Humankind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality

Posted in TV
By Mansoor Iqbal on 13 Oct 2010

Oh, hello ITV, have you forgotten something? What!? You never left? You’ve been hiding in a corner slowly multiplying like some kind of fungal attack? Oh, well, maybe it’s time we had a talk…

It has occurred to me before that my television watching – and therefore writing – is extremely BBC/C4-centric; indeed I would imagine that for People Like Me the situation would be much the same (forgive the Daily Mailishness of assuming that large groups of people think the same way I do…). I even know of the odd person who wasn’t allowed to watch ITV as a kid as a result of parental fears that it would expedite the onset of idiocy.

One assumes, as has been said in more than one quarter, that it is Cowell that keeps the operation afloat, presumably with the help of Corrie. It fills me with horror sometimes that these brutal brain melting soaps still pull in the immense viewing figures they do. But I suppose ‘still’ speaks of the essential nature of the soap, which must be ever-present and unchanging, a televisual relic of the past; both personally and politically. This is why the big guns form such an unbreakable cartel. A new soap has the potential to cause the same icy shock as being thrown into a room full of people who all know each other but who you have never clapped eyes on before.

So, how do we get a new soap out there; one that will bring the folk back to ITV? Simple my friends: a twice weekly reality soap, innit. Now, I wouldn’t have heard of The Only Way Is Essex (ITV2) were it not for a Facebook rant from one of my old university housemates. An Essex girl herself, she was distinctly unimpressed by the characters chosen to represent her home county. Now, on seeing this I did the reasonable thing and tracked it down on ITV Player, where it was sitting pretty at the peak of the ‘Most Watched’ chart – obviously I’m not the first person whose interest has been piqued by a rant (or laughter). It had already pulled in some pretty impressive figures for ITV2 (which is apparently ITV’s BBC3 – I had no idea the ITV channels actually had target demographics!) during its initial airing, and one imagines the ripple of hype will pull in more punters for the next of the shows.

So, was my former housemate right to be incensed? Well, in a word, yes. If someone did this to the best county (Derbyshire – but only when you don’t actually live there…) I would be pretty miffed. But then again, not many counties have the reputation that Essex has. It is unique in its potential for stereotypes dressed in clichés with an infusion of typecasting like these guys (they’re supposedly real – but more on this shortly). One of the best moments of Only Way actually comes when two ladies are talking about the presence of ‘Essex girl’ in the dictionary – the response to which might be one of the funniest (albeit unintentionally so) things I’ve heard this year.

But I can see you’re looking at me like I need to explain ‘reality soap’ (maybe not, but pipe down). Well, I’ll avoid the massive sermon I delivered last time I was in these parts, except to say that the ‘reality’ part of reality TV has always been something of a misnomer, in that what is presented to us bears little or no resemblance to reality. The soap’s raison d’être is of course to create a fictional reality with which we can identify – a microcosm of life. The idea behind the show in question then, is to create a soap that is actually real – and therefore will also be a real reality show – by simply filming the transpirations amongst a group of people who know each other.

But if this is real why are we warned at the start that despite the events being real some are staged? Why does the opening scene seem so wooden, akin to people with no training trying to act (or Hollyoaks, complete with the requisite non-diegetic music)? What sort of bloody nightclub is so quiet that you can hear every word that everyone says? This isn’t just The Hills – complete with boob jobs et al – all over again is it? We are pulled yet further away from reality by this choice of characters – who, I am assured (and convinced), are not typical of the East Saxon kingdom. This lot display all the signs of a Big-Brother-esque detachment from the real world, chosen not for their typicality, but for the reactions they might elicit. Indeed, the heavily-edited style that forms a sort of highlight reel of the day (complete with a split screen phone conversation), peppered with tedious and bitchy conversation, bears more than a passing resemblance to that behemoth of the reality television world. I think they’re going to go for some Seven Days type viewer input too, so we’ll see what impact that has on ‘reality’.

I’m not going to lie though, The Only Way is Essex is hella funny, and therefore a pretty satisfying watch. You’ll find it hard to believe such a seemingly large group of people can all be so shallow, stupid, and openly sleazy in each other’s faces (Harrumph!), all whilst displaying the most horrendous taste imaginable (£750 for a blazer with leather sleeves…questionable). My goodness, Vajazzles (look it up), über-macho peacocks and ill advised tattoos – you will either weep with laughter or curl up in a corner and vomit on yourself whilst weeping. The thing is, it’s fair enough, if a little cruel, cherry-picking these guys if they’re going to be this ridiculous (the whole idea of actually putting the real lives of those vain enough to agree to it on screen is a bit exploitative really), but how much of this is staged? I need to know! Despite the fell implications for the human race, I dearly hope this shit is real. I need to know that I’m laughing at other people and not at intentionally malicious scripting. Because that’s the point really, isn’t it?

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