Thursday, April 21, 2011

The only way is television

I watch The Only Way is Essex. I ask myself why I watch The Only Way is Essex. Not only is it badly acted, it is barely acted at all - due to the fact that it is a semi-reality show. The whole contraption is a kind of inverted hyperreality like Baudrillard’s Disneyworld where we think this sparkly, stilted set-up in an affluent part of Essex is mimicking a reality which never was. But then we find out it actually is. Sort of. Almost reality TV, almost fiction, it is neither fish nor fowl. Only it is foul. But it is also fun. It’s a bad programme because it’s superficial, easy, meaningless, light relief. It’s a good programme because it’s superficial, easy, meaningless, light relief. It neutralizes what we see on the news, if we let it, just for 45 minutes of our comparatively watery lives.

Whilst we watch we have to wonder quite how these people’s lives are edited down to 45 minutes twice a week and how much of the ‘drama’ is navigated for them with which to begin. We assume that lippy Lauren really is macho Mark’s long suffering girlfriend of eleven years and that he does sincerely still have a soft spot for smiley Sam, or that laden Lydia is truly reduced to tears when she talks to aimless Arg about their rusty relationship – whose highpoint is taking Mr Darcy their pet pig for a walk in the park. The manufactured parts are surely the situations which are set-up around these people, rather than the people themselves? For example, there was a scene this week when Lydia discusses with her mum about whether she needs to talk to Arg, then in the following scene Arg is answering the phone to Lydia – who tells him she wants to meet up. We assume that Lydia really did decide to talk to Arg and that he is informed of this by the production crew who proceed to film him once they’re given the cue at Lydia’s end when she picks up the phone to dial. Or, perhaps they tell him themselves and instruct him to pretend to speak to Lydia on the phone. Either way, he genuinely looked suitably harassed at the thought of talking through their relationship. Or was it just that he was fed up of being told what to do and think by the TV crew? It is possible that it is this very obliqueness in how the so-called plot and dialogue unfold for these people via televisual intervention, which makes it compulsive viewing, for some. We enjoy the process of trying to ascertain what is acted and what is not, which of their emotions and behaviour are directed and which are possibly undirectable. It is a fly on the wall prototype but the walls are wobbly and the fly doesn’t have a voice. The absence of narration tells us it is not a documentary about these people, yet somehow it isn’t as predictable as a soap opera either.

And it doesn’t have themes like a drama might. In fact, if we want themes, we have to make them ourselves. This is like in our own lives, when clusters of activities happen to us over a short period of time which we feel a need to address and which we start to create a story around - a story like ‘my luck’s down at the moment’ or ‘I’m moody at this time of the year.’ The theme is the analysed result/solution of our perceived story at a particular time; for instance, it could result in the theme of ‘I need to do more exercise in order to alleviate tension.’ A regular ‘theme’ on this programme is jealousy (and what it achieves). Beautician Amy, in particular, often questions whether people are ‘jel.’ Sometimes the jel behaviour causes conflict, sometimes embarrassment and sometimes it shows someone cares enough. In the last series Lauren was forever jealous of Mark’s latest trophy girlfriend and she didn’t hold back from interfering and going head to head with young Lucy mid date. It was uncomfortable to watch for the viewer and it seemed that she was digging her own grave – particularly in the Halloween episode. Yet, this series we see Lauren and Mark back together and somehow her bitching has paid off - or at leasy it didn’t put him off, like it might if this was 90210.

They say that Essex is the Hollywood of Britain. Like Hollywood, these people display the almost freakshow characteristics of the rich and plastic. We are dazzled by their vajazzles, sillied by their sillicone but also dumbfounded by their dumbness. I am not sure if, in a globalised world, it is more shocking that they think that Persia is the capital of India or that Essex is South of London. They parade their talentlessness in equal amounts as they flaunt their treasures, to a nation suffering the worst recession since recessions began. They are the spectacle to Britain’s newly emerging, eagerly educated yet unemployed underclass. We watch immersed. Those people in Essex are surely everything we are not and this is why we tune in, isn’t it?

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