Why do we watch shows that we already know by heart over and over?

I’ve seen all ten seasons of Friends about a billion times. No, seriously, since I discovered the series, about twenty years ago, I launch at least one episode per day, which I watch with more or less attention. I know all 236 episodes of the series literally by heart, and I mostly communicate in “Friends” jokes. That doesn’t stop me from continuing to watch.

With a little more shame this time, I confess that about once a year, usually in the winter, I watch all six seasons of “Gossip Girl” in full. The image has aged badly, the girls are wearing headbands and my favorite character has since been accused of rape, but this series still gives me so much joy.

A need for nostalgia

According to Fanny Parise, an anthropologist specializing in the evolution of lifestyles and consumption, there is a very simple first reason for this phenomenon: despite the illusion of an unlimited offer, users of platforms like Netflix do not don’t necessarily know what to watch and, after ten or fifteen minutes of research, will turn to programs they already know. But she adds: “People need nostalgia, comfort, images that refer to happy times. Often, these are light and “feel good” series that will satisfy their quest for reassurance. »

Alice, 31, often returns to series she watched as a teenager (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “The Scott Brothers”, “Dawson”). “It’s both for nostalgia and also to see how the characters have evolved, if the series has aged well,” she analyzes.

No emotional roller coaster, everything is under control

With the rise of telework, the series can also act as background noise, what in anthropology is called a “co-presence”, a noise that does not distract because it is already known.

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Every night, Martin, 28, launches an “easy” series in his bed to fall asleep: “I don’t go to sleep without it. If I don’t have a series in the background, I hear myself thinking and I never find sleep. Indeed, familiar content allows us to focus solely on emotion by skipping all the cognitive work and moral reflection required of our brain when it discovers a film, a series or a piece of music for the first time. No suspense, no emotional roller coaster, everything is under control.

A cuddly toy function

An article in the “Pacific Standard” is interested in this need for repetition. Watching a series that you know by heart over and over is part of the “simple exposure effect”, a concept studied from the 19th century and developed between the years 1960-1990 by the psychologist Robert Zajonc and which could be summed up as follows: individuals respond more positively to things they have already experienced.

Clemence, 36, likes to watch “Friends” when she’s sick, and “Gilmore Girls” every fall. “It’s ‘comfort food’,” she sums up. It is conquered and reassuring ground. A form of laziness too. Aliyah, 34, who watches “Newport Beach” once a year and regularly repeats “Hart of Dixie”, agrees: “It’s like finding friends, it transports me to a parallel universe without problems. “For the psychologist and psychoanalyst Michael Stora, founder of the Observatory of Digital Worlds in the Humanities, the well-known series fulfills a “cuddly” function: “It’s a fairly regressive phenomenon, very reassuring. We follow the characters over several seasons, there is an emotional attachment, a familiarity that resembles the reason why we return to social networks every day, a matrix where we find the same emotions. Exactly like the relationship a child (or even an adult, but that’s another topic) may have with a ramshackle stuffed rabbit.

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instruments of conviviality

As far as audiovisual works are concerned, the phenomenon has been studied in children, continues Michael Stora: “Studies have shown that what is called ‘joint attention’ will allow a child, later on, to watch twenty times the same film alone. The fact that a film or a series becomes an important cultural object for a child is conditioned by the fact that he has already watched it with one of his parents. This is one of the reasons why childhood films act like Proust madeleines and why I am still able to watch with pleasure the 3h14 of “Titanic” when we all know that the boat sinks at the end and that there was room for two on this board.

Finally, Fanny Parise emphasizes that in moments of conviviality, “launching a series that people know, an object of mass culture, allows you to have more topics of conversation, common interests that support the conversation”. It is still necessary to assume its mass culture. My friends all know “Gossip Girl”. Do I want my dinners to start with the sound of “Gossip Girl here, your one and only source into the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite”? I do not believe.

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