For better or worse, television has pretty much always been associated with hordes of brain-dead, sofa-bound imbeciles mechanically chewing on crisps. Whilst we all know that this isn’t true, it’s easy to understand where the image comes from: Television’s job is to make you forget that you are watching television, luring you into a blissful state of utter passivity. Whereas we could argue that reading or going to an art gallery demands more active participation in the medium (i.e., the experience is a joint collaboration between the writer/artist’s output and your sensibility or interpretive efforts), it’s hard to make the same case for TV. Although we are living in something of a golden age of television, with a wealth of well-written and thoughtful programmes coming out, most of this is still confined to HBO and Netflix. The vast majority of the stuff that’s actually broadcast on a day-to-day basis is still watery insipid mush that does very little other than invite the viewer to zone out to; it doesn’t ‘do’ much other than entertain. It is little more than the opportunity to experience handsfree, sofa-bound, effortless catharsis.
Now, in the stressful environments we live in this oblivion is irresistible, and there’s absolutely no denying it; I get sick to the teeth of my University-educated friends trying to convince me that they only watch programmes like Geordie Shore ironically, honest. It’s okay to admit that something is entertaining, especially something engineered to be as entertaining as that. What we can’t deny, however, is that we have an essential problem when it comes to watching telly, an inner conflict between two very fundamental demands: the demand to relax and be entertained, and the demand to be active, productive and feel good about ourselves. In Freudian terms, it’s the age-old battle between our Id urging us to shut up and be gratified and our Super-ego telling us to overcome that and do something with ourselves. It’s a right kerfuffle.
For the uninitiated, Gogglebox is a TV show that people watch… about people watching TV. It’s a runaway success that’s in its fifth season and going very, very strong, occupying the hallowed Friday 9pm slot. I don’t think that back in series one it’s producers could have ever even dreamed of it doing as well as it has. It’s a simple and brilliant premise: place cameras next to the televisions of a broad spectrum of English people and film their reactions to the biggest shows of that week. It is prime-time television at its primest and timeliest: relevant, irresistibly voyeuristic and totally engrossing. The same families and friends are featured throughout the series, and the variety is about as comprehensive as space allows: we peep into the living rooms of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, northern, southern, white, black, straight and gay people alike. They are, of course, mostly extroverted and loudmouthed, but the show would be just awfully tedious if they weren’t now wouldn’t it.
The boss of television big-gun All3Media, Farah Golant, asserts that
“Everyone loves watching TV and talking about TV. But the show isn’t really about TV. The show is about people’s lives, their relationships, their living rooms and the way children and parents talk about TV. It’s near real-time because you’re watching what happened in the seven days before. That’s quite priceless. It captures a cultural response to something that’s happening in the world. Gogglebox shows TV in people’s living rooms is alive and well and thriving. It is asserting the indispensable role of TV in the fabric of people’s lives.”
Now, to me, that sounds like its very, very much about TV, but that’s alright. Exploring the ways we approach a medium through that very same medium is an interesting endeavour, but it’s usually the domain of highbrow art, often involving painful levels of self-reflexive mental acrobatics. Gogglebox has, quite literally, brought that dynamic to the living room, domesticated it: Postmodern entertainment at its finest and most digestible. It does have its flaws, like how blatantly scripted and premeditated a lot of it is or how some of the watchers are just annoyingly attention-mongering, but it is undeniably compelling and occasionally even offers some pretty shrewd observations. In the episode I watched there was some valid political commentary, and one girl’s call to ‘replace Jeremy Clarkson with a transgender black person that can’t drive and votes Green’ was spot on (props to Scarlett Moffatt, the Geordie one). Now that I come to think of it, the extent that they paused to broadcast basically everyone’s increasingly violent calls to sack Clarkson does beg the question of whether or not it could maybe possibly perhaps be a bit of a sly Channel 4 assault on BBC’s ‘most expensive export’. One does wonder.
It would be easy to whinge about Gogglebox being utterly inane and stupid, something symptomatic of a culture of square-eyed morons who’ve lost their points of reference outside the sacred ‘box’. But I don’t think this is the case at all: On the contrary, I think it’s one of the healthiest and most edifying programmes airing right now. Let me explain.
To start with, we’re going to go back to a bunch of writers in the sixties who started mucking about with the boundary between the fictional, textual space within their work and the concrete external reality we all live and move about in. They wrote themselves as the author into their stories, or wrote stories about that story being written, or had characters that were very much aware of their status as a fictional character. The whole thing relied heavily on irony and double-irony and all sorts of head-bending whatnot. Nabokov, John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut were all notable culprits. Critics started to get interested and bang on about the merits of these new devices, and before long ‘metafiction’, as it came to be annoyingly known, was the new ‘thing’ in literature.
Now these guys didn’t exactly start it: Shakespeare, maverick that he was, was already smashing the metatheatre back in the early 1600s (like the play-within-the-play in Hamlet or those immortal last lines of The Tempest where the curtain falls and its Shakespeare himself saying thank you and goodbye to the audience at the end of his career). What they did do for the first time, however, was make it the focal point of their work. The idea behind it all (or at least one of them) was to make readers continually aware of themselves reading, thereby making reading a keenly self-reflexive, self-aware act and raising big questions about how we approach art and where fiction/reality boundaries lie.
Metafiction eventually came under fire for being the product of a bunch of guys lost in their textual worlds, solipsistic blokes in University offices stacked floor-to-ceiling with books who rarely ventured outside the academies and were kind of owlish and weird and out-of-touch. This criticism became somewhat prophetic, as the work of the original metafictionalists got more and more bent in on itself and painfully self-reflexive and self-referential (David Foster Wallace brilliantly referred to it as ‘Postclever meta-hooey’). Barth even started quoting himself in an affected voice in public interviews, which is cringey and narcissistic and ultimately sad. Despite this, metafictional devices became a staple of postmodern literature, and to this day any serious writer worth their literary salt is kind of obliged to engage with it somehow. It’s become a real bane, something stale and hard to shake off, a big reason why serious contemporary fiction is stuck in its postmodern rut at the moment. It’s a real bloody mess.
What Gogglebox has effectively done is transplant this approach to the world of reality television and shed it of its annoying reliance on multi-layered irony and attempted grandiosity. It is, in its own funny way, the ultimate televisual realisation of meta-cinematic self-awareness (sorry). Watching people on television watch people on television continually reminds us that we are watching people on television, and their reactions spur our own. We’re a vital part of a weird kind of televisual love triangle, and it’s thrilling. Granted, it’s not like this is totally unbroken territory for telly: think of the opening theme for The Simpsons, which ends in them all sat down to watch… The Simpsons. But I can’t for the life of me think of a programme that’s ever been more about viewing programmes, or even conceive of one for that matter (unless we start filming people’s reactions to Gogglebox, lord help me). It reminds us we can be active and awake whilst watching television, engaged instead of forgetting ourselves, and that ‘I-want-to-but-should-I’ conflict is resolved.
What Gogglebox ultimately does is remind us that watching television can be an engaging and provocative social act. The image of lonely out-of-touchers in dark rooms staring blankly at screens is shattered, and replaced by the much healthier approach of ‘lets-get-together-and-engage-with-whats-going-on-on-screen’. The furniture in your average lounge today is all pointed towards the telly: That’s the new feng shui. It has undeniably usurped the fireplace to become the new centre of the room. What Gogglebox does is encourage us to see this new hearth as something to reflect on and bring us together, just like the humble fireplace before it. That’s got to be alright, hasn’t it?