Sunday, January 8, 2006

Comfort Shows

I thought tonight that I would talk about the phenomenon of "comfort shows." For those of you who don't know what a comfort show is, it is any television series to which a viewer returns in times of stress for comfort. It is, in effect, the television equivalent of comfort food.

The first time I ever heard the term "comfort show" was early in 2002, I believe in an Associated Press story. I am not sure where it originated, but it seems to me that it may have been on a segment of PBS's McNeil/Lehrer Newshour aired around January 1, 2002. On that segment TV critic Caryn James, movie critic Stephen Holden, and music critic Jon Pareles discussed with Robert McNeil the effects of the September 11, 2001 tragedy on the entertainment industry. McNeil observed that viewers had returned to Friends because it was "comfort food for them." In response, Caryn James referred to "the comfort show," shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends that are "escapist and reassuring." This is the earliest I think that the term was ever used. At any rate, it seems to me that the phrase "comfort show" has entered common usage.

It also seems to me that the term "comfort show" is a rather broad term. Almost any show, except for news programmes and news magazines such as Sixty Minutes (which are not escapist and often not very reassuring...), can be a "comfort show." As strange as it might seem to me, for some people a show such as Fear Factor could actually be a "comfort show (although watching someone eat African cave dwelling spiders sounds nothing like comfort to me....)." Given the variety of individual tastes, individuals' comfort shows are going to vary from person to person. I doubt that there is any show that is going to universally considered a "comfort show"--what is a "comfort show" for one person may be nothing special for another.

Of course, there are going to be some shows that are much more popular as "comfort shows" than others. Given its 41 year popularity and the sheer amount of times it has been rerun, Gilligan's Island could well be the ultimate comfort show. Indeed, I swear that Bob Denver's death last year received more press and sparked more discussion on the net and around water coolers than that of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who ran for President of the United States! I think it is safe to say that such timeless favourites as Star Trek, I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, The Ed Sullivan Show, and other shows that have stood the test of time are among the most popular comfort shows.

It does seem to me that while the phenomenon of the comfort show may have been first observed in the wake of 9/11, it has probably existed since the days of the radio. I think it would be interesting to go back to the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbour and see if older, established radio shows rose in the ratings at that time. Somehow I think that they probably did. I suspect the same may well have held true of older, established TV shows in the weeks following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It is only human nature to seek out that which is familiar and comforting in times of stress.

For myself, I have a wide variety of comfort shows. Among those shows would number Bonanza. I have to admit that I think the series drastically declined in quality in its later years. And it had its share of bad episodes. And some of its episodes were definitely written by a formula (I swear no woman who fell in love with a Cartwright lived to see the end of an episode...). That having been said, I think it could well have been my parents' favourite show. They watched it every Sunday night. Bonanza then reminds me of my childhood and gives me an odd sense of security. Another comfort show for me is The Avengers. I discovered John Steed and Emma Peel when I was about six years old. The show immediately appealed to me (no pun intended)--it was blatantly escapist. Each week Steed and Peel faced a different bunch of diabolical masterminds, from a modern day version of the Hellfire Club to a society which had trained common house cats to kill (I never let my cats watch that episode...). While neither of my parents particularly cared for The Avengers (which may well have added to its appeal), it does remind me of my childhood and it does give me a sense of comfort.

That is not to say that every comfort show for me dates back to my childhood. Cheers is still among my favourite shows, despite the fact that I have seen its entire run probably hundreds of times. For me the gang on Cheers are familiar and comforting. I know that Norm is going to try to avoid work and joke about his wife Vera, and I know that Cliff is going to spout meaningless and, most often, inaccurate "facts." In some respects, it reminds me of various restaurants I hung out at in my teens and twenties. A more recent comfort show for me is Farscape. It is quite possibly my favourite science fiction show of all time. The show centres around John Crichton, a American astronaut goes through a wormhole and finds himself light years from Earth. To survive he must join the crew of the bio-mechanoid ship Moya: Luxon warrior D'Argo, Dominar Rygel XVI of the Hynerian Empire, and so on. Taking place far from Earth, with aliens who are truly alien (Rygel looks more like a frog or a slug than anything mammalian), Farscape is decidedly escapist. It is all the more appealing for me because it is not quite any other sci-fi series to ever air. Many episodes take cliches of the genre and simply turn them on their head. And like Cheers, its characters are familiar and endearing to me. Rygel's pompousness, Chiana's free spiritedness, Crichton's skewed sense of humour, they are comforting reminders of what it is to be human (or a slug, in Rygel's case...).

I have many more comfort shows (The Andy Griffith Show, Angel. Cowboy Bebop, and so on), too many to list here. I suppose that everyone has several shows that they would call "comfort shows." As I said earlier, it is only human nature to seek out that which is familiar and comforting, and this shouldn't hold any less true for television shows than anything else.

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