Geiger's Culture Counter: The comfort of the familiar


Humans are creatures of habit. If we have an outfit we enjoy, we’ll wear it a lot. We return to a favorite restaurant to order our usual dish and drink. If a classroom doesn’t have assigned seating, we still end up sitting in the same spots class after class. The same can be said about preferred media consumption.

Everyone has what I call their “comfort television show” of choice. Like comfort food, it’s a program they watch as the ultimate stress reliever. A random episode can be on TV and they tune in, even if it’s a repeat, to lift their spirits.

I asked my friends what show they can always return to and the majority of responses were sitcoms. “The Office,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Friends” were among the most popular titles.

The go-to shows for my parents are “NCIS” and its spinoffs. Whether it’s 30 minutes long or a full hour, the shows work as solid distractions because each episode is almost entirely self-contained. The bad guys get caught and the good guys win. The awkward situation is diffused with lots of laughs.

Yet the stronger common theme among all of the shows is their longevity. The writers designed the main characters to be relatable and we grow attached to them. Though they’re fiction portrayed by actors, we think we know them intimately. We know they’re not going to let us down.

Like slipping into a pair of favorite sweatpants, it becomes easy to go back to their warm embrace. How many times on Netflix have you rewatched shows like these instead of putting on an unseen movie?

For me it’s “Seinfeld,” and “Lost,” even the polarizing finale. I lived on that island for six seasons and saw the ensemble as friends. Though I didn’t watch “Seinfeld” when it aired, each rerun is like a special get-together in that New York apartment. Two of my other favorite comfort programs recently returned in the middle of April.

On Friday April 14, “Mystery Science 3000” came back after 18 years thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. If you’re unfamiliar, “MST3K” is the original riffing show that features a guy trapped on a spaceship forced to watch horrendous movies with his two robot friends.

Auditory memories are a major factor in reminiscing about the good times. A few minutes into the reunion and I was singing the theme song. Nostalgia is extremely powerful.

Though the song wasn’t entirely the same because it had a new cast. And it wasn’t even the first time the cast changed. The show’s creator and main star, Joel Hodgson, left in the fifth season and was replaced by Mike Nelson. Crow T. Robot was originally voiced by Trace Beaulieu and replaced by Bill Corbett in the eighth season.

The revival works because Joel returned, not as the star, but as showrunner. The writing remained true to the show’s spirit and the new stars didn’t have to worry about mucking up a beloved series. The behind-the-scenes work was so finely crafted that I didn’t even notice new actors voicing Tom Servo and Crow.

There are changes in faces, but the show still has the same heart.

That could be the tagline to the long-running science fiction show “Doctor Who.” Since first airing in 1963, the titular cunning Doctor has been portrayed by 12 different actors. Alongside those were dozens of companions that aided on adventures. Some companions leave after a season while others bridge the gap between Doctors.

The show can get away with the change in lead because it smartly wrote it into the character’s DNA. The Doctor is an alien called a Time Lord that completely regenerates if mortally wounded. Whenever someone left they literally killed them off without trouble.

When I started watching my first Doctor, the eleventh, was portrayed by Matt Smith. Smith’s companion, played by Karen Gillian, only lasted for two seasons. Then once Jenna Coleman replaced her, Smith regenerated into Peter Capaldi after his third season.

Viewers get attached to their specific Doctor, especially if the actor as been on screen as long as they’ve been watching. Like the passing of the mantle in James Bond, everyone has a favorite. Though Capaldi is older and a bit more abrasive, his Doctor is still a pacifist and I believe just as charming as Smith’s.

Capaldi’s return to television this spring unfortunately brought a new companion with Pearl Mackie. Yet it’s to be expected. It will balance out and we’ll be just as heartbroken for her inventible departure.

The only constant on the program is change, which makes it oddly comforting to what during stressful times of flux. During my freshman year in college when I was little homesick I rewatched it with my friend John. The structure of a show provides an important lesson of fluidity. It’ll always be there for you, even if it looks like your friends left.

What’s your comfort television show? If you need to switch things up, give these two a shot to be your next choice of a soothing security blanket.