Watching While Depressed
Sasha Torres / The University of Western Ontario
Winston Churchill, a celebrated depressive, referred to his depression as “the black dog.” Having spent most of the past summer feeling as though I was lying flat on my back with a huge, drooling mastiff with his (definitely his) paws planted firmly on my chest, I’ve had ample recent opportunity to consider this intractable canine’s television preferences. I have known for some time that my black dog really likes television. Indeed, watching television is second only to napping on his list of favorite activities. But does he prefer some programs, or some genres, over others?
Fortunately, he and I have had lots of time to talk about this lately, so I’m able to share my findings. First, he hates The Dog Whisperer. Cesar Millan is way too upbeat and can-do for my mastiff. Plus, I think he identifies with the dogs Cesar is endlessly subjecting to “exercise,” “discipline,” and “affection.” Like most of the dogs on the show, he’s fine with the affection part, but he hates the other two. The black dog’s loathing of Cesar Millan is interesting to me, because when I’m feeling good I love few things more than a good Dog Whisperer marathon. I laugh. I cry. I feel anything is possible with the right “calm, assertive energy.” I groove to what my husband experiences as Cesar’s vaguely fascist vibe. I aspire to be a pack leader. And changing the world, “one dog at a time”, seems as plausible as most other aspirations toward global reform.
I guess it’s no surprise that the mastiff hates pretty much anything designed to be uplifting. What he loves and wanted most to watch this summer are reruns of Criminal Minds and Bones. At first glance, his preference seems logical. These are, after all, shows about human depravity. They would seem to reinforce the kind of hopelessness that the dog cultivates. Criminal Minds, in particular, a show about the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, is relentlessly downbeat. It’s hard to be comedic on a show about serial killers. Indeed, the entire production seems to take its affective lead—save for the all-to-infrequent jokes about Matthew Gray Gubler’s hairstyles—from Thomas Gibson’s tirelessly dour performance as team leader Aaron Hochner.
Bones, on the other hand, is quite different from Criminal Minds in its performance of affect. Despite the fact that each of its plots is centered on a murder (and sometimes on serial murder), it’s much more lighthearted. Each episode begins with the discovery of a body, and the series takes cheerful delight in grossing out its audience in a new way each week (the culmination of this tendency is undoubtedly to be found in the episode, “The Feet on the Beach” in which Booth and Bones visit a body farm, and Bones positively luxuriates in the decomposing flesh; see below). Lab employees vie for the title “king of the lab.” And Billy Gibbons, lead guitarist of ZZ Top, makes recurring and hilarious appearances as Andrea’s father. In short, Bones has a completely different tone from Criminal Minds and it invites quite a different affect in its viewers. How, then, does the mastiff tolerate it?
After long consideration, I’ve concluded that what depression wants in a television viewing experience is, first and foremost, formulaic repetition. This, in addition to murder, is what Criminal Minds and Bones have in common. Indeed, it is what they have in common with the various other series in which the dog and I have sought refuge during the time we’ve spent together, series like Star Trek: the Next Generation, Murder, She Wrote, and, more recently, The Mentalist. Hence the mastiff’s affection for shows in which every episode is exactly like every other episode. Criminal Minds: deranged serial killer finds latest victim; team flies to scene; profiling happens; team identifies serial killer with Garcia’s help; team finds serial killer and rescues latest victim. Bones: civilian in the wrong place at the right time finds rotting body or skeleton; remains are transported “back to the Jeffersonian” and forensic team begins work; Booth, Bones and Sweets interrogate suspects; Bones discovers the case-solving evidence; Booth arrests killer. ST: TNG: Wesley’s science project saves the Enterprise. Murder, She Wrote: Jessica finds herself among a new group of strangers; a member of the group is murdered; Jessica discovers that everyone hated the victim; Jessica detects; the group gathers and Jessica reveals the killer. The Mentalist: Take Murder, She Wrote, subtract Jessica and add a con man/detective, some hypnosis, and much exasperation on the part of the con man’s law enforcement colleagues.
We still know very little about the relationship—or even whether there is a predictable relationship—between the affects that particular television programs represent and enact, and the affect that viewers experience as they watch. Indeed, television scholars have barely begun to ask such questions. I offer my experience with the black dog as one bit of evidence that such studies might consider. It seems to me that what depression wants—or at least what my depression wants—more than a particular genre, more than a particular content, and even more than a particular affective tone, is not to be surprised.
After all, depression is all about feeling stuck, even immobilized. Surprises—even the wee ones offered by television—energize and activate. I remember one day in the fall of 2008, as the markets were melting down, watching CNN with amazement as progressive, Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein found themselves actually agreeing about what needed to be done, and having a genuinely collaborative and constructive conversation about the causes and meanings of the crisis. I think they were as surprised as I was. At home on my couch, I could barely sit still. In that moment—a moment in which CNN’s standard formula (get a liberal and a conservative, and let them fight it out) failed utterly to produce the expected result—television moved me. It is precisely this kind of engagement with the world, or even with television, that the owner of those giant fuzzy black paws wants to deny me.
Please feel free to comment.
Having also been depressed from about mid-summer to now, I really enjoyed this piece. Especially now as I’m preparing to stepa away from the TV a bit more and try be in the world again. I have been watching lots of Law & Order reruns, all of which I’ve seen before, along with Dateline and 48 Hours on ID. This has long been an activity I engage in when depressed or blocked or stifled creatively, and your explanation that these kinds of shows are routine/formulaic/predictable/repetitive resonates with me. Admittedly, Dateline and 48 hours aren’t quite as tight in terms of formula as some narrative crime shows, but they do all look the same from a tiny distance, and they reflect the world back at me in a very black and white, legible way. There are bad people and there are good people, and even when unspeakable things happen, there are people to point at them with me and insist that they’re terrible and that all of this be resolved in some way or other in 60 minutes. Plus nobody on any of these shows is having an awesome time, which makes me feel less alienated from the world somehow, even if i’m watching from this other country (melancholy).
