Feel Good TV, The Good Doctor, Will & Grace, Seal Team, Dancing With the Stars

ABC; NBC; CBS; Melissa Hebeler / E! Illustration

All it takes is one quick glance at the shows that have found success this fall (and all those that haven't) for one thing to become abundantly clear: Audiences are turning out in droves for TV that makes them feel good.

The idea of comfort food TV is nothing new. Since the days of Lucy Ricardo and her Vitameatavegamin loopiness, viewers have been using TV as a way of escaping their world for one where problems are tidily resolved within an hour, everyone's always quick with a joke, and the good guys (almost) always win. Despite the fact that the medium's recent golden age chose to eschew those feel-good properties for shows that reflected real life, regardless of how uneasy they left you by episode's end, it seems the pendulum is once again swinging back in favor of the classic model.

And with a world that's seemingly gone mad, delivering an onslaught of spirit-breaking news at breakneck pace, this pivot is really no surprise.

Freddie Highmore, The Good Doctor

ABC

For evidence of this, you need look no further than the fall's biggest breakout hit, ABC's The Good Doctor. Starring Freddie Highmore and based on a Korean drama of the same name, the series tells the story of Dr. Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, as he navigates a new career as a member of the prestigious St. Bonaventure hospital's surgical unit. The show has been an overnight success, debuting to 11.2 million viewers (19.21 when DVR viewership was factored in) in its first week, making it the network's highest-rated Monday drama debut in 21 (!!) years and the No. 1 drama on TV.

The medical procedural, which hails from House creator David Shore and EP Daniel Dae Kim, wasn't exactly a critical darling prior to premiering, but its mix of sentimentality and earnestness, not to mention its depiction of a main character overcoming adversity and discrimination, has certainly endeared it to fans. "This show is absolutely amazing," writes one fan on the show's official Facebook page. "It is promoting both autism awareness, acceptance, and positivity." 

"Love this show and all of the messages. This show is very meaningful for today," writes another.

The Facebook page is absolutely full of reviews like the ones above, and when you speak to fans, it's clear that the show has really struck a chord. "His autism and his ability to function as a doctor and as an individual," one such fan, Elizabeth Ann Cannon, tells E! News when asked what drew her to the show. "Many times you assume that children that are challenged will be at home with parents, but in fact most live independently on their own. Love that the character shows many sides of autism."

When asked if the show provides her a respite from an ugly world, she admits that it does. "We must do that in life, rise above our own preconceived thoughts on others," she says, referencing the latest episode, which saw the main character's chief adversary finally acknowledge that he's, in fact, a good doctor. "At some point we must look at others as human beings, living and loving. I don't know if it's THE reason I watch, but it's ONE of the reasons I continue to watch. (Great acting is one of the main reasons.)The characters are evolving for the better I wish our nation would take note and do the same."

The comfort that The Good Doctor is obviously providing to millions week after week works on two levels. First, it follows in the footsteps of last season's breakout hit This Is Us in that it offers a catharsis, an opportunity to experience a full range of emotions and shed a few healthy tears in the process. And second, its procedural element guarantees that each week, problems will usually be solved neatly. And it's that second part that can't be understated.

Seal Team

CBS

"People want answers and are looking for solutions to problems. We have had a year of social turmoil and upheaval where old solutions no longer work," New York-based therapist Kathryn Smerling, LCSW-PH.D tells E! News about the appeal. There is a simple sense of pleasure that one gets from solving a dilemma."

The Good Doctor is hardly alone on that front this season. Along with procedural powerhouse mainstays like NCIS and Law & Order: SVU, freshman series like Seal Team, S.W.A.T., and (to a lesser extent) The Orville are connecting because they're delivering on an idea of hope, an idea that the good guys will almost always prevail, an idea that law and (especially) order can still exist.

Will and Grace, Will & Grace

NBC

On the flip side, the season's other big success stories are succeeding thanks to nostalgia and laughs, a powerful recipe for comfort. The revival of Will & Grace premiered to 10.2 million viewers, making it NBC's highest-rated comedy telecast since The Office signed off in 2013, while CBS' The Big Bang Theory prequel Young Sheldon, starring Big Little Lies breakout star Iain Armitage, brought in a staggering 17.2 million viewers with its premiere, making it the most watched comedy premiere on any network since 2011. Their appeal, of course, is simple: Tune in, laugh, and forget about the world for 30 minutes.

"People are nostalgic for simpler times. The news is so serious and shocking that people want to make an effort to feel good and to laugh," Smerling notes. "Laughing is a way to maintain joy, and simple fun is what we all need more of. Retro comedies in which the characters are self-aware are silly and offer a relief from the seriousness of our world today. It also offers a glimpse of friendship and unique characters who respect each other's differences in a good-humored fashion."

And of course, there are the reality TV staples like The Voice and Dancing With the Stars that offer up some razzle-dazzle, some good-natured competition, and the ever-important escapism. "There is so much chaos, turmoil and dissension in the world today that people are craving simple fun," Smerling says. "Shows like The Voice resemble old talent shows with a modern twist. They are egalitarian in that they deal with your innate talent—some which are extraordinary! [They] highlight hard work, practice and the age old fantasy of being discovered!"

At a time when the world seems remarkably unstable and our Hollywood heroes are turning out to be remarkably less-than at an alarming rate, these feel-good shows are more important than ever. They follow through on TV's initial promise to, as family therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer notes, help audiences "learn about the world, laugh at human blunders and and connect to something outside of themselves."

"Today the need for this escape is more relevant than ever," he tells E! News. "Feel-good television enables us to get out of the pain that we experience from living in a chaotic world and connect to the joys of being human. It suspends our personal reality and transports us into visually appealing and emotionally soothing place."

With the success this type of programming has seen this fall, you can count on the networks investing in it more and more. And that's something we can all feel good about.

(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)

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