Television

Is judging psychopaths from the safety of our living rooms a way of quelling our pandemic fears? By Morris Gleitzman.

The peaks and troughs of pandemic television

Jason Sudeikis and Sarah Niles from Ted Lasso.
Credit: Apple

When we’re finally through all this, what tales we’ll tell our grandchildren – or other people’s, it won’t matter. Because all young people should know what shaped their world and which subscriber streaming services were involved.

“Call that gawking at a screen?” we’ll say to the youngsters. “You should have seen us back in the ’20s.” They’ll beg us for more. “Tell us again,” they’ll say, “about when you had to queue with other people outside the TV snack shop. And you could feel a neural pathway of mutual suspicion gouging itself deeper and deeper into your brain. And all the way home you wondered whether living with 26 million potential killers was influencing your viewing choices.”

We’ll explain how we couldn’t help thinking like that. We were victims of the common sense we’d picked up from years of watching Vera. “First rule, pet,” she told us in our early Covid dreams. “They’re all suspects ’til they’re not.”

At our place we searched every screen for reassurance and a way back to our shared humanity. Uplifting docos and Rosehaven and the kinder moments in Schitt’s Creek and even the camaraderie, amid the hissy fits and casting catastrophes, of Call My Agent. But human goodness, we discovered, wasn’t that good for us anymore. It unsettled us. Outside our drawn blinds was a world where a simple act of human kindness and closeness could leave us with a third-act tragedy of our own.

So we started drifting towards darker viewing. Peaky Blinders, Killing Eve, Ozark, Narcos. What were we looking for? We weren’t sure. The consolation of watching people, and cloth caps, that were worse off than us? Our fears being put into perspective as we witnessed behaviour even more violently aggressive, if such a thing were possible, than someone sneezing on the bus? Or just a forlorn hope that screen splatter and high-concept heartlessness would toughen us up?

You tell us, kids. Our remotes were stabbing blindly at this stage. We had a living room full of psychopaths and we didn’t really know why.

We did know we missed chats around the water cooler, where shared insights and viewing recommendations might have helped us in our quest. Okay, yes, we did have Facebook, which is the water cooler of the pandemic era, except you have to boil everything that comes out of it.

We just wanted our screens to help us not be so scared. Was that too much to ask? We were starting to think it was, even for $13.99 a month. Oh, we of little faith. We should have trusted that a global media conglomerate would know exactly what we were looking for, even before we did.

When they finally gave us Succession, it was so perfectly, ironically, generously and wisely fit for purpose that we almost wept. Because, we were reminded less than five minutes into episode one, there is no more powerful and effective way of quelling fear and panic, opioids included, than the simple act of judging others.

Thank you, Roy family. You’re beguiling, anarchic, glamorous, jaw-dropping, witty and transgressive, you have yachts with stair carpets and drink Domaine Romanée-Conti for breakfast, you cheekily evoke gratifying glimpses of your real-life inspirations, you do brilliantly all the things behoven of you as A-grade entertainment artefacts. But more than any of that, you are just so sublimely, exquisitely, global-pandemic-strength awful.

We are so grateful to you. Because since you gave us that first glorious taste of high-minded condemnation, we haven’t looked back. Our place has been a happy oasis of narrow-eyed, chortling judgementalism.

Come on down, White Lotus. Don’t forget your overpriced beach towels and pretentious holiday reading and those Louis Vuitton suitcases lined with toilet paper. Over here, Tiger King, and bring that nauseatingly sanctimonious business rival that most of us agree should be in jail with you. Tut, tut, Sally4Ever, Traitors and Deadwater Fell, we love watching you all, we really do, but honestly, have you taken a look at yourselves lately?

Ah bliss. There’s no logic to it, of course. Judging others doesn’t really make the world less scary and threatening, but for periods of between 28 and 59 minutes, if you choose wisely, it can make it feel that way.

