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Gogglebox: Why A Show That Should Be The Worst On TV Is Actually The Best

12/06/2017 17:14
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"Watch people watch TV, you must be kidding", so goes the critique of the unexposed and the uninitiated. They are right to be dubious, in the age of Ex on the Beach, television execs have a lot to answer for. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was my father's reaction when he found me watching a minute-long clip of Bristolian pensioners, Mary and Marina, chewing toffees in (near) silence. After a good deal of persuasion, a series of raised eyebrows, and finally a full-viewing, he has begrudgingly accepted that Gogglebox treads the right side of the line between the inane and the genius.

As anyone who has read online dating profiles will have noticed, 'people-watching' is a pretty popular past-time. Gogglebox is people-watching at its finest. It shows us the candid moments of a diverse selection of families and friends at their most relaxed and natural. This could be middle-aged Welsh couple Dave and Shirley sharing a heart-warming waltz around the kitchen; Leon and June, reminiscing about their newlywed adventures 57 years ago; or the unlikely but lovable companionship between Jenny and Lee, best friends who are brought to tears of laughter every week in Jenny's mobile home.

Unlike our carefully-sculpted social-media profiles, Gogglebox shows an honest, relatable portrayal of everyday home-life. Take Welsh sisters, Ellie and Izzi discussing the quantity of kebabs they've eaten in a manner that suggests both guilt and pride. Or Louis, the millennial son in the Michael's family, schooling his parents during political spats.

"err Adam and Eve, fig leaves!"
...
"err Adam and Eve, figment of your imagination!"

As well as assuaging some of our own family-time TV-watching guilt, watching these minor scuffles reassure us of the unimportance of our own family squabbles. I once suggested to my mother, that the two of us sign up for the show. After quiet contemplation, she replied "Yeah! Although I'd be just as good without you here, I talk to the TV all the time".

A similar underlying affection is visible in the clip selection, the editorial team deserves credit not just for having a keen sense of humour, but for avoiding exploitative portrayals of the show's stars. The only memorable 'scandal' was when one cast-member joked that the infamous American Airlines incident would make a great Snapchat story. Unfairly missing the point that we all tend to make slightly more risqué jokes in the comfort of our own homes.

The show's positives don't just relate to our own family dynamics, but to our views of others. In the digital age, we've all retreated from one another a bit. Leaving it more up to the media to tell us about 'the other'; a dangerous choice, but as Gogglebox shows, not one that can't be done. From hilarious best friends Stephen and Chris, who are both gay, to the wonderfully witty and gentle Siddiqui family, from Pakistan; this diversity is a great reminder that superficial differences (class, ethnicity, political outlook, sexual orientation) are heavily outweighed by that which unites us (love, fear, kindness, compassion, humour). Take the latter family's reaction to Three Girls, a dramatized documentary about the Rochdale Case. While of course "in a perfect world" this shouldn't be necessary, the father spoke about his shame as a Pakistani and a Muslim upon reading about the cases. It provides the perfect, uncontrived rebuttal to the angry pub cry of "Why don't we hear Muslim's condemning XYZ." From the Siddiqui's to the impossible to categorise Mary and Giles in Wiltshire, we're shown how difficult people are to pigeon-hole, and how inaccurate media stereotypes tend to be.

It was particularly moving to watch the Mancunian Malone family's reaction to the Manchester bombing. Two weeks previously we were treated to their father becoming uncharacteristically animated as they tested how many bubbles their Rottweiler, Dave, could catch in a minute. Last week's episode showed the mother in tears while watching the news coverage, followed by a defiant speech of unity.

The political right seems to have developed a bit of a monopoly on what is deemed Britishness, this is the sort of Britishness I can get behind: tolerant, multi-cultural, and inclusive. So, we have a show that humanizes the other, introduces great TV programs, promotes uncontrived tolerance, combats cheap stereotypes, allows us to watch families mature and grow, makes us laugh and cry, strengthens the bonds of our family ties, and reminds us of the implicit care of human nature - all in a one-hour sitting on Channel 4. My dad hasn't missed an episode since, and I find myself looking across to see him smiling throughout. I might have even seen a tear the other day. And no, the irony that I'm watching someone, watch people on tv, watching tv, has not escaped me. But then I guess that's kind of the point.

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