Comfort-Food TV Became the Savior We Didn't Even Know We Needed in 2017

In the current political climate, it’s all about feel-good TV.

Artwork for Zimbio by Rafael Hidalgo

Many network series that found success this year are part of feel-good TV. From the hoopla surrounding the Oval Office to Hollywood’s long-awaited take down of sexual predators to the soul-crushing deaths of beloved stars, these warm and fuzzy shows have become an essential escape from a mind-numbing year dominated by an onslaught of bad news.

The tearjerking NBC juggernaut This Is Us continues to be a ratings wonder child, while ABC's The Good Doctor proves viewers are actively looking for shows with sympathetic and emotionally-charged narratives. Even nostalgic and easy-to-digest comedies like Young Sheldon and the Will & Grace revival have been a smash success. It's clear that people are not only looking for an escape, they are looking for an escape to a place that feels affable, intimate, and familiar.

Surprisingly, other network TV shows that were expected to be runaway hits showed up with lukewarm ratings. In 2016, NBC tapped into a Peak TV trend with FX's smash hit The People v. O.J. Simpson. This year, however, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders couldn't translate the success of true crime dramas. By Episode 6, it lost almost half of its audience and raked in a meager 3.5 million viewers. Although both shows featured a prestige actress in a hideous wig, NBC’s knockoff was clearly more exploitative than insightful. The network audience was smart enough to pass on it for lighter shows that hit the right comfort spot. Meanwhile, Bull — CBS' biggest hit of the 2016 Fall TV season — lost 4.5 million viewers as its time-slot competitor, This Is Us, reached new heights. To stay in the race, Bull switched showrunners and moved away from its case-of-the-week storylines. While a more character-driven approach was the right move for the CBS drama, it wasn't enough to overtake This Is Us.

How 2017 Became the Year of Comfort Food TV

This Is Us is a hearty primetime drama-burger that benefited from hitting the airwaves at the end of the divisive and harrowing 2016 presidential election. In its sophomore season, the series surged ahead with solid ratings and an ever-growing fanbase. The Season 2 premiere in September set a new series high for NBC by drawing in 12.6 million viewers. This marked the second most-watched episode of the show, while the Season 1 finale ranked at the top spot with a total audience of 12.8 million.

Full of ample emotional twists and turns, This Is Us certainly knows how to garner maximum waterworks. Viewers are more than willing to invest in all the mushy melodrama thanks to teen drama veterans Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia (and his god damn beautiful mustache). The show's PG-13 sex appeal and characters worth rooting for are the keys to its success. The audience does not need to suspend belief. There aren't any zombies, white walkers, Russian spies, or drug lords on the horizon. Instead, This Is Us presents a sea of extraordinarily regular folks whose struggles are relatable. From weight issues and job-related stress, to death and perpetual feelings of inadequacy, the show captures the everyday problems of our lives. That’s why This Is Us… is us.

How 2017 Became the Year of Comfort Food TV

Like This Is Us, The Good Doctor is a catharsis for viewers. Shedding tears and experiencing a full range of emotions is quite liberating, which is why watching The Good Doctor is as satisfying as eating your mom’s infamous meatloaf.

Based on the 2013 Korean drama of the same name, ABC’s latest and most unexpected hit, The Good Doctor, quickly transformed into a ratings phenomenon. The series became an overnight success, debuting with an impressive 11.2 million viewers (19.21 after DVR audiences were factored in). This marked ABC’s highest-rated Monday drama debut in over 21 years! With an average of 17.4 million weekly viewersThe Good Doctor has managed to best the network’s most coveted veteran drama, Grey’s Anatomy, which garnered a significantly lower audience for its Season 14 premiere with only 8.1 million viewers. Besting Shondaland's greatest hit is no easy feat, y'all. In fact, The Good Doctor's debut was so successful that it earned an early, full season order after the second episode aired!

There’s a reason why The Good Doctor is the No. 1 drama on TV right now. The unabashedly sentimental show offers hope through the lens of a pediatric surgeon with autism, yet Shaun's limitations are what make him so extraordinary. The addictive series also effortlessly combines two great procedural genres: the investigative cop show and the medical drama. Shaun tracks down the right diagnosis by following a set of clues; hunting down leads; and then reaching a viable solution. This is a show that’s inherently satisfying for people who are looking for answers, who want solutions to problems. More than anything, The Good Doctor provides respite during these trying times and challenges people to rise above their preconceived ideas of others. It’s a message that our current political and social climate should take note of.

How 2017 Became the Year of Comfort Food TV

Other comfort food TV shows that are succeeding provide a hefty dose of nostalgia. Think of a warm slice of apple pie and that’s basically what you get when you watch Young Sheldon or the Will & Grace revival. Both shows breed familiarity thanks to their predecessors (The Big Bang Theory and the original Will & Grace, respectively), but they are also digestible and less thought-provoking comedies that serve up instant pleasure. 

In September, the Young Sheldon premiere attracted 17.2 million viewers, which made it the most-watched comedy premiere for any network since 2011. Hey, that’s not bad at all, considering that the Season 11 premiere of The Big Bang Theory generated 17.65 million viewers. Young Sheldon also received a full-season pick-up after its first episode aired. Talk about crazy impressive! Meanwhile, Will & Grace held down the fort with an audience of 10.2 million, thus making it NBC’s highest-rated comedy telecast since The Office bid farewell back in 2013. In terms of viewership, Will & Grace has delivered NBC’s most-watched Thursday telecast in 10 years!

So, what makes these comedies so appealing? Well, both shows feel like an ooey-gooey bowl of mac n’ cheese topped with an extra serving of cheese. Young Sheldon relies less on good story telling and more on the pleasantness and quiet charm of its characters. On the other hand, Will & Grace provides tighter storylines that veil their biting jabs with physical comedy and crazy shenanigans. These retro comedies are built on a foundation of friendship, good-humored fun, and kooky characters who are united despite their differences. There’s no mockery of the strange here, but rather a celebration of outsiders who want nothing more than to make our day a little brighter.

How 2017 Became the Year of Comfort Food TV

So let’s give it up for 2017’s network TV buffet of comfort food. It’s rough living in an unstable and exasperating political climate, but the small screen provided us with the ultimate silver lining. This Is Us, The Good Doctor, Young Sheldon, and Will & Grace are sentimental and easy-to-process TV shows, but that's nothing to scoff at. Amidst all the terribleness in the world, these dramas and comedies provided us with a brief but necessary escape, and transformed network TV into the savior we didn't even know we needed in 2017.

I'm the TV Editor at Zimbio. My interests include books, pop culture, and Colin Firth.