You turn on your television. A piece of contemporary and uplifting music plays. The screen displays a montage of scenes from the area, cut with people enjoying themselves. The camera pans across to two young ladies sitting at a table. The name of the bar flashes up on the screen. Young lady 1 opens her mouth:
“So, how do you think Mark is going to react when he sees you at the party?”
The other girl stares vacantly back and replies:
“I don’t know. I mean, it’s like, so, you know, the first time I’ve seen him since it happened”
“Since, er, like what happened?”
“You know, that thing.”
By this stage, you’re probably wondering what show I’m describing. Or trying to gouge your eyes out. The sad truth of the former query is that this deliberately vague passage of vacuous dialogue could fit equally snugly into a range of programmes, all of which seem to be depressingly popular at the moment.
Say the above drivel in a posh accent and it’s Made In Chelsea. Give it a fake tan, “vajazzle” and Essex twang and suddenly it’s occurring down the Sugar Hut in TOWIE (check me with my cool abbreviations). Try to screech it in the most annoying manner possible and, hey presto, it’s The Kardashians. Or The Hills. Or Jersey Shore. Or Desperate Scousewives…need I go on? There really is little escaping the utter rubbish that seems to plague our televisions on a daily basis.
Now you’re probably wondering why on earth I have even heard of these programmes, let alone watched them. But, I’ve sat next to my fair share of PA’s at work, and so have a sort of masochistic fascination in the things that they gather to discuss at each others desks.
Plus I have lived with girls.
Indeed I’m convinced that one former housemate of mine used to watch the most mind-numbing programmes she could find, just as revenge on the boys for watching so much sport. Sometimes the shows were so bad that there’s no way even she enjoyed them. In my mind it was the vengeance-fuelled media equivalent of suicide bombing.
Those painful evenings, where only my extreme laziness prevented me from going and doing something more stimulating (like trainspotting… The activity, not the film) have however given me a broad appreciation of just how bad most modern television is.
It’s not like bad actors and actresses talking inane crap to each other is a new concept for the small screen, soaps have existed for decades. Nor is the popularity of such dross a recent change. I was always astonished, for example, as to how many people at my (boys only) school used to settle down at 6:30 every day and watch Hollyoaks. “It’s all for the hot women” they would say, desperately trying to appease their conscience and display their machismo in one fell swoop. I was never convinced.
The extraordinary thing about these modern shows is that they seem to make stars (the definition of the word ‘star’ here depends largely on your exposure to the tabloids) of their subjects. People like Joey Essex, who must border on mental retardation is suddenly ‘A-list’ (for what that’s worth, these days). Type first names into Google and it’s depressing that Francis Boulle is recommended before Francis Drake, my personal hero. If you think that’s just because the internet wasn’t Drakes’s kingdom, a fair point, then how can you explain Mark Wright appearing before Mark Zuckerberg?
In the mean time, Essex has somehow become glamorous and desirable, all inexplicably on the back of TOWIE. It’s not like the Wombles brought a boom to Wimbledon with them, and their show had a far better script.
Reality TV is surely going to be regarded by future historians as a major factor in the total degradation of society, but it is a vicious cycle. The original Big Brother was hardly highbrow, but it was undeniably an interesting experiment in the behavioural patterns of normal, everyday human beings. Then the producers realised that, depressingly, what the people wanted to see was freaks getting backed into a corner. What began as “that’s interesting, the way he reacted to that scenario” transformed into “Oooh look! The schizophrenic one is about to shag the leper in the hot tub”. Jeremy Kyle was once decried as human bear-baiting, yet more than 2 million people tune in to his show on a daily basis. More worryingly, it’s aired when most people are at work.
Sadly, another problem lies with the staggering lack of originality. I wrote recently that people like familiarity, and it seems nowhere is this truer than on their televisions. There is simply no other explanation for Made In Chelsea getting a third series. Programmes seem to go on forever and demand fanatical levels of devotion to stay in touch with.
I watched the first two episodes of Lost when they were first aired and quite enjoyed them. Then I missed a few weeks and was out the loop forever. I gather this was no bad thing, as people who dedicated nigh-on a decade to watching the damn thing were hugely underwhelmed by the conclusion, but it’s slightly sad that the only way you can enjoy a programme that isn’t total rubbish is by devoting most of your week to watching it.
The Wire, Mad Men, 24, Prison Break, CSI, Game of Thrones… The list continues. All good shows, no doubt, yet I just look at the number of episodes involved and my heart sinks. Until such time as I’m recovering from a major operation or under house arrest, I simply don’t have time. Even with the help of Sky+ and 4OD, I’m struggling to stay in touch with Homeland and that’s a ‘mere’ 12 hours… Until the inevitable second series, whereupon I’ll probably give up.
The only quality, accessible programme I can think of in the whole last year was the BBC’s excellent Sherlock, which came in three nice, digestible episodes, all of which could be watched individually and still enjoyed.
Aside from the odd gem like that though, it seems the binary choice facing viewers is this: You can join a cult and write off half your life watching some never-ending series, or bite the bullet and sit there staring inanely at vacuous morons.
In the last six months I have got back into radio, that’s my personal advice. But if you’re going to stay true to small screen and not become a slave to it, it seems The Only Way Is A Lobotomy©.
by Harry Harland