Things we don't admit when watching brilliant TV shows

Feature Louisa Mellor Simon Brew 7 Apr 2014 - 06:55

Who’s that? What did she just say? Wait, he’s English? Here are the things we don’t admit when watching acclaimed TV shows…

Omission makes the world go round. Without the art of keeping things to ourselves, most social interactions would disintegrate within seconds. Too much soul-baring honesty would snap the taut bonds that keep us all from running screaming through the Toby Carvery of a Sunday lunchtime jabbing family members with corn-on-the-cob prongs. We’re a tightly wound, insular people, the British. It takes court injunctions and Jeremy Kyle to prise loose our secrets.

Every so often though, it does us good to share. It’s cathartic to confess, between friends, that we’re sometimes a little bit lacking or dim. In the spirit of honesty and self-improvement then, here are the things we’d rather not admit to when it comes to watching critically adored TV drama…

We haven’t read the book/seen the film it's based on

At some point in 2011, a statute was passed legally requiring the question “Have you read the books?” to be uttered at least once in every conversation involving Game Of Thrones. Not long afterwards, the legislation was updated to include a Conan Doyle/Sherlock clause, and finally a retroactive sub-section was added specifying the response “Of course, you don’t really get it until you’ve seen The Corner” be given to anyone professing to have enjoyed The Wire.

Without having read the book, seen the original film, or watched the creator’s entire back catalogue from dog food adverts to that episode of Family Ties they wrote straight out of college, you’re just a tourist. If you haven’t devoted more time than you spend playing with your kids to finding and absorbing every extant version of this story, then can you really call yourself a fan? Can you?

TV fans don’t only get stick for not having read the social history tomes that gave us Boardwalk Empire, The Wire or Friday Night Lights, but also the trashy novel series turned into True Blood, Dexter and The Vampire Diaries. The smug cry of “Have you read the books?” transcends literary boundaries.

Join us then, as we stand up to the bullies and say, “No. We haven’t read the books. There’s loads of them. They’re really fecking long, and they haven’t got Sean Bean in them.”

We haven’t seen the Swedish/Danish original

Remakes are bad, we know this. The original, even if it’s worse, is always, always better.

Subtitled originals that leave audiences puffed up with the knowledge of being able to say ‘dead girl’ in Danish are a TV watcher’s ultimate achievement. The truly pious viewer wouldn’t even consider watching an anglicised version of a show without having speed-watched the original on DVD the weekend before. How else would they establish their superiority over noobs by sighing, “I don’t know, it’s okay I suppose, just  missing the je ne sais quoi of the Belgian version”.

We might well be missing out, but we’re here to freely admitting that no, sadly we haven’t seen the foreign language original, and nor will we, regardless of how many box-sets are urged into our hands by well-meaning friends. Why should we, when we can get by with the vague passepartout phrase “Mmm. I’ve heard really good things”.

We didn’t know its cast was British

Can you really blame us? While to a US audience, Dominic West’s vowels and Idris Elba’s diphthongs might have come out wobbly every so often in The Wire, to most UK viewers, they were simply talking American. If a show is your first encounter with an actor, and they sound roughly like those tourists who gather in groups at the bottom of escalators on the tube, who are we to know they’re faking?

I went three seasons of The Wire without knowing West was an old Etonian, assuming those perfect gnashers were the result of US dental care, not careful English breeding. The same goes for Anton Yusuf on Boardwalk Empire, Jamie Bamber on Battlestar Galactica and Charlie Hunnam in Sons Of Anarchy.

Hugh Laurie in House, Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead, Stephen Graham in Boardwalk Empire, Aidan Gillen in The Wire and Eddie Marsan in Ray Donovan, I was prepared for. (Aidan Gillen’s Atlantic-hopping accent in Game Of Thrones incidentally must have been designed like the massive fake eyes on a moth’s wings, to beguile and confuse his enemies. We suspect the showrunners would like to ask him to stop, but as it’s gone on for four seasons, it’s just a bit awkward now.)

We didn’t get the symbolism

As Freud probably never said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. Not in Mad Men it aint, Sigmund.

We doubt we’re alone in merrily skipping through episodes of Matthew Weiner’s superlative sixties-set drama, letting the story, costumes and cigarette smoke roll over us without drawing invisible lines between the characters’ psyches and motifs in the show. Only reading ponderous episode reviews is it made clear to us that Betty taking a shotgun to those pigeons was really all about patriarchal shackles, and Bobby’s wallpaper not matching up that one time was a wry comment on the Vietnam War.

