clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pop culture that makes bad days better

What to watch, play, read, and listen to when the world is a broken mess.

Triptych of Bake-Off, Smash Bros., Whisper of the Heart.
The things that spark joy, from Bake-Off to Nintendo games to chill study jams.
BBC; Nintendo; Studio Ghibli

Life is beautiful, and sometimes beauty is pain. A long day at work or school; the weeks following a breakup; T-minus five days until rent is due; the seemingly endless stream of horrifying news ... we could go on and on listing the inevitabilities that stress or depress us. And these moments all suck, but we couldn’t have life without them, could we?

That’s what we tell ourselves in order to persist, at least. Accepting our bad moods is a lot easier said than done, and so is moving past them. When we’re sad, or frustrated, or feeling hopeless, humans tend to look for ways to ease tension. Some people find release in the form of mindless entertainment; others might find it in the mopiest song in the world. Everyone has a different outlet. The important thing to remember is that all of them are valid as we process our hard times.

No matter what you might be dealing with, the Vox Culture team came together to share some of the many different ways we find calm or laughter or kinship during the moments when we need it most. From podcasts to video games to TV shows to music, here are 22 examples of media that can make us feel better on a hard day, even if only a little bit.

The Great British Baking Show

It’s a clichéd observation by now but it’s still true to say that in an increasingly dystopian world, few shows offer such a calm, unapologetic look at the panoply of humanity all striving together to do the impossible as The Great British Baking Show. In this case, the impossible is the weekly technical challenge, and the monumental drama of a dropped cake tin or an un-set flour mix can temporarily eclipse everything else happening on Earth. When my faith in humanity wavers, I often replenish it by turning to the GBBS bakers and their commitment, passion, humility, and the way they stride into the tent, arm-in-arm. (The Great British Baking Show is streaming on Netflix.) —Aja Romano

Enormous novels

Middlemarch, by George Eliot.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot.
Harper Perennial

There are few ways to tune out the world more easily than losing oneself in a giant book. I’ve been picking my way through Middlemarch by George Eliot for the first time since college, and last year, I spent several months working my way through Sigrid Undset’s mesmerizing Kristin Lavransdatter, a gorgeously written book about the life of a medieval Norwegian woman from age 7 until her death. Long novels brilliantly capture the ebb and flow of life as it’s lived, and they remind us that we exist atop so many different past lives we can’t quite recall. If nothing else, an appropriately gripping one will help you forget anything else that might be happening, at least for a little while. —Emily VanDerWerff

Super Smash Bros.

Results screen in Super Smash Bros.
Even Bowser has to applaud his arch-nemesis Mario at the end of the battle.

I don’t advocate for real-world violence. I’m not a fan of fake-world violence, either! But sometimes I need a physical release after a frustrating day. Exercise usually helps. But if it doesn’t, I sure love punching the hell out of anyone in my way via Super Smash Bros., Nintendo’s fighting video game franchise that pits dozens of the company’s mascots against each other. It’s endlessly satisfying to play as darling pink puffball Kirby and send burlyman Captain Falcon flying off-screen. There’s no blood or death in Super Smash Bros., and everyone cheerily applauds each other at the end of a fight. It’s wildly charming. —Allegra Frank

Below Deck

A man carries a bikini-clad woman across the deck of a yacht.
A Below Deck crewmember carries a guest back to the yacht.

Below Deck is Bravo’s best show. It’s more authentic than Vanderpump Rules, contains more drama and messy rich people than an entire season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and boasts more collective ineptness, pound for pound, than any of the dim bulbs on Southern Charm. It is the pinnacle of affluent chaos without major consequence, and it is perfect television.

The show follows a yacht crew — three stewards (stews), four deckhands, one chef, and one captain — as they cater to the not-super-unreasonable whims of very rich yacht renters. There’s usually only a handful of competent crew members on each season, leading to blowups over what seem like the simplest tasks. For example, in a recent episode, a stewardess was upset because, while she has a degree in math, she didn’t know how to open a bottle of wine or pour a beer without foam. Making sure the rich clientele never catch wind of this idiocy is a tumultuous charade, and each week brings a new maritime foolishness the crew has to somehow put up with. —Alex Abad-Santos

Jagged Little Pill

I’ve seen the Jagged Little Pill Broadway musical, and it’s fine. But nothing will match Alanis Morissette’s original album. When I’m stressed or feel like I’m spinning out, I turn it up in my ears, and from that opening chord of “All I Really Want,” I can feel my heart rate curiously slowing. I listened to Jagged Little Pill a lot when I was in college, a time that was a lot more stressful than most anything I do now. It reminds me of how much water has gone under the bridge since then and how much I have to look forward to. Thank you, Alanis. —Alissa Wilkinson

