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Why rewatching your favorite TV show feels so good right now

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in Disney+'s "WandaVision."
Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in Disney+'s "WandaVision."Associated Press

For fans of “WandaVision,” the classic sitcom was one of the stars of the show. The Disney+ series, whose first season concluded earlier this month, featured Marvel’s Wanda Maximoff grieving a major loss, using plots, set designs, and costumes inspired by iconic sitcoms to avoid facing her trauma.

Wanda desired a return to nostalgic places and times before fear and discomfort enveloped her. And she’s not the only one.

For many, an increased diet of TV, movies, and books became a regular response to the pandemic. A YouGov poll found that adults reported watching more TV than usual in 2020, with a certain kind of content attracting more interest: old favorites. Two series that debuted in 2005 were among the most-viewed on Netflix in the United States last year: “The Office” was streamed for more than 57 billion minutes and “Grey’s Anatomy” for almost 40 billion, according to Nielsen.

A similar pattern has been seen with books. Last year, researchers at Aston University in England found that more than half of the people surveyed increased their book consumption during the pandemic. Almost a third were rereading titles more than they usually do, often citing comfort and familiarity as the reasons.

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Researchers call it “volitional reconsumption” — deciding to do something again because it was so good the first time. A 2011 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that rereading a book or re-watching a movie can increase a person’s sense of pleasure, satisfaction, and generally improves one’s mood.

Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1."
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1."Andrew Cooper

This is the case for Somerville Public Library generalist librarian Melinda Carr. “I’ve rewatched the entirety of ‘Mad Men’ and also reread and rewatched the ‘Twilight’ series, all during the past COVID summer,” she wrote in an e-mail.

By returning to beloved storylines and characters, we come to what experts call a “stable site of self-presence.” The researchers writing in the Journal of Consumer Research explain it as acknowledging our past and current situation and being able to confront what comes next.

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Like making lists, the practice of reconsumption is another way to gather our thoughts and face challenges.

Boston-based clinical social worker and coach Rachel Kalvert explained that the pandemic has made people especially eager to rewatch or reread. “We get nostalgic for things that provide us comfort,” she said. “These things make us feel safe.” By rewatching our favorite shows, we’re attempting to comfort ourselves.

For Carr, her first brush with “Mad Men” was parallel to a memorable time in her life: “I remember it being this hazy summer in college where I felt limitless with opportunity and life.”

“Mad Men” and “Twilight” remind Carr of a time when the future was full of possibility and adventure, when there was little standing in her way. “I think it’s important to reflect on pop culture or literature that had a formative part of your life,” she explained. “It spoke to you for a reason and reflects a part of who you used to be or are. This pandemic has provided a lot of inner reflection of who we are, and the media we consume reflects that, too.”

Kalvert acknowledged that age and development play an important role. As children, having someone tell us that everything is OK is necessary to develop healthy coping habits as adults. As we get older, we learn to do this for ourselves: we eat comfort food, watch comforting shows, and wear comfortable clothes to help us feel that we can manage our day to day better.

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She also explained that we use any of our senses to do so, which is why Grandma’s pumpkin pie or the smell of a grill in the summer send feelings of content through our spines. And why Wanda creates the idyllic town of Westview to mimic the sitcoms that impacted her life. When she watches them, she is reminded of her family, of a time before she lost everyone she loved.

The genre or theme of the show is not nearly as important as the experience associated with the first viewing, Kalvert said. Whether you and your family used to watch something scary like “Criminal Minds” or comedic like “Saturday Night Live,” you may find comfort in the show because of those early memories.

“In times of stress, you only have so much of a bandwidth to try new things,” Kalvert said. “We only have the emotional energy to go back to things that bring us comfort.”

So, when Netflix asks if you’re still watching “New Girl” for the 17th time, tap the resume play button with contentment. Your behavior is getting you through this difficult time.

Molly MacDuff is a writer pursuing her master’s degree in publishing and writing at Emerson College.