Of all the things not to admit to when watching quality television drama, being blind to metaphor and allegory is perhaps the most heinous. Join us then, as we proudly shake our heads and declare, “We did not get that”.

We didn’t realise any of it really happened

We’d like to keep quiet about getting through an entire season of Boardwalk Empire before a casual Wikipedia search revealed that Arnold Rothstein, showgirl Lucy, Lucky Luciano, Johnny Torrio and a whole heap of others were based on real-life characters, and not just bit-players in a new Steve Buscemi show. Since we’re confessing stuff though, we really can’t.

The inclusion of Al Capone should really have given the game away. He was in Tintin.

We can’t hear all the dialogue

Television boxsets that don't include subtitle tracks should be sent back to whence they came. The manufacturers of said boxsets should be shamed in public, ideally with Mr Tumble providing a sign language commentary.

We've touched on inaudible dialogue in films before, but the issue is growing ever more prevalent in television too. Can we not admit that this is a problem? Especially on shows with lots of background noise - Game Of Thrones, The Wire, Parade's End, HBO's Luck - it's become harder and harder to make out quite what's being said. Catching up on a boxset binge with the subtitle track on has become a damn near necessity in some cases, just to find out what characters are saying.

On the plus side, not hearing what everyone is saying is a useful cover story for not understand what the hell is actually happening.

We have no idea who some of the characters are

It appears to be an unwritten rule that, when watching something like Game Of Thrones, you're not allowed to admit that you don't know who everyone is. Woe betide you if you then think of going online and admitting such a weakness. It's as if we're all supposed to pretend that we know our Starks from our Lannisters from the point of birth. Walking and pulling funny faces at passers by seems a secondary concern.

Yet so interwoven is the narrative of Game Of Thrones, and so much tends to be going on in just one episode, that surely we're okay to admit that it can sometimes be - shhh - quite hard to follow. That even if you miss ten minutes, the show has - mainly to its credit - no sympathy for you. One Den Of Geek writer who we won't name (it was Simon), left a two year gap between watching season one and season two, and as a result, was sorely tempted to write to HBO and demand that the characters stick name badges to whatever clothing they're occasionally allowed to wear.

It doesn't, in the case of Thrones, automatically get easier if you've read the books either. Instead, a good sheet of A3 with a full photo gallery should be a compulsory inclusion in every boxset.

Sometimes, brilliant shows can be sort of rubbish

The Lost ending.

That plot point is a bit daft

Creating storylines for quality TV programmes is a task that's thoroughly beyond us. Sitting back and watching something that oozes wonderment like The Wire is a sound reminder of our television writing inadequacies. But so cloaked in critical adulation sometimes is an excellent series, that it seems you're not allowed to call bullshit on it.

So: how about that bit where McNulty invented crimes in the last season of The Wire? For a show that prided itself on its level of research, didn't this seem to be, er, pushing things a little? The Wire is a show that used fiction to explore far-fetched ideas before, such as the 'legal' drug zone plot point. But that was used to show how innovative ideas were ultimately buried by many of the other forces - primarily politics and the media - that The Wire was scrutinising. McNulty's actions in the final season felt, well, daft. They lost that ring of credibility, in an otherwise very good final season for a genuine classic of a show.

Further evidence: the desolation of Toby in The West Wing. 24's cougar. The whatthefuckification of Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica.

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Disqus - noscript

Lost is amazing

So true! I always end up pausing and Googling characters during GoT

I still can't admit to anyone (including myself) that the Lost ending wasn't good enough. I mean, all the romance got sorted and made me cry (oh Sawyer and Juliet, finally back together). Who needs a satisfying resolution to the mythology that enthralled us so much?

Some SoIaF bookworm is going to come on and say it anyway, so I might as well now that I'm here:
The books have something like 5 times as many characters, and no faces to help you. After coping with that, remembering the characters from the GoT TV series is like remembering the cast of Dangermouse.

I love DoG but yet another cheap swipe at Lost. Can't we say that Dexter had an awful ending? Or BSG, or anything really can't live up to the hype.

As for GoT, I literally have no idea who anyone is but still watch every week.

