Articles Modest Proposals Television

Office Liaisons – workplace romance in TV shows

Friday, January 16, 1998

Opinions vary wildly on the subject of relationships in the workplace, from ‘Don’t crap in your own nest,’ to wedding day ‘I do’s’ between work colleagues. But there’s definitely a difference between the real world and the world of tv. 

On TV, relationships in the workplace are a perfect way to build suspense and excitement – you don’t have to introduce any new characters, and the audience know both protagonists equally well.

Medical dramas use this device all the time – Doug and Carol in ER have waxed and waned, and while Doug was out of the picture, Carol and paramedic Shep were seeing each other. Even mild mannered Mark has ended up in bed with the odd nurse or receptionist (sometimes very odd). 

The BBC’s Casualty has an interesting spin on this Mills and Boon storyline, with Holby boasting two female doctors who are seeing male nurses. 

Top of the list of other professions blessed with a proclivity for intra-office athlectics are lawyers. This Life saw Anna, Milly, Miles, Joe, Ciara, Ferdy and Warren exploring each other’s briefs with pneumatic regularity, and US legal shows are little different. 

(In police shows, however, we’re mainly presented with dutiful wives or girlfriends who put up with the neglect from their men – until they can’t take it any more. ‘This isn’t how I wanted it to be,’ she laments.  ‘Well, when you married me, you married the job,’ he says grimly.)

Compare this extracurricular use of the office desk to reality, and what do you find? Apart from a lawyer friend of mine who assured me that her life was nothing like This Life before confessing she was seeing her boss, in my experience there’s very little going on in the office. 

It’s been suggested that I only took the job at an Internet company for material for my forthcoming blockbuster airport novel about the sexy high-flying computer industry. A cross between Jackie Collins and Micholas Negroponte, the gold-embossed tome is to be called ‘Web of Seduction’ or ‘Net Assets’ (or something similar). 

Were this the case, I’ve been sadly disappointed. There are lots of single people in the office, of both sexes, but give or take the odd aberration (and even here no-one will give me the full story), there’s been nothing to get the internal email buzzing. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t people who find others in the building attractive, it’s just that they don’t seem to be acting on it.  This is partly an Irish thing – ‘I wouldn’t kick them out of bed for eating biscuits, but, you know yourself, I’m not going to actually do anything about it.’

The closest I came to a workplace romance was years ago at college while I was revising for my exams. I’d sit in the same place in the main reading room in the University Library, a towering hall, with warm pools of light cast on the huge tables by the low brass lamps. Across from me on another table was another regular, who pored over weighty art books while her blond hair fell over her face and shone in the generous glow. 

We’d smile as we arrived and left, and eventually I slipped a note into her book on Versailles and we went for a coffee. Nothing really came of our relationship, but it was made by the place we were in – an impressive and elegant space in a 600 year-old university. Cube farms don’t really have the same ambience. 

Aside from this I’d be very happy if life started imitating art a little more. Even if I weren’t directly involved, it would spice up discussion round the coffee machine. But I’ve a feeling I’d stand a better chance in a different job – is that why my parents always wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer? Surely not. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 16th January 1998)

Articles Modest Proposals Television

TV Dinners

Friday, January 09, 1998

Cooking programmes, I love ‘em. As if we weren’t stuffed enough already, over the holiday period, British TV was full of food being prepared. 

It used to be that cooking shows were just cooking shows – Delia Smith, the 70s queen of the kitchen – just gave it to us straight. ‘This is what I’m going to cook,’ she’d say, ‘And this is how I do it.’ We watched and learned, but we weren’t entertained. 

That was fine, if a little pedestrian, and heading into the 80s cooking as a spectator event faltered a little, being relegated to slots on daytime shows like This Morning or the fondly-remembered Pebble Mill at One.

It soon became apparent that the food was often of secondary interest to the chefs – we tuned in to watch the banter as much as the bain-marie.  The man who exemplified this shift was Keith Floyd. 

Keith was a larger than life character who constantly berated his cameraman, slurped at a big glass of red, and got huge viewing figures. 

As well as Keith’s personality, the show also had great locations going for it – France, Africa, Australia – and this marked another important shift, as we got into the cooking show as travel programme. 

