Dreaming of Giant Pumpkins: A Television Viewer’s Search for Comfort TV


By: Tiffany Vogt

 
In today’s wasteland of television shows, there is so little that holds our attention. We see shows that offer dancing and singing, car chases and explosions, and scantily clad men and women. But really, as we all flip the channels, we are looking for the same thing. We want to see something that will capture our imaginations, if but for a little while. For some that may be sports, singing, comedy or drama. But whatever that magic ingredient is, it is elusive.
 
Tuesday nights may be the best example of how hard it is to find just a bit of magic on television. The competition is fierce. There is a vast array of shows to choose from. Yet to the studios’ horror, so many of us are sampling shows and then simply turning the channel — or worse yet, not even turning our televisions on.
 
We live in the era of DVR’s — and appointment television is simply a thing of the past. We are no longer captive by the programming schedule and forced to choose between competing shows. Instead, we set our DVR’s on season pass and let the shows record so that we can pick and choose at our leisure what we want to watch. It is a programmer’s nightmare. The audience is choosing what they want to watch and when – which means less advertising dollars as the live-ratings continue to drop and DVR-viewing numbers go up.
 
But even with the luxury of recording multiple shows at once, the American television audience is simply being picky about what they are willing to watch. The 8 o’clock hour on Tuesday nights should be a three-way battle between NCIS, GLEE, NO ORDINARY FAMILY. Instead, astoundingly, viewers are looking to see what else is on and watching shows that most of us may or may not have heard of: UNNATURAL HISTORY, TOWER PREP, MELISSA & JOEY, IRON CHEF, BILLY THE EXTERMINATOR and DIRTY JOBS.
 
With NCIS pulling in some of the highest ratings of any scripted show on television (over 20 million viewers last week) and GLEE also drawing its highest ratings (nearly 12 million viewers), it is inconceivable that there is much more of an audience to sustain the competing shows. Yet there is. The silent mass that perhaps does not turn their TV on is sampling and sticking with shows like MELISSA & JOEY which continued to gain in viewers through its first season. Cartoon Network is also gaining traction with its successful foray into scripted primetime with its young adult series UNNATURAL HISTORY and TOWER PREP.
 
So what are people tuning in for? What is drawing them to tune in at record numbers for the 8 o’clock timeslot on Tuesday nights, but not for any other night of the week?
 

I posit that they are looking for “comfort food” or “comfort TV” if you will — something familiar, yet friendly and intriguing. In the case of NCIS, which is in its 8th season, it is the promise of family that draws its audience. The show offers a father-figure with sibling-like rivalry amongst the other characters. It is a quasi-family that draws us in with the friendly bickering and antics, and also with their love and affection. There is also a weekly mystery inviting us to join them for a bit of fun and adventure. It is like an adult-version of SCOOBY DOO. (Though I can just feel the shudders from the creators and writers and fans alike over this reaching comparison.)
 
But if you look at all the 8 o’clock shows on Tuesday nights, they are offering a similar theme. It’s family night. NCIS, GLEE, NO ORDINARY FAMILY, MELISSA & JOEY, UNNATURAL HISTORY and TOWER PREP all offer a variation on the family-theme. Whether it be set in a crime lab, a glee club, a home of a family with special abilities, a home with an unconventional family, or a school with students becoming a family, they are at their core the same. They know that the viewing audience wants to tune in and join a surrogate family for awhile –to live vicariously through these shows and be warmly welcomed into their worlds.
 
In today’s society we are nearly constricted by the economic ruin around us. With mass layoffs, record numbers of unemployment, jobs hanging by a thread, and foreclosures devastating neighborhoods, the world as we know it feels dark, bleak and unhopeful. It is not wonder that we are turning to our television sets for a few moments of respite.
 
We are searching for pure escapism — to enter worlds where we feel like life is going to be okay. However, it has to be believable. Worlds of the ultra rich as portrayed lavishly in Fox’s short-lived LONE STAR are quickly shunned. We want to turn on our TV’s and embrace families for which we want to be a part. No matter how horrific the crimes, most of us would gladly spend a day with or even a month or two hanging out with the NCIS gang, or in glee class with the kids of GLEE or would happily play amongst the Powells in their house on NO ORDINARY FAMILY. These are worlds in which we want to escape. They are offering just the solace and stimulation to help ease our worries for awhile.
 
