Photo courtesy of Netflix
Editor’s note: This article is the first of the Review’s ongoing series responding to the “What are you watching, Obies?” survey created by Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies Leah Vonderheide.
As a professor of Cinema Studies, I watch a lot of movies. Social distancing has given me even more time to watch and rewatch films, television shows, and a surprising number of YouTube videos — many of which, I’ll be honest, feature feel-good content about folks making the best of our current situation.
But all of this bingeing made me wonder what everyone else has been watching lately — and lucky for me, Oberlin students were happy to oblige! Between Saturday, March 28, and Friday, April 3, 230 Oberlin students filled out the brief survey, “What are you watching, Obies?” to answer that exact question. Here’s what you said:
Before social distancing, most of you — 70 percent — were watching films, television shows, et cetera for two or fewer hours per day.
Since social distancing, most of you — 64 percent — are watching films, television shows, et cetera between two and six hours per day.
Here’s what you’ve been finding comforting:
1) The Office
2) Bon Appétit videos/YouTube channel
3) The Good Place
Here’s what you’ve been finding thought-provoking:
1) Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
2) 100 Humans
3) Little Fires Everywhere and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (tied for third)
Here’s what you’ve been finding inspiring:
1) Unorthodox and Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (tied for first)
3) Bon Appétit videos/YouTube channel
Here’s what’s been making you laugh out loud:
1) Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
2) Schitt’s Creek
3) Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Office (tied for third)
Here’s what’s been making you teary-eyed:
1) Steven Universe and Frozen II (tied for first)
3) Grey’s Anatomy, This Is Us, and Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (tied for third)
Here’s what you suspect you’ll rewatch before the end of social distancing:
1) The Office
2) Parks and Recreation
And here’s what you think we should all be watching:
Little Fires Everywhere; Parks and Recreation; Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness; and Unorthodox (four-way tie)
Finally, since beginning social distancing, 43 percent of you have been equally drawn to rewatching old favorites and seeking out new things to watch. There’s a fairly even divide between those of you who have felt compelled to organize your viewing practices and those of you who haven’t: 48 percent versus 52 percent, respectively. For those of you who have felt compelled to organize your viewing practices, 80 percent of you have been working through films, television shows, et cetera that you have been meaning to watch for a while now, as well as relying on recommendations from friends and family.
So what does this all mean? Why do you find a workplace comedy that first aired fifteen years ago so comforting during a global pandemic? Why does Tiger King provoke such a broad range of emotions? Why is Steven Universe making you cry? I won’t try to tackle all these questions on my own, but some Review writers will continue responding to the data over the next week with their thoughts.
I do have a few thoughts on why The Office — and here I have to assume you are referring to the American series, not the original British version — earned the number-one spot in the “comfort” category, which I will share here.
First, if you’re watching The Office right now, you are not alone. The Office is Netflix’s all-time most-viewed content. Speaking of Netflix, 8 of the 15 titles that made it to a top spot in the survey results are offered on Netflix, which suggests that it is a platform that most of you turn to for your televisual content. Given the overall popularity and general accessibility of The Office, it may also be a show that you are watching with others. That is, you may have it running on your laptop as you contemplate starting your next course assignment, but you may also be watching it in the living room as various family members wander in and ask, “Is this the one where Michael takes a client to Chili’s and orders an ‘awesome blossom, extra awesome’? or “The one where Pam thinks Jan has poisoned her meal during a dinner party?” or “The one where Dwight quotes Benito Mussolini — at length — while accepting his Northeastern Pennsylvania Salesman of the Year Award?”
Second, let’s assume that this is not your first time watching The Office — particularly since many of you suspect you will end up rewatching it before this is all over. If this is true, it may not be that The Office is comforting in itself, rather, spending time with familiar characters and predictable story arcs may act as a salve during these strange and unsettling times.
Also, let’s consider that The Office was on the air from 2005 to 2013. For most of you, then, it originally began airing when you were somewhere between 3 and 7 and ended when you were between 11 and 15—formative years in a young person’s life! As your childhoods transformed into young-adulthoods, the low-stakes trials and tribulations of the Dunder-Mifflin employees of Scranton, Pennsylvania played out in the background. Now many of you are sheltering-in-place in your childhood homes — why not return to a constant from your youth?
Finally, even if you are watching The Office for the first time, the central love story of Jim and Pam is so endearing (and relatively uncomplicated) that it almost has the essence of a fairy tale. This gave the show an air of familiarity even during its original run. Jim’s devotion to Pam is so unwavering — so serious, in fact — that it is the one thing that is never really joked about.
Furthermore, Jim’s love of Pam also allows him to find daily joy in a job that he otherwise detests for its stifling mundanity. Perhaps, at a time when you are trapped at home and limited to mostly indoor activities, you’re finding comfort in Jim’s ability to persevere. Perhaps you suspect that if Jim were around, he’d find inventive ways to make social distancing less of a drag. Would Jim create innovative new activities like online Flonkerton, Zoom Desert Island, or a virtual meet-up to read the most recent draft of Threat Level Midnight?
John Krasinski, who portrayed Jim Halpert for eight years, will always, to a certain degree, be the real-life embodiment of Jim’s goofy charm— no matter how many Jack Ryan seasons he films. So perhaps you were reassured when Krasinski created a new YouTube series committed to reporting Some Good News during this difficult time. If that were not enough, during his second episode of Some Good News, Krasinski surprised a nine-year-old guest named Aubrey, whose class trip to Hamilton was recently canceled, with a virtual performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the rest of the Hamilton cast.
If you haven’t seen the segment, I encourage you to check it out, if only for the moment when Krasinski asks Aubrey who she likes more, him or his wife, Emily Blunt — who stars in Mary Poppins Returns alongside Miranda. Aubrey insists that she likes them both equally, to which Krasinski replies, “Really, you like Mary Poppins as much as Jack Ryan? Is that true? I think you’re lying …” To which Aubrey responds, “I’ve never really seen The Office.”
Aubrey hasn’t seen it, but you have. And whatever your reasons for watching, this has been a nice reminder that even when we’re far apart, we’re still a part of a larger community finding respite in front of the soft glow of a screen — a screen that, for many of you, may feature Dwight Schrute’s stapler trapped in a yellow Jell-O mold at this very moment.