Cookery started its move into other tv genres with this, and soon there were several imitators. Rhodes around Britain saw Gary Rhodes cooking lunch for the Manchester Utd squad, and cakes for a monastery in Northumberland. Gourmet Ireland gave us Paul Rankin getting a similarly good gig closer to home. 

But Gourmet Ireland also crossed into another genre as Paul travelled and cooked in tandem with his wife Jeanne. Here we had real-life family drama, as chef snapped at his talkative spouse sous – ‘C’mon, c’mon, I need the coulis now!’. 

Now we have cookery as game show as well. Masterchef rules early Sunday evening with its combination of preposterous menus from real people, and preposterous vowels from its presenter Lloyd Grossman. We marvel at the civil servants and schoolteachers who can create warmed woodpigeon salad with lemongrass and shitake mushrooms on a bed of rocket and organic watercress, with a balsamic vinegar and coriander dressing. 

Junior Masterchef is too scary to watch, however, as ten year-olds come on like they’re Marco Pierre White when they should be tucking into Jaffa Cakes and peanut butter sambos. 

Ready Steady Cook is another culinary gameshow with the perfect format – personality chefs, celebrity guests, genial host and a stern time limit.  The show wisely adheres to Aristotle’s dramatic unities, all events taking place within the actual time of the show (none of that, ‘and you just leave that to reduce for half an hour’). 

So we’ve had travel shows, real-life drama and gameshows. There are also magazine shows – the aged Food and Drink, RTE’s bootlegged Consuming Passions, and Channel 4’s recent cool upstart. 

There have also been culinary drama shows (Chef!) and even culinary detective shows – Pie in the Sky, anyone? Soon we’ll be getting the early evening news brought you by the Roux brothers, and a cookery-meets-Casualty show, where patients are delivered into the kitchen for some quick restorative work with a bouquet garnis. 

I’m just waiting for the time I can send my intelligent agent out over the Internet to get me some of the dishes created in the programmes – being so close to this stuff without able to taste it is proving too damn hard. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 9th January 1998)

Articles Modest Proposals Television UK

Documenting Reality

Thursday, December 11, 1997

In the last month, the best tv shows I’ve seen have all been documentaries. And all of a particular type. 

Not for me the hard-hitting expose of big business corruption or political shenanigans, nor the tragic and moving story of an ordinary person’s fight against illness or adversity. Nor for me gutsy journalists on the front line in Bosnia, or with refugees in Rwanda. 

No, the only type of documentary I’m watching these days is fly on the wall programmes covering (supposedly) normal life.

I’ve seen the plummy stewards at work at race meetings, hyperactive couriers zooming round London in a maelstrom of rage and sexism, good-natured workers at a Liverpool hotel cope with a military marching band in their ballroom, and two Leeds girls out on the pull in Ibiza. 

These shows have minimal narration, and very few questions from interviewers, the idea being to immerse you in a new world without any mediation. Of course the programme makers get to ask questions we never hear, and to choose what we see, but the illusion of immediacy is maintained. 

The ‘story’ as such doesn’t matter; these programmes are at their best in giving an insight into the slightly warped personalities of even the most apparently normal people. In the series about the Adelphi Hotel, the manager has grown to be a star. When she’s not shouting at an unfortunate staff member or moving furniture she’s being hospitality itself to charmed guests (so long as they’re not trying to sneak a take-away up to their room). 

In Sky’s surprisingly good Ibiza Uncovered series, the stars were ordinary people engaging in extraordinary debauchery on holiday. We watched a woman who was a responsible marketing manager 50 weeks of the year discover the best place to meet men in clubs was the gents toilets.  Her policy of showing her pierced and chained nether regions to the clamouring hordes certainly paid off, and we saw it all. 

The popularity of these shows is easy to understand – we’re all curious, and of course the truth is much more dramatic than any fiction that we could believe in. But why people let themselves be filmed in this way is another question. Graham Taylor, the former England football manager, became even more ridiculed than he was before after a deeply unflattering Channel 4 documentary – ‘Do I not like that?’ we said. 

