‘This Is Laughably Awful… Can We Watch Another Episode?’

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Generally I like to think I’m a reasonably discerning viewer when it comes to television, aside from my inexplicable decision to start watching Revenge, which was swiftly rectified when I came close to throwing my tablet across the room in protest at the preposterousness of it all. However, the other night something strange happened; I watched an episode of a show that I could feel was just dreadful, brainless drivel with no semblance of artistry about it…. but I couldn’t look away. I am, shamefully, talking about that godawful Twilight/True Blood middle ground/knock-off: The Vampire Diaries.

I’m the first to admit that sometimes trashy shows are enjoyable, a phenomenon I refer to as ‘turn-your-brain-off’ entertainment; sometimes watching an episode of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, however magnificently made they are, is too much to take. For those sleep-deprived moments there are shows like Once Upon A Time, whereby my ordinarily active viewing style can be replaced with a passive, slightly glazed-over mode of reception. It’s not high art, but it’s enjoyable, reasonably well-conceptualised and nice to look at. Even with this in mind though, longing to continue watching The Vampire Diaries, a show I had earlier giggled at the sheer awfulness of, was a new experience. A somewhat disconcerting one, truth be told.

So there I found myself, suddenly caring what happened to the vacuous beauties on screen, a perfectly chiselled and airbrushed set of vampires, werewolves and other such legendary beings of that ilk. It was clunkily written, unimaginitively lensed, for the most part poorly acted, set to an intrusive and whiny pop-rock soundtrack… and all I wanted was to keep watching. The final nail in the coffin (pun completely intended) was when I was gleefully told the name of the fictional setting. Agape, the information sunk in: I was watching a show about the supernatural, set in a place called… wait for it… Mystic Falls. For the love of all that is (un)holy, surely on that basis alone I shouldn’t allow myself to like it?

Yet in the days since, on more than one occasion (an hour) I’ve had a craving to watch more. I’m this close to buying a crucifix and eating whole cloves of garlic just to rid myself of these culturally impure thoughts… So consider this a stern warning; there are two reasons you should never, ever watch The Vampire Diaries:

1) It’s truly and completely terrible.

2) You’ll absolutely love it.

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‘My Intelligence Is Like A Machete In The Jungle’

The Apprentice. A group of young, fiercely intelligent upstart entrepreneurs vying for a partnership with Sir Alan Sugar, don of the British business world. It’s an ingenious premise for a show and clearly a recipe for success as it’s just finished its ninth series. Personally, I have been well and truly hooked, to the point where realising I’d miss the final made me momentarily melancholy about going to Australia. What can I say, I take my television seriously…

Upon watching the show the other night I found myself, as I do every week, giggling, cringing and periodically spluttering with sheer incredulity at some of the things the contestants were saying and doing. It got me thinking… Why is this show actually so popular? Is it because we enjoy watching a range of people come together to show us what they’re made of and bring their passion projects to life? No, it’s because we enjoy watching a range of people be catastrophically, unendingly stupid.

These are supposed to be some of the most savvy, whip-smart business minds in Britain, however they very often come across as wilfully dense; cursory examples include Myles Mordaunt’s decision to make the emblem of a ready meal company a skull, and Natalie Panayi’s suggestion to ‘photograph that horse’ whilst pointing at a cow. Yes, we as viewers love watching someone try and fail at something. Moreover, the passively sadistic parts of us particularly love watching someone try and fail at something so mundane, so fundamental that a five year old could do it and still have brainpower left over to maintain basic human functionality (see: Jordan Poulton memorably trying not to vomit when placed under Sir Alan’s steely gaze.)

British television is full of dumb people; The Only Way Is Essex, Made in Chelsea, Take Me Out and many other shows thrive off us as consumers getting a kick out of watching someone barely able to string a sentence together. This year’s Take Me Out included a girl stating, of the devoutly Christian potential date paraded in front of her, ‘I think it’s dead cute that he loves Jesus.’ Without irony. Not ‘I respect his devotion to his faith.’ Not even ‘kudos for believing in the Big Guy.’ No, she went with ‘I think it’s dead cute that he loves Jesus.’ I mean, come on… What makes it worse is that we as viewers lap it up seven days a week on hundreds of different channels.

