The life cycle of a television lover runs somewhere between September and June. After all, September is the time of birth — fresh episodes, smiling new stars and a dive into a beloved, long-running story line that is picking up anew. All so unknown, all so shiny.
Contrast that with May and June, when there is nothing but death and hibernation for favorite TV shows. “House” won’t be making any calls for a few months. “Glee” has lost its voice temporarily. “Desperate Housewives” have shut their doors for now. Such sad times, yes?
Not in the slightest. For some viewers, summertime is the best time. It’s true that cable networks now pick up where broadcast slacks off — “Mad Men,” “Rescue Me” and “True Blood” are all coming back with fresh episodes — but the warm season is truly the highlight for the rerun lover, who now has a chance to bask in the beauty of the familiar, the already-seen, the comfortable.
It’s easy to get sucked into an old favorite while you’re parked on a comfy couch, while air conditioning keeps you cool. Television has become so interactive these days (think social media and reality-show voting) that there’s a far greater relaxation factor inherent in just being able to sit back and let the laughs — or the suspense — roll over you like a gentle brain massage. You know this territory, you know where it leads and you’re happy to just take the ride.
Surfing along from your couch, it’s easy to find a series that’s in reruns but is new to you. I discovered “Law & Order” this way. Having given the series a shot once or twice when it aired on NBC, all I could recall from it was a bland sense of white guys in trench coats running around talking about ballistics. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
But late one night I surfed past A&E and thought it might be worth giving the show another shot (though the appearance of Chris Noth may have had something to do with it). The show clicked, and fifteen years later I was still hooked through to the series’ very end.
I’m not alone in this kind of discovery. A show with a certain cultural history or cachet can be a powerful attractant to viewers, getting them to set down the remote and give a slightly familiar show a good, solid viewing.
“Ah,” they may think, “so that’s what ‘mulva’ meant all this time,” or “Now I get it when someone shouts, ‘Respect my authoritah!’ ” TV can be as much about the water-cooler effect as it is about entertaining, and to suddenly be in on the joke is as good a reason as any to invest in a “Seinfeld” or “South Park.” What’s 22 (or 42) minutes out of your life?
The repetition of the familiar shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to understanding the appeal of the rerun. As children, we loved to hear the same books read again and again. Grown-ups aren’t so different; they just like their tales told by way of the small screen. Sharing our favorite shows is akin to passing on a beloved book, a portable communal fire.
Now that home entertainment allows for rewatching of entire series, this communal fire can be lit any time, anywhere. There’s Netflix and Hulu, which allow for streaming of whole seasons of shows right through the Internet. On Demand means you can have an instant rerun of even a recent show without having to wait until the network decides to air it again.
DVD sets took a little while to catch on, but now viewers don’t have to wait for a Memorial Day marathon — fans can gorge on their favorite shows as they please. There is an addictive quality to having series sets right in front of you: No commercials, no limit to the amount of time you can spend “visiting” your favorites. In my case, give me an “Entourage” or “Six Feet Under” season and that’s the weekend gone. Like Lays potato chips, I can’t have just one.
For those less interested in pre-programming their rerun fix, there’s always TV Land, a network devoted almost entirely to the rerunning of classic shows. If proof ever was needed that viewers love their reruns, TV Land provides nearly 24 hours a day of hard-to-find series that are mini time capsules of their period, from “All in the Family” to “Three’s Company.” Wisely, TV Land often runs back-to-back episodes of many series. Unwisely, however, it’s starting to get into its own original programming — not a good sign for rerun junkies.
Ultimately, reruns are about relaxation. A rerun viewer isn’t there to find the latest “it” show or get in on an off-screen discussion. They’re there for the equivalent of mac and cheese — this is comfort food: You will be able to recite your favorite dialogue from a “Simpsons” episode, or retread mysteries with the benefit of hindsight on “The X-Files” or just laugh again along with “I Love Lucy” as she once again stuffs her face with those candies.
We find these shows in our own time, at our own pace, with little fear of spoilers leaking in to disturb the narrative flow. There’s no urgency to tweet our opinions or blog our interpretations of what we just saw. Instead, a rerun validates our sense that all is right with the world, and says that by the time the credits run, Det. Lennie Briscoe and District Attorney Jack McCoy on “L&O” will have once again found justice for the wronged.
Such a lack of interaction with the hive mind may terrify the youngest generation, but the truth is, reruns allow viewers to digest an episode, arc or season on their own terms, at their own pace. And the best part is, though reruns concentrate most heavily in the summer, they are never limited to just one season.
That said, there are limits. Many shows being enjoyed as reruns have already been long canceled and will come to an inevitable conclusion. Series end, and reruns can’t go on forever. One has to be prepared.
Back in the 1990s, I ate dinner and watched “L.A. Law” on Lifetime nearly every night for months. It was like having Arnie, Grace and Stuart over for a meal. The conversation may have been a bit one-sided, but they didn’t eat much. Yet, when the series ended, it was as though I’d been abandoned by friendly dinner companions. I knew how they’d behave in my house ahead of time, and they never let me down. So who would I dine with next?
Thankfully, a local network quickly started rerunning the original “Beverly Hills, 90210” from the very beginning. Brandon, Kelly and Dylan, pull up a seat. We’re going to be hanging out for a while.
Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion,” which was published in 2009.