As summer ended in 2016, I worked my way through the first two 22-episode seasons of Jane the Virgin in about two weeks. This was not for any reason; I was having a hard time sleeping, and the TV was there. I’d climb into bed with my laptop and start an episode on Netflix, fall asleep, wake up two hours later, rewind to the last part I remembered, watch as long as I needed, perhaps rolling over and falling asleep, perhaps not. A month later, I’d finished those seasons as well as a season each of Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Braindead, and Veep; two seasons of You’re the Worst and Justified; three seasons of Silicon Valley, and a handful of episodes each of Atlanta, The Good Place, and High Maintenance.
It hasn’t been that long that we’ve had devices to crawl into bed with, and it’s been even less time that we could pull up any kind of content we wanted on a screen in order to fill the very particular need of “content we can fall asleep to.” Our parents pioneered the concept of falling asleep to TV, but they had little other than late night shows and probably whatever “video cassettes” made up their paltry collection. Even five years ago, bedtime TV mostly meant scraping something up from network websites or the paltry Netflix offerings, or having planned ahead and downloaded a season or two of a show or two. Those seasons still mostly aired painstakingly, episode by episode, drib-drabbing out each week instead of bursting fully formed onto a streaming platform as they do seemingly a hundred times a year now across Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and various other streaming services.
It was during this particularly bad round of anxiety-driven insomnia that I learned that not all content satisfied my brain’s particular needs in this heightened state. Whatever I watched had to be engaging at a somewhat high level; while often enjoyable, watching Christian women explain their bullet journal layouts didn’t fully distract my circular thought patterns. It turns out raw diversion doesn’t absorb attention as well as listicle sites with seventeen thousand cute puppy pictures once thought it did. At the same time, prestige television was too far in the other direction. I could not fall asleep to the Red Wedding, for instance.
I haven’t had this extent of sleep or anxiety issues since. But when the election happened, my thirst for this sort of content became permanent.
Before there was quite so much TV, I used to read a lot online. Before that, I read a lot of books. In the immediate aftermath of the election, when many of us couldn’t even hold a conversation about how we felt so much as look at least other helplessly or text each other like “hey” “hey” “it’s bad” “yeah”, I found it impossible to focus on a book because my mind never stopped racing to other places and hypotheticals. TV, at least, provided a thread that moved along where I could still get the jokes and one-liners even if I wasn’t absorbing the major plot points.
More nights than not, I put my laptop into bed first, and myself second. I curl up around it, put on my stories, turn all the room’s lights off, turn the screen’s brightness all the way down, and play with the volume until I find a happy medium between “loud enough to constitute ‘comforting ambient activity’” and “quiet enough to fall asleep.” Most ideally, I can narrow the range even further to a point between “can understand what they’re saying just enough to feel not alone” and “can’t understand what they’re saying just enough to not be able to follow a whole conversation so I can drift off.” A really unevenly mixed piece (read: most action movies but especially ones from the ‘90s) will ruin the balance of this equation, but movies that are mostly talking tend to be too cerebral and, again, stress me out, or engage me too much, keep me awake.
Eventually I wake up, almost never the next morning, but sometime in the middle of the night, either to a bright screen still blaring along three episodes past where I started, or a black one. If I’m tired I slam my computer shut and we co-sleep until the morning; if I’m not, I start the process over. When I’m at my best, this is not where I am mentally and emotionally, but when I’m not, it’s where I might be.
A least a few people I know listen to podcasts to this purpose of falling asleep, even some that are meant for sleep. But I find that I’m usually able to ignore them, and my thoughts just gallop along in circles, or else the podcast is too good and I simply must find out what the colors a butterfly can see sounds like when sung by a choir.
Content that is ideal for falling asleep isn’t too hard to find, but harder than it should be. Stuff I might watch has gotten too good at wringing me emotionally dry, wrenching my heart to within an inch of my life in the style of the climax of a Pixar movie, and couching it in tightly wound narrative support and logic that I should care, and if I don’t, I am a Bad Person. Maybe TV or movies are not supposed to affect us this much, but I always flinch first. I swore off Breaking Bad after the second-season finale that involved fully watching, from beginning to end, a woman die of a heroin overdose. It isn’t even as simple as a show that is excellent and familiar: I love Veronica Mars, The Office, and Friday Night Lights, but cannot fall asleep to them. They are too good. I’ve tried.
The content that manages to invite you along for a journey but not demand undying emotional commitment is uncommon, but it does exist. Jane the Virgin is a perfect example. The show covers all manner of drama, the peaks and pits of the human existence (literally, birth, death, murder, betrayal, exaltation, betrayal by birth, betrayal by death, exaltation by murder, it goes on), but characters move through it like water, wistfully encumbered by their baggage and able to overcome obstacles to openly emotional support each other and weather whatever problems may come. Their lives aren’t stable, but they are stable for each other. Younger and The Bold Type are two other standouts in the category: great shows, but neither too self-serious or emotionally grabby.
This principle is also true of Vanderpump Rules, which is the rare reality show that glides along without endlessly recapping and teasing its own plots before and after every commercial break. There is something to be said for drama you can feel sufficiently removed from, which is not the same as drama you don’t care about. Drama that is funny and interesting but not stupid is a very difficult balance to strike, and there are a lot of reality shows that don’t get enough credit for striking it. Some Real Housewives seasons get there, until something too real happens for too many episodes, like an abusive husband committing suicide. Floribama Shore had a surprising amount of heart, characters who it’s easy to get attached to. Not just any mindless reality show works: Some trade in sheer silliness you're supposed to laugh at from a distance, like Naked Attraction, but they're at best annoying and at worst give me despair for humanity. Others, like Siesta Key, are alienating and glossy, packed with anodyne stars who barely pretend to care about their own drama.
I feel a little bad wanting this kind of TV when TV climbed such a mountain to become an equally respectable medium as film, or even, dare I say, a real-life paper hardcover book. But for a long time, TV did not know what it did for us. Most media didn’t know what it did for us, and we were all just scratching at glimmers of feelings here and there: rage, desperation, elation. Now that everyone has figured out how to hone every emotional point so finely that you don’t even feel the scalpel go in as your heart is removed and then held beating in front of you, we are also able to see that there are optional levels of higher intensity: just because you can do that doesn’t mean you should, and even if you can, it might not be what we want.
It’s not unusual that some days I have no more “sad” left to give to, of all things, a TV show. But the emotional grabs have become too gross and too many, and the shows that are substantial enough to hold onto us but gently, that treats viewers with a sense of responsibility instead of going for the jugular every time, are too rare. I just cannot care about most of TV; TV should be the last thing any of us care about. But TV that cares about me, that is the TV I want.