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4 images sit together in a grid, each taken from a different Hit TV show. Ghosts, Two doors down, Mythic Quest and Motherland. Images show cast lined up for photos some are wearing Christmas festive gear. Two of the images are inverted to create a ghostly quality

Learning to love the Xmas Specials

Looking ahead to Christmas I’m excited about quite a lot of things. Oddly for me, I’m quite excited about watching TV with my family. I anticipate every family Christmas with heaps of joy. I love lying on the carpet at my parents house, chatting and bursting into laughter when my mum cheats her way to win the card games. However When the record needle lifts and someone taps the TV remote instead, I tend to feel disappointed. 

Oh Christmas TV. I don’t love the Bake-Off Christmas jumpers, or the heartwarming snowman animation. Secretly, I desire to watch an episode of something really chimes with the melancholy and absurdity of life in the UK. A show with grit. Surely this year our family can curl up on the couch to see a drama that bubbles under the surface? Give me experimental to break the inertia- a game changer show. I’ve been called pretentious before, and that’s fair enough.

Well this year, I’ve thought a little more about TV and a whole lot more about the time I want to spend with my loved ones. The result is I guess I’ve had a change of heart. Though to perform this change of heart I have to be cynical a little along the way. 

The thing is Festive TV is great for escapism. Shows at this time of year do their best to kid on that they depict the present moment. Caricatured but never realistic, the present condition reaches its pinnacle in the Sitcom Christmas special. In past years: Gavin and Stacey, Only Fools and Horses, Still Game etc. These all rely on the the uncomfortable torchlight of cringe. 

Is cringing really enough for a cultural critique of 2022? Well to a certain extent maybe. Because in cringing we reflect on how inadequate our attempts have been to reform society so far.

Ghosts is a BBC sitcom show that summarises re-formation fairly well. A young-ish couple move into ‘Button House’, the dilapidated country manor (i’ll save you the backstory). The twist is that its halls and rooms are haunted by ghosts. Not only this but each ghost is a conventional character from different eras of history; A caveman, An Edwardian noblewoman, a failed Romantic poet, a Conservative MP who is trouser-less throughout. Oh and there is a special broadcast episode of ghosts this coming yuletide.

For a pre-watershed show it is pretty good, and I should admit at this point that I actually quite like sitcoms. The basis of the sitcom is the situation, the household or the workplace. And the characters thrown together gives the situation some drama. 

The Characters of GHOSTS, are stuck in the present. They find change difficult. Even death has suspended them for eternity to one location and one stereotype. The writers found an easy way to rehearse good old class conflict as they try to live together in a ‘house-share’ arrangement. It offers a fascination but never quite grasp of Britains own ‘horrible histories’. 

In many ways the Christmas specials are a ghostly apparition of their own. Our screens are doubly haunted not by reflections from recent decades but by bringing back casts into dialogue about events of this year. It feels too early sometimes to reflect just yet.

Familiarity with characters is one of the guiding principles that keeps these shows predictable. Here are some other familiar, comforting principles of any sitcom entertainment:

  1. The characters can’t relate they are dysfunctional. Example: woke teenagers vs conservative parents. A maniac self entitled wisecracking boss vs his diverse workforce who just want to get the work done and go home.
  2. Drama is achieved through obstacles thrown into the mix: A physical problem emerges and the characters must unite to solve it. (E.g: No turkeys left in the supermarket)
  3. Everything on-screen takes place within 48 hours or less.
  4. The problem is overcome and the resolution means characters appreciate each others differences.

Can we predict what kinds of story resolution, ITV, BBC or Channel 4 might go for this year? Perhaps, a family home raided by border patrol officers, and unlikely neighbours arriving to prevent the eviction? I doubt it. More likely to soften our hearts we will hear dialog about nostalgia for pandemic era mutual aid. 

If I seem cynical it’s because I am. TV producers, writers and network execs moderate at all costs. They think they know what is feasible to the mainstream audience. To be fair to them the tactic is often to water down, and occasionally sneak something subversive through. You need only think of the UK Sitcom the office. This is the nature of mainstream.

This December, many of us will be gathering in a neutral place. My guess is that it will not be a haunted manor house, more likely the family most ready to make their space habitable to others. The hosts must be willing to take the hit on the energy bills, or defrost their pipes in time. Elsewhere my friends will certainly be trying to make their own space habitable just for the couple of days in order to forget about work. During the festive period we become a mainstream audience.

