Something I’ve started to notice more and more when I find myself watching TV on my own is that my viewing is far less directed. If I’m watching something with my fiancée, I watch in a very different way, depending on what the programme is(!), typically paying greater attention and enjoying the experience of watching something together. Similarly, when there’s event TV or when a show I’ve eagerly anticipated is released commercially – so the arrival of a blu-ray in the post, a new download from BBC Store, the addition of a show like Luke Cage on Netflix (Figure 1) – I have that same sense of commitment, excitement and anticipation. Yet, recently, when I find myself watching TV alone, particularly when my fiancée (who’s a nurse) is working nightshift, I struggle to motivate myself and find that same sense of satisfaction, enjoyment or purpose from TV.
While I could literally be watching anything I like, and not just TV but also movies or even playing video games, this does not always occur. As an example, I got F1 2016 for the Xbox One the other week and have really enjoyed playing it, particularly on the weekends, but still I’ve found it doesn’t hold my attention in the evenings. Instead, I flick between old episodes of The Big Bang Theory on E4, repeats of 8 Out of Ten Cats Does Countdown (Figure 2), the new series of Would I Lie To You?, or even Celebs Go Dating – yeah, even I can’t figure that one out! But more and more I’m starting to wonder, why these shows? Why these types of programmes? I continually gravitate towards them, so that must mean something, but are they really a source of comfort? Is it possible to be comforted by a show you’re not actually invested in and that, in the case of Celebs Go Dating, you aren’t even enjoying? I guess it’s all really a question of perspective.
Take Would I Lie To You? – I always enjoy that show and it does demand my attention in a very consistent way, even when I don’t intend to commit to watching it; I would definitely consider myself a fan. Inevitably, it ends up drawing me in as a viewer, no matter what I’m doing. I’ll overhear an anecdote that peaks my interest and suddenly that’s me hooked, even though I hadn’t planned on actively watching it. Equally, as I’ve written previously, I always appreciate The Big Bang Theory too, no matter how many times I’ve seen the reruns on E4. With “Cats Does Countdown“, I enjoy particular elements of the show – I love Jon Richardson, Rachel Riley’s put downs aimed at Jimmy Carr can be good for a laugh, and the guests can be spot on, too (e.g. David Mitchell, Bill Bailey, Joe Lycett, Aisling Bea, Isy Suttie, Tom Allen, etc.) – but it’s very much a programme I can miss and not feel overly disappointed about; I enjoy it while it’s on, but it also feels like the right kind of background noise, more often than not. As for Celebs Go Dating (Figure 3), I’ve seen two or three episodes now, and the only redeeming features, from my point of view, are Paisley from Tattoo Fixers and Tom the receptionist, who just seems to love love and is a positively infectious presence (how could anyone not love Tom?!). The rest of the show verges on Made in Chelsea and TOWIE territory, though, orchestrating staged dramas then having the “celebs” comment on them after the fact, as if they were happening right here and now. It’s pretty much the epitome of the kind of show I tend to hate, yet for two nights in a row I’ve left it on. I’ve not consciously looked for the programme in order to watch it, but stumbled upon it after other shows. So what connects all of these programmes, then? Their contents are fairly diverse – a sitcom, two panel shows, and a dating programme – yet they’ve assumed a similar shared function for me as a relatively passive/distracted viewer whenever I find myself watching on my own at the end of the day.
As I see it, these shows reflect various elements of daily life at a time when, as an isolated viewer, I’m winding down and not really “living” myself; i.e. while I sit at home, reflecting on the day’s events, content in my own space, and often anticipating what’s to come the following day, these shows provide the illusion of connection, community and interaction. These shows are a means of working through, consciously or otherwise, the various affects and emotions that I’ve accumulated (or not) throughout the day, filling the gaps for the life not lived. All of this maybe sounds a bit dramatic, but what I mean is if I’ve had a quiet day doing research, for example, working mostly in isolation, I might be more inclined to watch shows about nature or the outdoors, or with lots of people having a good time and lots of laughs, as I’m lacking in the feelings and rewards that having such experiences brings about. This maybe suggests far greater weight or value be attributed to these shows than they truly deserve, but really I am not watching them for their specific details or any particularities unique to them; instead, it is their general feel, the illusions they construct for me, whether I’m watching with full attention or entirely passively, disconnected from narratives, characters or performers.
Even as background noise, then, as programmes I dip in and out of rather than watching with complete attention, they have value. Despite an apparent lack of interest, these shows and this type of viewing can still be comforting; not in the way that a treasured childhood text might make you nostalgic for the past, or that the return of your favourite series might make you excited for what comes next, expanding the world and narratives of beloved characters, but comfort simply as presence, as atmosphere. When I stumble upon these shows as I watch alone, likely reading articles on Twitter at the same time, chilling out on the couch or running around the house with the dog, they create the right sort of soundtrack for me in that instant. Even with a show like Celebs Go Dating – which I now like even less each time I type it(!) – the social aspect of this throwaway format means it still works as comforting background TV, not requiring my attention or any sort of interaction, yet offering the right kind of presence in the room.
Ultimately, it all depends on what you want from your viewing. While I can’t explain away my newfound lack of motivation when it comes to viewing on my own in the evenings – clearly I just need to find a new go-to show! – the shows I do keep stumbling upon still offer subtle comfort rewards, and as such passive viewing should not be dismissed as bad or unproductive. There can still be comfort in distraction.