Quarantined Americans are uniting over a new age of water-cooler TV

The past month has seen Americans adopt unthinkable new behaviors. Obsessive handwashing is as habitual as morning coffee. Wearing a face mask is the new black. And our most affectionate position is standing 6 feet away from friends and neighbors.

But one big change isn’t that new at all. In fact, it’s a retro throwback to more innocent, cellphone-free days: Water-cooler TV is back.

It’s hard to believe, but 30 years ago, 21.7 million people plopped themselves on the couch to watch the series finale of “Alf.” This year’s Oscars only managed to pull in 2 million more viewers than a comedy about an alien puppet.

Now, while the world has grown more physically distant, we are once again united by our glowing boxes of light. Previously sagging network-TV ratings have increased every week since March 1, according to a Quartz report. The series finale of “Modern Family,” after 11 seasons, was watched by 7.4 million people on April 8 — the sitcom’s highest ratings in three years. After the credits rolled, social-media users lit up Twitter with teary responses to their favorite characters’ emotional fates. They still are. Meanwhile, “The Good Doctor” season finale, which had viewers freaking out about a major player’s death, scored the show’s highest numbers in a year.

On April 11, after weeks of being furloughed, “Saturday Night Live” attempted a bold experiment: Cast members, including Kate McKinnon, Colin Jost and Pete Davidson, and even surprise host Tom Hanks, taped segments at home, using slapped-together costumes and poster-board sets. It was low-budget, scrappy and imperfect, but 6.7 million people tuned in — giving the show its second-best numbers since May 2019 (only Eddie Murphy’s much-ballyhooed comeback in December did better). Audiences flocked to the show for its risky novelty, but were left howling over one brilliant moment: an office Zoom call in which McKinnon and Aidy Bryant played kooky, Luddite receptionists.

Meanwhile, streaming TV is now gushing. A recent Harris poll reported that 30 percent of Americans bought a new Netflix subscription in March, and this, in part, has led to monster hits for the service. Netflix’s current number one show is “Tiger King” — a trashy but fascinating documentary featuring big cat collector (and felon) Joe Exotic and his nemesis, big cat rescue queen Carole Baskin.

The doc’s wacky subjects and irresistibly layered narrative has turned “Tiger King” into America’s great escape — a unifying obsession without any of the tribal contentiousness of sports and politics. Celebrities are enamored with the crazy story, too: Rob Lowe, Jared Leto, and Sylvester Stallone and his family have all dressed up as Joe Exotic and posted their mullet mug shots on Instagram. President Trump has even mulled a pardon for Exotic.

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said we will remember this month of quarantine for three things: “Anthony Fauci, Zoom and ‘Tiger King.’ ”

“When you’ve got all of these people that are homebound and isolated, not only does it give them an opportunity to watch the ‘Tiger King,’ ” Thompson said. “It is also giving them an opportunity to consume all this other stuff where ‘Tiger King’ is being talked about.”

The same goes for fictional dramas. Netflix’s “Ozark,” a dark crime show about a seemingly average American family who get caught up working for a Mexican drug cartel, has become the very definition of water-cooler TV. Scroll through Twitter and you’ll find memes of shocking moments from the show’s third season and a flurry of tweets from fans who’ve discovered the drama during quarantine — “Is anyone else watching #Ozark on Netflix? I stumbled across it a few days ago & now I’m hooked,” said one — grabbing the sort of attention usually reserved for a series premiere.

Up until the 21st century, mankind enjoyed a consensus culture enabled by slim TV programming and radio offerings, then the Internet and streaming services gave each individual exactly what he or she wanted.

“There was one popular culture everyone engaged in,” Thompson said. “And we’ve spent the last two decades breaking that audience into a million little pieces.”

Now we’re all cooped up inside, finding shows we can enjoy as a group. You can ask almost anybody “What did you think of the ‘SNL’ Zoom sketch?” or “What’s your favorite Joe Exotic music video?” and they’ll have an impassioned answer.

While undeniably tragic, this moment is also forcing us out of our modern, app-enabled narcissism, opening our minds and starting conversations. Suddenly, entertainment is making America come together again.

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