Q. My question is, why are “The Office,” “Friends,” and “Seinfeld” so popular now? I don’t recall old series having such clout back in the old days.
A. It is fascinating, especially since viewers are obsessed with these sitcoms in the middle of the Peak TV and Prestige TV eras, when there are more good new shows than ever before.
In recent years, at about a half-billion dollars per deal, HBO Max bought “Friends,” Peacock bought “The Office,” and Netflix bought “Seinfeld.” These old shows still regularly sit near the top of the streaming services’ most-watched lists, as the services’ original series come and go. The “reruns” are steady performers, and they help the streamers hold on to subscribers who’ve binged all the newer stuff and might otherwise be ready to move on.
Why are people nuts for nostalgia these days? Reruns — especially of comedies — directly tap into our old memories and our longing for more innocent-seeming times. They invite us to put on our rose-colored glasses and look back in fondness. Obviously, the pandemic triggered plenty of comfort viewing, but even before that we were spending a lot of time re-watching old episodes. They offer the warm feeling of knowing exactly what will happen, in a world where everything feels chaotic.
Yes, democracy may be failing, the environment may be in harm’s way, and we don’t know what the future will bring, but I know this episode of “Seinfeld” inside and out, and it ends with a great and funny kicker.
Old shows also provide an escape from the barrage of new stuff that’s waiting to be picked through, that long queue calling out for your attention. At times, the onslaught — to the tune of three or four new series per week — can feel like too much of a good thing. Rather than figuring out what’s new and worth pursuing, it’s sometimes easier to just go for the predictability of what you already know you like. Some people just want to turn their backs on the rigors of Peak TV.
They also get tired of Prestige TV, too. A lot of the best new shows require some degree of brainpower and attention, while the oldies are easy-peasy from start to finish, requiring only low-level and intermittent attention. They don’t ask you to fit together the pieces of a complex plot, or to analyze a character. They don’t invite you to ponder the desperation of small-town life (“Mare of Easttown”) or the trauma of an addicted chess champion (“The Queen’s Gambit”). They just make you smile and relax. They’re an escape hatch from the present tense.