At least he was a public figure in a public role. The current crop of shows are powered by ordinary people letting the cameras into their lives. One series follows couples as they go through marriage guidance counselling. Suddenly you don’t feel like you’re just observing, you’re intruding. Can having a film crew in the room really help any? 

British tv is falling over itself to make more and more documentaries of this sort, based on the success of palpable hits like Modern Times and several brilliant Cutting Edge shows. How long before we have a film crew following a film crew around – a parasite on the fly on the wall? 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 11th December 1997)

Articles Life Modest Proposals

Advent adventures

Thursday, December 04, 1997

When I was very young my sister and I would both have advent calendars on the mantelpiece. The idea of sharing one was unthinkable, and so every December morning between the toast and Marmite, the tea and the Today programme on Radio 4, we’d dash into the living room and each open another window.

Some years we’d re-use them from the previous year, and so when we opened the doors, we’d have to be careful not to tear them off, as other more reckless friends did. That way, we could push them all flat again for next year.

Why was it so good to open the doors? Not because of the pictures behind, that’s for sure, as I hardly glanced at the Christmas tree, or snowscape, or Santa Claus. Re-using the calendars made no odds, because the enjoyment wasn’t in the richness of the images in the first place.

Part of the attraction was the ritual of the whole affair – this was the authorised countdown to the big day. Opening the first few doors, you felt the expanse of the weeks stretch out in front of you, but slowly the days passed.

But part of the appeal was also in the self-discipline. I spent hours in the build-up to Christmas searching for my presents, managing to find a 3’ snooker table between the mattress and base of a bed, and a bicycle in a box in my neighbour’s attic. I was indignant when Mum took the presents to work with her and left them there until Christmas Eve. 

Even when they were wrapped up, I’d still gingerly peel off Sellotape and peek inside. People started labeling my presents as if they were for someone else, but I still smelt them out. So when it came to presents, I felt like everything I did was fair game.

With advent calendars, however, I was much more self-controlled. It would have been so easy to open a few doors ahead (especially when they were being reused, and the flush machined fit of the door on the card had been loosened already), but I never did. I think the reason for this is that I didn’t have anything to gain from cheating. Because the picture didn’t matter, the only enjoyment was in resisting the temptation to spoil the fun. The suspense had to be self-imposed.

So the Internet advent calendars that don’t let you open the doors for future days might be technologically advanced, but they miss the point. Those that allow you to cheat (and then hope that you don’t) more accurately reflect the feel of the originals.

Most people seem to have grown out of advent calendars long before I did (but then again, I was still desperately searching for my presents when I was at college). Even though the holiday season itself might have lost something of its sparkle, the beginning of December (especially when the weather is as crisply glorious as it’s been in Dublin for the last 2 days) always makes me think of picking open little paper doors. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 4th December 1997)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLife

Articles Film Modest Proposals Television

Mad Max and Englishmen – the British in American film and TV

Thursday, November 20, 1997

The arrival of Dr Elizabeth Corday in ER set me thinking about the fate of English actors in US mainstream film and tv. Firstly, Corday is about as un-English a name as I’ve come across, which isn’t a great start.

Secondly, poor Alex Kingston is hidebound by playing a jolly hockey sticks plummy stereotype. She’s all pearls and spunk, and acts like she’s stepped out of a 1930s film.

Her character is a (worrying) representation of what American tv seems to think English people are like. Likewise, Hugh Grant’s limited success in Hollywood is because he always plays himself – a floppy-haired, Oxford-educated, well-meaning, slightly awkward Brit. Rupert Everett’s return to favour with My Best Friend’s Wedding was based on an entertainingly hammed up portrayal of ultimate English campness.

Most other English actors in the States end up playing these posh twits or villains with funny accents. From Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice to Alan Rickman in Die Hard, it seems English actors are largely denied the right to be the hero. (Daniel Day Lewis is an honourable exception, but round here they’ll tell you he’s Irish.)

Or they’re shunted into period drama. From Shakespeare to Jane Austen and E M Forster, it seems you can’t do better than classically trained English actors. But for anything after 1930, you can forget it.

