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We Need More Chill TV

Why are Netflix and HBO stressing us out as much as real life?

When I need to unwind after a long day spent toggling between Twitter and writing the shitposts that pay my salary, there are a few options. But, with the usual inertia of a weekday evening, what usually ends up happening is this: I fix myself a cocktail, throw on a record, fetch the book I’ve been enjoying and settle in to read on the lovely chaise in our living room (preferably with the window open for a breeze from the courtyard below).

I understand, however, that for many other folks, this is a time to fire up Netflix or Hulu and stream a show, and lately, I’ve wondered why the same isn’t true for me. It’s not that I’m a TV-hating snob — I do keep up with whatever HBO thing is talked about, as long as it has no dragons. I think the problem is that while books, music and the art decorating my home can be quite relaxing, television almost never is. It’s anxious.

This is understandable. The long tail of prestige TV, and the incentivizing of viewers to binge content, means we’re always on the edge of our seats, biting our nails, desperate for a resolution that the next episode — contrary to our needs — will not provide. We were sweating over Chernobyl, but that grim mood is barely heightened from a potboiler like Breaking Bad. Not even animated sitcoms allow us the refuge of knowing everything’s gonna be okay. Instead, popular series like BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty and Big Mouth get serious on the subjects of depression, toxic relationships and whether anyone can truly change.

No wonder some of us are cheating our way through the “must-watch” stuff with spoilers and highlight clips. It’s not solely an issue of too much TV — it’s also that watching this TV requires a Klonopin.

You’ll recognize this state of affairs as soon as a friend asks you to recommend a “non-stressful” show to start on. It’s a surprisingly difficult task. A common answer is The Great British Bake Off, which I’ve admittedly enjoyed, though I must confess that nothing gives me heartburn like a major fuck-up in my own kitchen, so it physically pains me when a baker’s lemon tart collapses in front of Paul Hollywood. (Incidentally, fans called the judge “brutal” after this week’s final, where a contestant “slumped to the floor sobbing.”)

Food shows overall seem like a safe space, except that they tend toward competition; my girlfriend once made us turn off a grandma-themed episode of the mostly innocuous Guy’s Grocery Games because she couldn’t stand to watch one of those sweet old ladies eliminated. Another false haven is the vaunted nature documentary. Sure, the music and cinematography of Planet Earth and Blue Planet are extra-soothing, and David Attenborough’s narration is undefeated — yet you can’t get far without a grisly murder, and by the time we get to Our Planet, it’s the non-stop horrorshow of climate change, as well as our complicity in it. I’m sorry for wanting to look at the nice whales!

Terrace House, a Japanese reality show applauded for excising the hyperbolic drama from the genre, is a go-to chill zone, as it keeps things relatively mundane. Curiously, that muted air turns out to be double-edged, as the smallest breach of etiquette can have serious implications. Booze-fueled screaming matches may be the norm on Vanderpump Rules or Real Housewives, but since there’s no calm to disturb in the first place, they don’t have the same tension as a quiet grudge between Risako and Haruka.

In any event, actual humans are always going to worry us a bit. Perhaps then it’s better to retreat into the soothing hijinks of the kids on Bob’s Burgers (or any show created by Loren Bouchard, honestly). Schitt’s Creek has a related low-stakes vibe. I also find myself at peace with the silly wordplay and balletic, slow-mo fistfights of Letterkenny, as no one ever gets seriously hurt. Still, nothing approaches the tranquility of the cloud man himself, painting instructor Bob Ross.            

Ross’ The Joy of Painting, which aired on PBS from 1983 to 1994, is so gentle and kind that its peaceful atmosphere is TV legend. Long after it ended, and Ross passed away, it became a YouTube favorite, and Twitch streamers began using it for an ASMR fix. Ross himself feels like a hippie relative of Mr. Rogers, and the way he directly addresses you as a friend is equally consoling. The bright, fluffy landscapes he paints complete the aura, and his quips — “There’s nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend” — are the frosting on the cake.

The measure of how far we’ve strayed from this idealized world is in what people now regard as relaxing TV. I came across a Twitter thread from someone who wanted a low-stress viewing alternative to Bob Ross and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the recommendations left me aghast: Orange Is the New Black, Ken Burns’ The Civil War, Forensic Files, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret and Black Mirror.

Do we even know what stress is anymore?

If not, the reality of 2019 may be partly to blame, since we regularly go around in a near-panic. Or TV is ratcheting up the pressure right when we could use a break. There are the exceptions, they’re just too rare. Let’s have a visionary pitch something with a soft-spoken gardener showing you around parks and greenhouses, or a cute cartoon where dogs run a laundromat.

I don’t know, I’m not the ideas guy around here. All I ask is that you give me a reason to unclench.