Old TV Shows Are My Melatonin

From streams to dreams.

Author by John Devore
Credit: iStock

When I can’t sleep I like to re-watch old TV shows. I’ve been doing this a lot recently. Over the past few weeks, my casual insomnia and my anxiety have teamed-up to make sure I’m wide awake at one in the morning. So I drape a blanket over my head like a grandma Jedi and fire up an episode of The Office, or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or Columbo.

Then I doze off to familiar characters and plots whose twists I know by heart. I half-smile, with heavy eyelids, at punchlines before they’re delivered. I fall asleep to a season finale and wake up five episodes later and know exactly what is about to happen.

The world is chaotic. Twas ever thus. But my mind finds comfort in repetitive viewings of entertainments from the distant, and near distant past. I have taken melatonin before and stared at the ceiling for hours. But sit me in front of a sitcom I’ve seen multiple times and I’m happily off to dreamland.

The “Must See TV” of yesterday is like a family member tucking me into bed. An episode of The Office from way back in 2005 is like a lullaby I know and trust. When Jim stares into the camera to shrug I stare back at him and shrug, too. If you haven’t seen The Office since it went off the air in 2013, you should revisit the series. It is both sweet, and absurd, and surprisingly politically incorrect. There are some cringe-worthy moments in the early episodes but its basic humanity makes the occasional off-color joke forgivable.

Another dependable visual sleeping pill is Columbo, the classic ’70s whodunit starring Peter Falk as the titular character. This is probably one of my favorite TV shows of all time and I have seen almost every hour and a half long episode multiple times. The concept is simple: every episode opens with a murder committed by a rich and brilliant person who is convinced they’ll get away with it. Then soft-spoken, cigar-smoking police officer Columbo shows up, mumbling, and annoys them with questions. I am usually fast asleep before the rumpled detective everyone looks down their nose at solves the murder. Anyway, be the Columbo you wish to see in the world.

Of all the Star Trek series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is probably my favorite. First, I love the Star Trek universe because it’s basic thesis is that the future is hopeful—that humans will evolve and cure sickness and poverty and explore the galaxy. Most sci-fi shows are dystopias but Star Trek is our greatest piece of utopian pop art. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, however, is the darkest of the six series. It’s set on a battle station in the middle of a war zone and, in the ’90s, it helped pioneer the season-long story arc style that is popular today. I’m usually sawing logs halfway through any given episode, usually when shapeshifting security officer Odo is talking about wormholes.

I’ve also been rewatching The West Wing, which ran from 1999 to 2006, and, in a way, it’s as fantastical as Star Trek. I recently had to explain this show to a younger colleague who had never even heard of it. She couldn’t believe there was ever a hit TV show about a fictional White House full of smart and competent people who aren’t trying to murder each other like on House of Cards. The West Wing was a love letter to President Kennedy’s famous quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” The show is cheesy and shamelessly liberal, but the snappy rat-a-tat dialogue from show creator Aaron Sorkin is hard to beat. I’m usually out like a light before one of the many inspiring speeches about democracy. I usually wake up in a pretty good mood. 

If you have trouble sleeping at night, I’d also prescribe Cheers, Frasier, and any season of ER with George Clooney. Friends, like The Office, really shows its age—the ’90s hairdos, and older cultural references, and dated sexual politics. But, in a pinch, Friends will knock me out. If I’m especially wired at night I’ll sip tea and zone out to soothing hippie painter, and PBS superstar, Bob Ross. Eventually, I will start rewatching my most recent streaming obsession-slash-coping mechanism, The Great British Bake Off. I can’t wait. Falling asleep to sweet-faced Hobbits making cakes sounds wonderful. 


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