Health & Fitness | October 19, 2020 7:30 am

Why TV Counts as a Form of Meditation in This Weird, Exhausting Year

In 2020, mindless television-watching could help encourage mindfulness

calming tv room
Wa Nity Canthra/EyeEm

At times, 2020 can feel more hopeless than an extended Broad City bit, and that’s saying a lot.

In Season 1 of the show — a 2010s sitcom about 20-something best friends Abbi Jacobon and Ilana Glazer bopping around New York — Abbi promises to stay home and sign for a delivery to her neighbor Jeremy’s apartment. He’s a big-shouldered hipster and has to go Upstate for the day to “salvage some beams from a barn.” Abbi’s had a crush on him for a minute, so she commits to receiving the package, even though she has to go to work.

But during a quick visit to the grocery store, Abbi misses the drop-off window. In order to retrieve the package she has to journey to a distribution center on North Brother Island, the site of a 19th-century smallpox hospital in the East River. There’s only one way to get there: take the 6 train as far as it will go, transfer to the M83 bus and then hop on a water taxi alongside four pairs of unblinking twins. On the island, there’s a an ancient woman named Garol sitting at a fold-out table eating Greek yogurt, who has no intention of giving Abbi the package without an ID.

Long story short: Abbi’s roommate’s boyfriend Bevers, a smelly guy who never leaves their apartment and likes to drink straight from the milk carton, ends up signing for Jeremy’s package. Jeremy takes him out for a special dinner as a reward, where he bemoans how hard it is to meet single women in Manhattan. Bevers racks his brain but can’t think of anyone.

This is the New York of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, where getting locked below deck on a Hudson River booze cruise, or falling down a trench on the way to a Central Park dog wedding, or losing the potential love of your life to the clutches of Penn Station, is just to be expected. It’s a coming-of-age-in-the-Big-Apple sitcom, but it’s as fraught with hyperbole and hallucination as The Odyssey. The worst thing (the funniest thing) always happens — during a “power outage party,” a guest shits in a shoe — but Abbi and Ilana are never kept down for long. Before the credits roll, they’re usually smoking weed, or trading ideas for inventions. And so we go.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Abbi and Ilana lately, for a few, not-so-special reasons: I decided I wasn’t making the most of my Hulu subscription. I’d heard friends had critics pile plaudits on the show for years. I like 22-minute shows.

broad city scene
The antics of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson have made this year a little brighter.
Broad City/IMDB

I’m well aware that I’m late to the game (at one point, Ilana says “It’s 2014, dude, get with it!”) but I’ve actually come to appreciate that fact. Broad City not only exists in a different time; it occupies a different dimension. Heading there at the end of the day for an episode or two has morphed steadily from ritual to privilege for me, as I’ve struggled — in the midst of a global pandemic, national recession and once-in-a-lifetime election — to stop refreshing the page, searching for my next hit of outrage and uncertainty.

Historically, I haven’t thought of watching television as a way to achieve mindfulness. Beyond the obvious prescription for finding calm — meditation itself — I’m used to relying on potent everyday practices like cooking, running or listening to music. Cooking (along with gardening, vacuuming and making the bed) is a form of “behavioral activation,” a positive activity that necessitates presence of mind in pursuit of a clear end goal. Running is a mindfulness powerhouse, which releases good chemicals in your brain, consolidates cells and forces you to be both aware of your body and the world around it. Music, meanwhile, is now being generated with sonic algorithms specifically aimed at helping you take a deep breath.

Where does TV fit in here? According to science, it doesn’t. As a Vice feature pointed out a few years ago, the brain’s neocortex turns firmly off while watching television. That’s the part of the brain responsible for sensory perception and spatial reasoning. Meanwhile, the visual cortex is highly stimulated. In this strange state, while we’re not especially aware of anything going on around us (if someone tosses a ball at your face while you’re in binge mode, you’re probably not catching it), we’re still mentally invested in the images on the screen. That doesn’t square away with our understanding of mindfulness, which hinges on awareness of your present moment. Indeed, as a mechanism meant for escape, it actually seems like the utter opposite: it’s an attempt to occupy someone else’s present moment.

Still, even if watching TV has nothing to do with mindfulness, that doesn’t mean the sensation of repose I experience during episodes of Broad City is insincere. Consider a study from 2017, where researchers from Coventry University concluded that sitting down in front of the TV was as effective as meditation in helping subjects develop “open-mindedness or empathy.” (To be fair, the researchers specifically called out anything narrated by David Attenborough, which makes a lot of sense. He’s the best.) But those findings do leave room for some extrapolation; namely, TV’s distractive properties could help you become a better, calmer person, if even just for a spell. How did we get here? Blame it on the seven competing streaming services available to us today, maybe, but TV has positive power. That’s a far cry from what they taught us in elementary school.

In my world, in a year like this, the television has become a meditative device because its younger cousin — the smartphone — is clearly trying to give me a heart attack. Sometime in the middle of the summer, I shut off that “Screen Time” plug-in on my iPhone because the weekly stat reports were just too upsetting. I’m spending a ton of time looking at the thing, listening to podcasts, trying to figure out how this year is going to shake out, as if studying for some climactic final to be held on December 31st. God forbid I miss a day. I’m not alone in this bizarre crusade — not even close — and I’m not sure I’ll be able to stop the morning of the first Wednesday in November, or even after I get a shot in the arm next summer. Addressing the barrage of news alerts has become my modern day’s Night’s Watch, and it’s unclear when my watch is ended.

