If you’ve ever uttered something akin to the following to me:
“Well, we don’t really watch those type of shows”
“I mean, we have a set but we only use it for Attenborough”
“I’m not really sure I’ve heard of The Great Pottery Throw Down, but then the TV is in the east wing”*
Then it’s time for me to confess that I probably don’t like you that much. I mean, I’m sure I respect you and we’ve had some great times together where I pretend to understand what a concept album is, but for me, there’s always been something missing. Raymond Carver included baths, dancing and drinking in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love but disregarded Below Deck. Similarly, you don’t understand me if you don’t communicate in my chosen love language, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. We lack the foundational joy and connection that is sharing a shit TV program, and hence missing the one bit of Twitter which feels truly unified (#Justice for Joe Black).
Pretending to not like telly has long been a signifier of intellectual snobbery, a quick way to demonstrate superiority over that anyone would choose to swerve a night of red stripe and impenetrable performance art in a cold warehouse in favour of staying in, trying to guess who’s singing Cardi B dressed as a sausage. Theatre people are especially susceptible to this insecurity. We feel the need to justify our telly viewing through a lens of high cultural capital (‘I mean, we have Sky, but only for the ballet on the arts channel’) or to plead ignorance of pop-culture basics. I had a colleague at Glyndebourne who claimed to have never heard of Girls Aloud. It was 2010 and he was from Cheam, and therefore obviously lying.
Then lockdown came, and all you culture vultures were forced to get to know your sofa. Balancing your laptop on a pile of unread Deleuze after realising all that ‘working on your etchings’ people do in Austen novels is just a synonym for masturbation, you gaze into the Netflix abyss, not knowing where to start. But never fear, I, your favourite trash Auntie Frank, am here for you. And it gives me much pleasure to present the following recommendations…
If you like a Comedy of Manners, try The Real Housewives
Like most society comedies, the characters (apparently real people) of the Real Housewives franchise are interchangeably white*, rich and entirely motivated by self-aggrandizement. You think Wilde understood artificial plotting? The Importance of Being Earnest has nothing on the forced drama these women can create over someone not inviting someone to one of the many lunches they don’t eat. The Machiavellian plotting, false philanthropy and social climbing combine to create MoliÃ¨re worthy drama. Did Sheridan ever come up with a better epigram than Kim’s rebuff to Brandi’s accusation she was doing meth in the bathroom (“You’re a slutpig!”)? He wishes.
*Disclaimer: My commitment to overthinking about Yolanda Foster’s see-through fridge has already pushed out important pin numbers, so my expertise is limited to the Beverly Hills and New York arms of the franchise.
If you like star casting, try Married at First Sight Australia
I believe that the process for matching couples on this bizarre show mirrors that of casting famous people in unexpected stage roles. It’s like that riddle about two guards, one truthful, and one a liar. Except that there are two producers, one who is interested in true love and happiness (Cameron and Jules/ Amber Davies in 9 to 5: the Musical) and one who just wants fucking chaos (Inez and Bronson/Nicole Scherzinger in Cats).
If you like In Yer Face Theatre, try Masterchef
At its best, In Yer Face theatre contains a constant threat of violence and a bubbling undercurrent of rage. Much like Monica Galetti widening her eyes at a terrible souffle. There’s the shouting, the knives, the omnipresent bloody visceral slabs of meat and, in the latest Professionals series, Marcus Wareing watching from another room via headphones like a chef version of The Pillowman‘s interrogation scene. There’s the menace of the Gregg Wallace moon looming over anything that’s not meat and two veg yelling ARE YOU USING SPICES?!? I also recommend Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares for an additional Sarah Kane-esque absurdist ferocity. “I am much fucking angrier than you think” yells Ramsay. quoting from Crave as he throws an overly high concept pizza menu across the room.
If you like Heroic Verse, try Love is Blind
Our heroes must journey through many perils and only the most deserving will be triumphant. Navigating the strait between Scylla and Charybdis is nothing compared to seeing each other for the first time after conversing for a week through a wall and finding out the love of your life is a bit shorter than you expected. Heartache that drives you to feed your dog wine deserves epic poetry: “When the gods ruled that Barnett would not be her Beaux, Jessica and her dog drowned their sorrows int’ merlot”. Sadly, putting her rival Amber’s terrifying tank-girl energy into dactylic hexameter is beyond me.
If you like arguing about Broadway/West End transfers, try comparing the US and UK editions of Ru Paul’s Drag Race
When the musical Taboo moved from the West End to Broadway, there was much discussion as to how the cast would be able to insult the audience when they weren’t allowed to touch them or get within so many feet of a litigious US audience (after that time when the Rum Tum Tugger got too frisky and sparked a court case). Many solutions were proposed, including one of those bathroom concertina mirrors being pushed out into the audience so that Boy George could more effectively insult the crowd. That’s the difference between the UK and US versions of RuPaul ‘I love Fracking’ Charles’s magnum opus. The US one just isn’t allowed to get to us, to touch or shake us, in the same way. I will argue long into the Zoom that the UK Queens get to show us more heart, in a much fresher, edgier show. However, just like Broadway, the US version has something we don’t: money. America gets one over on us with enough sponsor cash to tip someone thousands of dollars for twerking as a giant baby, or, even weirder, to be able to fund Spiderman: Turn off the Dark.
And finally, if you like Restoration Comedy, try Naked Attraction
If an alien species arrives and I have to explain British culture without the worst bits, I’m going to show them Naked Attraction. It shares the bawdy-but-with-happy-endings innuendo of a rollicking restoration romp. Is there greater joy than watching a sweet carer from Nuneaton in a floral shift offering a homemade Victoria Sponge to naked men, discussing her ‘lovely vagina’ and then serenading them with hymns on a keyboard? This is why we ejected the puritans. The Country Wife walked so Judith could offer her clotted cream to a selection of bums of her choosing. Charles II would have bloody loved Davina saying very polite things about vulvas on the BBC and so will you.
For more non-theatre-related drama, read Ka Bradley’s review of the cats outside her window, or Natasha Tripney’s write-up of The Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings Show