I blame Jade Goody. I remember watching her in social experiment turned complete and utter farce Big Brother, and absolutely loving it. To be in my early teens and know that this person maybe ten years older than me was less intelligent than I was or ever would be, was extremely pleasurable. Maybe she didn’t single-handedly cause it but she, and her subsequent media portrayal, contributed to a culture in which reasonable, perfectly considerate adults will sit in front of their TVs for an hour a night and let all their bile flow. For that hour, our living rooms become not unlike zoos, in which we gawp at the unfamiliar creatures behind the glass communicating in a way that is foreign to us. It comforts us and makes us feel superior to laugh at the strange behaviour being demonstrated, because it confirms what we desperately want to know: that the way we live our lives is definitely better because we’re clearly more capable of expressing our obviously more valuable worldview… In 2013, the child who used to laugh at the gorilla beating its chest has grown into the adult who sniggers at a luminous man with plastic hair using the word ‘reem’.

This need to find a healthy outlet for our frightfully British inferiority complex has well and truly hit its stride; the early noughties’ spate of reality television has evolved into the current trend of ‘constructed reality television’ (a concept so oxymoronic I resolutely refuse to acknowledge it as a thing) and there are ever increasing chances to chortle at the people whose MENSA letters didn’t so much get lost in the post as self-destruct and blow up the sorting office. However, with these intellectually-challenged citizens more and more in demand for us to project our insecurities onto, their paycheques just keep getting bigger and bigger, and yet we’re still sitting here feeling superior to them. TOWIE star Mark Wright’s estimated net worth stands at roughly £3million; this is a man who once stated ‘without sounding like an arrogant bastard, I could probably drive a Skoda and still nick birds.’ Truly, chivalry is not dead.

Even in spite of that, and a fool he may be, he is undeniably a rich fool. The truth of the matter is that in the symbiotic relationship between the supposed intellectual elite on the sofa and the raging dullards on the screen, only one side is benefitting in any tangible way… When seen in that light, who’s the real fool here?

‘If It’s Longer We Can Just Cut It’

One of the hardest, most important lessons I’ve learnt this year throughout the course of my publishing module and the article writing I’ve done for it (www.milkonline.org.uk, cheeky plug) is that not every word I write is golden. As much as I’d love every syllable to be a stunningly eloquent gem of infinite wisdom, some of it is just undeniable waffle. The editing process was one new to me, and at first it was difficult not to take it personally, but I quickly realised an objective eye is extremely useful.

Flash forward to the end of this year and I was commissioned to write an article for the print issue of milk. Long story short, my 950 word article was cut to under 300. It was still a decent article, but the brutal edit had, I felt, stripped out a lot of what I liked in the original. As important as the first lesson essayed here may be, another states that you can’t remove two-thirds of a piece of writing without it losing at least some meaning.

So, in the name of shameless self-indulgence, here I present to you the article the way I wrote it first time around; maybe worse, possibly better, definitely longer, I hope you enjoy it…

Confessions of A TV Addict

I’ve heard the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, so this is my confessional. My name’s Robert and I’m a television-oholic. I first realised I had a serious issue a mere month ago when, in an introductory conversation with someone, I asked the fateful question: do you follow any TV series? They responded adequately enough, mumbling something about Glee, and then returned the question (conversational volleying – best avoided if possible. As I’m demonstrating, it can enlighten you to harsh truths about yourself.) I paused. I thought; and then out of my mouth streamed a sentence that was as surprising to me as it was to anyone hearing it.

‘Oh yeah, I watch Game of Thrones, Revenge, True Blood, Once Upon A Time, Cougar Town, New Girl, How I Met Your Mother, The Walking Dead, Smash, Girls, American Horror Story, Family Guy, American Dad, Breaking Bad, Parks & Recreation, The Apprentice and Don’t Trust The Bitch In Apartment 23… Well, before it was cancelled anyway.’

