This week’s question comes in honor of Thanksgiving:
What’s your pop-culture comfort food?
There’s nothing easy or obviously comforting about Spelunky. Derek Yu’s influential game has a perilously steep difficulty curve and reassembles itself every time you start another run at its Indiana Jones-inspired adventure, which would seem to automatically disqualify it as “comfort food” material. And yet, it’s the closest thing I have to a constantly revisited piece of stress-relieving pop culture. I’ve wrung just about every achievement out of it that I plausibly can, so now when I play, despite the game never being “easy” or 100-percent familiar, there’s no real pressure to achieve anything. I play it to go through the motions (literally and figuratively), unconsciously putting hundreds of hours of learning to use. Sometimes it just feels good to cast everything else aside, zone out for a little while, and let instinct take over—even if that state usually comes crashing to a halt when some stupid, unforeseeable chain reaction sends me flying to my doom.
I’m probably stealing a few people’s answer with this obvious choice: The Simpsons. Starting in 1995, I recorded new episodes and reruns on VHS tapes, a tradition that lasted roughly five years and close to 30 videotapes. I practically watched them on a loop, because there were a lot fewer options with TV and cable in those days. I have since ditched the tapes and collected every available season on DVD, but those discs haven’t seen as much action as my old VHS tapes. I’m less likely now to throw on a show while I do something else or revisit something because I have a giant list of shows and movies I still need to watch. But The Simpsons, particularly the seasons that spanned the ’90s and early part of the ’00s, will always be my go-to when I’m looking for something familiar and satisfying.
When my DVR fills up with heady films and entire seasons of prestige TV, but my brain is too tired for all those, I turn to something that might not seem like an easy path to brain disengagement: Jeopardy! The age-old game show is the very definition of comforting for me, though: It’s completely predictable, frequently funny, and, on the best days, it can make me feel incredibly smart. And you can down an entire episode in about 16 minutes if you skip the intros, commercials, and awkward Trebek conversations. Just give me the meat: answers and questions. The only thing that doesn’t feel comfortable about it for me at the moment is that I’m literally 100 episodes behind, so I’ll never catch up, and the DVR will get more and more full. Goodbye Big Little Lies, hello another dozen episodes of Trebek and friends.
My pop culture comfort food is also full of actual comfort food: The Great British Baking Show. I distinctly remember finding it on my parents’ DVR a few years ago and making fun of them for being so boring. But after people kept demanding I give it a shot, I did, and discovered that it is like falling into a freshly laundered hotel bed. Everyone is friends, everyone wants each other to win, even the drama is low-key (someone left the refrigerator door open!), the accents are, yes, pleasant, and they are baking pies and shit in a big tent in a field somewhere in England. Every now and then you get to watch Mary Berry eat a tart or something and declare it “scrummy.” Paul Hollywood’s eyes are like peering into a fathomless crystal-blue ocean. The episodes just roll into each other, one after the next, season after season forever—or at least until you drift off to sleep while watching it.
I generally enjoy watching my favorite shows and films over and over again (and rereading books and replaying video games—I repeat all my favorite media, I guess). And while I’ve reread the Harry Potter series more times than I can count, the piece of pure pop culture comfort food that comes to mind is the Parks And Rec episode where Leslie and Ben get married. “Leslie And Ben” is a wedding episode, but it’s still fundamentally a Parks And Rec episode, and a great one at that. There are plenty of Jerry gags, wacky Andy moments, and deadpans from April. But mostly it focuses on Leslie and Ben’s love, and how an impromptu wedding can come together thanks to their dedicated friends, who hunt down a court official to sign the wedding document and rip out a light fixture to hand-make wedding bands. Plus there’s a beatific Lil’ Sebastian. It’s a perfect episode of television and one that makes my heart warm every time I watch it, which has to be more than a dozen times by now.
I have a bunch of these—the sweet background roar of familiar TV being one of my preferred routes for anxiety relief—but I’ll spare you my millionth blathering about how great Archer is and highlight a new one, instead. Lately, I’ve been letting myself be gently rocked to sleep by the absurd, gleefully stupid rhythms of TBS’ Angie Tribeca, Rashida Jones’ take on the old Police Squad gag-a-second formula. There’s something very relaxing about indulging in a show where literally nothing dramatic or bad can happen, because even the worst crimes are just set-ups for elaborate, very stupid jokes. There’s also a pleasant predictability to it: If someone on Angie Tribeca asks a doctor to “look at a little mole,” you know exactly what’s going to happen, and as a life-long pun-lover, that silliness is weirdly relaxing for me.
The last few months, I’ve fallen asleep revisiting the sounds of three Brits talking about nothing. Before Serial shattered all iTunes records, there was a time when The Ricky Gervais Show was the most downloaded podcast in the world. That title’s a misnomer—the real star of the show was Karl Pilkington, a radio producer from Manchester whose simplistic and simpleton theories about how the world works made for hilarious fodder. Gervais, along with his The Office co-writer Stephen Merchant, would discuss weighty matters of science, philosophy, and the arts, to which Pilkington would offer a dunderheaded but charmingly earnest retort, such as: “We should have never left the sea. No fish is homeless. No fish dies of starvation or stress.” Much of the joy is in hearing Gervais’ uproarious cackle, both piercing and contagious. The podcast was turned into an animated series for HBO, all easily found on YouTube, and the Hanna-Barbera-esque cartoon renderings make the show all the more delightful and side-splitting.
I have a reliable stable of movies that I like to put on just for a scene or two when I need something pleasant and familiar to unwind with for a few minutes. But there are few examples I can watch any given part of with such reliable pleasure as Raising Arizona. I saw the movie in theaters when it first came out and loved it, even though I only understood about a quarter of what was going on. The movie’s zippy, Looney Toons spirit kept me engaged and Nicolas Cage’s well-meaning but incompetent screwball energy is completely endearing. Raising Arizona was the first Coen brothers movie I saw, and is still among my favorites. It’s funny, inventive, has Carter Burwell’s insanely catchy rendition of “Way Out There,” a brilliantly staged fight scene in a trailer home, jammies with Yodas on them, and is just dark and allegorical enough in that Abrahamic way the Coens love so much. Holly Hunter is super badass, too.
Due credit to Caity’s pick, but has there ever been a more comforting multi-camera sitcom than Cheers? The series is practically genetically engaging to be comfort food, the bar setting as familiar and welcoming as any real-life home. As a viewer, you’re all but invited to think of yourself as just another regular, someone pulling up to the bar to watch the weekly hijinks ensue. Even during its rare dramatic downbeat installments, there’s a sense of security and warmth emanating from the show, such that I actually look forward to bedtime now, because it means I get to queue up the next episode. (And this from someone who has spent his entire life treating going to bed with the same vitriolic aversion as an over-caffeinated 4-year-old.) It’s not just sometimes, but all the time, that I like to go where everybody knows your name.