Of Course We’re Attracted to Chaotic TV Shows Right Now

Joe Exotic, a white man with a blond mullet who's wearing a colorful top, poses next to a tiger

Joseph Maldonado-Passage a.k.a. Joe Exotic in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Photo credit: Netflix)

I was psyched in April 2018 when the second season of Westworld began airing on HBO; I loved the first season’s dark, scary, and engrossing aesthetic—and I would watch Anthony Hopkins do anything, including sleep, if given a chance. But I tapped out less than halfway through the Season 2 premiere; the brutality was exceptional. I have a heavy TV diet that includes police procedurals and true-crime documentaries, but when employees of the Westworld park started scalping one of the hosts—who look and bleed like human beings—I had enough.

A few weeks ago, I started coughing; I have bad seasonal allergies and I had just gotten my flu shot, so my doctor said the culprit was likely one of those or a combination of the two. But when I started developing a low-grade fever, my family—who I’m quarantined with in Massachusetts—and I decided it would be best for me to self-isolate in my room until my fever dropped. After a few days of resting and social distancing, my usual go-to comfort TV shows just weren’t hitting the way I needed them to. I was desperate for something that would help me escape, but no matter what I put on, I could only think about my fever, my family, and the four walls I wouldn’t be leaving for more than a week. Before I went into isolation, I’d watched a trailer for the third season of Westworld, and I felt a twinge for that twisted, depraved world. So there, alone in my room, feeling like I was the one living in a simulation, I restarted Season 2.

Not only could I stomach the scene that once drove me away, but I couldn’t get enough; I watched episode after episode—binging Season 2 while I rested, ate, and even before I went to bed. Westworld offered a much-needed distraction from a ferocious world—and it was exactly the kind of comfort I needed. After I’d caught up on the show, I started diving into similar programming; I’m now watching the Finnish procedural Bordertown every night to fall asleep. Though Bordertown would make even the most hardened crime TV connoisseurs nauseous, in these trying times, an episode or two sends me off to slumber with ease.

Given the timing, I’d feel a little odd about these TV proclivities, but thanks to my Twitter feed, which filled with tweets about people watching pandemic movies like 2011’s Contagion as soon as COVID-19 overtook the news cycle, I know I’m not alone. Apparently, folks seem to have a higher tolerance for gore, violence, and horror now. Though this seems to be a counterintuitive phenomenon, it appears we’re all turning to anxiety-inducing TV in these exceptionally anxiety-inducing times. “My stress can be channeled into reacting to a horror movie instead of the constant consumption of news,” marketing coordinator Adriana Ascencio tells me. She said her usual comfort TV includes The Office and Sex and the City, but these days she finds herself drawn to shows like Netflix’s wildly popular docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

“It pulled me out of my own world and threw me into another that I never really knew about in detail…almost too much detail,” Ascensio says. It’s almost impossible to be on social media without seeing a tweet or a meme about the viral true-crime show about zookeeper Joe Exotic and his longstanding feud with big-cat conservationist Carole Baskin. The show is batshit. Like a New York club being reviewed by Stefan on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, Tiger King has everything: polygamy, murder, drugs, wildlife, and more. And while the show has come under fire for perhaps choosing the wrong villain, its allure and escapist quality are undeniable, which makes it a perfect antidote to a world that feels downright impossible to escape. “With Tiger King, there’s a natural sense to watch something that’s somehow even more surreal and bizarre than our current reality,” freelance writer and digital marketer Williams Goodman says. “Mostly because it makes everything else seem normal in comparison. I think that’s what’s been helpful, is finding an odd sense of comfort in things that are just beyond.”

Kristen (who declined to use her last name), who until recently worked in marketing, says her go-to comfort TV has never been anything “challenging.” She prefers to rewatch shows. But since the social distancing began, she’s found herself drawn to intense and scary programming like true-crime documentaries, and of course, Tiger King. As soon as she finished it, she went looking for other shows in a similar vein. “I felt like the world at least made a little more sense than it did. But I’m not even sure about that,” she says. “Maybe it’s just extreme enough to distract me. I think this is why I keep diving into scarier content than before. It’s distracting and distressing enough to make the day to day easier to stomach.”

Turning to media where plotlines mirror our reality provides a through-the-looking-glass experience—a mirror image of a world that feels foreign but makes our learned coping mechanisms seem futile

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There’s of course the unprecedented nature of it all too; turning to media where plotlines mirror our reality provides a through-the-looking-glass experience—a mirror image of a world that feels foreign but makes our learned coping mechanisms seem futile. “The old comforts aren’t quite helping because these problems aren’t the old ones, either,” Kristen says. Marandah Rain, a state campaign manager for abortion access at a nonprofit, said the chaos of Tiger King effectively pulled her brain away from the horrors of the world. “It provides an almost meditative quieting of my brain that nothing else has during this time,” she says. “It is quite simply impossible for me to think about the implications of COVID-19 when I am trying to figure out if Baskin really did cover her husband in sardine oil and feed him to the tigers, or when I am attempting to keep track of the various plotlines surrounding Exotic’s murder-for-hire plot. It provides an escape that some of the more surface-level ‘self-care’ activities like face masks and stretching simply can’t when shit is this dire.”

The impulse Rain describes is one I first became acquainted with after my endometriosis diagnosis. In a matter of weeks, I went from falling asleep to old episodes of Gilligan’s Island to napping throughout the day while Law & Order: Special Victims Unit played in the background. I even blew through every British crime drama on Netflix—anything to distract me from the horrors of my own body. There’s also a comfort in visiting a world as scary or scarier than the one you’re living in; if I could watch horror movies to their conclusion—if I could see through to the end of the brutal storylines on Westworld—I can handle whatever scares me in my own life. And of course, it’s not just Tiger King; I talked to folks who are watching shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and seeking out the more apocalyptic episodes of old favorites like Doctor Who.

“I think that the possibility that the scary/horror stuff I’ve been watching features scenarios that seem worse than what’s happening now (in some ways),” says Lisa Kettyle, who has been rewatching The Walking Dead and watched the 1995 movie Outbreak for the first time after the pandemic began. And actor, writer, and voiceover artist Tariyé Peterside says she’s been watching shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Damages since going into lockdown because the horror eventually ends. “I think the comfort in watching horror and scarier programming comes from knowing that there will be an end,” she says. “If [it’s] not a happy end, then [it’s] a cathartic end. And it ultimately feels better to know that there will be a conclusion than feeling like you’re in the middle of a worldwide storm with no end in sight.”


by Caroline Reilly
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Caroline Reilly is a student at Boston College Law School and a reproductive justice advocate. She has also written for Bust and Frontline (PBS). You can follower her on Twitter @ms_creilly, where she tweets about abortion rights, social justice, and being a feminist killjoy.