My co-dependent relationship with daytime TV
spiked-TV: How I got lured into that twilight world of white trash-baiting and gay conformism.
You would think that being stuck at home following an emergency operation on your back, which left you with a flesh wound that required cleaning (ouch) and dressing by nurses on a daily basis, would be its own punishment. But no. Having spent the past two weeks in that very state I now know that there’s no stay-at-home ailment so bad that it cannot be made worse by having to endure daytime TV, that twilight zone of white trash-baiting chat shows, hocus pocus dressed up as lifestyle advice, and endless ads for loan shark companies posing as the saviours of cash-strapped workers. Never have the stresses and strains of working in the Big Smoke seemed so attractive.
It’s no good saying, ‘Well why did you watch it if it’s so bad?’. There is something about having no choice but to spend day after day indoors that draws you into what daytime presenters would call a ‘co-dependent’ relationship with the box. It wasn’t long before I had read the six unread books on my bookshelf, and discovered that checking for email every 20 minutes does nothing to increase the likelihood of receiving anything worth reading. So before I knew it I was hooked on everything from tabloid hack Matthew Wright having unheated political debates with bottle-blondes (male and female…) to the Tyra Banks Show, which makes Oprah look like the Open University.
The rowdy UK discussion programmes that try to emulate Jerry Springer – The Jeremy Kyle Show on ITV1 and Trisha, now on Channel Five – clearly must scour the country to find people so sad or obnoxious that they can make even the sick, depressed and unemployed (and students) who make up daytime’s viewing audience feel good about themselves. So Kyle brings on a vacant bloke from up north who slept with his fiancé’s sister while his fiancé was pregnant (I think that episode was called ‘I Slept With Your Sister While You Were Pregnant…But Please Take Me Back!’) and we dutifully boo on cue. I saw an episode of Trisha in which young women (also from the north) who wanted to be ‘the next Jordan’ were invited to parade around in swimsuits while the audience said things like, ‘You ain’t got a hope in hell, love, not with a face like that!’. It’s a bit like a two-minute hate that lasts for 30 minutes against sections of ‘white trash’ Britain.
But it’s hard to feel sorry for the guests, or should that be contestants? They know what they’re doing and some seem to revel in the anti-adulation. One guy told Kyle that he came on the show so that ‘I could be shouted at by you, Jeremy!’. Behind Jeremy and Trisha’s pretensions to be TV counsellors to the nation, in fact these are the modern equivalent of gameshows. The contestants come on, answer some questions about their personal lives, get booed if they answer incorrectly, cheered if they answer correctly, and all of them go away with the consolation prize of backstage counselling – the daytime equivalent of the Blankety Blank cheque book and pen (only, you suspect, even more worthless).
My tip to future contestants on The Jeremy Kyle Show and Trisha: the correct answer is always, ‘Because I’m a slime bag. I’m sorry. I was abused as a child. Please help me.’ The wrong answer is: ‘Well that fat cow is cheating on me too.’
The contestants on the American, and original, versions of these shows (available to view on various cable channels) are generally better at getting the questions right. An episode of Ricki Lake (Living TV) called something like ‘I Shoplift For Kicks…And I Teach My Kids To Shoplift Too!’ (boooo!) had one woman who had been nicking stuff from shops for over 10 years. She was a nasty piece of work; as she admitted, she didn’t need to shoplift (she had a job and a house) but she liked it, and she used her kids in the daily endeavour by putting goods in their coat pockets or underneath her baby in its pram. And yet she got the prize question right – ‘Why do you do this?’ ‘[Sob] Ricki, I’m an addict [sniffle], this is compulsive behaviour, I need help’ – and went away with the top prize: Ricki’s respect and some professional help.
The interesting thing about the American versions is that the hosts play this game, too. Unlike Kyle, who is smarminess personified and constantly bangs on about how much of a perfect family man he is, US presenters will parade their wounds for applause. Ricki Lake assumes her authority to lecture her guests because she used to be fat and then she wasn’t so fat and now she’s a little bit fat again – ie, she has struggled with personal hardship. Even Tyra Banks, the beautiful black model turned multimillionaire TV exec and host of The Tyra Show (Living TV), shows up her flaws: in an episode about race and identity she told us, with moist eyes, that she wears a hair weave because when she was a child ‘mainstream society’ drummed it into her that her ‘nappy, afro hair’ was not attractive. See? Even tall, stunning, straight-haired Tyra, with her own TV company, isn’t so perfect. You know victimhood is fashionable when Tyra Banks has to point to her wig as a symbol of her personal struggle against oppression; she even ended by quoting Martin Luther King, who must have been spinning in his grave.
Then there’s Oprah (ITV3), still the undisputed queen of all this nonsense. In a programme about money problems she brought on a well-heeled suburban family who give their kids credit cards when they turn 16 and encourage them to buy their own stuff, like cars, nice clothes, CDs, etc. You might think they have no money problems, but you’d be wrong. Oprah diagnosed them as suffering from ‘stuff-itis’ (she said it as if it was a real illness, recognised by doctors across the modern world) and said they were ruining their children by not teaching them the true value of money. The perfectly pleasant mum and dad and their two polite and handsome children were berated by Oprah and her slavish audience for being fickle, greedy and self-destructive. It made for deeply uncomfortable viewing. The message was clear: in America, you don’t have to be fucked up to be fucked up. Who needs to wheel on the white trash when everyone is a loser?
Elsewhere in the daytime schedule, superstition masquerades as scientific fact. On Matthew Wright’s The Wright Stuff (Channel Five) there was a segment on green alternatives to washing detergent, toilet cleaners and deodorants. I could barely believe it when the ‘expert’ declared that using a lemon to freshen your armpits is preferable to using spray-on deodorants because they can cause cancer. What?! I had to switch over when Wright said he had been using some kind of lemon-based deodorant for the past few months and invited the expert to sniff his pits. On This Morning (ITV1), Fern Britton and Philip Schofield flit between discussing how to make the perfect meringue to offering advice on coping with grief without batting an eyelid. You know that daytime TV is a parallel universe when someone like Amanda Platell, who seems to pop up on everything, is treated as an ‘expert’.
What made me laugh is that on some of the cable channels such as Living TV – whose entire schedule is made up of daytime TV, even in the evenings – you can watch programmes like Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy at 11 in the morning, presumably with your toddlers if you want to. Remember when these programmes were discussed as if they were radical, injecting mainstream straight TV with some much-needed queer culture? Watching them now, you realise how dull and conformist they are, and how well they sit in the daytime sea of lifestyle lecturing and white trash-bashing. There’s a thin line these days between daytime and gaytime. And if yesterday’s radical evening shows can become today’s bland daytime fare, it doesn’t say much for the state of primetime TV either.
Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.
In spiked-TV last week: Neil Davenport on Life on Mars.
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