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Is It Really "More Than a Feeling?"

What to do if your streaming recs aren't passing the vibe check

By Alexandra HubbellPublished 3 years ago 7 min read
Is It Really "More Than a Feeling?"
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

In 2020, TV became more than just background noise or an escape after a long workday. Streaming became a window to pre-pandemic life. Travel plans were nixed, concerts postponed, family holidays cancelled. To survive, we had to socially distance and mask-up, unable to even smile at a stranger while passing them in the grocery store. It’s been an incredibly isolating time, and for many, the only “people” allowed into their homes were the characters on a show or movie. We invited Moira and David Rose to dinner, Michael Scott was our boss, we went out at night with Carrie and Samantha. My friends and I turned first to these familiar shows in an attempt at some consistency in our lives—"Seinfeld", "The Office", "Parks and Rec", "Sex and the City".

After those first few weeks of quarantining (that we naively thought would quickly end the pandemic), we finally accepted things would not be back to normal anytime soon. Our lives couldn’t resume outside of the home, so we had to create the experience within our own walls. These characters became our friends and extended family, the filming locations became our means of travel, the places the characters frequented became our new neighborhood restaurants, bars, and boutiques. The need for good TV—for that connection it provides to the broader human experience—became paramount. And just like real life, we need to choose carefully who we will allow in our space and where we will allow them to take us. You must be in the right mindset to deal with certain kinds of people and places. So, I quickly grew frustrated with the typical recommendation algorithms suggesting what to watch next. Their empirically emotionless calculations didn’t take my feelings into account (to be fair, I don’t know if I’d want a machine to be able to). They provided suggestions based off genre or topic or current trend for people “like me”, ignoring that a well-constructed storyline provides so much more. I needed the hair-of-the-dog for my post-binge hangover, the follow-up that would cushion the blow of leaving behind my new favorite characters. Something to ease me into a new world, and for me that isn’t always “if you like 'Harry Potter', try 'Lord of the Rings'.” I can’t just trade in Dumbledore for Gandalf. On the surface, wizards and elves seem like a natural follow up—but the two movies don’t make me feel the same way. And that’s what I’m chasing after watching a show or movie. A feeling.

So, I’ve come up with the formula for “if this, then that.” Choose your path based on mood rather than genre.

Some days, you just want to be entertained. You want to laugh. You want to feel light. At the beginning of quarantine, I totally needed that. But being human is so much more, and as time went on, I missed the things I complained about. Of course, I missed travel, hugs, concerts, and sharing a plate of expensive food. But surprisingly, I missed petty drama, my often-insane family, infuriating traffic, being genuinely frightened or seriously pissed off. Sometimes you need a good moody day. You need some time for introspection. Or maybe you’re just crazy lonely and need to feel like you’re visiting with a grandparent or your best friends. Maybe you desperately need to go on an adventure. Maybe you miss the feeling of being shoulder-to-shoulder with people at a bar, yelling over live music. As the wise Alexis Rose once said, “I miss being surrounded by loose acquaintances that think I’m funny, and smart, and charming.”

So, as I mentioned, we’re chasing a feeling more than a genre. Let’s return to "Harry Potter". When I watch the series. I may want to watch another story about witchcraft. But, more often, I watch only the first three "Harry Potter" films because McGonagall feels like a wise grandmother, the school feels like safety and home, and the story feels empowering, wrapping me up like a big, warm hug. So, instead of more wizardry, what I really want is comfort, friendship, and family in my next show. I got recommendations for "Lord of the Rings", "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina", and "The Chronicles of Narnia", but none of those give me that cozy feeling. I instead watched both "Princess Diaries". Seems like a far reach but hear me out. Girl finds out she has a power she didn’t know existed. Her comforting British-accented grandmother takes her under her wing with tough love. She ends up in a castle, and romance isn’t the core of the story. She makes others feel included and good about themselves and pushes against the antiquated laws of her new society.