However, on reflection, they might deserve everything they get, because while English people might be able to act, they can’t do action. When Englishmen try to get tough it just comes across as misplaced sexual frustration – Jeremy Irons with blond crop and singlet in Die Hard III will live long in the memory.

Compare and contrast the fortunes of Australian actors in America. Mel Gibson gets to destroy whole city blocks with wilful abandon, and Sam Neill gets chased by dinosaurs.

The deeply good LA Confidential boasts two antipodean actors among the major roles. Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe punch and shoot their way through the film in a way that would make Hugh Grant green with envy.

The English inability to strip down to undershirts and jump around is so acute that even when it comes to playing English heroes, such as James Bond, they have to look to their Celtic cousins to supply the necessary brio. Sean Connery, the best Bond, is Scottish, and the current incumbent Pierce Brosnan is Irish. They even miss out as extraterrestrial characters – Ewan McGregor worked at sounding like Alec Guinness to make sure that there are no English Jedi Knights in the forthcoming Star Wars movies.

So if the men are reduced to playing toffs or deranged Central European villains, how do English women fare in Hollywood?

Not much better, unfortunately. As better actors but with fewer surgical enhancements than their US colleagues, most end up in supporting roles, where they get the good lines but not the attention they deserve. In the same way as you can’t imagine an English Brad Pitt, Sly Stallone or John Travolta, similarly we see to be lacking the odd Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts or Demi Moore.

However, Kate Winslett is going to be huge after Titanic, and it’s to their credit that English actresses tend not to come from the shallow decoration school of acting – even Liz Hurley has the nous to laugh at herself in Austin Powers.

So if you’re going to be an English actor you can either don tights, develop a floppy haircut or practice a manic laugh. Or stay at home and make your big break in the States on Masterpiece Theater.

(first published as a Modest Proposal newsletter, 20th November 1997)

Articles Life Modest Proposals

Postcards from the edge

Thursday, November 13, 1997

As attentive readers will recall, I’ve just taken a holiday, and as I sat in the Broome St Bar in New York City one evening I was moved to ponder the future of postcards.

It’s become an obligation to devote some of your time while away to writing two paragraphs of banality on the back of a cheesy picture of the area’s most famous landmark, and then mail it home. You will, of course, arrive back before the card.

Writing the words (known clumsily in the web world as the ‘content’), can be a real problem. I have nothing but praise for the long, thoughtful letter home from abroad, but when facing the back of a card, I can’t really summon any enthusiasm. It’s hard to avoid sneakily writing the same thing on all the cards.

Majella, via the discussion group, wonders why people bother.  ‘Their close friends know where they have been and take the ‘wish you were here’ factor for granted. Not so close friends really don’t need to have it shoved in their faces that they are at work while others are on the sunny beaches of the Costa del Sol.’

It’s as if you have to go through the hassle of writing the cards to apologise for enjoying yourself abroad.

Paul, also via the discussion group, makes a strong case for the existence of postcards, if not their sending to innocent bystanders:  ‘Postcards save me the hassle of taking snapshots. Why bother with the pursuit of legalized gambling, also known as photography, when some expert has already done the work? Why worry about exposing film to airport scanners? Why worry about old camera batteries leaking acid into landfills? Why worry about having my Minolta nicked from my motorcycle’s tankbag? No, postcards are fine with me.’

This is fine, except that heavily doctored images (John Hinde Limited, take a bow ) look nothing like real places I’ve ever been.

Another Paul on the discussion group has a more optimistic view of the worth of cards: ‘It may not be a la mode but I like receiving snail mail, and an unexpected picture on my doormat first thing in the morning always lights up my child-eyes. I like the idea of sending postcards to friends I see around anyway. It’s a good disposable way of giving someone a picture that’s interesting or funny, or just hoping to influence the direction of their thoughts temporarily . . .  ‘Postcards aren’t restricted to the ordinary four scene, greetings from Weymouth, a ‘cheeky’ girls on the beach in Marbella, or the endless XXX at night (ho ho). People should send more postcards, there should be random pictures floating about between people. Just get a good photo, stick a stamp on the back and you’ve made someone’s journey to work more interesting.’

