Gogglebox - the human centipede of poplar culture
A TV show that invites us to watch people watching people on TV, Gogglebox is both fascinating and appalling.
Gogglebox is a real conundrum: it's both the nadir of modern culture and a strange kind of zenith. A show that demands we watch people watching other people on television, it is final proof that pop will not only eat itself, it will record the meal for our enjoyment.
Now in its third season on Australian TV – the British original is in series seven – Gogglebox reduces the gap between pay and free-to-air to a whisker. You can fork out to watch it on the Lifestyle channel or you can wait 25 hours and 10 minutes and watch it for nix on Ten. More than 200,000 an episode choose the former option, about 700,000 the latter.
What they get for their money or their patience is fixed-camera recordings of people on couches or armchairs, usually with a glass of wine in hand and a cushion or rug strategically placed to protect their nether regions from the probing gaze of all those viewers. But mostly what they get is commentary on the shows the 11 households have been given as set viewing for the week. It's like an OzTam survey, with pictures.
It's a tough life, being a professional couch potato. Yes they get paid for it – in chocolates and lollies, according to one cast member; in actual money, according to another; not a heck of a lot, according to the British cast, who complained in 2014 about being paid just £15 a night. Whatever the fee, they earn it.
A recent episode had them watching a doco about a woman being kept alive by a health system she wished would let her die. "That's not life to me," said Lee. "I am so sad that she just sits in this chair."
"And she's in pain, she suffers," chipped in husband Keith, beer in hand as ever. "It's just cruel."
They might have been talking about a fellow Goggleboxer, really.
What they watch is not always edifying but it is grist to the mill, providing springboards to the sometimes funny, occasionally insightful, and always verging-on-rehearsed comments that rival any Ipsos survey for a glimpse into the mind of the average man and woman in the street – or on the couch.
Logies week was something else, though. They watched the telecast, and the semi-staged cynicism and snarkiness gave way to what looked like genuine excitement because Gogglebox was up for best factual program. It won, too, whereupon 11 lounge rooms exploded in carefully synchronised roars of approval and excitement. As the producer took to the stage to accept the award, he noted that somewhere in Australia someone was asking "Who's this malaka?" Cue Anastasia. "Oh, malaka. Stick that up your jumper. We won a Logie!"
All this puts me in mind of the title (and only the title) of Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1986 novel The Assignment, which is subtitled On the Observing of the Observer of the Observed. Or, more loftily, of French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard, writing in 1981 that, "You no longer watch TV, it is TV that watches you (live)".
Gogglebox is both fascinating and horrifying. It is a portrait of co-dependency between TV and audience, a never-ending spiral of production and consumption that looks a little like the Human Centipede of TV, with its mouth locked hungrily onto its own backside.
Really, they might as well call it Gobblebox.
By Karl Quinn
This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald