post cover

Why I don't like comfort food TV

Or: What does it mean to be comforted?


Emily VanDerWerff

Sep 13 2021

12 min read


Somewhere around the middle of my initial watch of Schitt's Creek, when I was firmly embedded in the part where everybody insisted it "got good," I realized that I was just never going to like it as much as everybody else. I could accept that it was a well-made show, one with fantastic performances and solid joke writing. I admired its vision of a world where various forms of structural prejudice (especially homophobia) just didn't exist. And I always like a small town show, just on principle.

But I couldn't vibe with it on some fundamental level, and I realized that was more about me than the show. It's a big part of why I've never written much about it. I didn't want to drag it down for the things it was doing well, just because I didn't think it should be doing them. It wasn't actively perpetuating harm or committing the slightly less troubling sin of making the television medium worse. It just annoyed me. There's a difference.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had this reaction to a lot of TV shows I had seen billed as either "comfort food" or "escapist." And every time a critical mass of friends or people on Twitter insisted I had to watch something, it would be a show just like this, where nothing was ever really wrong and where people cared about each other. And I was annoyed by a lot of those shows.

Now! Shows like this can work for me. Ted Lasso, in spite of itself, found its way past my defenses (though it took an entire arc about how Ted is kind of broken inside, so hey, maybe I'm being less inconsistent here than I think I am). And for its first few seasons, I thought Parks and Recreation was a delight. If memory serves, it was very high on my top 10 TV list in 2010 and 2011, for instance, and season three of that show is pretty much perfect. Indeed, the show's best episode, "Fancy Party," is just a bunch of people being nice to each other, then having a wedding. I love it.

So the issue isn't with comfort food TV, not really. I think there might be a little too much critical mass devoted to saying, "Hey, this show is really sweet and nice, and nothing bad happens in it, what a contrast from our current hellscape!!" right now, but these things are cyclical. We'll be right back to, "THIS SHOW IS FULL OF MISERY, LIKE OUR CURRENT HELLSCAPE" in no time flat. I also think some comfort food shows are just bad, but those are rarely the ones elevated to the level of Schitt's Creek or Ted Lasso, both of which I have far more respect and affection for.

No, the issue here is with me. So I decided to start digging around in my brain and figure out what was going on. And I realized that, hey, I spent my entire childhood watching shows that insisted everything was great, everybody was kind, and nothing too bad could happen, just as long as I did all the right things. And those shows were trying to indoctrinate me.

(Gospel Bill is the wildest show, you guys? It's a Western occasionally interrupted by a puppet going to the zoo. You shouldn't actually watch it, but I hope you appreciated that brief summary.)

There is a fairly persistent idea among those of us who are critical of the warm and fuzzy art movement, which amounts to, "This inability to deal with the hard things in life is reminiscent of conservative Christians trying to shut down art they disagreed with in the '80s and '90s." I don't really think this is true, but I get the impulse. The most common response to me saying something like, "I think it's good to have art that challenges us and makes us feel a little bad sometimes" is, "We've had years and years of misery-inducing art. Maybe it's time for art to make us feel good!" That response isn't, "We need art that reflects God's values," because it's not explicitly proscriptive (usually), but it's a hop, skip, and a jump from there.

And to be clear, many of my fellow miserabilists will be, like, "Warm and fuzzy art is for babies," which is a different kind of self-certainty but still self-certainty. Presenting anyone's artistic preference as a moral stance is never the way to go, unless they're promoting, like, explicitly racist art. Then maybe you should judge them. Beyond that, we're all just trying to get by in this dumb old world as best we can.

The more I talk to people who share my love of difficult art, though, the more I realize how many of us were raised in the evangelical church or a similar fundamentalist religious tradition. And I'm not going to speak for anybody but me here, but for me, my bristling against comfort food art is a bristling against the ways in which comfort food art attempts to obscure the bad things I know exist. It's too reminiscent of the art I was raised with, art that insisted that being pure and godly would make the world a better, more perfect place. And it didn't take me long to realize that art was lying to me.

The world I grew up in was full of abuse of power, abuse of finances, abuse of family members. It was one where many, many people were hypocrites, and yet the only ones who were ever punished for it were women. It was one where we were taught to keep quiet about the bad things in our midst, because that would not reflect well on us. And it was one where the monsters were always outside and far away, never inside the house. I grew up knowing things were fucked up; I also grew up thinking I was wrong to think so. Thus, when I see something dark and complicated and miserable, it feels like a breath of fresh air to me. (I am convinced this explains my long-time defense of The Handmaid's Tale, one of the few shows that really understands evangelical America's mindset.)

