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ESSAY
Turn On the Tube: How I Use TV to Survive My Depression
N. Alysha Lewis

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When you have depression (and OCD, and invasive thoughts, and major anxiety), engaging in relaxing, effective self-care is not just a coping mechanism—it’s a life-or-death necessity. And ever since college, my go-to trick is TV.

My mental health exploded like a dirty bomb between freshman and sophomore year in college. Because living in a dorm wasn’t conducive to my old ways of dealing with stress and sadness—blasting my favorite albums and belting out “Defying Gravity” on repeat—I had to come up with something to do on the days when I couldn’t get out of bed. I needed constant distraction from the fact that I was missing my third class of the week, so I filled my bed with the few DVDs that merited following me to school and burrowed under the covers with my laptop.

This meant watching How I Met Your Mother season three (the last really good one) to the point of memorizing the episodes, waiting for new episodes of Castle and Ugly Betty to appear online each week, and marathoning all three Lord of the Rings movies when I had a lot of time to waste and no interest in a normal sleep schedule.

Basically, I taught myself to mindlessly consume media long before I had access to multiple streaming services.

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As you can imagine, this coping mechanism has evolved (read: alarmingly warped) since I first logged on to Netflix. Between it, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and HBO Go, I currently have a near-endless supply of TV and movies to slide into after a long day of pretending I want to interact with people at work and surviving my anxiety-inducing commute without screaming. It’s just shoes off, pajama pants on, binge.

(This has, unfortunately, kind of ruined my ability to read at home. And I love reading.)

However, when depression hits (and it hits like a motherfucker some days), it doesn’t matter that there’s a large retinue of shows that I’m actively watching or actively interested in. All I can do is turn on the same handful of shows, which means that I’ve watched some of them more times than our president has lied on Twitter. (Just kidding; no one’s ever done anything more than he’s lied anywhere.)

In my required watching during the lowest, darkest times, every show is a variation on the sitcom, and it honestly feels like I’m reaching critical mass as far as consumption goes. But, as a lot of people with depression can attest, it’s really fucking difficult to find the energy for new things/experiences when you’re trying to keep your brain from destroying you. Which makes the trend I’ve noticed all the more interesting: Depending on how deep my depression is, there are certain shows I love that are simply unbingeable.

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Some are “every mood” shows, like Bob’s Burgers. Whether I’m happy, sad, or feel like dying, I throw on this cartoon about a scrappy burger man and his family and feel better. The best thing is that it’s bingeable in so many different combinations; I can start from the beginning or jump to season five (because “Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl” is an amazing season opener) or cherry-pick my favorite episodes across all seasons (including “Full Bars,” “Dawn of the Peck,” and “The Hauntening”). That ukulele theme song always lifts my spirits, as does hearing a patented Tina sigh or a hearty “All riiiiight” from Linda.

Similarly, Brooklyn Nine-Nine can do no wrong, serving as a frequent mood-brightener. During the lead up to season three’s premiere, I rewatched the first two seasons and IMMEDIATELY went back to the beginning before the credits finished rolling on season two’s finale. Such is my love for the Andy Samberg vehicle that brought the world Captain Holt and “the human form of the 100 emoji” Gina Linetti.

There are even a few shows that I don’t need to do a full binge with; I simply put on my favorite episode and feel perked up enough to make a real decision. “Micro” from New Girl’s season four became a game changer—it’s one of the first things my husband throws on when I’m curled up on the couch, slowly going numb. With one of my absolute favorite shows, Happy Endings, I dive into “Boyz II Menorah” or any episode where Megan Mullally guest stars, and the season two set of paintball episodes from Community are quick to find their place on my queue when I need a happiness fix.

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But then, there are the shows that I need to steer clear of if I’m in a mood. And the top “Do Not Binge When I’m in a Pit of Despair” offender? NBC’s sweetheart, Parks and Recreation.

This is a show that took three attempted watches before things finally clicked and I saw its merit (y’all know season one is hard to swallow at times). So, already, it already had a rocky past with me. I love it now, of course, because I’m not completely dead inside. I enjoy a good dose of Leslie, Ron, Donna, April—the whole gang—on my best days. But on my worst, this show becomes an unbingeable nightmare.

Because Leslie Knope makes me feel like shit.

The problem with me and Leslie is that she’s perfect. Even when she’s acting insane and stubborn and has her eyes trained like a laser beam on something ostensibly unattainable, she crushes at life. That could never be said of me, and my toxic, mentally ill brain makes sure to latch onto that thought. What’s worse is that one aspect of Leslie’s personality is something I crave: she is always cranking out spectacular gifts or elaborate surprises for the people she loves. Because I frequently come up with super intense gift ideas that I never follow through on—see: depression makes it difficult to do things—her ability to not only do this but turn them around in a few hours really hits me in my particular brand of anguish.

