It says something about the times we’re living in – and the television landscape in recent years – that sometimes the boldest, most ambitious choice a broadcaster can make is to back an intimate, domestic drama or comedy.
For years, television has become more and more reliant on special effects and pyrotechnics to attract and hold a viewer’s attention. Big budget shows like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things have dominated the news cycle, the dragons and monsters getting bigger and better each season.
A show like My Brilliant Friend (from the same broadcaster as Thrones) is dazzling and heartrending, but its narrower focus on a small community in Naples means it’s often been overlooked in past years.
Even if shows aren’t strictly fantasy, they seemingly have had to include grand scale plotlines in order to attract widespread attention.
Succession, highly acclaimed and one of my favourite shows, is ostensibly about a family, but it still sets out huge stakes that, it’s implied, would affect the global economy – all while set against the backdrop of helicopters, penthouse suites, exotic locations, and all the other trappings of the designer-heeled 0.1 per cent. The domesticity is there, but so is the voyeurism.
But ever since lockdown began, viewers’ telly habits – and tastes – have abruptly changed. We don’t need to watch stranger-than-fiction, life-and-death scenarios play out on-screen; we don’t need dragons when we have a global pandemic.
Lockdown has forced many of us to slow down and reevaluate what is important. Just as – surprise surprise – it turned out that healthcare workers and cleaners are keeping this country afloat, so too did we realise that it’s connections with friends and family that we value most.
Hollywood can keep their flesh-eating monsters (and equally horrifying mash-ups of celebs warbling along to ‘Imagine’). In the midst of a pandemic, everyday lives and relationships take on new poignancy. There is enough life-and-death drama to be found in the day to day.
Instead of flash special effects, we’ve been turning towards nostalgia, to shows that provide some modicum of comfort, or else that hold up a mirror to our own lives. Normal People, probably the biggest hit to come out during lockdown, is exactly what it says on the tin: an examination of so-called normal people, two ordinary teenagers who fall in and out of love. There was nothing remotely flashy about this series, and yet it ended up breaking records for BBC iPlayer.
ITV’s Quiz, too, was gobbled up by viewers over consecutive nights – there’s something to be said for having an audience that’s always reliably at home by 8pm. And the only special effects the show used were the roving spotlights inside the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire studio.
Now there’s Staged, the BBC comedy that stars Michael Sheen and David Tennant playing exaggerated versions of themselves. I won’t spoil it for viewers, but I will say that what starts off as simply a light-hearted show about two theatre luvvies rehearsing a play over Zoom slowly morphs into something far more thoughtful and touching, as the dangerous reason behind the lockdown strikes close to home.
Screenwriters don’t need bells and whistles to tug on viewers’ heartstrings – sometimes all it takes is a tearful phone call between two friends.
The BBC is also reviving Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, including two brand new monologues. Nothing could be more intimate and domestic than watching a single character sitting on their bed, or on a sofa, and just talking to the camera.
Yet the fact that the BBC has amassed such a starry slate of talent – Jodie Comer, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Tamsin Greig, Sarah Lancashire, to name a few – suggests that they’re not only invested in the show, but that they expect viewers will tune in.
If you had told me this time last year that a monologue series would be event telly, or that I’d be publicly waxing lyrical about such comforting golden oldies as The Vicar of Dibley and Poirot, I’d have laughed.
Around this time last year the world was still reeling from the final season of Game of Thrones. It was far trendier for journalists to write about mythical lore than, say, a failing marriage, or a dispute between neighbours over bins. When it came to TV, newer and stranger were always better than familiar.
But times have changed, and the nuances and subtleties of everyday life are being re-explored – helped along, of course, by the necessity to downsize cast and crew during a lockdown. And I for one am glad of the change. Who needs dragons?
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