Something I call “proactive television” has become my best defense against this sorry status quo. The practice contains a few rules. Namely: no watching TV late at night when I need to sleep, no watching it as a procrastinatory tool in lieu of finishing work, no watching it as a social replacement to seeing or calling friends or family, no watching it for hours at a time, and no watching programming that will only make me upset. Of all the above, the rule I struggle the most with is the last one. I can handle everything else, within reason, but on the last point, I have a bad habit, like every other American, of occasionally tuning in to talking heads screaming at each other, my beloved team losing, or you know, dueling town hall debates.

But on those days where I do remember my own rules, it can be a beautiful thing. I don’t necessarily have to travel to the wilds of Abbi and Ilan’s Manhattan, either. For instance, I recently finished Top Chef: Colorado, the 15th season of television’s greatest-ever cooking show. (Beware, spoilers ahead.) The season originally premiered on December 7, 2017, and it features 15 up-and-coming chefs competing in cooking challenges around Denver, Boulder, Telluride and Aspen. I’ve watched other seasons of Top Chef, so I understand how the games goes. Quick-fire challenges are fluky, the front of the house can single-handedly win or lose Restaurant Wars, and you should never prepare “rabbit three ways” for Tom Colicchio when one way would’ve done just fine.

So I can say, with a measure of certainty, that Top Chef: Colorado is the Platonic ideal of the show. It’s rough and tumble, as any good show about food should be. But it’s surprisingly tender, too, and the scenery is relentless. The chefs decide about 15 minutes into the first episode that they’re going to curse like rum-drunk pirates for the entire season. Later, after one chef, restaurateur Bruce Kalman, learns that he and his wife’s gestational surrogate is going into labor, the contestants throw a baby shower for his newborn son. And during a mountain camping trip, Idahoan Carrie Baird — a relative unknown to the rest of the cast, some of whom have Michelin stars or James Beard nominations — cooks a cake in the snow to win the week.

Each night that I settled in to watch how the next events would play out, I did so knowing that I could Google Top Chef: Colorado at any second and discover the winner. (It was the affable Joe Flamm, from Chicago’s Spiaggia. He’s even helped us out with a story before — go figure.) But as with Broad City, another show’s that’s forever stuck in the previous decade, I somehow found that reality incredibly calming. After all, there was nothing I could do to will the winner into existence. It had been decided long before I arrived. I was simply along for the ride. And an enjoyable ride at that, which involved both watching great chefs go to work — at one point they have to literally catch trout, smoke it and put it on a plate in under 45 minutes — and work with each other, from assembling tasting menus on the fly to sipping beers from plastic cups once each challenge is through.

Take any tough, token Tuesday; Top Chef: Colorado made me a better person at the end of it. Even when it broke my heart: at the end of the season, I learned that my favorite chef, Fatima Ali, a Pakistani-American immigrant who’d placed seventh, had passed away from Ewing’s sarcoma in January 25, 2019. I was absolutely devastated. I’d spent weeks with her, watching her grow more confident in cooking the dishes of her childhood. At one point, judge Padma Lakshmi, who is Indian-American, had challenged her to “cook our flavors” with the same level of intensity and respect she was affording Western foods. She delivered on that. She became best friends with Flamm and others in the kitchen. She cried when other chefs got sent home. To find out that she was gone, and at just 29, was difficult to process.

fatima top chef
The late Fatima Ali was “Fan Favorite” in Top Chef: Colorado.
Top Chef/IMDB

Before she passed away, Ali wrote a short essay about living with terminal cancer, which you can read here. It ended up winning her a posthumous James Beard Foundation Award. The Top Chef family visited her in the hospital in her final days. She met Flamm’s son. On the day she died, Lakshmi posted an Instagram of her late friend prancing around a kitchen, singing “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas.

A thoughtful, rule-abiding television routine like the one I’ve outlined is rooted in distraction. But it can quickly, inevitably, avalanche into something far greater. Which is kind of the point. Cynicism grows easy after a few minutes of CNN, but then, so can “open-mindedness and empathy” after 22 minutes of Broad City or 45 minutes of Top Chef. After a good TV night, I sleep well. That anecdote might not be enough to convince a neuroscientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, but I’d encourage you to find a show that brings you to laughters or tears, and then examine how those emotions can bring you calm. Watch it alone and reflect on it in the shower. Or watch it with family or a friend and chat about it together.

I’d just caution against any “TV obsessions,” which are too close, spiritually speaking, to 2020. Anything that necessitates hours on a subreddit, or live-tweeting, is missing the point. Those are the Friday night Netflix releases, the HBO Sunday specials, the can’t-miss ESPN docs. It’s difficult to meditate over something you can’t control, something part of a real-time, online tug-of-war, replete with half-baked hot takes from the American peanut gallery. No, my blood pressure drops when I pause my show at the 13-minute mark to go to the bathroom and think to myself that there probably isn’t another human being in the world who currently has a freeze-frame of Abbi and Ilana chasing a purse thief through a St. Mark’s alleyway.

There are a couple exceptions to that rule (Baby Yoda, from the popular Disney Plus series The Mandalorian, is cute enough to cure anyone’s blues, at any time. He’s currently fighting fires in California, in fact.) But by and large, it’s worth getting a little weird, and finding something off-beat, or just out-of-decade. I can understand it might seem odd, that in a year where community is hard to come by, I’m advocating that we look for it in imaginary or outdated places. But our world today, which has its own burgeoning jargon, is even odder.

Don’t forget to run, to listen to music, to make the bed. But turn on the TV, with your phone stuffed deep in a drawer upstairs, and just know that you’re not rotting your brain. This year, at least, you’re doing it a favor.