So here’s to our pop culture comfort watches! To the serotonin boosters that make us smile! Let’s go forth with appreciation in our hearts for the media that makes us feel better!

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