I wrote that bit. I love the last series of Lost. Apart from the last episode. I think that's pretty much what we've said about it all along. Fully appreciate some people love it, but it's comfortably the most contentious ending in geek TV circles since this site started. - Simon

You HAVE to watch the original The Killing. it's the best show of all time! And I don't just say this to convince you. I mean it litterally. In my top10 of best show's I've seen the original The Killing is nr1. (The Wire is nr2) Don't be discouraged by the awful American remake. The original series is much smarter, much more evolving and far more impressive. If there's one thing you have to watch in your lifetime it's the original The Killing. Oh and the killer is different in the original so "I already know who did it" is not a valid argument.

Not sure I agree with the slightly snidey tone of this article to be honest. Specifically regarding the two Game of Thrones based points - I have read the books and so in order to know what I can discuss without letting spoilers go, I have to ask if the other person has read the books.

I want them to "enjoy"/be surprised by events such as the red wedding in the same way I was when I read them. There's no judgement on the person for choosing to go for the TV series over the books. In fact, I now actively recommend to people who are looking to get into it at the point that they watch the TV series first. Partly because it's quicker for them to catch up, partly because it is simpler and partly because it's simply a fantastic adaptation.

It's impossible to deny that the books do have more depth to them. It is in fact the main criticism of books 4 & 5 that they get too much into the depth and so if the TV series can turn out to avoid getting bogged down in this, all the better. But the books are also better for understanding the detail of who's who, by the very fact that they are books to be consumed at the reader's own pace with the easy option of checking back a few pages.

The TV show is a fantastic and enjoyable ride, but while it's not always easy to hit pause and work out exactly where you are, it kind of relies on you not being too bothered about being 100% on top of events. If you are the kind of person who needs to understand every detail of what you're seeing, then you should be reading the books as well.

The Finale of BSG was the best I've seen to date. Only Monster comes close to it.

GoT should come with a subtitle track, which is just the characters name floating above their head.

I didn't know Lauren Cohen was British...

I loved Lost and BSG, I even loved the ending to Deadwood!
I get very defensive over Lost though, someone has to!

Ah christ, this is the third or fourth article I've read in the last week claiming Irish actors are British. Even the Guardian are in on it with a piece they had on Mrs. Brown's Boys (Yiz're are welcome to it). Aiden Gillen was born and bred in Drumcondra, Dublin and unless he's over 92 and keeping well he ain't fecking British.

We've got lots of love for those shows too...! - Simon

Lost was, is, and always will be excellent TV. The bit where they met up in purgatory was ok by me...a bit daft and a slightly limp attempt to twist the 'flash back', 'flash forward' formula that typified the series, but fine. Also, I thought it was slightly unnecessary because I felt it took something away from what was a superb 'real time' ending on the island. As a standalone that half of the show was an emotional gut punch with no character safe.

Good old Lost.

OK. My confession. This is probably worse than saying you haven't read the source material, but I actually like the TV version of Walking Dead better than the comics - I think the characters and pacing are way better on the show. Sorry.


Actually, in some ways I agree but then again I think I love both equally for different reasons.

Do people have problems with who's who in GoT? I get that you don't know everyones name, but how every character relates to each other isn't that hard, is it?

It's not a populair opinion, but I tried the first three episodes of The Killing (the original that is!) and found it very boring to be honest. And that's not because its not in English, it was not my cup of tea.
But you're right about the American version. I watched the first couple of minutes of it in which the girl flees from the killer. Where the original one is silent and tries to hide, the American one screams in F-16 fighterplane decibels. Not so strange than that the killer finds her.

It's worth pointing that Star Trek might help "educate" viewers in how to spot metaphors :) A LOT of storylines in TNG, DS9 and Voyager involved a certain event happening at the same time as character feeling an internal conflict or moral dilemma. This approach became one of the main formulas used for Start Trek, particularly in episodes focusing on just one character.

The Finale of BSG was one of the finest moments in sci-fi TV history as far as I'm concerned. Completely satisfying-it wasn't a sappy happy ending, but it was poignant, well-shot and utterly brilliant. Aside from Unfinished Business, it remains my favourite episode (as a three-parter).

Sigh. It becomes the punching bag though. And as far as I can tell there are as many people out there who hate it, as there are who love it. It's the easy answer, but the reason it gets a reaction every time it's mentioned is because it's contested. I'll defend it forever.

Actually, the GoT blu-ray box-set has a nice feature; you can access all names (and a few lines of backstory) of people and places anytime during watching. I'm addicted to this feature. So while the point is valid, GoT box-sets was not a good example.

Still no love for the lost finale? I seem to be one of the few who liked it.

Agree with Starbuck great character....just ignore the final season.

