A year of TV bingeing

by Martin MacConnol – Mar 18, 2021

The Oscar nominations have been unveiled this week and they come just before the anniversary of the lockdown in the UK.

The two events got me wondering. I’ve watched more this year than ever before but what has had me glued to the box in the evenings? Are there any patterns?

Some of my viewing list does appear in the Oscars line-up. In the best documentary category, there is the wonderful, My Octopus Teacher. My wife suggested this pretty early in lockdown and I thought “this is going to be a dull evening”. But how wrong can you get? It’s a documentary which makes you appreciate the wonder of our world without banging a drum about sustainability or climate change.

At the Best Picture end of the spectrum I’ve just watched Mank, but like its parent, Citizen Kane, I don’t get all the hype. People say Kane is the best movie ever made but you need a degree to appreciate its sophistication compared to, say, the effortless Casablanca. Similarly Mank felt like a movie designed to appeal to movie buffs: content that is just a bit too clever.

Beyond the Oscars shortlist (and do watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for the performance of the leading actors, both nominated) the shows that have hooked me have been series rather than films.

A few years ago we talked at Wardour about the rise of episodic content. 2020 has been its coming of age. For me, the two-hour film format is often too long for a single sitting at home, and yet not long enough to bring characters to life or tell a story in real depth.

My lockdown began a year ago with Tiger King. In 20 years’ times Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin will still be indelibly linked to the pandemic for me. Also on the documentary front I was gripped by Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. Neither shows were about likeable people, but both brought to life huge personalities and their impact on others.

In the world of make-believe, my go-tos have been a mish-mash of genres. During the bleak days of the late autumn and winter, I wanted pure comfort and found myself sucked in by the soapy Virgin River. That surprised me. It is the TV equivalent of a candle-lit bath. Sometimes we want content that is just easy.

There were also a lot of polished US crime and psychological thriller series in the mix. Many of them were created by, and centred around, strong female leads: such as Nicole Kidman’s courtroom drama, The Undoing, and Reese Witherspoon’s Little Fires Everywhere. And in the UK, who can forget Normal People? Totally gripping without much actually happening – apart from a lot of sex.

Being honest though, beyond these three the rest have largely merged in my mind. There is so much content these days that it takes work to stand out.

Inevitably, it is easier to remember things watched recently, but I suspect The Terror would have stayed with me for a long time anyway. It’s a Ridley Scott special: Alien but set on Victorian ships trapped in the ice, with an additional topping of historical insight and a 21st century mental health perspective. Genius.

Or again, in a seemingly very different genre (and yet with many overlaps, such as mental health and the supernatural) Behind Her Eyes provided a final twist that genuinely caught me by surprise, something which is hard to do these days as we all consume so much.

Looking back at the list, do they have anything in common beyond the fact that Netflix made most of them? Of course they do. They are all about compelling characters rather than special effects (the baffling Tenet). And within that they are all focused on bringing personal stories to life – even the personal story of a brave octopus. They all connect with our emotions.

And that is what makes great content, whether it is a TV series, or a corporate content campaign. People engage with the human. We may be impressed by the artifice, the technology, but what we care about are gripping stories.

Published Mar 18, 2021

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