This gets us into the right territory. Cards as a necessary part of a holiday may have had their day, but they have a much greater value as a well-chosen greeting when you’re at home and just want to say something.  The idea of little bundles of goodwill ‘floating between people’ is very attractive.

This works because you’re actually given the freedom to choose to send the cards – that you’ve taken the trouble to surprise the recipient is great. With holiday cards you have no choice as the sender, and in most cases, the recipient is not at all surprised to get the card.

So my vote is to boycott the sending of postcards from holiday locations (except for children, who probably still deserve them). And if this goes well, maybe we should move on to Christmas cards as well – reserving them only for people that we don’t see very often. The struggle starts here. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 13th November 1997)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLife

Articles Modest Proposals Television

Dramatic commitment or promiscuity – the rhythm of TV drama

Thursday, November 06, 1997

TV Drama shows have to move comfortably in two different scales.  Firstly, the small circles of the hour, with the plot coming to a reasonably conclusive end after each episode, giving the audience a satisfactory feeling of closure. Secondly, they also have to play the long game, with events building up episode by episode so the major characters develop over time.

This is why medical dramas work so well. You can bring in new characters as patients every week to power the plot for that particular episode. At the same time, the fortunes of the staff fill out the longer-term plot needs. Interlacing the two makes the whole experience much more rewarding.

Cop shows follow a similar logic, with crimes being solved in the space of one episode, but other events in the main characters’ lives stretching over whole seasons.

As we commit to watching every week, we get to feel like we’re growing with the show in the same time frame – what happened several weeks ago to Dr Ross happened several weeks ago in our memory.

All this assumes a narrative order – watching one show after another in succession. So what happens when this order breaks down?

In Ireland this occurs when different stations show the same programmes.  In any week you can watch the X-Files three times, with Sky One being quickest out of the blocks, then RTE and then the BBC.

In practical terms, this is great if you happen to miss an episode, but the question is whether you start watching on one channel and stick to it, so as not to interrupt the flow, or whether you get your promiscuous kicks anywhere you can.

The problem with this is that one channel might be leading up to a big climax, while another is way past it and into the (less suspenseful) aftermath.

In America the problem is exacerbated by the fact that popular shows are on daily, or even more frequently. Don’t ask how I know, but in New York you can watch Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman once in the afternoon, and then again at 2.30 in the morning (and some days in the early evening as well, I think).

So without trying too hard you can see Dr Mike single, happily pregnant and living with Sully, and then unhappily separated from him – all in the same day.

On the one hand, this mightn’t matter too much, as each episode has its own internal flow, and looked at one way, it’s a suitably postmodern way to watch tv. Questing for a narrative order and logical progression is considered so 19th century in critical circles.

To misquote Truffaut, watched in this way a tv series has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

Personally, I have a compromise option: I try and watch new episodes in order, and use the range of stations to make sure I don’t miss one. This means I have some linear sense of the big picture, and don’t get any nasty surprises.

Once I have that shape sorted out, I’ll watch as many reruns as I can stumble across (unless it’s an episode I really didn’t like the first time round). This way, watching the old ones is like looking through a photo album, remembering how things used to be and contrasting that with the sense of the ‘present’ I get from the new ones. ‘My, how Scully’s clothes have improved since the early episodes.’

We all like to think that our lives make some narrative sense, that there is some reason to things, some sense of cause and effect. Watching shows in order plays to that view of the world. Arguably, of course, people’s lives don’t make any sense seen in any way, they just happen – like drama episodes watched out of order. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 6th November 1997)

Articles Life Modest Proposals

The High Life – what’s wrong with flying

Thursday, October 23, 1997

Much of contemporary life would be hard to explain to earlier generations (it’s hard enough explaining what I do to my parents), but air travel is so spectacular that sometimes it’s difficult even for us to cope with. 

You get on a metal tube in London, sit down, have something to eat, maybe watch a movie, snooze for a while, and then when you wake up you’re in (say) Tokyo. 

In the face of this miracle, we have become so blas? about things that all we do is moan about the plastic food and the lack of leg room.

If you wanted to be grand about it, you could reflect that you are among the first set of people ever to travel so far so fast, and that this privilege is hard to quantify. 

