With the amount of new shows to choose from reaching overwhelming levels, increasingly audiences are choosing to rewatch their favourite series instead. David Renshaw explores why.
Over the past year, when staying at home has been government mandated in many parts of the world, it has fortunately never been easier to find something new to watch on TV. Whether it is a talking-point reality series, a beloved and twisty crime thriller, or whatever new comedy or drama Netflix and Amazon with their multi-billion dollar budgets have added to the content abyss, viewers are spoiled for choice on the small screen.
There are entire websites to help you navigate what’s on all the different streaming platforms, while social media can often be indecipherable to those who haven’t caught the latest episode of their favourite show.
Why, then, with so much fresh content, is there a growing trend for people brushing aside the glowing reviews and friends’ recommendations and deciding to hit “repeat” on the shows they have watched time and time again? Certainly, the predilection for rewatching old series seems to have been spiking recently.
The most streamed programme in the US last year was the American version of The Office, which finished in 2013 after nine series (Credit: Alamy)
Last year a rewatch of The Sopranos, the original prestige TV series, became a lockdown cliche rivalled only by baking banana bread, with the critically-adored mob drama dubbed “the hottest show of lockdown” by The Guardian and “the hottest show of 2020” by GQ.
The anecdotal evidence that 2020 was “the year of the rewatch” is backed up by the numbers. Nielsen data showed that the most streamed programme in the US last year was the American version of The Office, which finished in 2013 after nine series and was subsequently bought by Netflix; Americans cumulatively streamed a total of more than 57 billion minutes of it, nearly 10 million more than its closest rival. Other shows to rank highly on Nielsen’s list include New Girl and Vampire Diaries, both of which ended their runs more than two years ago. Meanwhile, as the Guardian reported, UK streaming service NOW TV reported a 122% increase in views of The Sopranos between March and October 2020, while HBO in the US reported a 200% increase.
How classic series became the hottest properties
Streaming services – understandably, given the data – jostle at great expense over the rights to add classic hits to their libraries. In recent times, the rights holders to some of TV’s best-known shows have made big money as US media companies bet staggering amounts on licensing their timeless works. NBCUniversal committed to paying $500 million (£360m) to bring The Office exclusively to its own streaming service Peacock from 1 January 2021 for five years. Meanwhile, WarnerMedia picked up Friends for $425 million (£306m), also for five years, for its new streaming service HBO Max – an acquisition it is crowning with a hotly-anticipated cast reunion, one-off special in May. Both of those series were previously available on Netflix in the US. Looking to fill the gap, Netflix paid $500 million (£360m) for a five-year lease of Seinfeld due to begin later in 2021. HBO Max continued the shopping spree when they committed around $600 million (£432m) for the rights to The Big Bang Theory and a further $500 million (£360m) for South Park.
At the same time, the fact that these classic series have become TV land’s hottest property has been reflected in the audio world too, with the rise of the “rewatch podcast”. Name a TV hit and, chances are, there’s an accompanying podcast taking a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Often – as is the case with Office Ladies, featuring Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, and Scrubs recap Fake Doctors, Real Friends, hosted by Zach Braff and Donald Faison – these series are helmed by former cast members of the show. If you dreamed of an alternative reality where Christopher Moltisanti escaped a life of organised crime and went into the world of in-depth recaps, the Michael Imperoli-hosted Talking Sopranos is your first port of call.
Daniel D’Addario, Variety’s chief TV critic, suggests that the trend for rewatching classic series dates back further than the pandemic. “This was already happening before the enforced isolation of Covid, and has only become more of a big deal over the past 12 months,” he says. “Part of it is [a matter of] technology having caught up to our interest and desires. You no longer have to wait for TV reruns or invest in DVD boxsets – these things are waiting for you online. Then there is the comfort of familiarity. The things people are binging are not deeply experimental, you know the rhythms of these shows very well. It’s about knowing what you’re getting and letting it wash over you.”
This current rewatching phenomenon is the stuff of endless online discussion, as well as viral memes, with many framing it in similar ways: time and time again, people say they are drawn back to their favourite shows because of their feeling that starting something new might be stressful. Why, dedicated rewatchers argue, would I start something new that might be nerve-racking, complicated, not what it seemed from the trailer, or simply unenjoyable, when I know I have a guaranteed treat waiting for me?
By reducing the element of risk, contrastingly, a rewatch can possess a restorative, zen-like power. One person who certainly believes in this is the pop star Billie Eilish, who has grown up endlessly rewatching the US version of The Office, and even sampled it on her breakout album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? “It’s my therapy, bro. It’s like my little escape,” she explained in a 2019 Elle interview. “As stupid as that sounds, that show has gotten me through my whole life.”
Sopranos star Michael Imperioli is one of a number of cast members of classic shows now hosting a ‘rewatch podcast’ (Credit: Alamy)
The therapeutic power of old and familiar TV is something that Katie Antoniou, a writer based in San Francisco, also knows well. She spent Christmas 2017 in a psychiatric ward, after being admitted following an anxiety attack. When she returned home to her family she found the only thing that helped her day to day was rewatching old episodes of Seinfeld she’d seen countless times before.
