It always seems it ought to be in quotes, doesn’t it; so much of it is every bit as staged and carefully framed as the elaborate fictions that make up our modern-day “Peak TV” landscape.
You have your major sub-genres of it – as far as I can tell, these are “Humans behave very badly to one another,” “Purposefully spectacular transformation,” and “Clash of skills” – though of course these do bleed into one another.
I’ve never had much interest in the first of these – people are quite awful enough to one another without me seeking that out on purpose – but I will confess to a bit of a weakness for a show or two here and there from the latter two categories.
I mean, even as I am aware exactly how choreographed Queer Eye probably is – surely must be, because almost nothing in real life moves through an arc that clear and direct – it’s hard to resist the appeal of the idea. The super-team of kind and clever folk who sweep in to teach a struggling person how to love themselves and live their truth…who isn’t at least a little into that?
The Great British Bake-Off presents us with an alternate universe in which everything is cheery pavilions lined with bunting and delicious-looking desserts and the very worst thing that can possibly happen to you is that a pleasant grandmotherly British person tells you that perhaps that sponge was a bit too dry.
Masterchef is ostensibly a competition based on pure skill, one where the primary appeal is watching the food being made and the hosts’ by-play. Watching people cook is enjoyable, of course; as I was once told by a tour guide in Prague “There are three things you can watch forever. The sea, fire, and other people working.” It’s true, and watching people at work is as compelling here as it is anywhere else, but unlike a normal cooking show, this one comes haunted by vague uncertainty.
How much of this is true? How much of any of this is real?
That’s just it, of course. The answer is “none of it”; despite the label we give the genre, this kind of thing isn’t a documentary even in aspiration. Reality only in the sense that what we see has the trappings of reality. The names may be real, the places. The products placed just so in the scenario are almost certainly real, whether or not the effects attributed to them are.
It’s an escape, every bit as much as the most grandiose fantasy film or the most elaborately-constructed romance. Perhaps it’s a little bit more palatable to some folks if their escape hatch of choice looks a little bit more like what they see every day. We all need the escapes, for sure; the world is dark enough. Hard enough.
Tuning in, I find myself caught up in the doublethink of it all – it’s real, it’s not real, does it matter whether it’s real? – and also a sort of vague, ill-defined shame. I’m not supposed to find anything to like there at all; isn’t it a bit like I’ve been caught devouring an entire pint of ice cream on the sofa in my pajamas? Don’t I have artistic aspirations, however poorly-defined they may be? Shouldn’t I be queueing up something a bit more challenging?
But there are plenty of days when I feel too exhausted, after the office and the household planning and management and the constant encroachment of day-to-day nonsense on every little corner of my brain, no matter how it craves to do other things.
And sometimes, on days like that, it is pleasant to look at spectacular cake.