COMFORT TV. WHAT WE PUT ON WHEN WE NEED TO SWITCH OFF

Escaping the real world and turning to on screen fiction is a go-to for many.


By ANDREA PEARCE: culture COLUMNIST


For many, Strictly Come Dancing’s emotional return to TV screens in October couldn’t have come at a better time. The show’s eighteenth series kicked off in typical Strictly style, offering its viewers temporary relief from the more troubling events of 2020.

Though it was impossible to ignore some of the compromises made to COVID-19 (like the socially distanced podiums in place of a traditional judges’ desk), the launch show was a glimmer of normality in unmistakeably abnormal circumstances. As long-time host Tess Daly put it, having Strictly back had simply ‘never felt so good’.

The BBC’s glitzy dancing competition, which first aired in 2004, is one of the UK’s ultimate comfort shows. Its celebrity contestants and their professional partners bring in millions of viewers every year, and its 2020 launch was no exception. In fact, nine million viewers tuned in to see the show’s latest line-up, making it the most successful series opener for three years.


Global TV Audience

But it isn’t just the UK that’s craving comfort television.  From Vanity Fair’s What to Stream to Soothe Your Election Anxiety to Huffpost’s 27 Comfort Shows to Watch While Self-Isolating, the online world is teeming with listicles and opinion pieces about the best programmes to stream when we need to switch off. Whether it’s a wholesome cooking competition like The Great British Bake Off (also known as The Great British Baking Show), a decades-old sitcom like Friends, or a grisly crime series (Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries comes to mind), many of us have a particular show we turn to when we need to drown out the real world.   


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MACKAYAN: WHEN WE NEED TO SWITCH OFF


Though at first glance these shows have little in common, they share an important trait: consistency. They favour predictability over plot, promising not to challenge or confuse us.

Where so-called prestige television promises to have us on the edge of our seats, comfort television tells us to sit back and relax. The subject matter might not always be light-hearted—crime documentaries are unlikely to be uplifting—but the rhythm will be familiar, the beats always falling in just the right place.

Our penchant for predictability is nothing new—traditional broadcasting has been reliant on it for decades—but, according to writer Kyle Chayka, the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime has resulted in an unexpected subgenre of comfort viewing: ‘ambient television’. Like ‘ambient music’ (a term coined by musician Brian Eno in the 1970s), ambient television is ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’. The shows, Chayka writes in The New Yorker, offer ‘glossy, comforting oblivion’, soothing background noise to evening meals and hour-long doomscrolling sessions. Now that we have so many of these programmes at our fingertips, is it any wonder that we never get around to the more demanding entries on our ‘must-watch’ lists?

But, despite the ordeals of 2020 and our newfound reliance on uneventful entertainment, there’s still an appetite for ‘serious’ television. With historical dramas like The Crown and thought-provoking documentaries like The Social Dilemma experiencing enormous popularity, there’s no doubt that prestige television and comfort television will continue to peacefully co-exist. When the curtain falls on Strictly Come Dancing’s eighteenth series this weekend, there certainly won’t be any shortage of quality television to tide us over until it rises again in 2021.


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