It took until around March for me to realise that there may be some serious holes in my cultural exposure. It was just before social distancing came around. My mum, brothers and I were invited to have dinner at a family friend’s house, and I found myself sitting opposite someone my own age. So far so good. But only a few minutes of small talk in, and I realised that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to this person.
It’s like this; I’ve never been ‘big’ into TV. Sure, I went through a Top Gear phase when I was about 11, and I have 5 younger siblings who could reproduce The Lion King from memory, but at no point in the past few years have I sat in front of a TV by myself to watch something of my choice. I’m not Puritan about it, and I’m not convinced that my TV is tenanted by the Devil. It’s just never really crossed my mind.
I’ve tried to intellectualise it over the years. Upon being recommended a series I would say – instantly reverting to a sort of script that I had constructed – stuff like “there’s no genuine artistic composition, no serious social commentary, no philosophical integrity. It’s all just commoditised nonsense; hyperstimulation. It’s basically one massive strobe-light designed to sell Netflix and Amazon Prime.” In a way, I was right. But I always knew that I wasn’t arguing the point brilliantly. After all, literature has to sell too.
Back at dinner – where the air was becoming palpably oppressive – I had to pull the conversational ripcord. “Here’s a question. Can you recommend a good series?”
“The Boys”, he returned gratefully. “It’s basically a world in which the superheroes are corrupt, morally-bankrupt villains who are controlled by a super-corporation that makes money on selling their merchandise.“
That was a pretty good description – the whole thing is, in fact, just a very funny commentary on the role of morally-conscious people forced to navigate the social ills of corporatism, financial desperation, and misplaced authority.
A few more dull, ponderous weeks of lockdown later, however, and it occurred to me that there was something much more sinister at play.
See, what attracted me to literature before lockdown started – particularly fiction – was pretty standard. It challenged my preconceptions about the world. But I realise now that it has the power to do that precisely because it is – relative to The Boys, Breaking Bad, Suits, etc – undemonstrative. You can’t capture as much in a word as you can in a one-second scene, which leaves the reader with plenty of emotional room. Readerly imagination is incited by what’s omitted. Encourage me to construct and fill my own universe out of a few skeletal descriptions of characters and buildings, and I’ll be all the more stunned when you turn the entire thing on its head.
That is a more important point than, I think, most people realise. My mind couldn’t really inhabit the world that was unfolding before me. I found, as I continued watching, that I was becoming less and less jarred by each controversial event, less mesmerised by each plot twist. I could offer no natural mental resistance to events in the same way that I could with literature – the series had, in other words, lost its ability to be avant-garde.
In fact, how can we have avant-garde TV these days? If the watchers of a series can’t inhabit the world themselves – and they, like me, slump uncritically in front of a universe served ready-made – then the show stays strictly within the limits, morally and aesthetically, of what the audience can conceive. There’s none of the effort associated with literature – populating a universe with the creations of your mind, and reformulating them when the author throws a spanner in the works – but very little of that ‘earth-shaking’ artistic reward. Yes, The Boys was easy to consume, but avant-garde is about making the audience feel some natural discomfort. I won’t lie – that thought still scares me.
So Lockdown had taken me through the motions that, I guess, most people experience over a few years. I was enthralled by the wonderful new world of Netflix and Prime, and I shamefully abandoned my old anti-TV tropes. Castles made of sand fade inevitably into the sea, I suppose. I had even experienced real terror for the future of human imagination, art, and society.
But here it is: I’m just too invested now – personally and socially – in this whole series thing to quit. Besides, reading just seems like so much effort.
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