Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
When I went through a divorce a little over four years ago, I missed all the things you’d expect to miss: having someone to come home to at night, having an emergency contact who wasn’t my mom, being a “we.” What I didn’t expect was the effect my new relationship status would have on my television-viewing habits.
I should say first that I love TV; it’s both my greatest vice and my most reliable companion. An only child and a latchkey kid from age 11, I grew up using TV to fill our empty house with voices until my parents came home. Post-divorce, I again turned to the television for distraction.
But watching TV alone, I quickly realized, was one more way in which my life had changed. Almost every couple I know, particularly those that live together, has at least one show that is “their” show — the one you aren’t allowed to watch if the other person’s not there. It might not even be a show that either person particularly likes, but it’s the one you’ve agreed upon. Some days it’s the only thing you have to talk about. Isn’t it far more appealing to debate who was robbed in the pastry challenge of the Great British Baking Show than to listen to your partner complain about how they’re undervalued at work, again?
After my ex moved out and I found myself suddenly the head of a household of one, all shows were just “my” show. Without anyone there to assert a contrary opinion, I poked endlessly around my Roku, looking for the show that would bring me back into the world, the show that would help me reenter a cultural conversation. In my melancholy state, I left the television on almost all the time. Even when I was working, I was always half-watching something — some of it was fantastic (Top of the Lake), some of it less so (Hollywood Exes, Celebrity Rehab: Sex Addiction) — in the hopes that it would be the one to help me connect with people. I was lonely.
The problem is, culture is now so diffuse, with thousands of shows available via dozens of different streaming options, that water-cooler shows aren’t really a thing anymore, short of maybe Game of Thrones and the Super Bowl (although viewership is even declining there). Some of my friends watched only prestige dramas, others exclusively British murder mysteries set in tiny seaside towns, and a small number just watched sports. If you can’t count on anyone to have seen anything, what’s a single person who lives alone and wants conversation to do?
A few months after my divorce was finalized, I got my wish when the beloved early-2000s teen dramedy Gilmore Girls came to Netflix. I’d watched the show when it first aired, and occasionally reminisced about it with friends in the past — and suddenly, we were talking about it again. It was around that time my friend Jackie recommended the Gilmore Guys, a podcast in which two 20-something men break down every episode, often with a guest.
I was quickly won over by Kevin and Demi’s woke bae reflections on Rory’s and Lorelei’s troubled, often one-sided relationships, in large part because I saw myself in their discussions. Their outrage on the female characters’ behalf helped me begin to see that I deserved better than what I’d settled for in the past. Like Rory, I’d been seduced by bad boys, but when Demi described petulant rich boy Logan’s behavior toward her as “gaslighting,” it opened up a reservoir of anger I’d kept hidden. I’d been gaslit by my ex, too, and listening to the podcast discussion felt cathartic. Hearing bad behavior called out, even in a fictional character, by a person I’d never met, served as a reminder that what I’d considered normal might be common, but it wasn’t acceptable. Or at least, it wasn’t for me anymore.
Listening to a recap podcast also made my TV viewing feel purposeful, like it was my link to a community of like-minded people. After Gilmore wrapped up its run, I added Bitch Sesh, a self-described “Real Housewives breakdown podcast,” and Treks and the City, one of several podcasts devoted to Star Trek: The Next Generation. It might be interesting to note here that I’ve never actually watched TGN, or any Star Trek property, with regularity, nor do I keep up with every Real Housewives syndicate; the only constant I can find in my listening habits is my loyalty to the hosts and the community they create. Kevin from Gilmore Guys now hosts a show about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Alice, his co-host, is one-half of the podcast Treks and the City. Casey and Danielle from Bitch Sesh are familiar voices from the vast Earwolf Network.
Podcasts, and recap podcasts in particular, are a medium that seems to lend itself to intimacy. Hosts appear to assume that you’ve seen the same things they’ve seen, that you speak the same language as they do. Compared to other media, like film, television, or even books, podcasts are relatively cheap and expedient to produce. Sometimes they’re literally recorded in someone’s living room. The audio often reflects the setting: hosts apologize for barking dogs and noisy neighbors. Clinking glasses, verbal missteps, and snorting laughter pull the listener farther into the room, to the point of forgetting they’re listening to strangers. My friend Sarah, a publicist and Bitch Sesh addict, describes longtime listenership as being part of an “inner circle.” As opposed to commercial radio or television talk shows that are more nakedly cynical and pandering, a podcast, for her, feels like “a genuine conversation that people are delighted to be a part of (vs. promoting a product, doing a job, etc.),” she says.
This genuine conversation is even more special when the participants can unabashedly share affection and outrage for characters we’ve known for years. For my friend Jackie, it doesn’t matter how long ago a beloved TV show aired — the feelings remain, much like a first love. A Gilmore Guys diehard, she says that recap podcasts “resuscitate the enjoyment [she] felt in the original show.” She grieved the end of both Gilmore Girls and the podcast it inspired as one might grieve the end of a relationship, with a sense of loss and self-reflection: “I was confronting my own fear of change and letting go of things that meant a lot to me,” she said.
Same here. I now see that revisiting these old shows, accompanied by my podcast friends, was a way of feeling less alone as I accepted my new life as a single person. They also offered some consistency in the aftermath of my divorce, an event that upended all of my assumptions about what my life was and what it would be. I was lucky to have a wonderful, real-life support network of family and friends, but they couldn’t be with me every time my thoughts started to spin out. In those lonely moments trying to fall asleep late at night, or early in the morning when I was awakened by fears over an uncertain future, it was a relief to have familiar voices speaking into my ears, reminding me that — whether it’s the narrative arc of a show or the story we tell about our lives — sometimes a “perfect” ending is the least satisfying one.