The exposure of private life is not new: in the 200-year development of the mass media, people have been cajoled, blackmailed or paid to allow bits of their lives to be commodified for publication. But television – where people talk, gesture and move, giving the fullest illusion of the whole person, enabling the audience to judge, approve or disapprove, share sorrow and pleasure – marks a step change. Talk shows, followed by reality shows, have bit by bit pushed deeper into a mother lode of domestic revelations, the public as content as well as audience.
Reality is generally regarded as low rent but it is really the same as other TV genres, and these days there is as much of it as there is fiction. Just as there are infinite varieties of interesting or tedious sitcoms, soaps, cop shows and documentaries, so there are a range of reality shows – from the display of desperate narcissism of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! through the mix of fascination and boredom of Big Brother to the perky interaction between minor celebrities and selected public participants of a new entrant, The Marriage Ref (ITV1 Saturdays).
The original Marriage Ref, launched in the US last year, was the brainchild of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, whose eponymous sitcom was the comic hit of the 1990s. Through his summoning of bittersweet comedy from a group of aimless urban professionals, Seinfeld became a cultural hero, and rich. Thus an idea from him for a TV show quickly passed from conception to screen: it involved a panel of three celebrities watching clips taken from the lives of married couples, which revealed chronic disputes between them. The celebrities commented on the nature of the dispute, followed by a judgment as to who was right, who wrong. On the clips I watched on YouTube, with a panel consisting of Madonna, and the comedians Larry David and Ricky Gervais, David and to a lesser extent Gervais were scathing about the antics of the couples (Madonna was more benign). In one case, that of the long-married Goldmans, Mindy revealed to the camera that she hated Allan’s messiness and offered to trade sex if he would tidy up more often. He wanted the sex but was reluctant to pay the price. Who was right? David, looking outraged that such stuff should be presented to him, said that she should be glad anyone would want to sleep with her and mocked her for refusing the one man who did. The sight of rich wits sneering at an ordinary couple was depressing but the show was granted a second series despite some bad reviews.
The British version differs slightly and – if the US one’s reviews are to be believed – is much better. This week’s panel included two very funny people – the comedians Sarah Millican and Jimmy Carr. It also had former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell who, though a lot more simpatica than her former colleague Victoria Beckham, isn’t funny (and why should she be?). She thus sensibly falls back on asking the obvious, usually sympathetic, questions of the participants who, once a clip of their marital blockages have been shown, appear before them to be quizzed.
This week featured the O’Connells from Liverpool, who have four children; she is a beautician, he a club entertainer. The complaint from wife Paula was that husband Kieran ducked his chores, so she had to leave detailed to-do lists about the place. He hated her lists. The Nevilles were a retired, genteel couple: Martin had a passion for pickling fruit and vegetables, Daphne for caring for otters. She was sick of his pickles and he mildly objected to the otters. The Williamses were about 30 and had a new-born baby. The husband didn’t seem to have a job. Instead, he had flash crazes: for being a model or for playing a musical instrument, though his consistent passion was skateboarding, which he did with lads half his age. Emily was fed-up with this and Buddy was upset that she was fed up.
The British show worked where the US one did not, because the panel were not snooty, two were laugh-out-loud funny, and above all they did not display how much – socially, intellectually, morally – they thought themselves above the material with which they were presented. Instead, they bantered agreeably with the couples about their obviously likeable traits – the O’Connells’ apparently cheerful rows, the Nevilles’ charmingly posh eccentricities, Emily’s comic exasperation and Buddy’s determination to remain adolescent.
If privacy is gently and permissively invaded and the revelations treated with wit and a little affection, then the outcome can be pleasant television that might teach us small lessons on how to live together.
The squeamishness with which one watches reality shows varies according to the taste and care that goes into their making: a judgment that applies to all TV (and much else). Hardly radical but, as I hand over this column after about five years, it is mainly what I have learnt. An easy contempt for a TV I had rarely watched turned into an informed engagement with the most important cultural medium in the world.
More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd