Last week, swine flu struck the Chicago office, and most of The A.V. Club either went home sick and miserable, or stayed huddled at home, desperately avoiding the germs. Which inevitably prompted this week’s question: What entertainment do you specifically seek out when you’re sick and miserable?
I definitely watch movies when I’m sick, and if I’m housebound for a few days, that’s pretty much all I do. I even blogged about it last year! This week, I watched Pusher 3 (which I loved, but wouldn’t recommend if you’re nauseous), Insomnia, Frozen River, most of The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (again), and a good chunk of the first season of Sons Of Anarchy. But this doesn’t answer your question, I know. When I am feeling mercilessly tired, and at the edge of collapse (does that count as sick?), I find myself turning off the lights and listening to Spiritualized’s Lazer Guided Melodies. It sends me off into that special place, like aural heroin made by a guy on actual heroin.
I’ve already covered my antipathy toward re-watching movies in this column, and got thoroughly dissed for it—but I just don’t have comfort movies. For me, the best distraction when I’m curled up on the couch feeling crappy is distracting novelty, preferably in the form of serial TV on DVD: ideally, something with a single long story arc, suitable for completely drawing me in for an entire concentrated day at a time. Previous “sick and exhausted” projects have included season two of Lost and season one of How I Met Your Mother. Also, prestige-film season 2007—that late-November period where we suddenly have to get caught up on 30 films at once, usually via screeners at home—was accomplished mostly in a multi-day marathon of being feverish, lying under a pile of cats, and chain-smoking movie after movie after movie while waiting to feel better. Casual videogames are a good time-suck as well; I’ve managed to dodge the flu so far, but having just gotten sucked into Plants Vs. Zombies, I can definitely say this is a game I would have loved the last time I was couch-bound. Simple to play, not too hard, goofy in a friendly sort of way, and addictive—stuff like this really makes the sucky hours of snotty awakeness go by fast.
I don’t usually need sickness as an excuse to watch television for mind-numbingly long periods of time, but, like Tasha, I generally reach for TV on DVD when I’m sick. The episodic nature of television syncs up better than movies with the drug-induced nap cycle I generally fall into, and a disc of hourlong dramas lasts longer than most single movies, saving me precious standing-and-walking-to-the-DVD-player energy. Arrested Development and Futurama are my go-to box sets when I’m especially sleepy/drugged, since I know them well enough to tune in and out as my medication allows. But I also like to take on a “project,” a series I’ve been hearing about for a long time and haven’t gotten around to for one reason or another. The Great Funk of Christmas 2008 got me through two seasons of Friday Night Lights; this summer’s unseasonable sniffles were the perfect excuse to catch up on True Blood; and last weekend, when I was struck by the doom-flu that took out our office, I made it through the first and second seasons of Breaking Bad, and I have Damages waiting in the wings should it rear its head again.
Here’s something you need to understand before I answer this question: I’m an alcoholic insomniac, so the only time I ever get any sleep is when I’m sick. So the last thing I’m going to do on those rare occasions when I’m blessed with a good solid bout of the flu is waste time on television or movies. Maybe if I’ve got the strength, I’ll hit the shuffle button on iTunes and listen to whatever plays for the 35 seconds it takes me to conk out, but that’s it. That said, I could sort of see the appeal of, next time I’m near death, putting together a little mini-festival of movies where one of the main characters is horribly sick, drunk, or just generally miserable throughout most of the film: Midnight Cowboy, After Hours, Lost Weekend, Sid And Nancy, D.O.A., The Singing Detective, Panic In The Streets, The Andromeda Strain, Poison, Safe… Then at least I could watch them and go “Hey, it could be worse.”
Sick time is a great time for me to listen to the audio commentaries on TV shows I know and love, because I’m sorta rewatching something I like, sorta getting something new out of it. I’m sure this will come as no surprise to anyone who reads The A.V. Club, but 30 Rock and Arrested Development are two favorites in this category. Part of me wants to also Netflix the Anne Of Green Gables TV movie next time I’m ill, since when I was young, it felt like it was always on PBS whenever I was home sick. There was something very soothing about how each time I didn’t feel well, the movie was there with its beautiful locations, Gilbert Blythe’s cuteness, and Anne’s incorrigibility.
When I’m sick, I get just a little excited (when the fever subsides), because I know I’m about to play a ton of videogames. The worst part about being sick is feeling like you’re being completely useless, but at least with videogames, I feel like I’m doing some mental exercise. This last week, home stricken with the H1N-FUN, I managed to conquer a fair amount of The New Super Mario Bros. for my Nintendo DS, and start on a pet project of mine: Shadow Of The Colossus, a videogame my friends have been talking up for what feels like years, and has probably been years. It’s a really basic game with huge ambitions; you’re a guy who wants to bring your girlfriend back to life, and in order to do that, the gods require you slay 16 colossi—huge stone and grass creatures you have to literally climb and stab. Each “level” consists of you walking around, Myst-style, looking for the colossus, then slaying it. I played for hours and only got through three before realizing I didn’t feel as well as I thought I did, and the creepy emptiness of the game was starting to get to me. Should have stuck with Mario.
Working from home keeps me in a protective bubble that minimizes contact with the rest of you walking viruses, so I don’t get sick as often as I used to, unless it’s Jameson-induced. However, that means when I do get sick, I tend to regress into a petulant, childlike state that can only be soothed by Frank Oz’s Little Shop Of Horrors, which is what my mom used to leave me at home with whenever I inevitably caught whatever stomach bug was going around. I don’t really care for musicals, but Little Shop gets a pass thanks to its concentrated nastiness and concentrated Rick Moranisness—and I’m man enough to admit that I find “Somewhere That’s Green” very soothing. (It’s the opposite of Dirty Dancing, which mom once subjected me to two back-to-back screenings of, while I lay immobile and suffering of a 105-degree fever at the tender age of 10. Even today, just hearing that “At Kellerman’s we come together” song literally makes me nauseous.) Oh, and anytime I’m sick/lucky enough to score some cough syrup with codeine, I put Iggy Pop’s “Sister Midnight” on repeat, because that’s the way it’s meant to be heard.
As with Sean, my mom helped set the tone for me when it comes to the chicken-soup entertainment I partake of while sick. Soft rock of the ’70s—my mom’s music of choice when I was a kid—totally tranquilizes me, and sends me into a daze of NyQuil-abetted floatiness. Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album and Rumours (which, granted, I love listening to just about anytime) totally fit the bill, but when I’m rundown and sniffly, I seem to gravitate more to the Christine McVie songs. Also on the prescription is Supertramp’s Breakfast In America, a moody, quirky record that seemed almost magical to me when I was little, and still kind of does. As for DVDs, few things make me feel better than curling up on a couch and subjecting myself to the brutal, gleeful surrealism of The Young Ones. The inducement of vomiting is just a perk.
First of all, anything I watch when I’m sick will make me feel better as long as I have 7-Up and pretzels to keep me company. I’m telling you, the combination of fizzy carbonation and salty carbs is the closest we’ve come to a cure for the common cold, or whatever else ails you. Now, if I need a little extra stimulation, I prefer a good underdog story—particularly The Karate Kid or Rocky III. Because what is getting sick if not an opportunity to triumph over a formidable opponent—whether it’s a blonde-haired teen sadist from Southern California or a mohawk-sporting pugilist from Chicago—just when all hope seems to be lost? I figure if Ralph Macchio can pull off a crane kick, or Sylvester Stallone can pick himself off the mat to defeat Clubber Lang, I can probably survive 24 to 72 hours of headaches and vomiting. It’s also good to know that when I finally do get healthy, sickness probably has a sequel coming somewhere down the road.
Growing up, I always cherished the daytime TV-watching a sick day afforded. The Price Is Right, Lost In Space reruns, and Hanna-Barbera and Looney Tunes packages on Cartoon Network usually made the docket, but by midday, that docket would be cleared for a giant chunk of VHS geekery: All three parts of the original Star Wars trilogy, back-to-back-to-back. Well, make that one and a third parts of the original Star Wars trilogy—I tended to nod off during The Empire Strikes Back, somewhere between the “Never tell me the odds” asteroid field chase and Luke’s departure from Dagobah. To this day, I’ve never made it to the conclusion of this couch-bound marathon, as it seems my ambition isn’t as strong as whatever is ailing me, and my familiarity with the films makes it far too easy to slip into a frozen-in-carbonite-like slumber. It’s probably for the best, though: I’d rather not know how prolonged exposure to Ewoks affects a sickness-ravaged mind and body.
Sick or not, my favorite thing to do on the weekend is kick back in my recliner with a football or baseball game, or with any old movie on TCM, and just take a nap. When I’m sick, I don’t want to move or think; I just want to listen to murmuring voices on the TV while I drift off to Happyland.
These days, sick time is mostly catch-up time; I generally feel guilty now when I’m reading or watching things that aren’t part of some project, so when my system shuts down, I take it as a well-justified opportunity to waste as much of the day as possible. (Although since I still consider it as “catch-up,” I guess I’m not very good at wasting things.) If we can stretch the definition of “not feeling well” to depression, though, going through all my Futurama box sets generally puts me in a better place. It’s still such a smart show that I never get tired of watching it, the jokes come at a fast enough pace that it’s consistently engaging, and the best episodes hit that sweet spot between sentiment and cynicism where I never feel like I’m being talked down to or coddled. Plus, whenever I finish watching an episode, I can just re-watch it with the commentary track on; it’s like having a bunch of my friends talking in the other room, loud enough for me to hear them, but not so loud that I can’t fall asleep if I decide I want to.
I’m going to have to once again choose the obvious choice and choose my Simpsons DVDs. When you’re feeling sick or sad or think you may be coming down with the old TB, nothing soothes the soul and delights the senses quite like returning once again to Springfield. It’s a world I, and countless other members of what only be called either the Simpsons or Stephen Dorff generation, know better than their own neighborhood. There’s something about The Simpsons that inherently takes me back to childhood. Isn’t that what we all secretly crave when we call in sick from work? To revert back to an age when we can wear polar-bear pajamas without shame, bundle up with a favorite blue blanket, and have someone bring us orange juice and Jell-O until we’re all better? Who better to accompany you in the old way-back machine than Homer ’n’ company when the world’s a bit amiss?