The phenomenon of “comfort TV” is getting plenty of air time these days. For the uninitiated: the premise is pretty simple. Viewers are flocking to reruns of classic shows (often comedies – The Golden Girls, The Office, Friends, etc.) because those shows’ predictability provides a sense of security and calm. In today’s (very) unsecure world, knowing that Rachel is going to mistakenly add beef to the Thanksgiving trifle (no, it will NOT taste good) is reassuring. It’s calming. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s EASY.
Said Sophie Gilbert in a recent article in The Atlantic, ““There’s a lot of comfort in knowing when something’s going to happen. You don’t have to exert a lot of cognitive energy, so it doesn’t feel taxing.”
Which brings us to: The Last Dance.
The blockbuster documentary chronicling the run of Michael Jordan’s 1998 Chicago Bulls blew up more than any of the network’s previous 30 for 30 masterpieces (despite not being that category itself; The Last Dance was actually co-produced by ESPN and Netflix). Ratings for the 10-part series were insane, with The Last Dance averaging 5.6 MM same-day viewers per episode (and tens of millions more who tuned in on demand). Even though the water cooler itself may have gone the way of the dinosaur, The Last Dance still managed to become water cooler fodder, inspiring Slack chats and impromptu Zooms at suddenly remote companies (including ours) from coast to coast.
Those of us fortunate enough to have watched the NBA in the 90s didn’t need 10 episodes to learn whether or not the Bulls would take the 1998 title (and, with it, their second championship three-peat) in Phil/MJ/Scottie’s last season with the club (spoiler alert: they did)… but we tuned in anyway, and in droves.
We are living in a sports desert, and it sucks.
We miss sports. So much. Prior to mid-March, no sports junkie could have imagined turning on the TV and not finding a game or match to watch. After sports were effectively cancelled, we were adrift… hence droves of people tuning into, say, two-month-old track meet re-runs (raises hand) and sports broadcasters narrating PENGUIN PARADES (present) to get a fix.
Perfection is always worth watching again.
Beyond our basic longing for ANY type of televised contest, a major element for many Last Dance viewers was the allure of re-living perfection. It’s hard to explain how stunning of a player Michael was all the time, but especially when the chips were down. He refused to be beaten, and though that singular focus definitely made him less than ideal in other ways, on the court, he was perfect. That’s something every hoops fan (even, say, Spike Lee) can’t help but appreciate.
Did we see what we thought we saw?
We suspect another benefit of tuning in was to confirm whether or not our memories of that time were actually accurate. Was MJ really that great? (Yes.) Did he always come up big in the biggest moments, hitting (seemingly) every key shot? (Yes.) Was the NBA in the mid-90s as rough and badass as it seemed? (LOL yes.) Was Scottie Pippen incredibly underpaid and under-appreciated and, simultaneously (albeit occasionally), a massive punk (yes yes yes). Sanity check = passed with flying colors.
What DIDN’T we see?
Getting a behind-the-scenes look at sports is always compelling, especially when we’re talking about a high profile team and THE highest profile player of his era, of any sport. There’s no doubt that viewers were hoping for some sweet behind-the-scenes drama, which The Last Dance offered enough of to keep us on board (I challenge any sports fan to turn away from the squad explaining Dennis Rodman’s excused Vegas vacation).
(Aside: there seemed to be fewer unexpected revelations later in the series; maybe that’s because the final episodes weren’t actually finished until May.)
At the end of the day, it all comes back to comfort viewing. How else do you explain millions of people tuning in to 10 episodes culminating in a “reveal” (Bulls win!) that approximately 100% of viewers were aware of beforehand (and had been for the previous 20+ years)?
The ending was anything but a cliffhanger, and yet we watched. We watched because it was simultaneously thrilling and soothing. We watched because it was easy. Our assumptions were vindicated, our memories were validated, and the outcome was never in doubt.
The Last Dance was the perfect respite for sports fans bumming their way through COVID-19. It restored our equilibrium (temporarily, anyway), bringing us back to a time when days – and games – played out just as they were supposed to.
What time is it? Game time!