Over the past several years, as culture has fawned over “prestige TV,” I used to feel the need to justify my leisure time: that I had to somehow prove that if I was “just watching TV” that at least I was watching the good stuff—the right stuff. The shows that critics would call powerful and searing and an honest portrayal of blah blah blah. My husband, Justin, and I watched plenty of those shows—“our shows”—together, but the conversation following them was usually sparse or basic. We’ve dissected plot points from the disappointing Game of Thrones final season, with me ranting about how “Sansa was seriously screwed over by everyone,” while my husband nodded patiently on our couch, waiting for me to run out of steam.
“Man, these women really love staring out over water, huh?” was the biggest takeaway Justin had after an episode of Big Little Lies. (I wanted to protest, but, I mean, yeah...that’s at least 30 percent of the show).
We never had those conversations during the show, always after. While those were great shows, watching them wasn’t exactly fun, nor did I feel like it was something Justin and I were doing together. We sat quietly, afraid to get distracted, lest we miss some crucial bit. Instead of sharing an experience, we were just two people in the same room. If one of us preferred something lighter, like a sitcom, we would do the Netflix scroll, a time-suck familiar to millions. Instead of prompting conversation, that most often resulted in one of us turning to the other with a sole, and slightly defeated, “What are you in the mood for?"
Until one night, when we stumbled upon the greatest worst show of all time. Strong paired 10 just-slightly-out-of-shape women with 10 male personal trainers, and together the teams trained in different exercise disciplines. The women sweated and swore through workout challenges, judged on a confusing and unnecessary point system of medallions and safeties.
Strong was hosted by volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, it ran for a single season, and it was a huge boon to my relationship. Justin and I watched the entire season in under two weeks, making bets with each other about the inscrutable challenges and legitimately looking forward to each next episode. We paused each episode throughout to talk about the nutty challenge the contestants were faced with or to make a bet about which team would be sent home. Not exactly revolutionary, but interacting with the show made us interact with each other.
Brenda Weber, chair of the Gender Studies department at Indiana University, discusses the deluge of reality TV we’ve experienced in the last two decades in her course, “Gender, Representation, and Reality Television.” According to Weber, the consistent output was prefigured among modern TV watchers by soap operas, shows that run for years with storylines that twist and weave, bringing in new characters and increasingly outlandish elements when the plot starts to feel stale. But through all the evil twins, brides with amnesia, and torrid affairs, soaps themselves itself are stable. “You’re safe in having a relationship with them, because you know they’ll be there,” Weber explained. “It was Monday to Friday, five days a week, for 30 or 40 years.”
Reality shows have a pattern predictable enough that we can talk, or make dinner, or play with our dog together, and still have them on in the background. We’ve found comfort in watching shows like Project Runway. The television eases us into a bit of intimacy after a long day. There’s a built-in conversation topic, and a chance to sit still together for a while. We can turn on a show, and give it as much attention as we want (at least until the final runway walk). But we can also talk to each other, or be on our phones, or just generally decompress, occasionally looking up to see who won the last challenge and who was cut.
Since Stronger, we’ve totally changed our television viewing habits. Instead of scrolling mindlessly, trying to find something that we’re both in the mood for, we have an easy option—literally whatever reality TV show presents itself to us, though we do prefer the competition of Ultimate Beastmaster to the drama of a Real Housewives binge. After Stronger, we moved on to Nailed It, Queer Eye, American Ninja Warrior, The Great British Bakeoff, and Tidying Up With Marie Kondo—and that volume is part of the appeal of reality television. Instead of pacing out six episodes of a premium miniseries, you can binge the 86th episode of Chopped—the stakes of not fully processing an episode are always low, since they are either self-contained or the shows recap themselves so endlessly that it’s impossible to really miss much. There's a comfort to oversaturation, knowing that you can depend on a near-constant stream of new content.
Maggie Hennefeld, assistant professor of cultural studies at the University of Minnesota, said reality television and soap operas are similar in the way they provide relief for the viewer. “You don’t necessarily have to watch the image because a lot of info about the plot is coming through the dialogue, the sound,” Hennefeld said. “So you can be scrubbing your tiles or whatever, and a character will repeat three times, ‘Marjorie had an affair with Jonathan!’”
Lightening up our television queue has lightened up our time together—there’s no longer so much pressure on something as simple as watching TV. We’re not the jog-together couple, or the home-brew couple, or the complicated-jigsaw-puzzle couple. We’re fairly happy couch potatoes, and pop culture is part of our shared language. It’s important to me that if we're sharing TV time (or any time!) together, it doesn’t feel like a chore, or something we’re doing just to keep up with hot takes on Twitter.
I still watch those powerful and searing prestige shows on my own, when I’m in the mood. But with Justin, taking the pressure off of just one of a hundred choices we make every day has made our lives easier and our downtime feel closer—and actually like relaxation we can share.
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