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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