Leslie Knope is the definition of bouncing back from failures, while I just get destroyed by them. Therefore, unless I really feel like amping up the self-hatred, I stay far away from Parks and Rec. (I will say that the episode where Ben proposes and their wedding episode are literally always watchable.)

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Another thing that keeps me from a good TV binge is how much the show relies on the cringe factor. Cringe humor can be hilarious when you’re in top mental shape and downright disastrous when you’re not.

Take Community, which I listed earlier as an episode-specific consummable. In small bursts, this is a really good show. But you’ll never catch me in a Community binge when I feel like I’m being swept up in a tsunami of self-doubt. And this is primarily because of Chevy Chase’s Pierce.

His character is SO HARD to watch—in any setting. You really think I’m going to subject myself to his sexist and racist shenanigans when I’m upset? Then, there’s episodes like the season three opener, where Joel McHale’s Jeff is now forced into the Pierce role, made to seem like an unhinged racist asshole. No! It actively damages my mental health, and I can do that all by my damn self. The only Pierce-heavy episode I can stomach is the one where they enter a video game to help him win his inheritance. Everything else is laborious.

It’s this aversion to over-cringe that has kept me from ever watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I have a ton of friends who love it, but less than two minutes into the first episode, there’s a race joke. I had to bow out. I somehow made it through four full seasons of The League before I realized that my laugh-to-frown ratio was horribly skewed in favor of the latter. I can do dark (it’s how I can like a movie like Get Him to the Greek), but there’s a level of cynicism and don’t-give-a-fuck-ability that I just can’t cross, no matter how cool I think people will think I am by having a show in my repertoire.

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Surprisingly enough, 30 Rock gets a pass on its cringe humor. I’m not even sure why. Probably because I’ve said multiple times that while I wish I were a Knope, I’m obviously a Lemon—frantically in search of tactics that might improve my view on life but ultimately maintaining my original perspective. I once tweeted that I regularly feel the way Liz felt when a random homeless man spit in her mouth as she walked down the street. While I usually skip the racially charged episode with Wayne Brady (which honestly never felt like it was fully utilizing his talent anyway), I can fall into a 30 Rock hole, only to emerge after I’ve watched all seven seasons. I even stomach the Matt Damon episodes, and I really don’t like looking at him—seriously; ask around.

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But like I said, I’m finding myself in a critical mass situation. On the one hand, I have tons of new shows that I’m completely out of the loop with because of my tendency to just go back to Ol’ Reliables. I stopped watching How to Get Away with Murder halfway through season two because I couldn’t handle the stress of its drama. Until very recently, I was sitting on a veritable hoard of This Is Us episodes because I was never “I feel like crying it out” depressed. This habit manifests such a major feeling of guilt—which, naturally, just makes me go even harder with watching something I’ve watched a million times.

I often wish I could break this cycle. When you watch the same three or four shows in heavy rotation, burnout is inevitable. I can’t name how many times I’ve turned to Bob’s Burgers half-heartedly simply because I needed something in the background, and the show’s ever-present humor, while appreciated, wasn’t exactly what I was in the mood for. But, and I hate to beat a dead horse here, it’s hard to know what you’re in the mood for when you’re trying to stop yourself from downing a bunch of pills and calling it a day.

“Why not just watch a movie?” Because that only fills up about two and a half hours of my life at a time! I need nonstop preoccupation from the time I walk into the door to the time I fall listlessly into bed (at which point, I put on a disc of Dr. Katz). If I don’t have the mental capacity to get up and feed myself when I’m in my pit of sadness, there’s no way I have the energy to keep picking movies to watch. So, you can kindly miss me with that weak-ass suggestion. I need a decision that is continuously made for me, and the right show provides me with a week’s worth of no-stress entertainment.

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The good thing about all of this is that my shows always come around again. Variety might be the spice of life, but there’s a reason comfort is so named—people naturally crave the thing that consistently brings them joy. And for me, that’s putting on a show for the nth time. Because good TV can’t be denied. I just occasionally have to avoid it if I want to retain my will to live. 


N. Alysha Lewis is a Boston-based writer and editor who spends her free time with good books, her husband, and their pets. Her writing has appeared on The Prompt and Left Hooks, as well as East Coast Ink Magazine and the Barnes and Noble Teen blog.