Now, if I’ve decidedly watched the last five "Harry Potter" films, I’m more likely to want some teen angst to continue the vibe. That’s where "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" might come in. It matches the dominant theme that resonates with me from the last five films: adolescents trying to become adults in a world that is telling them to accept the status quo, but they refuse with the help of some progressive adult allies. They are bold, independent, but still very much teenagers who care about the Quidditch World Cup or attending the Greendale High Pep Rally as much as they care about fighting off supernatural evil entities.

Let’s look at another genre to see if the formula holds: I devoured "Stanley Tucci’s Italy". The systematically generated recommendations that appeared were other food documentaries like "Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown". While I have no doubt the show is amazing (I will definitely be revisiting when I’m in the mood), another food travel documentary didn’t match the feeling I took from "Stanley Tucci’s Italy". Stanley made me feel like I was exploring with my best friend. He wasn’t an authority, but a tourist, learning and bonding with strangers as he traveled alone through gorgeous scenery. I knew I wanted to go back to Italy, but I wanted to go with another celebrity that brings that same warmth. I ended up satisfying my craving with "Eat, Pray, Love". After "Eat, Pray, Love", I got the suggestion to watch "Wild". This did not pass the vibe check. Yes, it’s another woman setting out alone to find herself after heartache. But it was dark and heavy in comparison. I still wanted to stay somewhere beautiful, I wanted to keep with the strong female lead, but I needed some levity. So, I ended up back in Italy watching "Under the Tuscan Sun". On another day, I may want to watch something after "Eat, Pray, Love" that takes me somewhere new but isn’t so lonely. Maybe something funnier or more romantic, like "Girls Trip" or "Mama Mia". But again, my mood determines the dominant themes that stick with me after watching a show or movie.

Let’s examine a totally weird example. After experiencing the "Haunting of Hill House", I got recommendations for other spooky shows. Do you know what ended up working better? "This is Us". I realized I loved "Hill House" for its deep evaluation of family, childhood trauma, and the bond between siblings. I didn’t need the ghosts, but I did need more family drama. Days later, after viewing "Haunting of Bly Manor", though, I just wanted to see more of Victoria Peretti’s acting. So, I ended up watching the second season of ""You—which couldn’t be further from a show like "This is Us".

You may have loved "Pride and Prejudice", but the primary suggestion of "Jane Eyre" doesn’t quite fit. That’s because you probably loved the comradery of the sisters, the gentle nature of the father, and the witty banter in "P&P". You continued desire to be swept away on an emotional romance with a loving family with a beautiful backdrop may suit you better. To keep with the same feeling, after "Pride and Prejudice" I watched "Letters to Juliet", even if it isn’t a traditional “period piece” by a female author of the same era. That didn’t come up in my suggestions, but it totally satisfied the same emotional pallet: romance, sweeping landscapes with grand architecture, a loving parent playing matchmaker, and letters in lieu of text messages. And of course, the two conventionally beautiful young adults fighting ridiculous sexual tensions at the frustration of their families.

So how do you want to feel? Who are the friends you want to invite over when the last group leaves? If you’re watching "New Girl", do you want a bunch of zany roommates visiting next? Try "Friends" or maybe "Golden Girls" instead. Want to watch your new besties prove that 30-something is the new 20-something? "Sex and the City" or "Insecure" may be better. Or today did you love a fun female lead and couldn’t care less about the other characteristics of the show? Then go for "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" or "Chewing Gum" to feel like another quirky best friend just came over for a slumber party.

As we continue to distance in 2021, don’t let that streaming service algorithm tell you how to feel. If you’re one of those people that sees "Die Hard" as a Christmas movie, go ahead and follow-up that watch with "Elf". Keep safe, stay sane, and try out the mood formula as a tonic to that post-binge hangover.

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Alexandra Hubbell

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    Alexandra HubbellWritten by Alexandra Hubbell

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