What Should I Watch While Self-Isolating?

Shelter-in-place orders are ubiquitous. Movie theaters are closed. And Netflix subscriptions are up! You know what else is up? Anxiety.

Pandemics, like living in a guerilla combat zone, mean that strikes can happen anywhere at any time. That shit is scary! Add high unemployment rates, children at home 24/7, and a news cycle of clickbait, fear-inducing headlines that just. won’t. quit. and yeah, it makes sense that anxiety is on the rise.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ve oddly turned to dramas for a sense of relief. While my news feed is filled with Tiger King jokes, I’ve found solace in more serious fare: American Gods and Little Fires Everywhere are my latest watches. I find that getting sucked into a deep storyline with high stakes but the reassurance of a resolution at the end lets me step away from the all-too-real drama unfolding around us minute-by-minute. Dramas are great at absorbing our attention, but they aren’t what everyone is in the mood for.

So… What Should I Watch?

A better question may be: What are you trying to get out of your experience? I watch dramas because the detailed storylines mean I’m going to have to pay attention, so I’m more likely to stop thinking about other things – like stepping outside and literally catching my death. Dramas = a break from that kind of thinking. Others may watch Tiger King for similar reasons but a different delivery mechanism. They also want to get sucked into a show that makes them stop thinking about their own concerns, so they choose a show that gives them high stakes for other people to face. Tiger King = …anxiety schadenfreude?

Regardless, most of us seem to want to find some way to escape our own worries, but we all have different preferences on how to do that. That being said, science tells us that some preferences will do this better than others. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of a few popular genres.


PROS: Escape. Like I said already, dramas are great at really sucking in their audiences. A couple weeks ago, I watched The Favourite, and it was a solid five minutes after the credits began to roll before I remembered the current crisis. Emotionally Satisfying: Some dramas (like The Favourite, actually) have a not-so-happy ending, but most will have a clearly defined resolution. This little piece of closure at the end of every movie is something our little hearts just LOVE, especially with a high-stakes drama. Even if the ending is sad, just having that final scene where you know the story has come to a close is incredibly satisfying and offer a sense of relief from our own uncertain lives.

CONS: Too Much Thinking. Okay, yeah, dramas can sometimes ask for a lot of brain work. If you’re already mentally exhausted, dramas might not be the right escape for you. Too Intense. For some people, dramas are just too much right now. The intensity, though fictional, makes them feel tense in real life. If you’re one of those people, avoiding really intense dramas is a good idea! However, if you can stand a low-intensity drama, like Jane the Virgin or Little Fires Everywhere, then you might feel the release of the story’s closure in real life, too. Like when you’re trying to relax and can’t, you can tense up your muscles on purpose and then let that tension go to feel the release.

TRY THESE SHOWS: Little Fires Everywhere on Hulu, Mindhunter on Netflix, Ozark on Netflix, Treme on Amazon Prime, Fleabag on Amazon Prime; MOVIES: The Irishman on Netflix, Moonlight on Netflix, Marriage Story on Netflix

Serial Drama (Ex: Crime/Legal/Medical Shows)

PROS: Like other dramas, these will offer Escape and an Emotionally Satisfying ending. They are also emotionally satisfying because they are Predictable. The formulas you can expect of these shows give our minds a sense of structure when everything else about our day feels unstructured.

CONS: Addictive. These serial shows are designed to be addictive, just like phone games and social media feeds. When one episode stops, you reach for the next hit. The normalcy of a predictable format is satisfying, but over time that can turn into an emotional rut.

TRY THESE SHOWS: The Bridge on Hulu, Broadchurch on Netflix, Fortitude on Amazon Prime

Reality & Documentary

PROS: Escape via Schadenfreude. If you haven’t heard this word before, it’s a great one to have in your vocabulary! It’s when you look at someone else’s misfortune to feel better about your own life. Social media has us constantly comparing ourselves to the best parts of other people’s lives, so watching reality shows and documentaries that highlight the problem areas of society can feel like a reprieve. Informative. Though some nonfiction programs focus on relationships, others focus on information. You could take time to learn about a new hobby or topic!

CONS: Too Little Escape. Many of these shows (think Real Housewives: City You Live In) hit literally too close to home. It may feel nice for a while to watch other people go through challenges, but psychologically this offers us little escape. Even HGTV will have you questioning your own choice in curtains after a few episodes. Not Enough Closure. While some shows label one contestant a winner at the end, most have no clear ending and no resolution. Even documentaries will often end with some sort of call to action instead of offering viewers a sense of closure.