Lo-fi YouTube channels

YouTube is awash in these music channels, sometimes called “chill-hop,” from standard lo-fi hip-hop live radio and late-night study sessions, to the Miyazaki variant and the Christmas raccoon edition. All of them are wonderful, the best of the Hygge internet. Lo-fi channels singlehandedly incorporate Soundcloud culture, wholesome internet culture, teen study communities on Tumblr and Instagram, and all that subtly detailed animated Tumblr GIF art into one beautiful easy-listening soundtrack. You can kick back, do your work, and relish in the joy of doing that work along with millions of other busy bees — while occasionally checking in to see that, yes, sleepy raccoon’s alarm clock is still set to “CH:LL.” —AR

The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher

Eggs with anchovies baked in a fluted dish.
MFK Fisher’s eggs with anchovies. Listen, you don’t have to make the recipes, you can just read about them.
Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Food is comforting in general during bad times because it reminds us that we are still alive and can feel pleasure. And reading about food can help immerse us in those feelings even when we are not up to cooking or eating ourselves. Plus, food essays tend to be quick reads, which is ideal for those times when your attention span is shattered. M.F.K. Fisher is America’s greatest food writer, and her essays always capture my attention and turn it elsewhere when I need them to. —Constance Grady

U Talkin’ U2 to Me?

When loneliness strikes, I find it helpful to listen to a podcast, an inviting way to eavesdrop on fascinating people I don’t have to interact with. I love comedy shows in particular, which make me feel like I’m hanging out with the funniest and most easy-going folks possible. My favorite is the absolutely nonsensical U Talkin’ U2 to Me?, in which Scott Aukerman (Comedy Bang Bang!) and Adam Scott (Parks and Rec) ostensibly focus their attention on reviewing every U2 album. But most of the time they instead launch into hilarious, juvenile, instantly quotable back-and-forths. It’s the best kind of company when I think I can’t handle any. —AF

Beauty vlogger Samantha Ravndahl’s videos

I’ve never worn makeup beyond a dab of concealer to hide a stubborn, relentless zit. But that hasn’t stopped me from consuming hours of beauty YouTubers’ videos, watching them test out new products, talk about their lives, dish about vlogger drama, and sometimes issue (multiple) apologies for being racist. My favorite is Samantha Ravndahl, a beauty guru from Vancouver. Ravndahl is an artist (her claim to fame is that Lil’ Kim stole one of her images and a lawsuit soon followed), but she also has a brutally silly way of describing beauty products she loves, hates, and feels lukewarm about. Ravndahl’s videos are self-deprecating and grounded, offering an expert way of thinking about skin care and beauty. She makes the daunting world of beauty understandable and presents it in a way that’s entertaining, usually at her own expense. —AAS

Schitt’s Creek

Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy, Eugene Levy, and Dan Levy in Schitt’s Creek.

The best TV comfort food is a nice, solid sitcom. Schitt’s Creek, about a wealthy family who loses everything and must move to the tiny town of Schitt’s Creek, is much more than solid. (At least after the first season or so, which you have my full permission to skip.) The Canadian series is a genuinely romantic show that is both clear-eyed and generous toward its neurotic central cast, and it has a heart as warm as Moira Rose’s wig collection is voluminous. (Also, the first five seasons are streaming on Netflix.) —CG


If Schitt’s Creek is a gentler, more Canadian spin on Parks and Recreation, then Letterkenny is its much cruder (though still Canadian) cousin. Letterkenny follows the lives of a group of friends in a tiny town in Canada where the social caste system feels at once impossibly rigid and sort of like a ladder one can climb. It’s a series fond of wordplay and wacky sight gags, but it’s also frequently touching about what it means to be different in a place where everybody tries diligently to be the same. (Here in the US, you can watch the show on Hulu.) —EV

Pet Rescue Saga

A screenshot from the game Pet Rescue Saga.
The pets are free!
King Digital via Aja Romano

Pet Rescue Saga is just one of a zillion mobile games built around the same basic premise of strategically matching colored blocks. Only this time, there are cute animated pets trapped on the blocks, and when you successfully match the blocks, you set the pets free and they wag their tails or bounce around gratefully. I’m aware Pet Rescue is a giant marketing scheme to deplete my wallet via in-game purchases, but I also find it incredibly soothing to strategize, match those blocks, and rescue those pets. I’m not alone; studies have shown that these kinds of games can decrease anxiety and increase brain efficiency. Pet Rescue got me through several intense years reporting on Gamergate and its scale-up, and I am as grateful as those rescued pups. —AR

The Betsy-Tacy book series

A be-pompadoured Betsy works on a short story at her uncle’s old theatrical chest. Get that hair ribbon!!!
William Morrow

This immensely sweet series about a girl growing up in a small Midwestern town at the beginning of the 20th century is filled with rich sensory details. Every time I reread it, I’m so overwhelmed by them that I forget everything else: families eating onion sandwiches on Sunday; girls piling their hair over “rats” to make big elaborate pompadours; aspiring writer Betsy stowing her stories-in-progress in an old cigar box she keeps in an actor-uncle’s theatrical trunk. It’s enough to sweep you away. —CG


A spread from Alison Roman’s cookbook Dining In.
Alison Roman

Are you supposed to read cookbooks cover to cover? I don’t really know, but I often do it, especially when I need to escape the demands of life, work, or the internet. Cooking, creating something that appeals to the senses, satisfies a need; it expresses love and care. It always helps brighten my mood, but when I don’t have time to cook or don’t want to make a mess, reading cookbooks comes surprisingly close. Particular favorites right now: both of Alison Roman’s books (brightly, beautifully photographed); Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year (about how cooking got her through the period after Gourmet magazine folded); the Franny’s cookbook, from the beloved and now devastatingly closed restaurant; and back issues of Bon Appetit and Saveur. —AW

Breaking Bad

Walter White climbs a ladder to fetch a pizza off a house roof in “Breaking Bad.”
Also, Breaking Bad can be really wacky, too. It’s not all drug deals and cold-blooded killing.

