High brow vs low brow: trash tv analysed

At this year’s Golden Globes, the superficial Netflix show Emily in Paris was nominated for two awards whereas the hard-hitting, poignant drama I May Destroy You was snubbed. This led many to question how a soft, trashy show was able to triumph where one of the most important shows of recent times dealing with rape and consent was left in the dust. 

With trashy TV becoming the highlight of the week during the UK’s many lockdowns, The Leopard asked Goldsmiths students about their viewing habits. Have they become more simplistic during quarantine and is there anything wrong with indulging in trash TV? 

Emily in paris

Emily in Paris is the story of an American who moves to Paris for a job. Upon her arrival in Paris, Emily’s American boyfriend immediately breaks up with her because he can’t handle long distance, and, after some initial difficulties, she starts enjoying her newfound single life in the city of love. 

The Independent claims that anyone who speaks French, has been to France, or has seen a picture of the Eiffel tower will not enjoy the show about Emily, who is described as a “manic pixie nightmare”. I May Destroy You, on the other hand, is considered “a TV experience like no other” by the same publication. Deborah Copaken, a writer on Emily in Paris even wrote in The Guardian that I May Destroy You should have been selected by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for an award instead.

Nevertheless, the show was nominated in two categories, Best TV series (Comedy or Musical) and Best Actress in a TV Series (Musical or Comedy) and became an internet sensation almost overnight. Is this a sign of the times? Has quarantine turned us all into trash TV enthusiasts?

Enthusiastic Optimism

It can’t be denied that Emily in Paris is a good distraction from the pandemic and everything else going on in the world. There is that sense of progress in the show, a naïve, but contagious optimism. The viewers know that even though (almost) everyone in Paris hates Emily at the start, she will make friends, fall in love, find her place in a city that seems to be designed for her and her explorative spirit. And at a time where our lives might feel stagnant and uneventful, but somehow stressful at the same time, this notion of constant evolution, of an upward trajectory littered with small and big milestones can bring some comfort. 

A change in viewing habits

When talking to Goldsmiths students, I was surprised to find out that only two of them seemed to share the internet’s obsession with Emily in Paris. Nevertheless, there were some other guilty pleasure shows people talked about. Seven out of the ten people I asked said that they’d noticed a change in their watching habits, and for most of them this meant turning towards more lighthearted, guilty pleasure-type movies and stories. Only one person said that they’d started watching more serious movies and series since lockdown started.           

The joys in easy entertainment

What do students like about this form of lighthearted entertainment? People said those movies and series are good for the soul and good for relaxing. One person told me they preferred to watch more gentle shows at the moment, which I thought was a really nice way of putting it. With so much suffering, global crises, uncertainty and looming threats, it feels good to spend some time in an easier, idealised world. 

Another person responded that despite the shallowness, those movies and series are still a form of art because they evoke emotions and thought. And I fully agree. Sometimes it’s the trashiest of trash TV that offers surprising insights about the human condition and gets to the heart of complex emotions. 

Immersion

Original illustration by Susie Felstead

When it comes to lockdown entertainment, there’s also the immersive nature of some shows and movies that makes them so attractive (and maybe addictive). Someone told me how they bonded with the characters in the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, which were the only people they’d see for days at a time, apart from their partner. This shows that series and movies are an important part of people’s lives and can sometimes even be a stand-in for having a social life, especially when going outside to meet people isn’t really an option. The person said they’ve found solace in their lockdown entertainment and immersing themselves in fictitious lives. “The characters become a part of our life, we identify with them and they almost become a friend who’s familiar to us” they said. 

But there’s also a possible negative side to this. Does binge watching make us lose contact with reality, which encompasses our problems and struggles, but also “real” social interactions and friendships? They went on to say: “I feel to an extent our minds don’t know the difference between lives lived out in front of us or lives lived out on a screen.”

The dangers of ambient tv

“Ambient TV” is a term that refers to shows that can be on in the background all day and don’t keep you glued to the screen, but still manage to provide some sort of entertainment that keeps you from turning them off. “The purpose of ‘Emily in Paris‘ is to provide sympathetic background for staring at your phone, refreshing your own feeds—on which you’ll find ‘Emily in Paris’ memes“, wrote author Kyle Chayka in an article for The New Yorker

While I’m all for watching trash TV and doing so without any guilt, this made me feel a bit uneasy. Despite seeming light, the addictive side of ambient TV shouldn’t be underestimated. It almost appears to be more dangerous than gripping shows or movies because we don’t recognise its addictive quality. What happens when we succumb to this Netflix (life)style of streaming shows and movies where we switch from one episode or film to the next, and the next, only to come to at 3 am, slightly unsettled and irritated and blinded by three different screens? Is it possible to “mindlessly enjoy mindless shows” without completely disconnecting from real life? 

A 2021 study by academics Jia-Ji Sun & Yen-Jung Chang links binge watching to mental health issues. It suggests that people engaging in problematic binge watching (which is determined through a set of six questions) are more prone to depression and social interaction anxiety. On top of that, they have a higher risk of experiencing loneliness. Binge watching can create a vicious cycle. It is often used as an escape from negative emotions and depression, but it is through binge watching that these issues are reinforced. The authors suggest that with binge watching as an easy escape, people tend to use less adaptive coping strategies which are generally more helpful in dealing with mental health issues. 

Apart from that, the “media multitasking” that comes with ambient TV can have a negative effect on our cognition. A study about the “online brain” describes how multi-faceted streams of information make us more inclined to engage in “attentional-switching” as opposed to being able to focus on one specific task and ignore external triggers. 

Original illustration by Susie Felstead

One student addressed this trend of turning towards the same kind of content all the time, of watching shows that you know will make you feel good and don’t challenge you in any way. They said that it’s important to still seek out other genres and filmmakers during lockdown, to stay open, explore different forms of entertainment. In other words, to work against the algorithms of streaming services and regain a sense of autonomy over our media consumption.  

Escapism is real

What I realised through hearing other people’s thoughts and reflecting on my watching habits is that lighthearted, trashy shows are definitely a popular form of entertainment during lockdown. Do they have a positive effect on our wellbeing? Are they a good form of self-care or actually harmful for our mental health? I don’t think there are definitive answers to these questions and the impacts certainly depend on individual watching habits.

Entertainment not as a mirror for society, but as a form of escapism, in different ways. Some people appreciate feel-good movies and period dramas with good plots that offer an alternative to our very real and often difficult lives. Others seek out ambient TV in all its simplicity, this magical thing that allows us to turn off our minds, to not think for once, to just consume mindlessly. 

However stupid some of the shows of the past months have been, it can’t be denied that they have brought many people through lockdown and will probably continue to accompany us as London is opening up. Instead of demonising them, maybe we can just think about how to escape in a “healthy” way and consciously choose shows or movies instead of letting the Netflix algorithm decide. In the words of the British fantasy author Terry Pratchett; “Escapism isn’t good or bad in itself. What is important is what you are escaping from and where you are escaping to.”