The year of viewing dangerously

Television in 2020 has been prescient, poignant and palliative

Phil Harrison

Television threads itself through our lives. And in 2020, as Covid-19 largely confined us to our quarters, its status as an art form that comes to us—that insinuates itself into our living rooms—has been more valuable than ever. This year, it’s been asked to do more heavy lifting than usual as our horizons narrowed and gaping holes suddenly opened up under the surface of normality. TV has mapped our emotional contours during this unnerving period, mirrored our sense of entrapment, prompted our wistfulness, charted our discontent, answered our yearning, anticipated our occasional sweet release.

Television has seemed unusually prescient at times during 2020—but actually, it often is. It’s just that this year, we’ve had no choice but to notice it more, be more sensitive to its dramatic gambits and the way they resonate with our own lives. In the absence of live theatre, live comedy, live music and, for many of us, much in the way of intimate personal contact, it’s seemed more important than ever. We’ve projected our needs onto it. Television is an incredibly versatile medium—a filter through which everything passes. It can be ineffably trivial or as serious as your life. It can stimulate or pacify. It can be a window to the world or an escape route from it. In spring 2020, we needed it to be all of these things at once.

Who could have imagined that the two runaway TV hits of early lockdown would be a comedy drama about possible cheating on a game show and a sprawling documentary series about underground big cat breeding in America? And yet in some ways, ITV’s Quiz and Netflix’s Tiger King had more in common than you might imagine. Both seemed to exist inside entirely self-contained parameters; bubbles in which normal logic held no sway and the rigour of the outside world was, for a time at least, kept at bay.

At a couple of decades’ remove, the story of Charles Ingram, the former army Major who may or may not have attempted to cheat ITV’s prime time juggernaut Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? out of its jackpot seems delightfully eccentric and marginal. The details of the narrative seem too silly to be serious. There’s a striking moment in the drama when, just as ITV’s executives are processing events, someone pops their head around the office door and suggests they turn the television on. The date is September 11, 2001, and surreal and horrific real life events are crashing the TV party. Oddly, Quiz evoked a similar unease for viewers in 2020 as they tried to process the “new normal”. It was a temporary safe space, a place of refuge in a more trivial past. But after every episode came the ten o’clock news.

Tiger King, of course, was far weirder. In fact, its weirdness was the point. The story, which would have been far too absurdly lurid to work as a piece of authored narrative fiction, was the ultimate in escapism. If Quiz evoked familiarity and occupied a world we’d only recently vacated ourselves, for the vast majority of viewers Tiger King might as well have taken place on the dark side of the moon. And in retrospect, that constituted approximately 95 per cent of its appeal. Because in all honesty, there wasn’t much else.

There’s been talk of a second season of Tiger King—but the producers might want to tread carefully on that score. It could very well be that our fascination with the tawdry affairs of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin is quarantined in April and May 2020. Tiger King was analysed to death at the time: what did it tell us about animal welfare; about LGBT issues in rural America; about humanity’s relationship with nature? But really, that wasn’t why anyone watched it. This was surely a one-off. The phrase “guilty pleasure” is usually infuriating for the snobbery and pusillanimity it implies. But in this instance it felt fitting—this really was an unredeeming, consistently dispiriting, morally blank freak show of a series whose only useful quality was its relentless supply of sensation and therefore, the grip its aberrant oddness was able to exert on our imaginations. It took us out of ourselves and most of us needed that badly.

Fortunately, TV also had something rather more nourishing and edifying up its sleeve. The future—and indeed the present—didn’t become any easier to reckon with. And escapism didn’t become any less necessary. But the BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s breathtakingly intimate tale of first love, Normal People, was escapism of an entirely different order. Lockdown summoned introspection, remembrance and nostalgia: in the early stages, a series of diversionary games zipped around social media: what was your first concert, your first film, your formative cultural experience? Normal People dovetailed with that impulse, feeling simultaneously minty-fresh and bittersweet, evoking the sheer drama of youth with uncanny accuracy.

There were, of course, resonances with our situation in 2020—the discomfort of late adolescence; the sense of constraint; the feeling of not quite understanding new boundaries. But there was also human warmth; something we had been suddenly denied. And crucially, Normal People didn’t sugar-coat the memories it dramatised. Remember that day when you were 16 and you found yourself sitting next to the girl or boy of your dreams for an hour on the bus and you couldn’t think of a single thing to say? Surely the vast majority of us do? Teenage romantic yearning is exquisite torture but torture nonetheless. And Normal People never forgot this. Accordingly, it felt honest; a lockdown emotional crutch that we could trust to tell us the truth.

Inevitably, given all this navel-gazing, lockdown was an opportunity to take stock. The externally imposed suspension of normal human activity was—for those of us lucky enough not to have to worry about money—most constructively viewed as a collective sabbatical. BBC Two’s good-natured competitive travelogue Race Across the World functioned as both a vicarious jaunt through various exotic locations and a reminder to live; to never take opportunities for new experiences for granted. It felt both soothing and salutary. Could we, as individuals, emerge stronger from this? And more widely, could society learn a few lessons too? There was plenty of the usual British exceptionalism in the early stages of the pandemic—for example, BBC One’s self-parodically boosterish Our Finest Hours took great delight in the explicit conflation of Britain’s wartime endurance with our current situation as handled by our cosplay Churchill, Boris Johnson. “Now, as we did in World War Two,” boomed the voiceover, “we’re uniting in a common endeavour . . . once again we can be proud to be British.” Would Covid-19 be cowed by this performative display of British pluck? Sadly not.

Nevertheless, more thoughtful, challenging and even subversive material was on the way, once again reflecting with remarkable precision, 2020’s most influential trains of thought and pointing to a different future. BBC One’s Sitting in Limbo would have been a thoughtful, enraging and timely drama in any circumstances. But screening as it did, one day after a group of Bristolians dislodged the statue of slave trader Edward Colston from his plinth and rolled it into Avon Lake, this story of the Kafka-esque and seemingly malicious bureaucracy which ensnared black Briton Anthony Bryan when he attempted to secure a passport in 2015 seemed freakishly prescient. We were creeping out of lockdown and, partly thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement stirred in America by the police killing of George Floyd, we were asking questions of our own about entrenched inequality and racism. Michaela Coel’s startling drama I May Destroy You (BBC Three) also addressed race in subtle and nuanced ways—but the very fact that this adventurous, challenging drama, created by and starring a young, black, working-class woman, had been commissioned felt like significant progress. Was a different Britain beginning to emerge?

Maybe it was. But as the leaves turned yellow, the temperature fell and the Covid infection rate began to rise again, a grimmer reality returned. The pubs were closing again and parks suddenly looked like less hospitable places. In logistical terms, this year has been as much of a nightmare for the creators of TV as it has for anyone else. A glance at the prime time schedules over the last month or so suggests that the well of new programming is running worryingly dry. But there was always The Great British Bake Off. In spite of everything, the Channel 4 pastry staple had managed to pitch its marquee in the heart of summer—an immovable feast, even in a year whose exigencies had defeated the Olympic Games, Glastonbury Festival and Notting Hill Carnival. And how welcome it was, even to sceptics: a warm blanket to dive under as an impossibly forbidding winter lockdown loomed.

On November 3, millions of us prepared for the nervy reality of a night staring at coverage of what felt like the most consequential US election in a generation with an hour in the Bake Off tent. An hour during which no tragedy greater than a collapsed soufflé could possibly occur. It felt like television as palliative care. Escapist? Of course. Necessary? You bet. 

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