Given the absurd number of hours I spend watching television — accompanied by an inner voice that says things like I’m just staying up to date with my favorite shows and What’s weather? — it’s a pastime that I can happily avoid for considerable periods at a time. Take it or leave it, as the saying goes, it makes no difference to me. Even if I almost always choose to take it.
There are, however, many occasions during which television goes from something I want to something I think I need, if only because the thought of doing anything else is too overwhelming and challenging. Maybe it’s only me, but when I’m feeling sick, television is better than medicine.
Medicinal television is a personal thing. The kind of shows that soothe me may cause an adverse reaction in others. When I’m looking for relief, documentaries are out, as are overly serious, complex dramas—both have proven too demanding on my already diminished mental abilities (and keep my brain from its most important task when I’m suffering, which is feeling sorry for myself).
I’m convinced that this behavior is learned in childhood. When I was in school and stayed home sick, I could barely muster the brain power to flip through comic books I’d read countless times before. (Even now, when I’m sick, my mind is too restless and scattered to read for any period longer than 13 seconds.) At that time, British daytime television consisted of unthreatening fare like Australian soap operas and re-runs of Quincy, M.D. Like other school kids sick in bed (or on a couch), I’d watch with something short of rapt attention, simultaneously entertained and bored, but unwilling (or, at times, unable) to get up to change the channel, or switch the television off altogether.
Slowly, and through repeated exposure, this afternoon programming went from laughable to comfortable, and soon became almost soothing. When friends would be out of school for a day with a cold, I’d feel a twinge of jealousy that they would see that day’s episode of Neighbours before I could catch up with the evening airing. I didn’t realize it then, but I had come to depend on an electronic regimen to alleviate the aches and pains of minor illnesses—and that I was far less discerning of what kind of shows I watched to get me through those times.
That isn’t to criticize the shows that work best as sickness viewing. In fact, I’ve discovered at least one favorite show when my guard was down and my temperature up: Thank you, ABC Family’s Gilmore Girls re-runs. I’ve discovered that the kind of television I watch while unwell has to fulfill very specific needs: They have to distract my mind, but not occupy it. They have to move relatively quickly, and be easy to drop in and out of without too much effort. They have to, for the most part, be funny. Not only because off what they say about laughter, but also because comedy tends to be more distracting to me for some reason, though your mileage may vary.
These days, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, it’s easier than ever to access sick television. As soon as I’ve completed any self-diagnosis of illness (having ruled out factors like bad air-conditioning or eating a day-old sandwich), I find myself picking up my tablet and logging onto Netflix or Hulu for a marathon session of a favorite series. There’s something blissfully indulgent about this ease of availability: No longer do you have to hope that there’s something good being marathoned on the Discovery Channel — now you can program your own lazy viewing!
Nothing about watching (or, thanks to the Internet, re-watching) unchallenging television will actually do anything practical to help you recover from whatever ails you, of course; sick television viewing is, at best, a tonic for your mind more than your body. But if you imagine being sick without such colorful, breezy distraction, somehow the entire experience just seems a little worse, doesn’t it? Being sick: Do not attempt it without television.