However, if you wanted to be practical about it, you could consider techniques to fill the time available on board. The Australian cricket team, for example, hone their competitive edge on the flight to England by seeing how many cans of lager they can drink. I don’t have the exact figures in front of me, but we’re certainly talking dozens of tinnies each. 

Alternatively, you could try the film, but there are usually two problems – you?ve either seen it before, or the sound is so bad you can’t follow it. 

The famous exception to this is Virgin Atlantic, who give you your own screen with a wide choice of films and comedies, but then they also provide video games for those in first class. A nice idea, but those people who can afford to travel expensively are just the sort who wouldn?t know what to do with a PlayStation. Networked Quake throughout the plane would be better – ideally us plebs travelling economy against the fat cats up at the front. 

Another technique to pass the time that is more honoured in the breach than the observance is talking to your fellow passengers. Like most people, I harbour a devout hope that the person sitting next to me on the longest flights will turn out to be that attractive art history PhD and part-time model we feel we deserve. 

Until this happens, though, I have a different approach. Air travel is so artificial and preposterous that any attempt to distract yourself from it just doesn’t work. It’s the ultimate man-made environment – timeless, placeless and completely enclosed – you’re doing something the human body was definitely not designed for (unless you’re extremely lucky in who you get sitting next to you). 

In the face of this assault, I switch myself off for the duration of the flight. Propped up against the window, I doze and wake up, day dream and drink water, and not much else. Like your PowerBook screen dimming to save power, you?re still ticking over but you don’t look it. 

This may sound like wimping out, but I’m just giving the abnormal experience the respect it deserves. The English travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin tells the story of native bearers who after a few days of constant travel refused to carry some Victorian English explorer?s stuff any further. 

The explorer demanded to know why they’d stopped. They calmly said that they were waiting for their souls to catch up. How much more time does it take for ourselves to recover after we?ve crossed the Atlantic? We’re not jet-lagged, we’re soul-lagged. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 23rd October 1997)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLife

Articles Modest Proposals Television Travel USA

Travellers’ Tales

Saturday, September 27, 1997

The way you see the world largely depends on the stories you’ve been told about it.

Places you’ve never seen exist in your head as reflections of the things you’ve learned from tv or films or books or magazines.

While we in Europe might be sitting down to episodes of ER and Seinfeld, we are watching them in a completely different way from our American cousins.

There are arguments that if we don’t see ourselves on TV, then we lose some sense of who we are, and it’s certainly odd that more Irish people watch British soaps than our own (admittedly dodgy) home-produced fare.  The current furore over the portrayal of the Irish in a British soap shows how much this matters.

This cultural schizophrenia affects the way we see our own country, but the major effect is in the way we see America – a culture to which we do not belong, and yet in which we feel so comfortable.

When I first went there, there was a curious feeling of homecoming. As I wandered around, I recognised the telephone booths, mailboxes and even the fridges from staying up on childhood Saturday nights to watch American shows like Starsky and Hutch.

My experience of the country, even having spent some time there, is conditioned by the stories I watched as child, and those I continue to watch.

However, while today many of these stories come from pop culture, this is just the latest incarnation of a much older story-telling urge.  Travellers’ tales, complete with weird and wonderful creatures, fantastical cities and their exotic inhabitants are as old as language.

My favourite uncle was a sailor, and his postcards from far-off places showed us that there was a world out there. During his stays with us on his way to or from his ship, he’d tell us of restaurants in Genoa, or driving trips across the desert in Saudi Arabia. He’d travelled to cities that were only names on the map for us, and his brown eyes twinkled as he recalled another scrape or adventure.

His stories brought the world alive for us – we’d picture him sunburnt in Sydney or shivering in Stockholm, drinking in a harbour bar in Tokyo, or buying a little keepsake for us in Cape Town.

Watching NYPD Blue might not seem to have much in common with this, but in fact it serves the same purpose: from it we learn both how different people are in different parts of the world, and also how fundamentally the same.

This access to other cultures (however it comes to us) does not dilute our own, but rather enriches it – for example, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments and the music of U2 both show Irish people’s ability to take the influence of American music and make something uniquely Irish out it. Combining ideas and values is the only way to keep a culture alive.