“I think Seinfeld worked for me because nothing happens in it,” she says of the 90s show with the famous “no hugging, no learning” mantra. “There are no anxiety-inducing moments in there. You always know where it’s going to be set, and you get to know how the characters are going to react, so they almost feel like friends of your own.” Antoniou rewatched all 170 episodes of the series, and then did so all over again. “There’s so much of it that you can just dip in [to] wherever you feel like and be assured that it will make you laugh and get those good chemicals going in your brain,” she explains. “When I watch Seinfeld now I just remember recovering and the safety of home. I can still feel the support of being comforted by this TV show.”
What makes for a good rewatch
What makes for a good rewatch is an interesting thing to contemplate. What seems obvious from many of the shows mentioned above is that comedies are the perfect rewatching material. A good comedy works on multiple levels; laughter lowers stress and releases positive hormones including dopamine, while the individual episodes of a sitcom, in particular, are less reliant on plot for their effect and don’t lose so much when that is no longer a novelty: funny one-liners and comedic set-pieces seem to hold up to repeat viewing better than dramas that hang on suspense, like the question of a killer’s identity in a whodunnit, or whether or not the couple in a romantic drama will finally get together.
Sitcoms also provide a static world, be it a workplace or a set of New York apartments, with characters who maintain a consistent personality that sees them acting to type regardless of the situations they find themselves in. Compare that with, say, the nerve-jangling Breaking Bad in which Walter White becomes increasingly erratic and unpredictable as the series progresses, and you begin to understand the calming appeal of a sure sitcom bet.
The fact that comedy often places mood over plot also brings it into the sphere of “ambient TV”, a term coined by New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka in a feature last year to describe the rise in our technologically-distracted age of “soothing, slow, and relatively monotonous” shows like Emily In Paris and Netflix’s various forays into home-makeover shows. Essentially, these are things to put on while you scroll social media or Whatsapp your friends. If you zone out for 10 minutes then don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything important.
Neither ambient nor overtly comic, though undeniably very funny in parts, The Sopranos is one of a small number of outliers here. Its success as a rewatch most likely stems from its prestigious position as being widely considered the greatest TV series of all time; the fact it aired two decades ago, meaning many viewers will be watching for a second time but perhaps with little memory of what happens; and the snowball effect of virality – once it’s established a lot of people are rewatching, it can be hard to resist joining in. Meanwhile another drama from the same era which has been an anecdotally popular choice for rewatching over the past year is Aaron Sorkin’s political soap The West Wing. That’s likely because, with its idealised vision of a Democratic White House, it offered escapism of a very particular kind for liberals riding out the last days of the Trump era.
Genre aside, the anecdotal evidence that old TV is good for the soul is supported by a 2013 research paper by Jaye L Derrick, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Houston, in which she investigated the ways familiar fictional worlds help to restore self-control in individuals. In that paper she described the restorative nature of repeats as creating a sense of “social surrogacy”, ie the kind of friends-by-proxy relationship Antoniou felt with Seinfeld’s Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. “In some of the research that I have done we have discovered that just thinking about favourite TV shows was sufficient to make people feel better after a rejection event such as a fight or a period of loneliness,” she tells BBC Culture. “There is an association between favourite narratives and feeling better which doesn’t occur if we’re watching something new.”
With their static worlds, sitcoms like Seinfeld have a particularly calming appeal when it comes to rewatching (Credit: Alamy)
Through her studies, Derrick has come to the conclusion that self-control – or the energy needed to manage your impulses, emotions and behaviours in the face of new events – is key to what drives so many people back to old stories. “If we use up a large amount of self-control in the day, at work or in relationships, then we’re less able to control ourselves by the end of the day when it comes to watching TV,” she says. “Rewatching an old show doesn’t require any self-control because you know how it’s going to play out but you can still get all of the interest and feeling of connection from watching it.” Essentially, many of us, when we sit down after a particularly stressful day, are looking forward to no more surprises.
However Iain Jordan, a consultant in psychological medicine at Oxford University Hospitals, is more measured when it comes to discussing the benefits that rewatching TV can bring to the audience. Certainly, he says, don’t get confused into thinking that another night binging old episodes of the Sopranos on the sofa is the same as dealing with your mental health. “What’s the reason you’re watching TV?” he asks. “If patients come to me and say, ‘My main pastime is watching TV’ I’m inclined to ask ‘Are you doing that to avoid the world?’. Too much will ultimately lead to stagnation. It’s physically sedentary, and exercise is maybe the most effective single treatment for depression. Mentally, TV watching is also sedentary. It’s OK to rest your mind but you should also be engaging your brain in something more active.”
Looking forward, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which streaming bosses seeking more guaranteed hits move budgets away from developing new series and invest further in satisfying the viewers’ need for comfort and nostalgia. Is the era of Peak TV – with its endless amount of new shows – over, if viewers are happier to relax in the past? D’Addario is confident this won’t come to pass. “The sea-change I’m really expecting is that there will come a point where we’re so far past Friends and The Office that future generations cannot relate to them,” he says, pointing to I Love Lucy as an example of a classic TV show that no longer chimes with modern audiences. “The impulse [for rewatching] will remain but it will shift on to a different thing.” With streaming putting such a premium on rewatchable content, the ultimate mission for programme-makers today is to create the next era of shows that will have currency in 10 years, and 20 years’ time too. The future of TV lies not just in what we want to watch tonight, but what we’ll want to watch over and over and over.
Love TV? Join BBC Culture’s TV fans on Facebook, a community for television fanatics all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.