I came up for breath and a rare moment of clarity seized me. An epiphany, if you will. I watch WAY too much television.

If you include DVD reruns (a regular occurrence of a bedtime) and all the shows I watch non-religiously but still like to keep up with, I watch a staggering THIRTY-FIVE different TV shows. This is on top of a degree, a 20-hour a week job, all those pesky time-sapping necessities like eating, sleeping and laundry… No wonder my social life’s taken a beating. Before this sentence was uttered, I used to wonder why there didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day, why I hadn’t read recreationally in months, how everyone else seemed to time-manage so much better than I did. I blamed work, and then that I was too tired from work of an evening to function properly, I blamed my iPhone, and the two or three hours a day I must spend on it, be it on social media, window shopping on Amazon or simply playing the latest game fad sweeping the nation (currently Candy Crush-ing it on a regular basis), I even blamed my housemates and how much time I seemed to use up in conversation with them.

The harsh, shameful truth is that these are mere factors; by far the biggest reason I ‘never have time to do anything’ (coincidentally my most-uttered phrase besides ‘I’m so tired’) is simply that television is probably the biggest part of my life. In recent months it’s even overtaken my friendships; a period of just-not-feeling-that-great has led to me seeking easy tasks that allow me to periodically shut off my brain. Friends, as dear and vital as they are, take work and energy that I haven’t been able to muster. The people on-screen offer perspective, wisdom, guidance, entertainment and solace without asking anything in return; sadly, when you’ve been on your feet for ten hours serving coffee to Bath’s many, many old people and tourists, this one-sided relationship is irresistible.

After questioning and then blame-placing, I tried reasoning: I do Film AND SCREEN Studies; this is relevant and important to my degree and my chosen career path. I want to work in television, or at least the industry surrounding it. It’s OK that I haven’t watched a film in months; I want to work in television. It’s fine that I still have Total Film and Empire land on my doorstep monthly but haven’t actually read either in a year and a half. I’m still doing something helpful, keeping up to date with trends and shifts in the TV industry. This is all true; but it’s not enough. It doesn’t excuse being late to work because you just had to catch the last five minutes of Once Upon A Time. It isn’t enough to warrant blowing off a friend to binge-watch the entire first season of Girls because you’re too tired for human contact, because you were up late the night before watching American Horror Story.

I told you this was a confession. I’m an addict. It’s been three days since my last binge, but the cravings are there. There are new episodes out that I haven’t watched. WHY HAVEN’T YOU WATCHED THEM YET my frazzled brain is screaming. Oh wait, because I have an assignment due tomorrow and friends I haven’t seen in nearly a month and four shifts at work next week. This is a confession, an apology and a pledge, all packaged neatly in the faux-highbrow wrappings of an article: I will try to be better. Friends I haven’t seen, you have not for one moment left my thoughts. If I try really hard, I can stop; and if I fail, then please know this: there’s room enough in my heart for you and the entire casts of all these shows… and the casts of the Broadway shows in Smash, the misguided teens on Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, the hapless hopefuls on Britain’s Got Talent, the desperate band of survivors in The Walking Dead, even Miranda in all her clumsy largeness. You have not been forgotten, you just have a whole lot of fictional company. We will be together again. Once this episode finishes …

‘You Should Start A Blog’

I was afraid to write this.

I was going to start with a tired analogy about how starting a blog is like having a baby, until I realised that to do so would be naive, cliched and most probably inaccurate, seeing as how I’ve never done either. I’m also 99% sure that sitting here writing this, sipping coffee on my sunny balcony in Melbourne is a damn sight easier than raising a child. So that blossoming comparison withered rather quickly. No, instead I’ll compare it to throwing a dinner party, something I’m much more experienced in. If you will, for the next couple of paragraphs imagine yourselves as guests at this literary smorgasbord.

