A powerful TV series draws us into the lives of others. But are we all a little too connected?
A young woman fights with her boyfriend about a text message. Another cries while thinking about her dead father. A woman who works as a sex worker gets a bag of scones from a client.
Connected, the new, raved-about reality series from RTÉ, follows the self-documented lives of six brave, likeable, different women. It’s compelling, addictive, sometimes poetic television. There is some artifice here – it’s a deftly remixed and sountracked reality. But after years of blunter manipulations, watching people in natural lighting speaking directly to camera feels weirdly intimate.
This might look like a new evolution for reality TV, but it’s actually a return to an earlier iteration . The video diary was a sweet-natured format born in the 1990s that featured ordinary people talking directly to these new-fangled video cameras. This was subsequently overtaken by brasher styles – scripted reality shows featuring the demonised poor or reviled rich, medical freak shows and ritualised talent contests where the sociopathic, dim-witted and deluded danced for pennies.
More recently, however, the fickle public are growing tired of “reality’s” grubby manipulations. They crave reality again. Reality programmes are now competing to be the most “real”.
The Voice pitches itself as purer
than The X Factor. The Great British Bake Off is, in its garden fête loveliness, more authentic than Britain’s Next Top Model.
And Connected has an aura of truth absent from Southside Housewives.
Connected also reflects and takes inspiration from a much bigger social experiment. Since the first video diaries, millions have started documenting their lives on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
We know ridiculous amounts of information, not just about TV stars, but about one another. If I follow you on Facebook, I know about the antics of your children, the way the light falls on the trees outside your house, and what you randomly remembered about Rick Astley last Tuesday night. All these ordinary bits of experience were once the ingredients of “a private life”.
Yes, being private isn’t just about not tweeting your pin number and the location of your hidden house key. It’s also about the boring details – the things that are precious to you, dull to strangers and worth money to big data companies.
One consequence of being swamped by other people’s experiences is that we crave purer doses of reality and start associating emotional rawness with authenticity. Whereas once deep feelings were a rarity on television, in recent decades that’s changed.
More recently we’ve formalised emotion into a dubious equation: public revelation followed by tears = catharsis. This expectation even underpins a show as good as Connected.
The participants all tell the camera things they might struggle to tell those closest to them. Alanna Diggin speaks heartbreakingly about her father’s suicide but resists counselling. Kate McGrew, who last week informed her mother she’s a sex worker, worries about being spun as “the girl who’s getting f***ed”.
I don’t think any of them are f***ed. I think they’re brave and are, at best, educating people, eliminating shame and fostering empathy. It appeals because our pasts are filled with repression
One consequence of being swamped by other people’s experiences is that we crave purer doses of reality and start associating emotional rawness with authenticity
and guilt. But there is a difference between being open and proud and living with an audience. Connected is brilliant TV, but it’s also rooted in emotional voyeurism and the suggestion that going public is like going clear.
Maybe when there are no private thoughts or enterprises, we’ll live in a happier world. But I think that our happiness depends on keeping some things for ourselves because our precious life experiences, mundane or dramatic, are not going to be treated so carefully by the strangers they entertain.
To quote the excellent Elayne Harrington in yesterday’s episode: “Be careful of my heart, you motherf***er.”