So while the tv schedules might smack of cultural imperialism, and another McDonalds opens in Shanghai or Moscow, I’m still optimistic about the survival of a range of ways of looking at the world. The tv shows are like my uncle’s travellers’ tales: helping us to learn about ourselves through glimpsing a different life. 

——— In Memory of Ray Dinsmore, 1946 – 1997 ————

(First published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 25th September 1997)

Articles Modest Proposals Television

Caught in the Act – Reality TV

Thursday, September 18, 1997

You switch on the TV to see a camera follow a policeman as he chases down a corridor and kicks in a door.

‘LAPD! Stay where you are!’ he bellows, as the flashlights play around the room.

Is this real drama or is this drama real? It’s hard to tell, until you see that the suspect’s face is pixellated out – it must be real.

I’ve had lots of detailed comments from readers on the subject of tv cop shows of both a fictional and a real-life nature, and so this week, I’ll leave most of the talking to you all.

The almost anonymous ‘rlittler’ from the UK gives us the British perspective on the shift from fiction through re-enactment of real crimes, to the showing of real police work:

‘Crimewatch UK was one of the first shows to smudge the boundary between fact and fiction with its reenactments of real life crimes – in my mind an insane cocktail for a nation of television watchers who write to characters in Coronation Street, unable to distinguish between character and actor. (An actor friend of mine who appeared in a Crimewatch reconstruction as a rapist was beaten in the street after one broadcast.)

‘Now, with Murder Squad and Police, Stop! et al we have spurned the reenactment for the actual crime itself.

‘Of course, the relevant production companies will deny any charges that their programmes are intended to either amuse or shock with gratuity. .  . [but] whatever the intention of the programmers . . . can the ultimate question be pointed only at ourselves?

‘Are we enraptured by seeing a police chase through the streets? Are we glued to the screen when the graphic account of a murder is outlined?’

This question of our own complicity is very valid. Why do we watch this stuff, and what might we be getting out of this voyeuristic experience?  Teddi Dempner from Lincoln, California has some blunt ideas:

‘. . . these “real life” shows indicate to me that America is growing numb to the “pretend violence” of movies and TV shows and they want to see REAL violence. I feel like we’re moving towards shows that will be the modern version of the ancient Roman gladiators – people must REALLY be dying before our eyes before our bloodlust is satisfied – these actors pretending to die just isn’t enough.’

Jennifer McAllister from South Carolina raises some interesting questions on our expectations of the police as a result of this confusion of fact and fiction:

‘As the adult daughter of a policeman, let me join all of the other families of the men and women who actually are law enforcement officers in crying out:  “Please, no more cop shows.”

‘. . . Despite the fact that society tries to teach children that police are our friends and are trying to protect us, it’s hard to convince anyone that real police are not always the hard drinking, hard loving, trash-talking bullies portrayed on tv.

‘My 3 year-old nephew expressed it best.  Due to even his overexposure to TV law enforcement, he just can’t be made to believe that his granddaddy is a policeman. After all, how can he be a real policeman if he didn’t shoot anyone at work last night?

It might be argued that the real life cop shows redress the balance, showing us how the police really are. But what we’re given is carefully-edited highlights and excitement (chases and nocturnal raids) rather than balanced journalism.

There’s always been a certain celebrity to being on either side of the glamorous cops vs robbers divide, it’s just that now you don’t have to wait to be played by Warren Beatty – you can be caught in the act yourself (so to speak).

Maybe, as a result, we won’t need the fiction any more. But with real crims and cops knowing they’re going to be on TV, the fiction must have an influence on the fact. Picture policemen practice in front of mirrors, saying ‘Go ahead, make my day,’ and hoods rehearsing their Oscar acceptance speeches.

On the one hand, this is classic postmodernity – it hasn’t happened until it’s been on tv, and we’re consumers before we’re citizens.

But while real life is dished up as entertainment, and entertainment affects the way we see real life, the result could be criminal.

How a country polices itself is a valuable marker of its maturity and well-being, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get a clear picture of what’s actually happening – the truth is being pixellated out. 

(First published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 18th September 1997)