To anyone still in that blue country, I would also recommend Columbo. He sorts it out.
Interesting piece! The connection between affects on screen and affects in the audience is a hard one to parse out, and I like the autoethnographic element here. I think it’s interesting that you point to procedurals as “comfort TV” insofar as the narrative arc lends itself to resolution — a unified subject on screen who might be immensely comforting to the subject who is feeling anything but unified in front of the TV.
The “not being surprised” line here reminds me of my affective response to “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. One of several “cringe comedies” on contemporary television, the show features characters routinely embarrassed, even openly humiliated. It’s the fact that this happens in every day situations that gets me. Something catastrophically awkward happens in every mundane interaction. I find the “level of surprise” to be too much — it literally makes me uncomfortable to watch, I can’t do it. Life is hard enough!
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As someone who recently experienced their first bout of depression and, with it, depression-feeding TV, I’m glad that you point out and give some introductory comments on the under-appreciation of affect in media studies. Oddly enough, it was Wilfred, a show with its own big black dog, that got me off the couch and back to class…
I certainly agree with you that there’s a particular kind of pleasure that translates well between formulaic shows like Criminal Minds and a depressive affect, and it sounds to me like there’s a possible connection between this situation and the operational aesthetic Jason Mittell describes in his article “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television”. Writing about shows like Arrested Development which weave together multiple storylines that intersect in surprising ways by the end of the episode, Mittell notes that viewers of these programs act as “amateur narratologists” who are less interested in being surprised by the show’s narrative than in being impressed by how the episode told that story (38). I know that George Michael’s jetpack and Tobias’s concern about playing a mole are going to have some sort of impact on the Bluth Company’s presentation to their Japanese investors – it’s just a question of how.
Of course, Mittell is talking about far more complex, ‘challenging’ shows than something like Criminal Minds, but I wonder if there’s a similar pleasure to be found here, a pleasure in figuring out exactly how the BAU will figure it out. Take, for example, the third season episode “True Night” with guest star Frankie Muniz. Everyone knows that the celebrity guest star is always the unsub – it’s just a question of how they’ll find him, and how he went from being a successful comic book artist to being a serial killer. (And possibly a werewolf? This episode wasn’t their best.) So much of depression involves that feeling of complete ineffectiveness, both in general and in alleviating oneself of those very feelings. I wonder if the ‘easier’ operational mechanisms at play in something like Criminal Minds coupled with its dark tone (or at least subject matter) can contribute to the pleasure derived from formulaic television during this particular affective state.
Taking questions of affect in media studies even further, it would be fascinating to pursue this question in conjunction with cognitive psychological research. For example, viewers could watch Criminal Minds or similar shows while undergoing an fMRI to measure which parts of the brain are active before, during, and after the episode. These measurements could be compared to measurements taken on depressive and non-depressive patients to give us a physiological understanding of what happens when we watch these shows and experience (or encourage) an affective response. From a TV theory perspective, this research could provide insight into the pleasures of particular shows as well as a conceptualization of taste distinct from the oft-used models base on class position. Likewise, such research could contribute to cognitive psychology by elaborating on what brain mechanisms are at play when engaging with narratives and coping with psychological distress. Such an extreme form of interdisciplinarity is probably far off though, so for now I’ll just crack open another beer with my big black dog Wilfred.
Excellent article. I, too, can relate to turning to television as a source of comfort in times of distress, stress and even depression. It’s not difficult at all to see why shows mentioned in Karen’s article (Bones & Criminal Minds) would be popular with people who are depressed. I agree with her wholeheartedly that such viewers would look to shows that would not surprise them. I do wish to add one other quality about these procedural shows that would certainly appeal to depressed individuals – they always offer closure.
The noted TV dramas, along with other popular procedurals like NCIS or The Closer, certainly do follow a tried-and-true formula, but the most important aspect of this formula is the resolution at the end. I speculate that under depression, viewers are so overburdened in their real lives and that when they wish to indulge in television escapism, they prefer shows that do not challenge them even further. Procedurals in particular have this effect because unlike long running serialized programs that spread a conflict over an entire season (24) or even the entire series run (LOST), any conflict or case that is started in an episode will always be resolved, leaving no questions unanswered. These shows do not require anything from the viewer other than for them to simply watch. Even if the viewer is not able to – or chooses not to – follow along with the clues of the case in real time, by the end of the episode, the lead characters will neatly summarize the answers to the problems. If only real life were so simple.
It is interesting to note that such shows are often among the highest rated dramatic series. This does suggest the possibility that someone with depression prefers these shows simply because everyone in general tends to watch these shows. There is no official study that proves people with clinical depression gravitate towards these kinds of television programs, but I found an insightful study that theorizes that teenagers who watch a higher volume of television are more likely to be depressed as an adult. In Karen Kaplan’s LA Times article “Study links TV and depression” (2009) she describes how researchers recorded the television habits of high school students. Years later, the same participants were studied again in their 20’s and an interesting revelation was discovered about those who were clinically depressed. “Teens who had become depressed had watched 22 more minutes of TV each day on average, compared with teens who did not.” Although the research is, of course, not conclusive, I speculate whether turning to TV in times of depression is the healthiest activity.
There is no question that a familiar program that entertains, and promise not to challenge the viewer as The Soprano’s finale did, will certainly be a great source of comfort. In any case, my personal choice of comfort TV will always be a good episode of Family Guy or South Park, because the laughs are easy and always plentiful.
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