Except, kids, there are pitfalls. I discovered one early in Mare of Easttown. Small-town cop numbed by overwork in a bigoted and grumpy community. Various men inflated by their own sense of importance – one of them, you could tell by the casting, soon to be revealed as a sexually sadistic psychopath. Plenty to judge here, I thought, snuggling up contentedly. And indeed there was. But I hardly noticed, blinded by the quality of the writing and a career-defining performance by Kate Winslet that was, only word for it, unforgettable. And I say that knowing most of us are forgetting entire 20-episode seasons we watched less than three weeks ago.

Lesson learnt, I said to myself. Be a troll-brained muck-flinger by all means, but don’t get carried away with it. Moderation in all things, including bile-spewing.

Since then I’ve tried to take a more balanced approach to my vindictive viewing. With Vigil, for example, I enjoyed full cathartic castigation of the Royal Navy for behaving in a deceitful and underhanded way not just towards Russia, but also, skelp me bawbag, Scotland. At the same time, I took note of the very clever way the writers made the whole thing essentially a lockdown metaphor with a twist. Toxic interloper threatening everyone, but the usual poky one-bedroom flat replaced by a Vanguard-class nuclear submarine. With more bedrooms, obviously, but even less space to dry washing. Canny stuff.

I went to The Great British Bake Off primarily to deplore that show’s lazy appropriation of the famous take-a-bite-and-snuff-them-out concept pioneered by an even longer running series, The Walking Dead. But again, righteous ire lost out to admiration as I watched co-host Noel Fielding use real empathy and gentle humour to revive a participant devastated by the collapse of a tiered sponge in a way that, I had to admit, just never happens on The Walking Dead.

We’ve mellowed at our place, and I’m glad we have. It would have been a shame to be still so caught up in therapeutic condescension that we missed the charms of one of the biggest Covid-era blockbusters to hit our home screens since the first season of 11am press conferences.

When Ted Lasso won all those Emmys, we gave it a go. What a joy. It won me early in the first episode, when the two college gridiron coaches from Wichita are en route to manage a London Premier League soccer club. Ted leans over the back of his plane seat to Coach Beard, who’s sitting behind him. They chat, then agree they both need some shut-eye. Ted then gives us one of the sweetest, funniest, most brilliantly conceived character-establishing moments I’ve seen. A moment in which Jason Sudeikis reminds us that even the best scriptwriting is nothing without performance.

I enjoyed almost every moment of Ted Lasso, apart from one chunk of film school non sequitur resulting, presumably, from Apple’s reportedly late decision to push the second season from 10 to 12 episodes. The rest of Ted I think about with the warmest gratitude. And yet ... and yet ... I just can’t help it. Once a temporary critic, I’m starting to fear, always a critic. Despite all the big-hearted, superlatively written pleasures on offer, I just can’t shake the nagging feeling that Ted Lasso is also about the use of humour and kindness as a manipulative, authoritarian weapon by a man in denial about his own fear and sadness.

I know, I know. I wish I hadn’t said it. Now I’ve probably infected you. Unless, fingers crossed, you’re one of the few in this era of sitting in judgement who has developed herd immunity. One day, when I tell the grandchildren about Ted Lasso, I wonder what I’ll say? I hope I manage to be fair.

You see, kids, that’s how it was in the great global streaming pandemic of the early ’20s. Just one episode at a time, wondering how it was all going to turn out. By which I mostly mean our own fear and sadness.

Arts Diary

MULTIMEDIA Dean Cross: Icarus, My Son

Carriageworks, Sydney, November 17–January 30, 2022

VISUAL ART Antonio Balletta / Jiri Tibor Novak

Queenscliff Gallery, Victoria, until November 29

INSTALLATION Phenomena Immersive

LightADL, Adelaide, until November 28

FASHION Melbourne Fashion Week

Venues throughout Melbourne, November 15–21

Last chance

THEATRE Shakespeare in the Park: The Taming of the Shrew

Araluen Botanic Park, Perth, until November 14

CULTURE Entwined: Plants and People

State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, until November 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "Carnival of schadenfreude".

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Morris Gleitzman writes books for young people.