Safety in Sameness: Finding Familiarity With Old Favourites
A young boy chases a football in the park, his blond hair tousled by the wind, followed by his grandfather, all portly and mustachioed. The sun is shining and the idyllic family moment on screen is wholesome and good. Suddenly — a pile of bones, a piercing scream. The ominous music filling my ears, I sip my tea and watch Emily Deschanel descend upon the screen as the protagonist of Bones, which first aired in 2005. It is the fifth series I have rewatched since March 2020. Before the first lockdown began, I made several “to-watch” lists, declaring that now was the time I could finally catch up on the backlog of ‘must-see’ movies and series, which have gradually piled up over busy days and weeks, now slightly dusty. Everyone I know has one of these lists, either carefully selected on their Netflix accounts, scribbled in notebooks or on small, multi-colored post-its. They include classics (in my case, Sunset Boulevard and Dr. Strangelove), cult-classics (Heathers), recommendations from friends, the latest sensations trending on Twitter, and bits and bobs accumulated along the years, like that one drawer of useful oddities no household can do without.
Nonetheless, the list, made with such good intentions, was soon forgotten. After the frisson of Tiger King and catching up on Killing Eve’s kickass third season, I drifted back to the intrigue and romance of Jane Austen’s BBC adaptations and suspense-packed American detective shows of the 2000s. They created a separation between my room and the world outside - a welcome respite from the doomscroll of my Twitter feed. The fabled to-watch list, crafted originally as a harbinger of future enjoyment, promising to bring light to difficult days, morphed into a source of intense anxiety, its potential effects unknown. Faced with the uncertainty of the once-treasured list, the comfort of rewatching an old favourite becomes all too tempting, the desire to wrap ourselves in the familiar warmth of well-worn plotlines and characters becomes all too great.
Humans do things over and over again for four reasons: habit, addiction, ritual and status-quo bias, (when the cost of making a decision is too high, so we stick to a previously made choice). I am in the habit of playing the Global News Podcast in the morning while I have breakfast, rewatching The Lord of the Rings is an annual ritual for my birthday But, the pleasure of rewatching cannot be straightforwardly contained in these four neat categories - it goes much deeper.
It is true that some films or series are just so good that they demand to be watched again, but a second viewing is wrapped up in very different packaging. When watching something for the first time, we feel anticipation, a sense of discovery — we are all bated breath and surprise. When rewatching, however, all these sensations change — there is still surprise, yes, at an illuminating detail previously unnoticed, or a quick-witted line you forgot. But more often than not, the feeling is one of comfort, of warmth, followed by a jolt of recognition, a return to the past.
Knowing what will happen can be attractive, as is the ability to skip over the unpleasant and avoid what you know will cause you distress - both of these give you control over your emotions in a way that is rare in these times. There is no need to relive the death of Buffy’s mother, the sudden, sharp pain of the unexpected which follows that final call for a parent that is gone. It is possible to skip over Luke and Lorelai’s fight outside the diner, the ultimatum that leads to a break-up which will take a whole season to mend. Suddenly, you regain control over the uncontrollable, as if taming a somewhat ungainly beast.
In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that humans erroneously believe that maximising choice means maximising freedom, and that therefore, it will make them happy. In truth, when faced with an unimaginable number of options, you begin to find it even harder to make a choice. You begin to think that no option is exactly right, that it is easier than ever to choose the “wrong” one, and with such a myriad of possibilities, if your choice doesn’t suit you, it becomes a personal failing: you made the wrong choice.
When looking through my to-watch list, all the options seem unsatisfactory somehow — this one might be a little too tense, that one is a little too long, what if I don’t enjoy this as much as I expect to — I feel Schwartz’s words acutely, in one of those peculiar moments when a theory bridges into reality. Returning to an old-time favourite becomes more and more desirable when faced with infinite choice: it removes the fear of failure; bypasses the stress and time lost to choosing, and guarantees a pleasant experience.
Some months ago, wrapped up like a human pig in blanket near Christmas Day, I watched as Dr. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) yelled sarcastically at Dr. House (Hugh Laurie): “I’m not on antidepressants, I’m on speed!” Immediately I was fifteen again, passing cryptic notes to my best friend in class, discussing all the queer possibilities of the medical drama and deploying this phrase as ironically as I could (I was, of course, on antidepressants). For a moment, for one small fraction of time, I was transported from my room in the UK to a classroom in Brazil, forgetting 2020 and its uncanny ability to surpass even our worst fears.
“Nostalgia” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the feeling of homesickness” or “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition”. It’s hardly surprising that nostalgia has become so attractive during the past year. Yearning has taken centre stage in our lockdown lives. Yearning for a simpler time when I would turn on the TV, hear the opening bars of the Gilmore Girls soundtrack, and suddenly want to drink coffee and speak too fast, or buy complementary clothes and lipgloss with my friends to emulate the Charmed trio. These shows hold a place in my memory where I didn’t really think about environmental catastrophe, furlough payments or a global pandemic. The sensory experience of re-watching goes beyond the immediate gratification of consuming media, touching upon particular strands of comfort that are enmeshed with versions of ourselves that experienced the world very differently.
Searching for comfort takes us down unexpected, winding paths: a friend, brilliant scholar and sports aficionado, found herself in a love affair with the Amazon Prime Reality TV package; another obsessed with young Adam Brody as Seth Cohen in The OC. My own lockdown romance was all-encompassing, and I rewatched 15 seasons of Criminal Minds, 8 seasons of House, around 9 seasons of Law & Order SVU and 7 seasons of Gilmore Girls. With each rewatch, I not only experienced the plotlines of those series, but also touched upon my own: time traveling back to previous versions of myself whose concerns were completely dissociated from the ones I experience now. For a small moment, I was once again carefree.
As the world outside slips further out of reach and actions seem increasingly meaningless, gaining power over small aspects of life becomes even more gratifying. If allied to this power you can also escape reality as it is, then even better. In one fell swoop, you regain a semblance of control and inhabit a new space, full of affective memory and forgotten brilliance.
A Brazilian living in the UK, Joana is a writer and poet with a soft spot for 2000s TV series and obscure documentaries. They are currently undertaking a DPhil in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford and trying their best to read all the books they purchased during lockdown. You can find them on Instagram @joana.perrone and on Twitter @joanaofdark