Amid pandemic grief and exhausting global political events, never has the world so desperately needed an escape from reality
Juggling a pack of nachos with a bowl of roasted pepper hummus dip in one hand, and a gigantic cup of ice-cold mint tea in another, I dimmed the lights of the room and got comfortable in my bed. The atmosphere was perfect to binge-watch a new show.
This was my fourth attempt in six months to start Netflix crime drama Ozark. The pilot episode took a month to finish, and I was determined to watch the entire season over the weekend. Two episodes later, I gave up and re-watched The Big Bang Theory instead.
A pre-covid Niha would’ve loved an Ozark, so it bothered me that the show was triggering my anxiety. Then there was an epiphany: I hadn’t watched any new thriller in at least a year, even The Good Place had taken weeks to finish.
Like any inquisitive millennia, I turned to Google.
A Nielson study examining the effect of Covid-19 on entertainment consumption has concluded that people found more comfort in familiar music and television shows during the pandemic. It said 87 percent of the respondents reported listening to the same music they usually listen to and 54 percent said they re-watched episodes of old favourite shows.
“I watched three new shows during the lockdown. It was a mixed feeling. There were times I wouldn’t want to continue and go back to shows I have already watched,” Aamna Fasihi, a communication strategist, told TRT World. “Watching old shows and movies was easier.”
Never has the world needed an escape from reality so desperately. The year 2020 was not only plagued with pandemic grief, but it also saw non-stop news about strenuous global politics, racial and justice protests, and climate events - leaving people to seek solace in different forms of media.
Research conducted in Italy found people spending more time binge-watching during the pandemic. “In particular, women still proved more engaged in watching TV series during Covid-19 emergency while also showing higher levels of anxiety and stress than men. Men reported a higher motivation in bonding with others through watching TV series.”
Nielson's data showed that when audiences needed a break from reality, they travelled back in time to tried-and-true picks like Friends, Family Matters, the Golden Girls, and Two and a Half Men, which, combined, accounted for more than 234 billion viewing minutes throughout the year.
For Sajeer Shaikh, a content creator in Karachi, familiar media acted as an emotional anchor. “It is the only thing I can control because the plot stays the same.”
The comfort of knowing what’s going to happen and the lack of surprises in times of ambiguity is a desperate call for nostalgia. “It [old favourite shows] connected me to a sense of familiarity and a time before the pandemic when things felt freer,” Joseph James, a money mindset coach in Ibiza, told TRT World.
The uncertainty of the pandemic triggered anxious thoughts as we struggled to give up control over our futures. Since our energy is used up due to the stress of the unknown, re-watching the same shows and movies or re-reading the same books provided a sense of comfort and familiarity that was missing from the chaos of a socially distanced world.
“We're being bombarded by negative news each day,” continued Shaikh. “The last thing I need now is to hear a narrator harp on about how an ice-cold white murderer was ‘charming’ and used his handsomeness to lure victims.”
Studies conducted in China’s Wuhan city, where the coronavirus emerged, showed that children and adolescents facing the consequences of lockdown engaged in problematic internet use as a method of escapism. Escapism is a form of avoidant coping mechanism to disengage oneself from troubling thoughts and unpleasant mood states caused by unsatisfying life circumstances.
Alton Carswell, a media psychologist at the University of California, noticed his students engage with different forms of media – from television shows to movies and online gaming to social apps.
A study titled Media for Coping During Covid-19 Social Distancing associated acute stress and anxiety resulting from Covid-19 with an increased tendency to use media as a coping tool. “Students experiencing high anxiety, on the other hand, were more likely to report higher overall media exposure, as well as more eudaemonic media use.”
Carswell explained that when an individual craves real-life interactions they turn to television or digital mediums to “improve that sense of community or even act out the inadequacy they may feel”.
Speaking of his own experience, Carswell said he found himself returning to Star Trek. “It was my go-to place for some positivity – going over my childhood and sharing those experiences. It was escapism at best.”
Around June, I gave a shot to medical drama New Amsterdam on a friend’s recommendation, and, surprisingly, binge-watched the 22-episode season in two days. I noticed the fear of not knowing the plot had downgraded to mild curiosity. Next on my list was Ozark – it may have taken three weeks, blame the slow storyline, but I finished the show in July.
The luxury may be attributed to an opportunity to return to a pre-pandemic normal after being fully vaccinated. While James felt no change, Shaikh said she has been drowning herself in the media even more. “More re-watches and I find myself clinging to my phone even more.”
Fasihi noticed her concentration space has reduced. “I’d rather spend time scrolling on social media than concentrate on a show because it is effortless.”
“Entertainment might not be the major thing that people are looking for if they’re busy with their lives once again,” concluded Carswell.
Meanwhile, reel life has begun to imitate real life as television shows wove Covid-19 into their storylines. But if Grey’s Anatomy season 17 recording a 17.18 percent drop in viewership is anything to go by, we may not be ready to watch the new reality play out on our screens just yet.