Wednesday, 6 April 2016

TV taught me

TV-watching today is like a competitive sport. We’re forever trying to keep up with the latest season, 'Netflix and chill' is now a widely acknowledged past time (if not an altogether acceptable phrase) and last year's Collins dictionary Word of the Year was 'binge-watch'. Staying on top of all the 'MUST-SEE' TV shows is pretty much a full time job, and the biggest cultural pariah today is he who hasn't watched Breaking Bad. More than just a way of passing the time, TV's the ultimate talking point. You might have absolutely nothing in common with someone, but you’ll always have last night’s episode of Bake Off to bond over.

But it’s not just a concern for our street cred or the fear of FOMO that keeps us tuning in. Television also happens to be the best non-culinary equivalent of comfort food. When I went to uni, my halls were like an episode of Fresh Meat gone wrong; I lived with a trainspotter, an evangelical Christian, a severely autistic 30-something physicist, a Midlands LAD, an obsessive gamer, a mute Chinese girl and a member of the Glee club who would turn out to be a paedophile. As you can imagine, it took me a while to feel at home and find ‘my people’. But before then, TV was my absolute saviour. In freshers week, I remember pinning pictures of my school friends on the wall, with episodes of Miranda on in the background, because it was one of the only things that made me feel at home. I know she's not for everyone, but I won’t hear a bad word against that woman; she helped me through a very dark time.

These days, my mum still jokes that if I’m watching an episode of 90s classic Ally McBeal, you know something’s up…because it remains my ultimate form of comfort watching. I’ve made everyone I've ever gone out with (which isn’t all that many, admittedly) watch the entire series of Ally McBeal, because if they don’t know Ally, they don’t really know me. Before she became Han Solo's wife, it was Calista Flockhart who starred as Ally, lawyer in a Boston law firm owned by a pair of oddball eccentrics, with a sex-obsessed assistant, a sassy best friend in the form of DA Renee and a lengthy roll call of boyfriends that included everyone from Robert Downey Jr to Jon Bon Jovi. As a character, she was flawed (a famous 1999 edition of Time Magazine carried her picture on the cover along with the caption, 'Is Feminism Dead?'), but as a 14 year old, that didn't matter to me.

Years of watching Ally taught me that however perfect your life might seem, everyone has vulnerabilities. It taught me that the most unlikely people can become the best of friends. It taught me (courtesy of a young Lucy Liu) that the steeliest of outward appearances can mask an inner sensitive side. It taught me that listening to Al Green is essentially a form of therapy, and it taught me that (thanks to one of the show's many amazing guest appearances) Tina Turner is a goddess among men. Never let anybody tell you binge-watching is time wasted; from the importance of friendship (as Carrie Bradshaw said, 'Sometimes it's the family you're born into, and sometimes it's the one you make for yourself') to the unbeatable magic of breakfast food (thank you Leslie Knope), there are countless lessons to be learned from the small screen.

And while TV certainly played a formative role in developing my own personality, there are some TV shows that it could be argued have shaped entire generations. Would Brits have embraced the apps that deliver dates on tap, adopting a wholly American style of dating, without having grown up watching the cast of Sex and the City and Friends meeting new people every other night? Would coffee shops be so popular if it wasn't for Central Perk? Would journalism be quite such a sought-after career choice if it hadn't been for Ms Bradshaw living off the proceeds of one measly column? Would George Clooney have become the ultimate heartthrob without ER?

More up to date TV shows like HBO's Girls might draw criticism for their insufferable characters, but the fact that it shows awkward sex scenes and flabby tummies and questionable life choices is comforting stuff for my generation, who are experiencing quarter life crises of their own. Then there's the other, non-relatable side of television. Nobody watches popular shows like House of Cards or Game of Thrones to see elements of themselves on screen. Quite the opposite, in fact; the escapism TV offers can save you – from bereavement, from break ups, or simply from the confines of your own small world.

For most people, TV's woven tightly into the rich tapestry of life. Whether it's The Snowman, The Royle Family or (like me) the Gavin and Stacey festive special, no Christmas would be complete without television. And it's programmes like Gavin and Stacey that also serve as a useful reminder that even the most suburban, unstarry lives can be entertaining. Then, of course, there's the slightly less useful side of being a tele addict. My subconscious is littered with quotes – I can't leave a hotel room without thinking 'Got the KEEEYS?' in Monica Geller's voice; when I was layering up on holiday in Iceland I inevitably thought 'Could I BE wearing any more clothes?' and come the 23rd of December, I'm likely to be wishing you a 'Happy Christmas Eve Eve', a la Phoebe Buffay.

It's crazy how through endless repeats and compelling storylines, the characters from a TV show can start to feel like a part of your life too. I have a soft spot for plenty of on-screen pairings, but far from Ross and Rachel or Carrie and Mr Big, my favourite has to be that of Meredith and Cristina in Grey's Anatomy. For me, Shonda Rhimes (creator of Grey's, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder) is nothing short of a genius. Both Meredith and Cristina are at times ambitious, argumentative, unapologetic and smashed on tequila – basically everything women are taught by society not to be. But they're also incredibly supportive of each other and share an unbreakable bond, and there's a scene early on in the show's lengthy run which captures this perfectly.

In it, Cristina's wedding day rolls around, and despite being allergic to the conventions of a white wedding and all that it implies, she's there in her ivory gown, ready to walk down the aisle for the man she loves. Except he doesn't turn up. Instead, you watch maid of honour Meredith make her way slowly down the aisle and inform the congregation that 'It's can all go home', before we follow her back to Cristina's apartment where she finds her standing in the middle of the room, striking an incredible yet desolate-looking figure in her fishtail dress.

As Cristina looks around the apartment, seeing what's gone – 'his grandmother's picture', 'his lucky scrub cap' – and realises it's finished, she completely breaks down. 'He's gone...I'm free...dammit...dammit.' Meredith wrestles to free a breathless Cristina from her tightly corseted wedding dress and as she stands there in her underwear sobbing, her best friend's arms around her, it's obvious in this moment why she refers to Meredith as 'her person'.

Where Friends had being 'on a break', Grey's Anatomy had this concept of being someone's 'person'. It's something most people can probably relate to: you're not their boyfriend or girlfriend, but they're one of the most important people in the world to you – the kind of person you don't know what you'd do or who you'd be without. Or, as Cristina puts it, 'If I murdered someone, she's the person I'd call to help me drag the corpse across the living room floor'.

I'm lucky enough to have a Person of my own. Luckier still, in fact, to have People! But I'm also not sure who or where on earth I'd be, without the soothing storylines, comforting characters and endless escapism I've encountered thanks to TV.