Why It’s so Weird Watching People Go Out in TV Shows As We’re Adjusting to a New Normal

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Television has always been a salve, but adjusting to a new normal has spoiled it for me. I found myself on edge watching Modern Family—not by choice, but because I live with my modern family—as a house party and Easter egg hunt unfolded on the screen. All those hands! Or having an out of body experience during a Seinfeld rerun, the gang all gathering at Monk's Café to catch up. "Whoa, remember restaurants," I whispered to my dad. We've only been social distancing for about a month; why does watching people socializing normally on television make us feel so uncomfortable?

COVID-19 is the global crisis du jour, unavoidably prevalent and pressing, and vastly impacting all our lives without discretion. From the endless scroll of the news cycle to the fact that you wear a cotton face mask to get groceries, the pandemic is unavoidably top of mind. That bleeds into your attempts to escape to a safe space, like Stars Hollow, Springfield, Twin Peaks, or Riverdale. (Okay, Riverdale breaks even when it comes to danger.) 

"We’ve adjusted because of fear and social pressure," says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. "We can’t leave the house without thinking about the risk to ourselves and others, and what other people will say. I don’t think that we’ve adjusted yet internally, which may be a good thing because there’s probably more change coming."

Ugh, she's probably right. She also points out that the exact reason you might be uncomfortable is probably personal. Like the crisis itself, we forget that while we're all going through a lot of the same BS, everyone's quarantine experience is unique to them. So if you're feeling uncomfortable while watching something, ask yourself what could be triggering it.

"Someone with a lot of COVID-19 anxiety might see people who aren’t found social distancing and have a knee-jerk reaction of worry or anger before they remember it’s just a show," says Dr. Daramus. "Someone else might feel excluded or lonely from watching others get together. It might even seem surreal because the picture on the TV feels normal and life outside the TV feels so abnormal right now."

Ding ding ding, watching story-based TV shows feel surreal, with a few notable exceptions: literal cartoons, any show in the apocalypse-heavy Buffyverse, and Mad Men.

Full disclosure: Mad Men is a mainstay comfort binge for me, despite being reflective of a tumultuous time in history. Even if people are screwing, boozing, and having tons of swinging adulterous fun, I don't take it personally.  In fact, I don't get drawn back into Coronavirus World unless I’m watching the all-to-eerie episode about the Cuban Missile Crisis (do NOT recommend that before bed) or listening to Pete Campbell slur after Kennedy’s assassination, "The whole country’s drinking!" Christ, a quarantine #mood if I've ever heard one. 

So, Mad Men I can handle, because it vividly and visually feels divorced from this reality. But watching something even within a 20 to 30 year range of our times personally offends. What's with that? 

"It might be because because the period piece is a world we’ve never been to," says Dr. Daramus. "We can relate to the characters, but we haven’t had the physical experience of being in that world and it isn’t our 'normal.' Because contemporary shows look more like the lives we had last month, the difference between that and our current normal is more jarring."

Now more than ever we should be taking care of ourselves. It's just important to check in with your body to see what media consumption does and doesn't make you feel good. It might change day to day as we're all adjusting to a new normal. Eventually, watching normal connection won't feel weird. Eventually, we'll get back to that as well. Until then, we find new content. For the record, the only time I feel real solace is when I check into my take on Fireside Chats: late night hosts doing the adapted versions of their show from their houses.

Though they're tainted with a perverse surreality and long, empty pauses between jokes, they also feel... right. Like any and many of us trying to pass the time with silliness. Stephen Colbert feeding his dog slices of ham and joking with Ryan Reynolds about cannibalism ("I will not hesitate to eat the kids." "You gotta be firm"), Jimmy Fallon writing thank you notes with his bored, blonde, cherubic daughters. And of course, John Oliver.

The other day I caught a Last Week Tonight segment that ended with Oliver requesting a piece of rat erotica by Brian Swords. And I have to say, it felt at home in this boundlessly horrifying world. I felt at home, which is, incidentally, the normal were most familiar with right now.

Miss the outside world? We have a few ways to bring a little greenery indoors for the benefit of your mental health. And this is how you can celebrate a happy birthday while social distancing.

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