It’s Hope Street Cards Book Club time again. And I’m cheating again. This month I’m going to review a television show. Again.
I love television. And there’s not much of it I won’t watch. Whilst Neighbours is having a strong resurgence of plot line right now - have you heard? Dee returned from the dead! She then stole all of Toadie’s money, then slept with him. Whilst his current wife was watching on Skype. Then he found out that the woman he had sexed was a Dee imposter! And then, in his state of distress, he got hit by a moving car! All in one episode. Outrageous! - the last few years have been a bit dull and despite my threats to cease viewing, I never followed through. Because I love the television. Fact.
On occasion, however, certain people have been known to give me a bit of a hard time about my viewing habits. Such “friends” can criticise what I watch, despite not having seen the show. Luckily though these “friends” don’t have a platform for ranting like I do. Which brings me to, this month’s topic for book review – Gogglebox.
Apparently, the concept for this reality TV show can sound a bit “shallow” to some: a TV show where we watch other people watching TV.
But do not be fooled.
This Australian incarnation of the British-born series has just wrapped up its sixth season, with a cult following and two Logie awards ahead of programs with arguably more “sophisticated” premises, such as the ABC’s Australian Story and Who Do You Think You Are? on SBS.
This is much more than reality TV. This is a series that gives us a fascinating snapshot into the diversity of Australians’ opinions; intimate relationships; authenticity and empathy; and, human emotions. Gogglebox is kind of like watching social science on television – a popcorn and choc-top version of what real social scientists might investigate about humans and relationships. This shit is beautiful.
It can often be quite difficult to gauge the authenticity of people’s responses to any kind of communication. In everyday life, we get along by often saying more than we mean, in the interests of good relations, and the context of any communication has a strong bearing on its meaning.
Gogglebox appears to have found a way of educing viewers’ spontaneous responses to their viewing – by observing them at home as they talk to each other about what they’re watching. When we get to observe the Gogglebox cast view a David Attenborough documentary all at the same time we bear witness to just how automatic, beautiful and authentic some human reactions and emotions really are.
When I first began watching this show, the first thing that stood out for me was – My Golly, we are a judgmental bunch aren’t we? When no one else can see us or hear us, we can really enjoy voicing our opinions about other people. Everyone’s a critic. Myself included. And this was maybe part of the point: to love and hate the Gogglebox personalities for the most superficial reasons, just as they judge their televisions on a similar scale.
And maybe this capacity for love and hate has to do with the level of comfort we’re experiencing at the time. When we are watching television, of an evening, in our home, with our loved ones, hopefully we are at our most relaxed and our most comfortable. This is a truly intimate place.
But when we’re here in this intimate place watching other people in their intimate place, we have the privilege of witnessing real intimate relationships in action. And things get a bit special after a while.
The show features 11 groups of Australians, who sit at home and watch the same collection of TV shows while cameras record their every reaction. There’s the gay couple, Wayne and Tom, the young mates Adam and Symon, the Jackson family, with their six kids, the older posh couple Mick and Di, the Delpechitra family of Sri Lankan background and Keith and Lee, the council worker and retired bank worker, among others. Finally on reality television we actually get to see a small glimpse of Australia’s diversity.
Unlike any other reality television, there’s no goal or reason for the participants. They don’t have to be able to sing or cook. They’re not fat and wanting to lose weight. And what that means is no one wins a prize. Or is pitted against anyone else. No one has to invoke the memory of a recently deceased parent to evoke sympathy.
We’re never told anything about the participants but, over time, we come to know them, their eccentricities, the things we have in common with them and we can even begin to predict how they may react to certain shows or issues. Over time, we develop relationships with these characters. Just based on their authenticity. And their humanity.
And then the magic happens. Well, at least it did for me.
I developed compassion and empathy for all of the cast. To the point that I stopped judging them.
When art dealer Di, made comments I didn't agree with regarding younger people, I bit my tongue. When Millie once again makes a silly comment I no longer rolled my eyes, but laughed along with her and the rest of the family.
When watching documentary Born in the Wrong Body about transgender children, I thought I could predict how Keith might react. And I thought I might not really like it.
Keith is rarely seen without a beer in his hand, and he has a bottomless pit of smutty jokes at the ready. I was expecting a gag, or at the very least a bit of uncomfortable shifting in his seat.
Instead he said: “You’d have to go along with it. As long as your child’s happy.” His wife Lee agreed. “Society can be cruel, Keith,” she says. “And they’re kids, brave little kids.”
Apparently, none of the cast members sought out the reality show limelight – being cast after producers eavesdropped on their conversations at supermarkets and cafes and the beach. And the result is a show that fills my belly with hope. A show filled with people that actually seem able to listen before leaping to judgment. Ordinary people who are reasonable and compassionate. People sitting on the couch who have the capacity for loving intimate relationships.
We don’t usually get to see this on TV. At least not on Neighbours.