Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Spooks, cookery and the nature of reality

I’m no fool. Or, rather, I am – but not in the following context. I knew that it would be practically impossible to avoid discussion of the eighth and final episode of the current series of Spooks as part of my daily discourse with the great and the good on Twitter.

So, fresh from the Call Of Duty: Black Ops launch I settled down with a rum in hand and a good deal of Activision’s complimentary beer coursing through my bloodstream to watch the endgame for Section D’s identity-stealing field commander.

One might think that, given how much I had deliberately befuddled my critical faculties it would be a confusing hour but I found the show surprisingly easy to follow.

Spooks likes to flatter its audience with twists, turns and double-bluffs designed to make them feel clever but there was none of that last night. The pursuit of the team’s former leader was straightforward enough and within the context of the show’s established rules ‘plausible’.

There was of course the shooting of some unknown innocent on London’s streets that we all agreed to forget about and some time-saving IT jiggery-pokery from Tariq but the show’s an hour long as it and some of us had to get some sleep. It’s only reasonable to take a few short cuts.

This time-saving has connected in my mind with a directive sent to the BBC this morning about their content. They have been chided about the number of identikit programmes the produce about members of the public antiquing with their mothers in Eastbourne or buying houses to put all their crappy antiques in.

Rightly so, in my view. Reality shows seem to me to be part of a general societal trend towards de-skilling. The people perpetrating this crime against competence tend to talk about ‘democracy’ a lot but essentially reality shows are part of the trend to employ cheaper labour.

After all, reality shows are scarcely about reality. They’re fiddled with and edited and key parts are re-enacted to make reality seem interesting. If you were to film real reality, it would be as dull as Andy Warhol’s interminable art film about the Empire State building.

Without the realism.

Reality shows have now become so ubiquitous that they have shaped the personalities of the generation that has grown up watching them. The last round of Big Brother contestants weren’t - as reality show contestants frequently claim – ‘just being themselves’. They were doing their best to fulfil their own expectations of how a person on a reality show acts. And indeed we all do, a little bit, all the time.

That’s not the greatest evil of reality TV though. The real crime is the pregnant pause. The moment when some authority figure has to send one of a group of aspiring chefs/singers/antique dealers home to their former humdrum lives and waits for an interminable period of time – supposedly to enhance the tension of the moment – before saying the name of the unlucky loser / lucky winner / cadaverous antiques enthusiast.

You know what they’re really doing there don’t you?


…saving even more money.

When, on last week’s Masterchef final the judges paused so long before announcing the winner’s name that the programme editor ran out of shots of John Torode’s sweaty face and Greg Wallace’s dead-eyed stare. Random shots of the contestants clearly reacting to speech that we couldn’t hear, random shots of seagulls pecking at discarded chips outside the studio, random shots of antelope migrating, waterfalls, CGI space battles, random shots of ANYTHING just to defer the moment when the winner’s name is announced and the series is effectively over.

That’s not tension, it’s padding. The longer the moment before Simon Cowell dispatches the latest karaoke clown back to his or her burger-flipping job the longer the show, the less actual reality has to be filmed saving on electricity, tape stock and on-set catering.

I’m not actually saying that the BBC are defrauding licence fee payers by padding Masterchef with 3 minutes of sweaty-faced silence.

But I am thinking it.

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