It can be tricky to find something “good” on TV. As a TV reviewer, I know that all too well.
Oh, we can find plenty of riveting, binge-bait shows on Netflix and Amazon and HBO, of course. Viewing television through a secular lens, you could argue that it’s never been better.
But as we talked about on an upcoming podcast (look for it Nov. 19), it’s hard to find shows that are clean and good—shows that the whole family can watch together, like they used to do in the olden times. And even for those of you for whom that sort of problematic content isn’t a deal killer (and who are now, presumably, reading this by accident), let’s be honest: Good shows can be stressful shows. They always end on a cliffhanger. Your favorite characters are always in peril. You never know who might get caught or killed or betrayed. On most of today’s buzz-heavy shows, someone’s bound to get hurt.
Hey, listen, I’m all for creative tension in storytelling. But we’ve just moved past a bitterly contested election. We’re still wearing masks everywhere we go. Man, 2020 has been stressful enough: Do we really need more of it on our screens?
So with all that in mind, let me point you to … Bob Ross.
Some of you might be familiar with the perm-haired PBS painter, known for his “happy little trees” and “happy little clouds.” His The Joy of Painting show was a fixture on PBS from 1983 to 1994 and, though he died in 1995 at the age of 52, he’s become something of a retro cultural icon: A man easy to spoof and love simultaneously. Why, even Deadpool took a stab at his persona (so to speak).
Bob Ross is arguably more popular than ever, with his image now on everything from coffee mugs to ugly sweaters. You can even buy a toaster that tattoos his face on bread. (In the interest of full disclosure, I bought my dad some Bob Ross socks for Christmas. But don’t tell him.)
But there’s a reason why Ross has remained such an enduring, and endearing, figure, now 25 years after his death: He was peaceful, television’s equivalent of a warm blanket and a hot cup of cocoa. His voice alone could drop your blood pressure by a good 20 points.
I’ve read that Ross was once an Air Force drill sergeant. He spent most of his time yelling at people. After he got out of the Air Force, Ross decided that he was tired of yelling at people and got a job where he’d never have to yell again. He started painting while in the military, but didn’t land on PBS until 1983, where he fed viewers a quiet stream of painting techniques, scenic landscapes and gentle inspiration.
“There are no mistakes, only happy accidents,” he’d say. Or, “Mix up a little more shadow color here, then we can put a little shadow right in there. See how you can move things around? You have unlimited power on this canvas. [You] can literally, literally move mountains.”
Ross was apparently a Christian, too. He sometimes talked a bit about God on the show, and often ended it with a pleasant “God bless.”
You’d think that Ross’ The Joy of Painting would’ve long since slipped into obscurity. Nothing about Ross, his paintings or the show itself demanded our attention. But in the anxious days of 2020, when most households are filled with tense kids and stressed-out parents, perhaps there’s a reason why his old show is more popular than ever—and, honestly, more available than ever, too.
The Joy of Painting—all 403 episodes—are now available on YouTube, free of charge. (The episodes are all on Hulu, too, if you’re a subscriber.) If you’re looking for something clean to watch while you’re cuddling up on the couch with your loved ones, few shows could be cleaner. And while none of the episodes have much of a plot other than painting, Ross’s quick brushstrokes combined with his highway-smooth voice makes for an oddly mesmerizing experience.
Must see TV? On one level, no. The Joy of Painting is as far from the riveting tension of today’s most binged shows as you could imagine. But in an age of distress, it just might qualify.