Despite being hooked on GoT, beyond Tyrion, Daenerys, Jon Snow and Joffrey I have no idea who most of them are. They might as well all be called Bob.

I await the online slaying.

This point needs to be made more often, but in fairness he's simply cited above as a non-American and non-Brit who has done American and British accents in his two major TV roles.
It's unfortunate that it's mentioned right after the English actors though, because it does create that confusion.

The Killing is very, very good but I think it does have a few flaws. It's a little bit too long which I think led to a fair few red herrings. It was also a little monotonic, both in terms of emotion and actual visuals. When compared to something like Broadchurch (or the UK remake of The Bridge) it can especially feel a little flat and emotionless.

Minor quibbles though, it is really superb.

I have to disagree with you Inkwash on him just being cited as "a non-American and non-Brit who has done American and British accents". The section is titled "We didn’t know its cast was British". Back in the day it was easy to dismiss this carry-on as colonial ignorance or arrogance but we have the internet now and so their are no excuses for getting someone's nationality wrong, especially when there are political connotations to the error. It's just laziness and it appears to be on the rise again unfortunately.

It's the same with Marvel movies. Especially the stingers at the end of the film. There tends to be people in the cinema dotted who always feign shock to signal to others that they know what it means. I know what it means too, but I don't do it. I can't decide if it's mean-spirited or not, I kind of you-shouldn't-be-here-this-is-ours sort of thing.

Granted, perhaps I just read it that way because I already knew Gillen is Irish. Your point stands either way - getting these confused or allowing the confusion to arise is bad form.

The lost ending is awesome. you are rubbish

Aye and that's what bugs me about it, there's really no excuse beyond "I couldn't be arsed to fact check"

Technically Ireland is part of the British Isles, even though it is not part of the country of Great Britain. Technically it could be said that an Irish person bemoaning being called British, is no different than an English person bemoaning being called European, since European more often than not specifically means one from the mainland, (just as British more often than not means one from Great Britain)

Not in the slightest. The British Isles is a geographical term and one under much dispute on this side of the Irish Sea. To refer to a person as British is to name them a subject of the British Empire. Not the same thing at all.

AvatarIII you talk shit.Republic of Ireland is exactly that,a republic,a seperate entity from Great Britian,when they became independent....don't try to lecture people about where they come from

I don't think you read what I posted, and swearing was uncalled for. I never said that Ireland was part of a different country, just that it is part of a specific group of islands.

Ah, but many AoIaF readers were brought up on a diet of Tolkien, which is like a primer for memorising huge casts of characters, many of whom are referred to by at least three different names throughout.... Gandalf/Mithrandir/Olorin/Greyhame/Stormcrow/the Grey Pilgrim I'm looking at you!

Always a dangerous pastime, as I found out to my detriment when I was reading Clash of Kings and ended up spoiling the Red Wedding for myself.

Lost, BSG and many others dealing with complex stories and threads all bottled it on the final episode. Only Babylon 5, which started the novel type tv drama got it right. Fringe gets a honourable mention too.

you're okay, your name isn't Sean Bean ;)

You want the entire cast of Dangermouse...dammit man, I can't remember all 4...or 5 of them. Del Boy was in it.
Just like with Game Of Thrones. Tyrion is there more?

Yes! God I wish I had the willpower to stop reading stuff

I agree with this. I finished book 5, or 7 depending how you look at it, and got some major hassle from FB friends for posting how annoyed I was at one of the unresolved plot outcomes for one of the major characters. It'll be another couple of years before they get to actually see that, even though the writers may well take that plotline elsewhere...

I have to agree with the West Wing point, that last season arc of Toby's was just terrible.

When I watched GOT first time round I thought Renly was one of the Starks

Am I the only one who thinks it's a bit weird that we've got an article going "It's all right not to know their nationality," and someone's in the comments going - "HA! Aidan Gillen is Irish!"

I agree that it's not an error that should've made it to print, but I think you might be on the receiving end of the case-in-point, here, Gaugh... can we not take errors as good faith?

The irony of it isn't lost on me, Rob and my point wasn't just to shout "Gillan is Irish!" but rather to comment that this seems to be happening with a regularity we haven't seen since the early 90's.

Maybe so bit that doesn't make the man British as the article suggested. People need to be careful of errors like these because there are an aweful lot of people out there who will read this or something like this and repeat it.

That's fair - I can absolutely understand the frustration, if you've noticed a spate of it. As I say, totally a place to be getting the nationalities right!

