Amid Midterm Elections, Mass Shootings and Caravan Controversies, Here’s How to Recharge

Cinematic versions of comfort foods — James Bond, yes, Tony Soprano, no — are great escapes.

November 7, 2018 5:00 am

We turn to comfort foods when we’re sad, sick, or stressed. But these days – when the news is full of stories on school shootings and mad bombers and besieged synagogues, of extremism and tribalism and violence and hate — mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and pints of ice cream aren’t enough.

We need comfort entertainment, the kind that takes away the pain for a little bit. Movies and TV shows that provide the escapist equivalent of the gooey chocolate-chip cookies Mom brought us after a bad day at school, the bowls of Chicken Noodle-Os we slurped in bed when we were sick.

It’s a cozy, if unexamined trend that’s driving a number of this year’s box-office hits – and flops.

It’s why even the left stayed away from Michael Moore’s fiery “Fahrenheit 11/9” – but a gentle documentary about Mr. Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” became an unexpected smash.

It’s why a crowded superhero year that saw Avengers blown away to dusty death still made room for kid-friendly entries like “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and the upcoming, animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse.”

It’s why the “dirty Muppet” movie, “The Happytime Murders,” collapsed at the box office, but there’s yet another Grinch cartoon on the way – one that includes his backstory, so we actually feel sorry for the green guy.

It’s because we don’t want dark and edgy right now. We’ve had our fill of snark and irony and attitude. We want the equivalent of PB & J on white bread, with the crusts cut off.

Of course, not all of these comfy entertainments – soft, easily digestible art — are particularly good as a steady diet. You need a little intellectual roughage, now and then, to keep your mind in shape. But comfort entertainment isn’t particularly bad for us either, as an occasional treat. And it’s really only made to do one thing, which it does well.

Make us feel better.

I started looking for safe escapes during the 2016 campaign. Everything was so incessantly ugly, and depressingly predictable. The evening news was nothing but the same old soundbites. The nighttime roundtables were just badly written theater – two Trump supporters, two Clinton supporters, and everyone yelling at once. It all felt endless, and pointless.

Until I remembered there was someone who could turn the world on with a smile, take a nothing day and suddenly make it feel worthwhile.

In the end, it was vintage reruns of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” that saved me. Even after hours of depressing news, they were a place I could go for just fun. People teased each other, but they were never mean. Folks were disappointed, but no one ever despaired. It was hopeful.

It didn’t make me really forget what was going on in the country. I didn’t really want to. But it did calm me down enough to let me get to sleep. I set the DVR to record all the episodes. Then I branched out, building a library of go-to escapist entertainment.

And because it looks like we’re going to need escapism for a while, I have some recommendations.

First, sitcoms are good – but nothing too recent, because the last thing you want is topical. Hit shows from your own childhood or adolescence are really best, but be cautious – even if you could find them, this is not the time to start watching reruns of “The Cosby Show” or “Roseanne.” “Frasier” is good, though. “Friends” is even better.

TV dramas are fine, but avoid anything like “The Sopranos” with multiple ongoing plotlines; you want TV that gives the kind of closure we can’t get in real life. “Law and Order” is perfect – particularly if you avoid the more disturbing “S.V.U.” ones. “The X-Files” is fine too, but only the self-contained, monster episodes; the “mythology” ones are far too complicated. Besides, the idea is not to think about government conspiracies for a bit, remember?

Choosing movies requires a little more thought. Your first instinct might be, OK, American politics has turned into a giant Jell-O wrestling match where everybody gets slimed and nobody wins. I’m going to watch something inspiring, like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” with its idealistic hero and upbeat ending. Or “All the President’s Men,” with its crusading – and triumphant – reporters making a real difference in the world.

Do. Not. Do. This.

Watching a red-white-and-blue film like those is like watching a rom-com right after someone dumped you; it is not going to make you feel anything but worse. Instead you need to find films that have absolutely no relation to current politics or real-world problems. Easy entertainments that don’t require you to think (although that’s different from time-wasters that insult your intelligence).

Comedies are perfect, as long as they avoid a few problematic issues (no jokes about funny hitmen; no Woody Allen). Check out some Mel Brooks, instead. Dig up some Monty Python. Watch something utterly silly, like “Step Brothers” or “Dodgeball” or “The 40 Year Old Virgin” or “Bridesmaids.” Escape into idiocy for 90 minutes – real, professional idiocy, instead of the amateur kind practiced in Washington.

Adventure films are great too, within parameters. Nothing with scenes of torture. Nothing with plausible plotlines about corrupt governments. Remember, we’re trying to forget all that for a while.

But James Bond pictures – particularly whatever ones you first saw back when you were a teenager? Made for this. Those old-fashioned World War II movies your dad was always watching – “The Great Escape,” or “The Guns of Navarone” or “Where Eagles Dare,” the ones where you knew who the good guys were, and the only Nazis were actors in rented costumes? Absolutely safe.

Horror films are OK, but only if they’re not genuinely disturbing – this is not the time for “Get Out” or “Night of the Living Dead.” Westerns can work, but be careful once you get into post-John-Wayne, cynical cowboy territory. Anything with swordfights is almost always a safe bet, though. “Gladiator”? Sure. “The Adventures of Robin Hood”? Even better. “The Princess Bride”?

Now we’re talking.

And that some of these movies also slip in a quiet message about honor or courage or duty isn’t a bad thing. Because the real point isn’t to simply ignore all the terrible things that are going on in this country; the point is to take a break. To take the briefest time-out, and catch our breath, and maybe get some sleep. To calm down, just a little bit.

And then come back, refreshed, renewed and ready to fight back.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.