And here’s what’s peculiar about this Christmas we have an inkling of what’s to come ahead in 2023 as crises are already underway. And because of this, I certainly don’t want to be pacified by middle of the road traditional entertainment. But at the same time, I desire it more than ever. Since it at least avoids arguments amongst loved ones.

We could suspend our disbelief that Christmas TV will be worth watching. And watch it together? One alternative would only be to force our new network consumption habits onto others in our family.‘hey skip The big fat quiz of the year, cuz there’s this documentary series about cults and taboo practices, shall we stick that on?’. Doing that would be knowing its a lead balloon in the room, and recognising you have gotten into some peculiar niche stuff during the pandemic. 

Our consumption habits are a signal that a new age of telly beckons. Broadcast TV is on the way out. I mean TV ’beaming’ into our living rooms and all other living rooms on our street. We all know it and we know where our attention is going. I am gradually replacing the ‘beam’ for the ‘stream’ as they say. Subscription networks: HBO, Amazon, Netflix Apple, Disney etc have set the agenda. And now it looks like our traditional channels will follow the model.

Depending on what you enjoy, what Streaming Networks sell to us, feels like expensive pick and mix. A sort of ‘taste the difference’ bag of sweeties. We do love it and we chew away the cost until we no longer afford it or simply swap to another subscription. Or brush our teeth by reading a book. 

And personally I love it too, I love searching for something to watch just for myself. My final hour of the day I treat my overstimulated eyes by putting my phone away. Then I watch something I have selected, I’m not required to sit down until I’m ready. 

White Lotus, the Handmaids Tale, Wednesday… all of these have been marketed to me as diversity of choice. I know in fact, I am being offered a narrowing of my own tastes. I commit to 10 hours of a season over a fortnight. I don’t turn on the box on a Sunday afternoon and watch the last 30 minutes of a western. I tend to seek pleasure not by stumbling into an encounter with the strange or unexpected anymore.

If you don’t agree that mainstream TV is dying off. Try this: sit down the bus on a Monday morning and spark up a conversation about last night’s thrilling, edge of the seat TV moment.’ Can you believe McGregor was just murdered in cold blood, even just after he’d begged for forgiveness!’

Chances are the your fellow passengers would just look at you confused. That’s even if you hum the TV theme music.  

There are exceptions. the world cup final or Harry and Meghans Netflix documentary might be recognised. But face it. We are all watching different TV stuff, if we even think of it as TV at all. As recently as 2017 hours spent watching traditional broadcast TV were the majority at 73% In 2022, it has fallen to 53% and expected to be 49% next year. It has years left not decades. 

As someone interested in a sense of collective experience I have wondered if this cultural turn worries me? Yes, there’s something to grieve. However, this Christmas may provide a chance to experience the dying embers of collective experience through broadcast mediums. Sometimes when a medium is on the way out, sparks will fly as its creative producers try new things. Might this happen with the 4 traditional channels?

If Scotland’s future is to take culture seriously, then we do need to think about how we empower cultural sectors, both independent and mainstream. In film, theatre, architecture, exhibitions all of it for all our sakes. We need a cultural moment which might provoke a vision of the future. I don’t mean a depiction of the future a la Dr Who. I mean culture that at its best feels like the leading edge of innovation. And at its most challenging can reflect to us something of the reality of the ideologies under which we live. 

I’m determined to let Christmas TV wash oversee to see how it feels on the other side. I wouldn’t say no to the most exciting alternative at all: grabbing my family and a sledge and all heading for a big hill. But in the absence of snow, I promise to enjoy the middle ground, the moderate show that pleases everyone. I’m determined not to call out the fake smiles of the strictly come dancing judges. Or to dissect the hidden ideology of the period drama. And just enjoy the experience as an endearing, badly-acted antidote to 2022. Yes I will learn to love the sitcom Christmas special, I may even get teary.

Listen cultural critique isn’t my strongest point, i was trying to be light hearted here. I’d love to get proven wrong about what is and instant good TV, so feel free to make suggestions of what was ‘worthy’ TV this festive period in comments below

Authors note: For a slightly less cheery take on these cultural issues I can’t recommend enough the late Mark Fisher’s book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures.

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