It’s nerve-wracking, there’s no getting away from it. You’re prepared; you know all the guests except that one guy, that friend of a friend you met once but are surprised they decided to come along. You know what you want to serve; you’ve sourced all the ingredients, something safe but eye-catching, something memorable but not a new recipe where ten things can go wrong with every step. So everything is in place; then, an insidious, creeping thought begins to take shape: what if this doesn’t go how I hope it will? What if people don’t like what I serve? Naturally, they’ll sit there in true British fashion politely choking it down, hiding their grimaces before they can leave and deconstruct it privately to spare my feelings. What if I get a reputation as an atrocious cook who throws the worst dinner parties since Macbeth?

There’s also a flipside to this; what if they really enjoy it? How terrible would that be? If they love it and mention to all my friends what an astounding chef I am, however ego-boosting that may be, suddenly there’s even more pressure. I have to keep planning bigger and better soirees, for increasing numbers of people with even more varied dietary requirements, and if I don’t keep up my reputation, I run the risk of letting people down. I may be an independent self-assured adult who doesn’t require external validation… But I’m really not and I really do. So before you know it, I’ve called the guests complaining of a flu-like ailment, saying I’m very sorry and yes, we’ll definitely do it soon, but I’ll see you at work on Tuesday, health permitting of course.

Only recently have I realised that the one overarching factor blocking me from starting this project wasn’t laziness, or my unmatched ability to procrastinate, or lack of a decent subject matter, but fear. Keep in mind that there is a subtle yet important distinction between arrogance and self awareness: I know I can write. The feedback I’ve received is generally positive, I have a decent vocabulary and a solid understanding of syntax. My grammar and spelling is notorious and writing coherent, flowing sentences and getting my point across somewhat succinctly is a skill that comes fairly naturally to me. So I have my analogical ingredients, and in the reasonably wide social network I’m blessed with, I have my guests. Now I just have to put it together and serve it.

Oh no, there’s that voice again. That confidence-crushing, motivation-sapping bastard little voice. And up until now, I’ve listened to him. I let him, under the guise of reason, convince me I couldn’t start a blog because ‘I’m good but I’m not special’. Not the best, not the worst, yet also not quite middle of the road. Pretty good. Don’t underestimate that though, pretty good is, well… Pretty good. Is it enough though? Striking a balance between self belief and remaining grounded is a delicate process and one I have evidently yet to master. Instead, I’ve been much happier to just keep putting it off. If I never start, it can continue to be an aspiration and not something I tried and failed at.

I’ve also never quite managed to follow things through to their fullest extent. Until, that is, this year, when without really realising it, I’ve outdone myself; working full time, learning full time and running an obligation-based gauntlet that got me to the other side of the world. Perhaps nothing extraordinary for someone of my age, and I did my fair share of complaining, and at times didn’t feel like I could deal with juggling everything, but I just kept going, thinking I was being my usual overdramatic, workshy self and that it was fine, shut up, everyone’s doing it. It’s only in retrospect I can say: I have worked really fucking hard this year. And it doesn’t matter if anyone and everyone else was working harder or less or the same amount or dealing with it better or worse than me, because it’s not about them. It’s about me. For the first time in my life I truly applied myself and got results. It’s my own personal achievement, a demonstration of skills I didn’t know I possessed and that’s the part I hold onto.

A great woman once told me ‘life isn’t comparative’ and that’s my point. It took me so long to actually start this for fear or what others might think of my writing. I’m not saying that that’s completely irrelevant – I’ve heard it helps if people actually want to read your output? Curious. – but at the end of the day the vital part, the key foundation of it all, is the very act of doing it. To draw upon a common cultural reference, it’s summed up in Friends, when Monica goes to a dance class; limbs flailing, out of time and concentrating overly hard. The teacher yells at her ‘You in the back, you’re getting it all wrong’ to which Monica replies ‘But at least I’m doing it’.

This blog post is almost certainly more personal than others I will write, but I felt I should explain, to myself as much as you, why it took so long to come to fruition. I can’t say I’m completely devoid of fear now (a certain amount is probably necessary for quality control) but I refuse to let it cripple me into entropy.

I was afraid to write this; but I did it anyway.