A Fake Sense of Normalcy: Quarantine Media Habits

Picture of By Gökçe Bayramıçlılar

By Gökçe Bayramıçlılar

Flashback to March 2020, it had already been eight months since I graduated from UvA’s Communication Science Bachelor’s program and was working for Netflix as a customer service agent while I looked for another job to sponsor my stay in Amsterdam. I had also just moved into a new apartment with my new roommate Pille when COVID-19 hit. As work started making arrangements for us to work from home, Pille decided to go back home. So, with the blink of an eye, I found myself alone in my apartment, unexpectedly taking care of my friend’s cat.

It was a strange time, to say the least. I only left home to get groceries from across the street once a week and although my street is quite busy, there was barely anyone outside apart from the occasional dog walkers. I was also working evening shifts and weekends, which made me lose count of what day it was, and how long it has been since lockdown. 

I found comfort in my trustee sitcoms.

I found myself watching a lot of Netflix and even thought to myself: “Great, maybe I’ll have time to catch up on what’s cool right now!” Especially since I was working for Netflix, I found it wise to know what was going on, as customers would occasionally also want recommendations from me. However, I never brought myself to watch anything new or hip. Or even anything intense or upsetting. I would instead mindlessly choose shows that I have watched before – shows that gave me feelings of comfort, nostalgia, familiarity and normalcy. I felt too tired to focus on anything new, intense or engaging. Maybe I just wanted a sense of security of ‘knowing what’s going to happen in the end’, or familiar background noise to fill the empty apartment. As times became unprecedented and the future more unclear, I found comfort in my trustee sitcoms. 

Is It Just Me?

This made me wonder if I was alone in using entertainment media as a way to cope with COVID-19 and the new ‘normal’. The researcher in me was intrigued. So, I interviewed eight friends to get some insights into their viewing history and the rationale behind their decisions.

I found that, surprise surprise (!), people differed in their media habits, even during quarantine. However, there were some thematic similarities in how and why entertainment media was consumed. For instance, an overwhelming amount of my interviewees admitted that they mostly watched shows they had previously seen, or content that would bring them comfort. One of my interviewees, Ceren, mentioned that although one of the things she re-watched was a teen drama, The Vampire Diaries, it was okay because she knew how the show ended and watching it wouldn’t bring her additional stress.

“I wanted to escape.”

Mana, on the other hand, devoted her time to shows that made her feel good like Gilmore Girls“There was already so much going on in the world that I wanted to escape, and I did that by watching and rewatching nostalgic fantasy,” she said, “like Harry Potter and Disney movies”. 

Much like Mana, Pelin also said she rewatched one of her favourite sitcoms, Friends, as well as feel-good romantic comedies, instead of watching anything new and intense. “As panic took over the world, I didn’t want to add to my stress, which is why I watched relaxing, chill stuff,” said Pelin.

“It provided me with normalcy and predictability that I craved.”

Yasmin said she primarily focused on rewatching one of her favourite sitcoms, New Girl, that she knew the ending to, in order to have a sense of ‘fake normalcy’ in her life. “It’s about normal people, daily lives,” she said. “It provided me with normalcy and predictability that I craved”. Just like me, Yasmin expressed how she thought this was the perfect time to watch well-known shows, like Peaky Blinders and Narcos; however, she instead opted for what she calls ‘low commitment, minimum effort’ series which are relatively lighter and shorter. 

Smriti was another interviewee who liked the predictability and familiarity of sitcoms, which also gave her the mood boost that she needed during quarantine. Alongside sitcoms, Smriti got her daily dose of ‘fake sense of normalcy’ through reality TV, reminding her of “what life used to be like”. Similarly, Ilayda admitted that she hadn’t seen most of the latest releases as she simply is overwhelmed, and instead opted for her familiar, predictable sitcoms (The Office, Friends, Modern Family). 

Unexpected Discoveries 

Something that kept coming up in my interviews was Tiger King, a docu-series with a lot of social media buzz. About Tiger King, Ceren mentioned that she saw the show purely to understand the hype and the memes she saw on social media. Likewise, Ilayda shared that she made an exception to watch the series because it was something everybody saw. About shows that bring buzz, Yasmin also said: “Everyone has seen them, so it provides a point of discussion”. 

“I felt experimental with new content as I had the time now.”

To my surprise, others approached quarantine with a different strategy, where they would basically watch everything that came out in order to cope with the boredom. One interviewee, Yagmur, even said that she started watching shows that she would otherwise avoid. “I felt experimental with new content as I had the time now”. This was the case for Nicole as well. She admitted to having “finished Netflix” to the point where, after watching everything that came out, she went back and rewatched some of her favourite TV shows.

It is a common and effective way to use entertainment media to cope with changing times.

Indisputably, there was a strong divide between those who opted for the ‘safe option’ and those who were adventurous with their content selection. However, there might be distinct benefits to these decisions. For instance, there is something powerful about your trustee sitcoms and childhood fantasy series that give you a sense of comfort through its familiarity and predictability, in a time where everything feels out of the ordinary. On the other hand, seeing which shows are being talked about, and watching them with the aim of contributing to the conversation could also be an attempt to feel more connected in a time where we’re all isolated. The other end of the spectrum – binge-watching everything that comes out – could be another way to cope with boredom. This could be compared with people picking up new hobbies during quarantine. At least, out of all of these interviews, I found out that I’m not alone, and it is a common and effective way to use entertainment media to cope with changing times. It’s also, not to mention, a damn good way to do so.


Cover: Glenn Carstens-Peters 

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