Boxing idiots

Tv has really started to annoy me. Even the shows I like seem to have become infected by some edict from above that they must be accessible to absolute dribbling idiots.

I love Masterchef. I always have.

I loved it in the 80’s when Lloyd Grossman would walk between three kitchens in a big black studio as three amateur chefs would create their best dishes which would then be calmly and intelligently discussed between Lloyd and a professional chef before deciding who would go on to the next round. I love it now because it makes me laugh.

The calm, sophistication and dignity is long gone. Replaced with contestants visibly having mini-breakdowns or spouting hackneyed hyperbole about ‘going all the way’ and shots of the hosts watching them cook with expressions of incredulous disgust, pity and anger. When the tastings come, the hosts don’t so much discuss merits as unleash fury upon the contestants for the temerity they have displayed at having served up such crap (despite only having had 10 minutes to conceive and cook it, three cameras in their faces and the pervasive awareness that the two hosts are stood about two feet behind them audibly whispering to the camera that the food is blatantly going to be shit).

That said, I like it. Who wouldn’t? High drama and delicious looking grub. What a combination. But that doesn’t make it good.  To me, Masterchef is endemic of many problems in modern British television.

The most notable decline in standards over the past few decades has been the way programme makers view their own audience. Television has gone from addressing it’s audience to being slightly condescending to patronising and now has hit the bottom of the barrel with a splodge in which it actually constructs programmes seemingly designed for the comprehension of absolute blithering idiots. These programmes start with what is essentially a trailer for themselves.

What is Masterchef? Well, it’s a cooking competition. If you had never seen Masterchef and turned on midway through episode 3, the average human brain would recognise it as a cooking competition within probably three seconds. Yet each show starts with a little trailer that not just explains the concept but tries to hard sell it. With slam zooms into the eyes and knives of it’s average-twat-off-the-street contestants, quotable judgements from it’s presenters (eg ‘you should be ASHAMED! SWILL!’ ‘This is PERFECT, GENIUS!’), it is rounded off by the narrator issuing the non-sequitur ‘cooking doesn’t get better than this’. Is she referring to the cooking on the show – which by it’s very nature DOES get better than this as they are all plebs off the street aspiring to reach the standard of Michelin starred chefs the quick way. Or is she somehow suggesting that the television presentation of cookery doesn’t get better than this? And how does she define better? What is it being judged against?

Essentially, it means NOTHING. A bold statement of no obvious meaning designed to convince you to watch a programme that you are already watching.

We’re then treated to a montage of London and the four contestants in their street clothes pacing purposefully through it on their way to the Masterchef ‘headquarters’ which is, in itself, a ludicrous construct. Why do we need to believe that Gregg Wallace (originally enigmatically described as an ‘ingredients expert’, now introduced as ‘Masterchef judge’. Which is like saying ‘the reason he is qualified to judge on this show is because he is the judge of this show’) and Michel Roux jr have what is essentially a batcave hidden in a secret London location? As the contestants pace, enter and get changed into their whites, like a trailer for a war film, we hear Wallace and Roux bark – as if they think they are Lou Gossett Jr in An Officer and a Gentleman – about wanting the BEST and how HARD it’s going to be. You almost expect their opening line to the assembled spotty youths to feature the phrase ‘right, you ‘orrible bunch of queers and faggots, drop and give me FIFTY”. This is a cookery show.

Brilliantly, in the first round of the current series, the contestanst aren’t even allowed to cook for Roux! They’re kicked down a psychological staircase by being told they’re not even good enough to cook for the actual host of the show. One of them is sent home in this round. Can you imagine the shame of that? That’s like being told ‘we’re not just going to let you go out there and open boxes in front of Noel Edmonds, in fact, we’re going to make you compete for the priviledge and one of you probably doesn’t even open boxes well enough to waste Noel Edmonds’s valuable box-opening-watching time anyway’.

In these ‘trailers’ we get a preview of dishes and comments that we’ll see later in -as I’ve already pointed out – the show you are already watching. It appeals to the idea that the entire audience has A.D.D and must have their hand held and assured that even if you’re not enjoying this bit, you will enjoy the next bit or the bit after that. Meanwhile, those of us with brains are wondering why we’re even being assured how great it will be and told what’s going to happen since we’ve sat down to watch it anyway. In fact, some of us have switched off because the whole thing has started to seem idiotic.

Masterchef somehow places itself higher up the intellectual ladder by restricting the patronising crap to the start of the show, programmes earlier in the day are flecked with insidious little recaps to remind the brainless viewer (or the ones too stupid to catch up if they recklessly joined the show 10 minutes in) of both what has happened so far and what will definitely be happening in the future in case you don’t like what has happened so far or is happening right now. This is, of course, counter-productive as with so much recapping and previewing, casual viewers have to watch at least five minutes of the show to work out if they’ve already seen it or not, a further three minutes to work out whether they actually want to see it and a couple more minutes just to confirm they actually are watching it, not just a trailer or retrospective.

And the modern retrospective is a new and curious thing in of itself. Documentaries used to be about things that had happened but the past has been shunted up our rear ends and some kind of polls have informed programme makers that rather than learn about the past we didn’t actually experience ourselves, we prefer our documentaries to merely recap pop culture from an easily recalled period of history (say the last five years). While I was cooking last night, I watched a documentary on Ricky Gervais that had been made by Channel 4. I t was made up largely of clips from his shows (that anyone who even had a passing interest in Ricky Gervais would have seen ad infinitum) bookended by celebrities describing the clip you either were about to or had just seen. Not dissecting or contextualising. Just describing.

