This past couple of Thursday nights, TV has been giving us something of a meta-type look at itself. Starting a fortnight ago on the 7th, 10pm gave us the first of Channel 4’s new four episode series, Gogglebox. The following week this was joined by Charlie Brooker’s How TV Ruined Your Life on BBC2.
How TV Ruined Your Life is exactly what it sounds like. First broadcast back in 2011, each of its six weekly episodes focuses on a different aspect of your life that TV ruins. Cynical it may be, but it is no less compelling.
The first episode for example, was ‘Fear’, and through various analyses of TV programmes, satirical sketches, and sarcastic rants, it showed how TV’s “slightly hysterical take on the world” not only gives us a biased and skewed view of reality, but does so at the same time as being authoritative enough that we don’t dare question it. While only half an hour may not give it the depth to cover all of TV the way Brooker’s previous series Newswipe covered the news, the points it makes are still almost as fearful as the TV would have us believe everything else is.
With TV scheduling akin to a strictly controlled science where nothing is left to chance, it’s clear why BBC2 has decided to repeat the broadcast of Brooker’s satirical pseudo-educational series specifically against Gogglebox. They’re both reactions to the modern televisual landscape (although How TV also delves into its history), and both look at modern audiences.
Beyond this however, I’m not entirely sure how to describe Gogglebox, as I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. All I can say is what it is, a show in which TV viewers at home can watch other TV viewers in their homes, watching TV.
No, seriously, that’s the whole show. People watching TV.
On one hand it could be produced as the of pinnacle of irony, a self-reflexive mirror trying to enlighten us to the ever increasing number of lowest common denominator seeking, exploitative and voyeuristic “reality” shows that Television now so often reduces itself to. Or, as one reviewer best describes it, “an Orwellian dream but with more conversations about dead cats being found in a morbidly obese woman’s fat folds“, it could also just as easily perhaps be the ultimate example.
I can only presume that Brooker’s opinion of Gogglebox would contain as much cynicism as his audience have come to expect from his trademark sarcasm, and would probably consider it to be the latter. Sitting side by side, the two shows could very easily be seen as two sides of the same coin, but if How TV Ruined Your Life were on half an hour earlier however, you could easily change the channel and see exactly the type of pacifying and brain numbing indoctrination that Brooker had just been warning you about.
In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if Brooker actually thought up the idea himself as a comedy sketch for any one of the shows throughout his portfolio, but discounted it for being too satirical.
Throughout his career, it is safe to say that TV has been the main object of his attention. Series such as Screenwipe, and newspaper columns such as Screen Burn, a collection of which were published in a book of the same name, all in some way examine what TV actually is, and the effect it has on its audiences.
This is something he also does through his screenwriting as well as broadcasting and journalism. Of all the shows that could have been utilised in Brooker’s Dead Set, the E4 mindless zombie (running notwithstanding) apocalypse, it is no surprise that Big Brother was chosen. In much the same way that George A. Romero set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall as a critical view of consumerism, it is no surprise that in 2008’s counterpart it was the Big Brother house that “was like a church for them”.
Whilst I’m eagerly awaiting his opinions on Gogglebox (yes I’ll admit I include myself amongst his audience), I’ll try to examine it in the objective, if overly-analytical way, that academia has taught me.
For a start I’m not picking on it when I call it a “reality” show, just bringing attention to the fact that even Brooker’s shows are carefully and thoughtfully constructed, and even David Attenborough’s Polar Bears proved that television never depicts “reality” as it actually is.
Despite Channel 4 labelling it under the “documentary” banner, even the remarkably simple premise of Gogglebox showing us other people watching TV has been manipulated to the extent that possibly the only less factual “factual” show, is a Top Gear challenge.
On one hand it has the potential to be a worthwhile psychological/social study, but in the same way Big Brother did (and still does? I lost count long ago) it instead reduces this idea to something my former lecturer Martin Barker, an academic renowned for many research projects into audience studies, might call “The Pornography of Voyeurism”.
In today’s climate of watching TV in order to laugh at people on shows such as Come Dine With Me and Don’t Tell The Bride, a woman who explains how her marriage to her last husband involved her going “straight down KFC”, was never just pulled at random from a hat. If answering the hypothetical “imagine while you watched TV, it was watching you”, I suspect most people’s wouldn’t see the same thing their owners were.
Similarly, by hand-picking a gay hairdressing couple from Brighton for example, alongside heavily made up Essex girls and a spirit guzzling well-spoken couple, the selection of the British TV watching public shown on Gogglebox seems to reuse stereotypes almost as much as it helps purvey them.
But where the show doesn’t rely on these, it almost points to a preprepared list of shows to watch that had been handed out before the recording. Forgive me if I’m generalising, but I can’t imagine Countryfile is popular with all Liverpudlian body builders.
When adding everything up, even the inclusion of Caroline Aherne as narrator, best known for writing and starring in the fictional but all too real The Royle Family, seems to have been included to give the associated connotations that the people and families you’re watching aren’t real, and thereby giving you permission to jeer as much as you like.
This is even added to by fact that her narration has been underscored with Beady Eyes’ ‘The Roller’, which with too close for comfort similarity to Liam Gallagher’s previous Oasis career and The Royle Family theme ‘Half The World Away’, seems to have been chosen with as much forethought as Brooker underscoring How TV Ruined Your Life with music straight from A Clockwork Orange.
All in all, Googlebox is something of an anomaly. Although a perfect example of how TV manipulates what it shows us, through doing so it show us exactly how TV manipulates what it shows us, as well as how it can try to manipulate us along with it.
A good example of this is when Gogglebox shows us the media’s speed to control and shape what information is presented to us, such as in the case of Oscar Pistorious – What Really Happened?, a documentary on BBC3 (not exactly well known for it’s attention to current affairs) allowing audiences around the globe (it has since been sold to the Discovery Channel in both the U.S.A. and even South Africa) to make up their own minds. Something which those seen on Gogglebox point out, is months before even the case’s jurors will one day eventually get to do.
In this way, Gogglebox also sits perfectly alongside Brooker’s Weekly Wipe assessment of TV’s reaction to this, complete with a clip from CBS’s Entertainment Tonight, in which the death of Pistorious’ girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, is treated in exactly the same manner as Kim Kardashian’s divorce.
At the same time as showing us that, through shows such as BBC1’s Call The Midwife, TV is capable of giving us characters that audiences truly care about, it also relays how even in the 21st Century, ITV’s prime time Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway seems to be saying that a female presenter should still be seen as mere eye candy. It might not be the French maid outfit Dec ‘wanted’, but as Dominic points out, it’s not far off.
As the accompanying Honda sponsorship tells us, “the more we look, the more we learn”, and Gogglebox really is a fascinating insight into modern television viewing. Not long ago our ability to use mobile internet to find out more about what the TV is (and what it isn’t) telling us would have been science-fiction, now we can clearly see that no-one thinks twice about doing it.
So is Gogglebox, like Brooker, warning us how TV is ruining our lives, but lowering itself down to the lowest common denominator level to get its message across? If there’s anything that studying TV at university taught me, it’s how simple it is to over-analyse, and it’s just as possible that Gogglebox could pure and simply just be voyeuristic entertainment at its most pure.
Like several of her peers, the reviewer I quoted earlier ironically thinks the Orwellian dream as she describes it is “brilliant”, but the more I write about it, and the more I think about it, the more my opinion is being split in two opposite directions. I can only say that the only way to make your own mind up about it, is to watch it yourself.
And hope that no-one is watching you.