In contrast, a lot of the people I know who adore comfort food art are people who were raised in a situation where they were aware of the problems of the world from an early age. That might have been because of parental negligence or bad bullying at school or finding out about climate collapse at an early age and freaking out about it from there on. And to be sure, the world is pretty bad, and we live in a social media economy that insists if you haven't stared at all of the worst things happening right now, you are a part of the problem. So I get it.

But I want to think about how the world is bad and how I'm occasionally complicit in that. That doesn't mean the art I like is any better, but it does mean my reasons for liking it extend beyond, like, self-punishment. To me, seeing someone stick a finger in their wound and root around in it is bracing and cleansing and necessary. Your mileage may vary.

Programming note: Hey, everybody! I'm back! For a couple of weeks! My surgery got postponed again, to either October 1 or October 11, so I will surely take the week off from the newsletter entirely following said surgery. I'll keep you updated.

In the meantime, I really enjoyed my break from doing this. I'm thinking about how to make this a more manageable part of my life, and I might have to scale back my commitment to it, at least somewhat. I'll let you know what I decide in the weeks to come!

Talk back to me: Do you love comfort food art, or are you a misery addict like me? Tell me why you think you love the things you do.

What I've been up to: It's been weeks and weeks since I was here last, so maybe you should just go to my author page on Vox and click on everything. But of late, the piece I'm proudest of is this look at the Ted Lasso backlash and the changing ways we talk about TV.

Again, the flaws people are now finding in Ted Lasso were already present in season one. The show has always been defined by low levels of conflict and an overall veneer of happy-go-lucky optimism, to the degree that when I wrote about its rise earlier this year and thought I was being mildly critical of it, many readers quoted my story as though I had written glowingly about how Ted Lasso serves as a bastion of kindness in a dark and weary world. That’s not how I would describe the show, but its fans and marketing campaign certainly won’t mind if you do.

Ted Lasso’s “aw shucks, we’re all good friends here” tone has definitely started to rub some people the wrong way, but it’s also not new. There’s a structural reason it suddenly feels more apparent, one that transcends sweet, folksy Ted Lasso: We’ve built a TV-viewing culture that is almost incapable of discussing a season two.

What you missed if you're not a subscriber to Episodes: Again, it's been a bit, and we've run a ton of great pieces, like a look at Western fashion for when you want to look just like Dua Lipa (please!) to a piece on transformative justice in Xena: Warrior Princess. And, hey, here's a piece about great musicals from Africa! And one about how Netflix's Fear Street turns being a witch into an all-purpose metaphor for being someone the mainstream US doesn't cater to. It's all good stuff! Read it!

Read me: Hey, you know how this year has just been rife with absolutely odious and disgusting bills in state legislatures aimed at ending trans healthcare, especially for teens? Well, those laws have a devastating impact on intersex people as well. Friend of the newsletter Sydney Bauer has a lot more over at them.

When Alicia Roth Weigel went to testify at the Texas Capitol earlier this year against a bill that would ban gender-affirming medical care for trans youth, she knew she was in for a long day. The legislature’s Republican leadership has a habit of scheduling public bill hearings at the last minute to prevent public opposition, making it hard for activists to follow an ever-changing legislative session. The last time Weigel went to protest a bill, she arrived at 8 a.m. only for the hearing to begin at 10:30 p.m that night.
But Weigel couldn’t afford to miss this hearing. She wasn’t going to testify on behalf of trans youth who were set to lose access to care. Rather, as an intersex person and advocate for the intersex advocacy organization interACT, Weigel was one of only a handful of people in the area who could testify firsthand about an overlooked provision in the bill — one that expressly allows doctors to continue performing medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex youth, even as it bans gender-affirming care.

Such carveouts for intersex surgeries are common but rarely noticed due to their careful wording. “The interesting thing is when you read the text [of these bills], the word ‘intersex’ is not mentioned once in the language of the bill,” Wiegel tells them. “However, the vast majority of the bill is about intersex people.”

Watch me: I don't know if I agree with everything in this video essay that does a deep dive (a 150-minute deep dive!) on Bo Burnham's song "Jeff Bezos" from his recent special Inside, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I watched it. It's so well-edited, even though it's two-and-a-half hours long, and I am incredibly drawn to many of its conclusions. It's legitimately changed how I think about the world. (If you have no particular interest in Bo Burnham, you can skip the first section entirely. It's the rest of the video that digs into The World At Large.)

And another thing... Have you listened to Arden yet? Well, it just turned three, so pls listen to Arden already!

Opening credits sequence of the week: I adore an opening credits sequence where the protagonist explains who everybody is to you. Enter the opening credits sequence for Mulligan's Stew...

A thing I had to look up: Nothing! In the time since I last published this newsletter, I have learned all knowledge and retained all of it! Congratulations................. to me.

This week's reading music: "It's Gonna Be Okay, Baby" by MUNA

Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter

comfort food