I had a similar experience a few weeks ago when attracted by the ‘new feature length documentary’, I bought the new DVD edition of This Is Spinal Tap. This time it was Gervais’s turn to sit in a studio and describe clips of a film anyone who had bought the DVD would presumably have already seen at least once (and if they hadn’t – it would have ruined every surprise the film contained). A parade of rubbish celebrities – Justin Lee Collins, Eddie Izzard, some rubbish twat from Kasabian just verbally recreating their favourite scenes as their favourite scenes (which were also our favourite scenes until we realised that made us a bit like Kasabian) are shown as they describe them.

This seems very representative of the modern notion of commercial documentary. The presenting of things you have aleady seen and know about. Is this aimed at anybody in particular?

I suppose so. There are doubtless legions of idiots out there who seem to appreciate that. You only have to listen to radio phone ins or the comments of those who participate in this horrible ‘interactive’ element that has emerged in modern tv which provokes the rubbish audience to not merely watch rubbish tv but add to the unrelenting rubbishness of it with their worthless rubbish opinions.

One of my least favourite expressions is ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’. Sometimes opinion is insightful and enlightening (this blog for example) but, more often than not, it is uninformed defensive drivel of which the owner has not actually thought about or understood how they came about it. The assertion of the entitlement to one’s opinion is usually the defence offered when that opinion is challenged on a factual or critical basis. I’m entitled to fart anywhere but I don’t expect that to be considered a worthy response to a debate I do not understand. Although, actually, that would be awesome.

Why can’t there be good television anymore? The documentary this weekend that celebrated Monty Python’s 40th anniversary didn’t even scratch the surface of the people or the phenomenon, yet a documentary my friend Mark recently showed me that was broadcast on the BBC 15 years earlier had, in the same running time, given you a deeper understanding and appreciation of what it was and why it was. Why can’t documentary just be an intelligent dialogue with the subjects and participants? I’m assuming that anyone watching a documentary about Monty Python is already familiar with the basic story, characters and the iconic moments – so who is this aimed at? If you are going to make a documentary about pop culture, shouldn’t you be telling the audience the stuff that they DON’T know? Filling in the gaps, revealing the secrets, giving us a greater understanding and appreciation of what we have been familiar with for decades. Am I the only person frustrated by this?

If we found a way of ressurecting Shakespeare, would we want him to explain his influences and motivations or just recall his favourite scenes from his work and tell us the order in which he wrote them.

Probably neither. I’m sure, once seated in the darkened studio under the warm spotlight, he’d just be asked which his favourite bit from Ricky Gervais’s last stand up dvd was and if he could possibly quote it for the camera.

Published in: on October 5, 2009 at 3:45 pm  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think the problem these days is that the TV execs are pandering to the “OMGI” (Oh My God Innit)generation.

    Fortunately, they seem to be a minority at the moment, but it’s noticable to me that their ranks are growing rapidly.

    There are a few in my workplace now – the sort of people who spend their lives obsessing over vacuous Z list celebrities, and texting 20 times in to whatever reality show on ITV4 they currently “love”.

    It’s scary… maybe we could round them all up and send them to the Isle of Wight, renaming it “Moron Island”?

  2. As disappointed as I was in the Python doc, I’ve since found out it’s only one part of a six hour doc. Leaving out their first film, Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes made me a tad suspicuous. I suspect that may scratch the surface and then some.

  3. So, basically, what we thought was a documentary was actually a trailer for itself?


  4. Nope, it was a manageable versison for the Beeb to show in one sitting. And I don’t think they have the rights to the full length 6 part version. It’s showing on the IFC I think. Not that that’s of much use to us Brits.

  5. Yeah, why should a 6 part doc about Monty Python show on the BBC? What claim to the beeb have over them, eh?

  6. Depends what the Beeb care about…

  7. Totally sympathise with this. One need only compare a current example of Horizon to one made 20 years ago. The modern version barely scratches the surface of a given subject, presents a simplistic and sensationalised script, is over-reliant on visual effects and insists on the constant recapping of very basic information.

    One suspects an in-depth study like Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent Of Man” wouldn’t make it past the treatment stage today.

    There are chinks of light amidst the darkness, however. Jonathan Meades’ latest series, “Off Kilter”, was genuinely brilliant.

  8. The constant pre-cap/cap/re-cap comes from American TV, doesn’t it, where there are ad-breaks every ten minutes or so, all of which are preceded by a “coming up after the break” and followed by a “before the break” – I remember noticing it particularly in a made for USA edition of Gordon Ramsay’s turn-around-a-struggling-restaurant show, and reflecting on how daft it was without the ad breaks. It seems to be just a homogenising of styles to make it easier to sell shows internationally, so for this I think we have to blame American TV networks and their combined taste for advertising revenue and lack of respect for their audience. But Jon, aren’t you guilty here of a comparable crime in criticism: substituting analysis for a running commentary on your object of attention (e.g. Masterchef) as it goes along and saying why each bit is rubbish, when surely an overview would do?

    We still haven’t finished that Python documentary…

  9. “But Jon, aren’t you guilty here of a comparable crime”


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