Comfort Viewing: Examining the Appeal of UK sitcom Peep Show

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

As we hit the one year mark of living with the pandemic, people in some parts of the world once again find themselves back in lockdown, with a lot of time on their hands. And, because we’re in November, a whole lot of cold weather too.

In such times, we’re anticipating a shift away from previous lockdown trends such as trying out new baking recipes and exploring gaming landscapes, and more towards typical comfort activities such as binge watching favourite TV shows.

Activities such as making sourdough bread and playing animal crossing, while therapeutic, can arguably be classified as activities requiring greater mental involvement: making sourdough requires first and foremost a desire to indulge in the complicated, to derive joy from the tedium of the countless steps and waiting needed in making bread.

Navigating the Animal Crossing virtual world similarly requires players to enjoy toggling their way through various virtual activities to expand and upgrade their virtual homes. All in all, activities involving having challenges to conquer.

Rewatching old sitcoms to re-experience normalcy

Why people are turning to uncomplicated, unchallenging joys…

A quick look through media-related search trends in the UK for the last 30 days show some interesting things. It seems that there’s a rising demand for classic sitcom shows: searches for American sitcom Friends have risen, with interest in season 7 seeing a 150% increase, and season 9 seeing a 350% increase in search interest this month, compared to last.

Narrowing the time frame to just last week, we observe a cyclical interest in Peep Show, the well-loved British sitcom (and a favourite of many of our team members too).

Examining where the peaks occur, we see that searches for the show rise daily and reach their highest point between 10pm to around midnight. We see similar patterns in searches for other classic British sitcoms as well:

Search interest for discontinued, well-loved sitcoms from the previous decades have seen spikes between 10pm to 1am nightly over last week in the UK.

What makes these sitcoms appealing night-time shows?

To investigate the appeal of classic sitcoms, we focused our attention on running Peep Show data through our Culture AI.

Data collection

Our team extracted 3000 tweets from the Peep Show Script twitter account, a bot tweeting the sitcom’s script from start to finish. We also downloaded hundreds of images from two popular Peep Show instagram accounts, ‘@peepshowquotes’ and ‘@nocontextpeep’. We then ran them through our various Culture AI machine learning models.

Here’s what we found:

As we know, Peep Show is not at all a cheerful comedy. Our text analysis models confirm this: In terms of emotional intensity, there is not much at all. The TV series’s script veers towards mildness — the language is neither identifiably cheery or glum. Instead, we see that a big portion of characters’ speech are neutral, followed by negative, and then positive.

Not hard to see why it’s become a pandemic favorite: in times of great chaos and uncertainty, psychological thrillers aren’t exactly good viewing material when we’ve been on enough emotional rollercoasters this year to willingly stand in line for another ride. Peep Show on the other hand, is content viewers can count on to be reliably mundane, capturing normal daily life happenings.

Like a sitcom equivalent of an ASMR youtube reel, the reassuring ambient neutralness of Peep Show’s language soothes with its unalarming content.

Unlike some popular TV series of today (Emily in Paris, we’re looking at you), we see that the beauty of Peep Show lies not in aesthetically pleasing, beautiful backdrops. Turning to results from our Instagram analysis in which hundreds of screenshots from the show were analysed, top shades tended towards grayer, ‘muddier’ tones. Expectedly so, as a great portion of the show featured the interior of Mark and Jez’s cramped Croydon flat.

Based on these stills analysed by our Culture AI, we also found that among the top three emotions was ‘Anxiety’, something we wouldn’t typically associate with comedy:

Thinking about why a show with such a somber color palette and high levels of anxiousness has found interest in the lockdowns, we can only explain it this way at present moment:

As discussed, people are first and foremost keen to indulge in mildness and uneventfulness. We see that in the initial popularity of Animal Crossing, the rise in Cottagecore activities (knitting, baking bread, growing house plants), and rise in interest for comfort food recipes.

More crucially, we see that consumers want to indulge in mildness with an edge: with its sense of misfortune, linguistic emotionlessness and visual drabness, Peep Show contains the optimum balance of grimness and comedy to be equal parts relatable to present lockdown misery and equal parts nostalgic throwback to the persons viewers once were back in the day, and memories of an easier time binge-watching the show when it first came out.

Our concluding hypothesis: Shows that will do well in these times are those that capitalize on these nuances.