Escaping Reality: The Feel Good TV Effect

Reality has been tough lately. The world feels like a powder keg of polarisation, violence and economic spiral, certainly if you poke your head over the parapet and engage with the day to day.

Can we therefore be surprised that we have seen, in the last couple of years, a resurgence of what we might describe as ‘feel good’ TV? Ted Lasso, Sex Education, Grace & Frankie, Trying, the list goes on – modern series which present to audiences worlds that exist on the fringes of the reality we all experience. Worlds in which we might see favoured characters undergo emotional and spiritual changes, many of them painful and difficult, but through which we are reasonably confident these people we have come to admire and show genuine affection for will be okay in the end.

Whether these series have been devised specifically for this purpose is an open question. My instinct is that the answer is both yes and no. It is hard to imagine any creative, from Jason Sudeikis to Marta Kaufman to Laurie Nunn, truly writing and developing their show specifically for the ‘feel good’ designation. These things tend to happen organically and by osmosis, even if—as in the case of Ted Lasso—your entire series is deep rooted in ideas of kindness, teamwork and hope. The question that interests me is this: do we need these shows right now because we need to escape reality? Are they the television equivalent of taking the blue pill offered by Morpheus?

Maybe the rabbit hole, right now, is just too existentially grim to face. Maybe we need to feel good in these fictions because they are, for many, our only escape.

All of the shows so far might be comedies, or comedy dramas, rather than far-fetched examples of ‘genre’ storytelling, but none of them exist specifically in our definition of reality.

Ted Lasso’s London is a rather quaint, almost middle-England example of the diverse capital city; Richmond is an atoll of devious or complicated rich people on one side, and cheery working-class fans & locals on the other. Given the strong American influence on the show, you can forgive the lack of football authenticity—and the show isn’t really about football anyway—but in no way does it correspond to the urban London that actually exists. Trying, also for Apple TV, is admittedly more realistic, and is less fantastical in its depiction of the struggles of thirty-something adopted parenthood than some of these other shows in what they depict, but there is a natural safety to Andy Wolton’s storytelling. Their London is more middle or upper working class than it probably should be.

Sex Education bears the least resemblance to what we might understand as our own reality in the depiction of Moordale high school. Filmed in Welsh Pembrokeshire, it is not geographically specific, or in some sense tethered to a particular era; the characters exist in a quasi-fusion of modern teen complications such as social media and gender politics with a 1980s—and in the latest series, a strong 1970s—visual aesthetic more in line with John Hughes than previous British school antecedents such as Grange Hill. 

In many respects, this refusal to place Sex Education within a recognisable depiction of contemporary school life is the entire point; the anachronistic canvas allows Nunn and her writers to tell a range of progressive stories about gender, sex and relationships, not to mention culture and race, while avoiding being bogged down in the mire of trying to have the setting and place make sense to an audience expecting a sense of reality. The un-reality is key, to all of these shows, but Sex Education in particular. You couldn’t tell these stories in the same way if it had to correspond to the logical rules of the real world. Moordale would be closed down for child sexual safeguarding reasons before a week of term was over!

As series director Ben Taylor has discussed in The Guardian, the show is not meant to exist in the real world:

It is a utopian school experience where, yes, you can still have your heart broken and, yes, people have challenges in their lives, but this level of intelligence discussions about your individuality and your sexuality is possible.

The use the word ‘utopian’ is interesting in this context because it tethers Sex Education, and by default many of the shows being discussed here, as operating within an idealised reality beyond our reach.

Consider the journey the eponymous Ted Lasso undertakes across the second season, after establishment in parts of the first.

He undergoes a genuine series of psychological breakdowns built around panic which, at one point, the media attempt to use against him as a means to suggesting he is unfit to be a leader due to such ‘weakness’. Much of the season sees him grappling with the after-effects both of the breakup of his marriage and the deeper reasons behind his dual psychology of relentless outward belief and internal self-doubt, going back to the suicide of his father as a teenager. With the help of a brittle but kind team psychiatrist, Ted is able to begin working through these issues for the first time in his entire life in a rational, open and emotional way.

How often in the real world do we see the media or our cultural fabric treat mental health in such a sensitive and progressive way? It happens on more of a micro basis in certain areas—I work in this field in schools and can confirm the Ted Lasso aesthetic is very much in evidence in many places—but in terms of the broader national and international conversation, mental health is still viewed by many as a sign of weakness, if they concede that it exists at all. Ted Lasso confronting this in such a sensitive & powerful way might not at first subscribe to what we might imagine to be ‘feel good’ storytelling, but maybe it is. Maybe the feel good factor for the audience lies in seeing Ted both face this maligned entity and work, realistically, to overcome it. That’s positive and inspiring and often lacking in general discourse.

We can see similar examples of feel good fulfilment coming from Sex Education. The work that show is doing to advance gender politics is extremely rewarding. In the latest season, the relationship between Jackson—formerly the attractive, charismatic most popular guy in school—and non-binary trans newcomer Cal, was both well-received and, even to non-trans eyes, felt faithful to the spirit of the complications in queer relationships that young people and future generations are going to face. Sex Education is filled with young characters pivoting between relationship highs and lows, but there is a genuine sense that they are learning without the series preaching to the audience at the same time.

The ‘feel good’ factor is both aesthetic, in the series’s presentation, but also literal in the show’s representation.

Could there also be another kind of ‘feel good’ factor in watching series about characters less built on kindness, tolerance and understanding, but rather the exact opposite?

The popularity of Succession, HBO’s series about a quarrelling media dynasty, is a case in point. If viewers will watch endless repeats of comfortable sitcoms such as Friends, or consistent episodes of soap opera which often focus on the grim aspects of modern life, such as EastEnders or Coronation Street in the U.K., none of which exist in what we’d conceive of reality either, then there perhaps a perverse pleasure in seeing the Roy family’s internecine struggles as they fight for the crown while battling malfeasance suits and corporate takeovers in the process. It is a similar joy to the bloody power struggles of Game of Thrones, and how so many people were hoodwinked for years to cheer for Daenerys Targaryen, a tyrant masquerading as a heroine.

The ‘feel good’ factor lies in watching these awful, self-interested rich people come undone but it is just as much fantasy as the world of kindness and representation, or the Game of Thrones universe of kings, queens and dragons. Succession might feature a combined analogue of various dynastic real world families—the Murdochs, Trumps etc… – who lack any kind of moral centre, but no world system is ever going to bring their empires down. Indeed, Succession is unlikely to end with the collapse of Waystar Royco. It will be about who takes over to guide it into our conglomerate-dominated future; the clue, after all, is in the title. We can ‘feel good’ about watching loathsome people get their comeuppance in the same way we can watch people in emotional torment—take Sex Education’s Maeve or Ted Lasso’s Roy Kent—heal and find levels of peace.

We are still aware that the real world doesn’t work in the same kind of way.

These shows are popular because we need a sense of emotional and spiritual freedom the relentless inequalities and injustices—which are growing by the day thanks to populist figureheads and increasingly authoritarian states—that social media particularly brings to light. We’re yearning for a simpler world in some ways in which good and bad are clearer to parse; even Succession, for all the complexity of the granular detail and shifting allegiances and loyalties of the characters, depicts a world in which we can often see the wicked or the virtuous for who they are. They are complex people but they are also, often, very easy to see through. This is attractive to audiences in a world filled with nebulous opacity. These stories give us hope that maybe some semblance of justice, whether personal or global, will be served.

All stories are written to make us ‘feel good’ but we really need them in our current moment. If we can’t change the future we can see coming, maybe all we can do right now is escape from it.

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