Why We Love To Rewatch Old TV

by Kimberly Zapata
PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/Getty

To say I am a creature of habit would be an understatement. Every morning, I wake up and take a 30 minute walk. Or, if I’m feeling ambitious, I go on a run. Every afternoon, I eat the same meal: ramen with a soft-boiled egg. And every evening I serve dinner at 6:30. Traffic be damned. But my biggest obsession? My greatest “routine?” Every night I rewatch old shows.

From “Friends” and “Futurama” to “The Great British Bakeoff” and “The Office,” I turn on (and tune into) the same set of shows, and it turns out I am not alone. Millions of individuals are watching dramas and sitcoms past. The reason? These shows are comfortable and relatable. Thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+, they are accessible, and old TV is familiar. Like your favorite pair of sneakers or pajamas or a well-worn nightshirt.

“Part of it is [a matter of] technology having caught up to our interest and desires,” Daniel D’Addario — Variety’s chief TV critic — tells Culture. “You no longer have to wait for TV reruns or invest in DVD box sets – these things are waiting for you online. Then there is the comfort of familiarity. The things people are binging are not deeply experimental, you know the rhythms of these shows very well. It’s about knowing what you’re getting and letting it wash over you.” And Claire Zulkey, a Chicago-based freelance writer, agrees.

“There’s something comforting about familiarity,” Zulkey told Decider in 2017. “You can fall asleep or go get some food without thinking like you’ll miss something.”

Of course, the rerun is not new. I remember growing up and watching “Gilligan’s Island” with my family. That, or my mother’s favorite: “I Love Lucy.” However, the manner in which we watched was different. It was laid-back. We simply stopped on the show while cycling through channels because it happened to be there — because a “classic” was on TV. But today our decisions are more active, and our viewing habits are dictated by our desires, impulses, and time.

“I used to love to watch new things. Now my time is limited,” Tom Monica, a mortgage underwriter from New Jersey, told Decider. “I honestly try new shows from time to time. I just can’t seem to get invested in them. All of the Netflix Marvel series I should love and I just don’t. I can’t get into them. I prefer to just watch a movie. Two hours and done.” But time isn’t the only factor. In the same Decider article, Marjorie — a former TV critic — revealed that old shows are less dangerous than new ones. We know what we are getting into. The risk level is low.

“I suppose there is less of a perceived ‘risk’ of wasting my time or I just want to watch something where I know where it’s going to take me emotionally,” Marjorie explains. “There is something comforting about that, especially with formulaic shows like procedurals, which require less overall investment.”

Admittedly, I’ve never given much thought into why I rewatch old TV. As I stated, I’m a creature of habit. I simply figured I was boring. That, or stuck in my ways. But I can relate to Marjorie’s point, and others. There is commitment involved when starting a new series. Watching new programming requires time. It also requires focus, something which I tend to lack after 8:00pm. Plus, when I’m relaxing at the end of the day, I want something which soothes my soul or makes me laugh, and I know how certain programs make me feel. They are assuaging, reassuring, and safe.

“Time and time again, people say they are drawn back to their favourite shows because of their feeling that starting something new might be stressful,” says writer David Renshaw of BBC Culture. “Why, dedicated rewatchers argue, would I start something new that might be nerve-racking, complicated, not what it seemed from the trailer, or simply unenjoyable, when I know I have a guaranteed treat waiting for me? By reducing the element of risk, contrastingly, a rewatch can possess a restorative, zen-like power.” Plus, I know the characters in my favorite programs. They feel like extensions of myself, part of my completely bizarre but extended family.

Of course, there is another factor which contributes to the phenomena of the rewatch, i.e., there’s also the paralysis of choice. Many nights I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of titles. I do not know where to start — or how to begin. So I select programming which I know. That, or I settle on an animal documentary (my guilty pleasure). And millions of others do the same. There is a psychological reason for this.

“According to the ‘paradox of choice, a psychological concept popularized by a 2004 book of the same name, an overabundance of options stymies consumers’ ability to choose among them,” a 2020 article by John Jurgensen of the Wall Street Journal explains. “It’s a feeling many TV viewers… experience when they pick up their remote controls.”

“The problem with limitless choice is that choice is daunting,” Derek Kompare, a media studies professor at Southern Methodist University and the author of ‘Rerun Nation,’ adds. There really can be too much of a good thing.

That said, the reason why you watch old TV doesn’t matter. What matters is how said programming makes you feel. And if you (like me) are comforted by the familiar — if you find peace and respite in that which is ordinary and well-known — then enjoy it. Grab some popcorn and laugh alongside your favorite characters. Even if you already know what the punchline is going to be.