TRY THESE SHOWS: Drunk History on Hulu, Tidying Up on Netflix, Explained on Netflix, Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix; MOVIES: What Happened, Miss Simone? on Hulu, RBG on Hulu, The Death and Life of Martha P. Johnson on Netflix, Miss Americana on Netflix

Action & Thriller

PROS (Action): Escape. Action movies are the ultimate escape from reality (and many show people physically escaping)! The fast pace and high intensity will keep your attention from start to finish. Emotionally Satisfying. I almost want to challenge you to find an action movie that doesn’t have an end scene with a clear resolution. More often than not, that resolution falls in the favor of the “good guy.” This is extremely satisfying, and it can make us feel victorious, too. Stimulating, but not too mental. I’ll grant that there are plenty of mentally stimulating action movies, but I’ll also bet that more than half are not. They’ll keep you interested, but without the drain of paying attention to every detail. For people who are too mentally tired for a drama, check out an action flick!

PROS (Thriller): Mentally & Physically Stimulating. Many thrillers with have you jumping AND thinking. You get the adrenaline rush of an action movie plus the twists and details of a drama.

CONS: Too Intense. Action flicks and thrillers can be overly stimulating for the body. When anxiety is already high, too many loud noises and quick frame changes can be physically overwhelming. There’s also the gore aspect that keeps some people away from action and thrillers during normal times. Checking for a PG or PG-13 rating might be a good way to keep intensity levels manageable.

TRY THESE SHOWS: Killing Eve on Hulu, Bodyguard on Netflix, Taboo on Amazon Prime, The Night Manager on Amazon Prime, Hunters on Amazon Prime; MOVIES: Parasite on Hulu, Get Out on Amazon Prime, Hobbes and Shaw on HBO


PROS: Escape. Do you see a theme here? Comedies, too, offer a form of escape. This escape, though, is both from your life and from your anxiety. How, you ask? Release. Laughter is one of the best ways to release tension in the body. While your brain is relaxing with the storyline, your body is letting go of excess stress through laughter.

CONS: …I’ll let you know if I think of any later.

TRY THESE SHOWS: Atlanta on Hulu, Letterkenny on Hulu, Ramy on Hulu, Sex Education on Netflix, The Good Place on Netflix, Veep on Amazon Prime; MOVIES: Sorry to Bother You on Hulu, Booksmart on Hulu, Dolemite is My Name on Netflix

Fantasy & Sci-Fi

PROS: Total Escape. Not just from your life, but also from your reality. Magic, aliens, alternate timelines – fantasy and science fiction stories offer a lot for their fans. Stimulating & Satisfying. These stories often follow the familiar hero arcs that leave us with an emotionally satisfying ending but with many twists along the way that will keep your curiosity excited.

CONS: Not Believable Enough. For some, fantasy is just too much of an escape. They don’t get the same feelings of being absorbed in the storyline that others do. That’s okay! But know that there are different levels of fantasy that you might still find enjoyable, and don’t be afraid to try something new.

TRY THESE SHOWS: Altered Carbon on Netflix, The Witcher on Netflix, Westworld on Amazon Prime, Tales from the Loop on Amazon Prime, Good Omens on Amazon Prime; MOVIES: Annihilation on Hulu, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on Netflix, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald on HBO

Great! Where Do I Start?

If you haven’t noticed, all genres have their pros and cons. Most offer some kind of escape and many give us a pleasing sense of closure at the end. If you’re really looking for that sense of closure, I’d suggest going with a movie or limited series so there is less time between you and “The End.” If you want an escape you can come back to again and again, find a long-running show that will hold your attention over the next few weeks. Either way, you have plenty to choose from!

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the massive selection, take a deep breath and come back to this list. Does your body need a tension-release? Try action or comedy. Do you want something to keep your brain occupied? Go with a drama or something in sci-fi or fantasy. Don’t be afraid to try something new, and remember you can always switch it up.

My best advice is to know what you want walking in, and pick something that will deliver it. Whatever you choose, enjoy!

BONUS TIP: Like many other people, I’ve also been doing a lot of rewatches (Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Hulu) and watching things made from books I’ve already read (Emma on Amazon Prime). Since you already know the ending, this can work as a great anxiety-reducer when your brain needs a break, too!


Published by alexandracpauley

Writer, Political Scientist, Human living & thriving with RA & CPTSD

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