“No. We haven’t read the books. There’s loads of them. They’re really fecking long, and they haven’t got Sean Bean in them.”

I'm gonna use this in future... Doesn't matter if the Film/TV show doesn't have SB in either...

Main problem with the ending: it was religious and not SF. Very nearly up to that point I hoped the writers would come up with a non-religious explanation. Since the religoius one isn't one all.

I agree that that the first season was a bit too lengthy. I think it would've been better had it been 15 episodes or 10 like the other seasons. As for monotonic. I think it helps there of you watch more Scandinavian dramas. When I first saw the Swedish Wallander series (the one starring Krister Henrikson) I was amazed at how held back The Swedish are. There is a scene in the first episode where someone tells Wallander to calm down and I hadn't noticed he was angry. Compared to Waking the Dead's Peter Boyd's usual scream fest Wallander's outbursts were barely noticeable. And the same goes for The Killing. Especially with the Birk Larsen family there's a lot emotion there. But like proper Scandinavians they hold it all back and so Theis just stares broodingly while his wife goes to do the laundry and so on. You do get some emotional outbursts but it's not as overt as it is in say Broadchurch which is also a brilliant series and nr3 on my list of all time best tv-shows. (The Bridge is also really good but not on the list)

One day people will stop giving such a s*** where they come from, and that won't be a bad day.

"We doubt we’re alone in merrily skipping through episodes of Matthew
Weiner’s superlative sixties-set drama, letting the story, costumes and
cigarette smoke roll over us without drawing invisible lines between the
characters’ psyches and motifs in the show. Only reading ponderous
episode reviews is it made clear to us that Betty taking a shotgun to
those pigeons was really all about patriarchal shackles, and Bobby’s
wallpaper not matching up that one time was a wry comment on the Vietnam

I agree with this and reading too many of those review can ruined the enjoyment of the show. Instead of getting into the story, you start thinking, how would I write a clever review? Am I missing some clever piece of editing, what does mean, why do that?

It is comforting to know that sometimes these reviews are talking b*****Ks. There was film that switched to black and white from colour. All the critics said this was very clever, inventing all sorts of reasons for doing this. Non said the truth, the film makers were short of cash and had run out of colour film.

I will confess that I tend to read the books after the film/TV series. Frankly there are too many sci/fi fantasy books, many of them are bricks and a great deal are crap.

Also I lost track of the 3 million characters in the game of throne books about 3 books ago.

"Ah, but many AoIaF readers were brought up on a diet of Tolkien, which
is like a primer for memorising huge casts of characters, many of whom
are referred to by at least three different names throughout....
Gandalf/Mithrandir/Olorin/Greyhame/Stormcrow/the Grey Pilgrim I'm
looking at you!"

At least George rr martin doesn't go in for endless genealogy and family trees. Not to mention those songs Tolkien was fond of putting in his books. Am I the only one who skipped those?

"The Finale of BSG was the best I've seen to date. Only Monster comes close to it."

No it wasn't. despite what the intro to the show said, it was clear they didn't have a plan. The show took a nose dive after they left New Caprica at the beginning of season 3.

What made it great was it was sci-fi was realistic characters, who weren't perfect and reacted in a believeable way to what was happening.

The later season got bogged down in an increasingly convolted and messy plot. While the final made no sense. They decided to move to an alien planet, throw all their tech, with the result most of the fleets inhabitants would starve to death, and nobody said this is mad, give me a ship, so we can get away from you lunatics?

The Killing is a good show, and Sofie Grabol was excellent as Lund, a ground breaking and original female character. Seeing the effects on the victims was family and the other suspects was a different take to standard British procedurals.

It did have flaws, the number of plot twists stretched credibility, it would have worked better with fewer episodes. The other problem was more than likely the way it was subtitled. The way the characters spoke often felt a bit too formal, not like real people.

Still much better than the American remake, which I saw first. That just felt a bit off, like it wasn't really set in America.

That's a fair comment. I do agree that the TV show did SOME things better than the comic. But then again, I gave up on the show, didn't bother to watch s3 yet will continue to read the comics when omnibus 3 comes out...

I skipped the songs too.
But GRRM does genealogy. Just check the appendices. Is there something about having two middle-initial Rs that makes people write lengthy background material?

AvatarIII isn't wrong about the name of the islands. It dates back to when the Romans labelled the whole archipelago off the coast of Gaul after the first island from their perspective.
But of course that does make it grossly inaccurate as a moniker for people from the Republic of Ireland. Feel free to petition a new name to the international community.

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