Sometimes the best way to de-stress is to replace your own worries with someone else’s. If I can shove aside anxiety about my job, family, and relationships to instead focus on the absurd level of awfulness that Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Jesse Pinkman experience throughout the show’s five seasons, that’s a win. There’s a strange comfort I find in knowing that I am far, far away from their messy lives in Albuquerque, and my daily problems are no match compared to a drug lord’s. (Breaking Bad is streaming on Netflix.) —AF

Stardew Valley

When I need to veg out, the only game I turn to is Stardew Valley, in which you are gifted a small farm in the titular valley by your grandfather, then aim to turn it into a profitable enterprise. The game isn’t especially hard, but it rewards you with ever-increasing numbers of things to do, from diving deep into monster-infested mines to fishing for rare creatures to wooing a local single to begin a family. Within its low-res world, Stardew Valley soothes. —EV

The Devil Wears Prada

I watch every movie imaginable for my actual job, but when it comes to comfort films, I have only one: The Devil Wears Prada, which came out in 2006, the year after I moved to New York. The movie feels like it has grown and changed along with me. How well I remember the feeling of panicking and being in over my head! How much more I respect the “villain” (and kind of hate the “heroine”)! But what I really love are the montages of people getting ready for work and people doing things at work and Andy finally getting the hang of her job. It’s glossy and a tad silly but also very, very real ... which is just, in the end, like life. —AW

Marie Kondo’s Instagram

As many of us now know, Marie Kondo’s TV show was too stressful to be fully soothing. (That one couple who palpably hated each other but kept calling each other “babe”?????) And Marie Kondo’s books are fun, but also low on what is obviously the most soothing thing about organizing books: all the “after” pictures showing us previously chaotic environments that have been tamed into a state of perfect order. Enter Marie Kondo’s Instagram feed: a series of incredibly satisfying pictures of things that have been Tetris-ed into the most correct possible order, and calming captions about how you should always fold your linens with intention. I’m in an ASMR state just thinking about it. —CG

Sex and the City

The four women of “Sex and the City” sitting in the back of a car.
The women of Sex and the City.

Whenever I’m stressed out, I need something where the stakes are low and nothing too bad ever happens. Hence my appreciation for the frothier, more bubble-gummy episodes of Sex and the City (think: less Berger breaking up with Carrie on a Post-It and more Kyra — played by Tatum O’Neal — hosting a party where Carrie’s shoes get stolen). Those episodes, full of storylines ranging from Samantha babysitting a child with a Sharper Image vibrator to Miranda getting adult braces, hit the sweet spot of silliness, comedy, and wit that’s a perfect steam valve release for terrible days, the kind of television to put on while chopping vegetables for dinner or folding laundry. It’s worth noting that some of the jokes on Sex and the City haven’t aged particularly well (the first season aired 22 years ago), but that rings true for many comedies. The silliness and terrible puns are still pretty timeless. (Sex and the City is streaming on HBO.) —AAS

Hadestown: The Original Broadway Cast recording

I’ve written plenty about how much I adore the musical Hadestown — a post-apocalyptic retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in a New Orleans jazz club (try saying that five times fast) — and its cast recording is increasingly my go-to album for hard times. When Orpheus offers a toast to “the world we dream about and the one we live in now,” it just gets me right here [gestures to heart], you know? And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the songs run the gamut from hell-raising rave-ups to plaintive ballads. —EV

The Office

This is possibly the most unoriginal suggestion on the planet, but I, like what seems like half of America, have been watching The Office on a continuous loop since late 2016. Why? I’m not sure. It’s not as if the idea of having a stressful yet boring job is somehow relaxing. Neither is all the contact embarrassment I feel, especially in the early Michael Scott years. But its familiarity and banality — and the fact that the show really knows how to set up a good gag — is, I think, why it’s so comforting. Especially with a cup of tea or something stronger perched in my lap. —AW


I have to confess that I have never read Tove Jansson’s legendary comic strip, but in the last year, thanks to the advent of the 2019 British TV show Moominvalley, my social media feeds have been awash in oblong cow-dogs and their wide-brim-hatted companions. Every glimpse of the Moomins, be it in the form of fanart or glimpses of the show itself, has been immeasurably soothing and fascinating — regular dispatches from a pure, folkloric otherworld.

Oh, and did you think there wasn’t a lo-fi hip-hop Moomin edition? Do you even know the internet? —AR

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.