I imagine that is all most viewers are seeking today. Shows which offer a home to visit each week and a family to embrace. If only more shows could offer us just that one magic ingredient: a place to call “home.”
 
Looking beyond the Tuesday night 8 o’clock timeslot, there are lots of other shows offering variations on the familial theme, from CASTLE to HOUSE to CHUCK. Even shows like PRIVATE PRACTICE and COUGAR TOWN are offering unconventional families for which the audience can spend time. It is all comfort food. These make-shift families invite us to join them in the trials and tribulations, and they do it in such a way that we look forward to being a part of their family each week.
 
It is shows that lack this essential ingredient that seem to be slipping in the ratings. THE GOOD WIFE has slipped slightly simply because its familial vibe seems to be missing. Even THE MENTALIST feels like it too lost sight of the importance of its familial charm. Shows may be either procedurals or serial television shows, but the ones that seem to be retaining or capturing audiences are the ones that offer the viewer a family for which they want to be a part – which explains why RAISING HOPE was the first new show of the season to be picked-up. Even obscure shows like FRINGE and THE VAMPIRE DIARIES know how important it is that their audience feel like they are invested in the family element — and on those shows, the characters are fighting to keep their families together. It is a struggle which the television audience relates to and roots for. We too have families with which we struggle to keep together.
 
Perhaps Hallmark Channel did it best in a recent holiday special entitled GROWING THE BIG ONE. In a charming story of a young woman who inherits a pumpkin farm, we were invited into the warm embrace of a town obsessed with growing giant pumpkins, but who astoundingly did not let their competitive spirit keep them from welcoming a lost, lonely stranger into their midst. The story was so unexpectedly loving that I re-watched it with amazement and glee. The theme was brilliantly executed. It was a fairy-tale story with all the magic ingredients.
 
So as I continue to watch all of my TV shows, I find myself still dreaming of giant pumpkins. Why on earth would one want a giant pumpkin? It is not the pumpkin itself, but rather what it symbolizes. It is the remembrance of all the comforts we crave — from pumpkin spice lattes to pumpkin pie and even the smiling jack-o-lantern that welcomed us through the holidays.  It reminds us of simpler times – that life should be about celebrating with friends and family. 
 
If only more TV shows would remember that in times like these, a little comfort goes a long way.  Create families (conventional or not) that we want to be a part of and we will tune in faithfully.  In the meantime, I continue to dream of giant pumpkins…

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to The TV Addict.  She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

  • Anonymous

    Very well said! I think you hit on something right here: “Worlds of the ultra rich as portrayed lavishly in Fox’s short-lived LONE STAR are quickly shunned. We want to turn on our TV’s and embrace families for which we want to be a part.”

    This is one of the reasons why a show like Gossip Girl doesn’t appeal to me at all, besides it being a soapy teen drama. Of course, a show *can* get past that. The OC is a great example of a show about wealthy beautiful people that actually managed to have likable characters who you cared about.

    Most of my favorite shows, from Modern Family to Chuck to How I Met Your Mother, either feature families or groups of friends that are basically family. Even Dexter has the core relationship between he and Deb, and the people who work at the PD.

    On a side note, Tuesday TV pretty much sucks. I’m about to drop Glee and No Ordinary Family.

  • Anonymous

    Very well said! I think you hit on something right here: “Worlds of the ultra rich as portrayed lavishly in Fox’s short-lived LONE STAR are quickly shunned. We want to turn on our TV’s and embrace families for which we want to be a part.”

    This is one of the reasons why a show like Gossip Girl doesn’t appeal to me at all, besides it being a soapy teen drama. Of course, a show *can* get past that. The OC is a great example of a show about wealthy beautiful people that actually managed to have likable characters who you cared about.

    Most of my favorite shows, from Modern Family to Chuck to How I Met Your Mother, either feature families or groups of friends that are basically family. Even Dexter has the core relationship between he and Deb, and the people who work at the PD.

    On a side note, Tuesday TV pretty much sucks. I’m about to drop Glee and No Ordinary Family.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed. Family is all TV audiences search for. Coming back to The OC it was a perfect example of a family everybody wanted to be a part of. Everybody wanted to be Ryan and have parents like Sandy and Kirsten. Following that, same with Beverly Hills, 90210. That sense of belonging, of everybody caring, it what we all want. It’s what makes me love One Tree Hill after all these years. These characters love each other and you see them grow up which gives you a band characters from, say, the new 90210 don’t have. That bond makes you care. That’s what makes loveable TV.