You do not need to leave your house to watch TV. You do not need to travel long distances to watch TV. You do not need to join a large group of people to watch TV.
This confluence of factors has long made TV the stereotypical standby for the incapacitated, depressed, or introverted. But as the past few weeks have rendered millions of Americans housebound, whether by mandate or caution-informed choice, TV has taken on increased importance as a go-to source of entertainment and distraction. The coronavirus that has spread across the globe and affected more than 156,800 people to date may be an invisible threat, but its impacts on the rhythms of daily life are already clear. Movie theaters, malls, and restaurants have transformed from sites of leisure into potential sites of disease transmission. The living room, though always a metaphorical safe harbor from the stresses of the outside world, has now become a literal one.
The current pandemic is an obvious source of worry as the coronavirus continues to spread. For those of us in lower-risk populations self-isolating out of concern for more vulnerable ones, the anxiety and helplessness are as acute as fear. Among my fellow TV critics, an impromptu practice has rapidly sprung up of offering recommendations—some custom; some general—to the housebound on social media, the virtual equivalent of Lucy indicating the doctor is in. Some publications have inevitably fed widespread demand with more durable resources, creating a more SEO-friendly answer to the question of what, exactly, we’re supposed to do with ourselves.
There’s a cynical take to be had in translating an ongoing global crisis into clickable content; God knows I’ve applied it to myself in the drafting of this piece. But the more optimistic, and ultimately more true, read is that such responses are both a small assertion of control—certainly a more responsible one than flooding bars with crowds (and denial) on St. Patrick’s Day weekend—and a sincere act of service. It’s a small way to make ourselves feel useful; we can’t staff hospitals or donate supplies, but we can at least offer some small form of guidance. (While drafting this paragraph, a colleague contacted me on Slack to ask whether he should use his quarantine to sink into Gilmore Girls. I was happy to advise.)
As central as TV already was to how we spend unstructured, unscheduled time, further disruptions to daily life have made it more so. Major movie studios have delayed wide releases: MGM pushed the upcoming Bond film No Time to Die; Universal, Fast 9; Disney an entire chunk of its spring slate, including Mulan and New Mutants, all contributing to the lowest weekend box office in more than 20 years. Coachella, instigator of the music-festival boom and its continued standard-bearer, bumped its April dates back by a full six months. Sports leagues like the NBA and the NHL have suspended their schedules, while the MLB has delayed its spring start date and called off spring training.
Amid all of this upheaval, TV can feel like a rare pillar of certainty. The status quo is hardly intact, with late-night shows forgoing live studio audiences and Emmy campaigns calling off promotional events, but these departures from the norm feel relatively minor held up against the rest of entertainment, let alone the world. In the past few days, I’ve watched coworkers process their shock and plan next steps as the events they cover vanish from the calendar. Meanwhile, my own schedule has remained relatively intact, as have the viewing habits of everyday consumers. Westworld attempted a reset on Sunday, as planned. Later this week, Hulu will premiere yet another prestige miniseries anchored by movie stars, as planned. Larry David’s fictional persona will soon engage in even more elaborate faux pas, as planned.
At a time when face-to-face interaction may be limited to our families, partners, roommates, pets, or even just ourselves, TV can preserve some small shred of the communal experience. I may not have attended my weekly Drag Race outing, but I have exchanged thoughts on Friday’s episode (mostly negative) with my circle of friends who watch. Coordinated movie viewings on Zoom and Skype, When Harry Met Sally–style, have turned into a popular makeshift hangout. Watching a new episode of TV offers the same benefits—with slightly less logistical effort—as experiencing the same event as others while being in different places. It’s another intrinsic aspect of TV that’s taken on an outsized importance: not just a mass medium, but one of the few left standing without a blockbuster or music festival in sight.
TV can’t and won’t stay unaffected for long. The CW teen drama Riverdale has suspended production in British Columbia, as has Apple’s celebrity-studded The Morning Show, Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, and dozens of other shows, and the list of impacted series is growing by the day. It’s unclear how these stoppages will affect future release calendars, only that they eventually will. The gap between production and release that can make TV such a balm—it is, quite literally, a dispatch from a different time—guarantees an inevitable delay. But crises can make it difficult to think past the current moment, and at the current moment, TV feels reliable when little else does.
It’s normal to start thinking of TV characters as your friends, a tendency encouraged by TV shows increasingly taking the place of in-person friendships. The past few weeks have revealed TV’s ability to serve as a social, psychological, and logistical crutch, one increasingly leaned on as preventative measures escalate. Cable news is where we go to learn about the world; the rest of TV is where we go to immerse ourselves in another world, one less or more exotically chaotic, but a much-needed escape. Your local bar may not be open, but Cheers always is.