Tristan Cross on the small-screen joys of pre-prestige TV
Sometimes people talk to me. And sometimes they will say stuff like: “hey man, you absolutely gotta get into this new show, which is like 30 episodes that are all an hour long, but honestly dude, I binged the whole thing last night!” And I’ll go home and spend hours fumbling about trying to remember what the show was, doing my old-man Google searches like (‘new show i must watch please help’), and finally I’ll blunder across it.
And just when it seems like I’ve got everything in place to settle into an evening catching up with the most relevant event TV of the day, I’ll boot up Twitter all excited to join the Conversation, and my stomach will sink. It will sink because it turns out that since this morning, five newer and even more must-watcher shows have been released across more subscription services than I can afford. Every time I become aware of a buzz show, it’s already three series in somehow, and everyone’s already getting bored of it.
Despite knowing next to nothing about contemporary arts, my benevolent paymasters ShortList Media force me to review the latest ‘cinematic’ releases in their ‘magazine’, giving me even less time to watch all the new TV.
I. Can’t. Keep. Up. No one wants to talk telly with someone like me, someone who’s so far behind that it’s basically a spoiler for me to learn that Don Draper works in advertising. I walk up to the water cooler all like, “Woah! I can’t believe this chemistry teacher on Breaking Bad sells meth!-” and people have already spat in my eyes and gone back to discussing whatever or whoever ‘Patrick Melrose’ is.
I’m cutting my losses. I’m never going to be the guy in the office kitchen with the most insightful Game of Thrones opinions, so I’ve been going somewhere where relevancy doesn’t matter: the past.
Old TV shows are great. You don’t need to formulate a spicy hot take about Absolutely Fabulous to enjoy it today, and you don’t need to keep on top of a Frasier fan theory podcast to binge the whole thing now that it’s been added to Netflix. In fact, the best thing is that so much new telly keeps happening so often that people don’t have space in their memories to retain all the stuff they watched 20 years ago. Old telly is basically new telly.
And there’s such a phenomenal archive of brilliant stuff that it’s a criminal shame not to revisit them today, just because they aren’t getting promoted on Carpool Karaoke or being heralded as the ‘most important’ prestige telly of 2018. There’s obvious enjoyment value in getting a comforting hit of nostalgia from revisiting something from a distantly familiar bygone era. The vibrant hues of 90s colour stock, the delightfully outmoded pop culture references, the memory of watching it first time around with your mum and a TV dinner. But there’s something far more gratifying when these shows legitimately hold up, when you actually appreciate them all the more for rewatching today.
For anyone still in thrall to the tyranny of the Latest Hype Show, and desperately seeking release, here are my choice revisits:
1. Jonathan Creek
Recently, I’ve rinsed all of Jonathan Creek the campy quasi-detective series where a magician’s assistant solve murders based on his knowledge of elaborate magic tricks. It’s less whodunnit, and more how did they do it - The Prestige but a decade earlier, on ITV and with a will-they-won’t-they sexual non-chemistry between Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin.
2. The Joy of Painting
The Joy of Painting is just a guy and an easel, painting stuff and talking you through it. Doesn’t sound riveting, but it’s a real antidote to the frenetic five-cuts-a-second modern factual telly. It’s presented by Bob Ross, a man with a sonorous bubble bath of a voice. Maybe you’ll actually learn to do impressive watercolours of lakes, but more likely you’ll drift off into Bob’s seas of tranquillity.
3. Fishing With John
Fishing With John is another relaxation favourite. The ostensible premise is that Lounge Lizards musician John Lurie takes his various famous friends - Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Dennis Hopper - on fishing trips. But what would be otherwise unremarkable footage has been retrospectively edited in such a way to inject it with a drama that regularly strays into bizarre magic realism. It’s proto-Adult Swim in irreverence and tone, and soundtracked by Lurie’s own serene compositions, lending it a uniquely surreal atmosphere. Listen to the heavenly theme tune.
4. Rick Steves’ Europe
Rick Steves’ Europe has Steves travel the continent on behalf of his fellow Americans. He attempts to impart plenty of historical wisdom along the way, but it’s become a remarkable document in and of itself of the holidays that people dreamt of having three decades ago - of tourist attractions and local hotspots that no longer exist, of towns and city centres before the introduction of franchise chains turned the world into a homogenous shopping mall, of lands where the skies and seas looked almost too blue to be real. (Probably because they were deliberately oversaturated.)
5. Floyd on Africa
I’m a culinary philistine, but I’ve got bang into Floyd on Africa. The late, great perma-sozzled Keth Floyd is beguiling viewing and on terrific form. He galavants his way across the vistas of Africa, attempting to show the viewer how to recreate various cuisines, but the real charm is in just how ramshackle the whole thing is. It’s just him and his playfully berated cameraman, attempting to film in among locales distinctly not suitable for cooking. A rocking yacht, a busy jetty, the middle of a market. It’s warm, funny and occasionally sublimely melancholy. You’re not allowed to make travel docs this unpolished anymore.
6. Faking It
Finally, Faking It. I cannot believe there has been no attempt to reboot this format since. A cellist becomes a DJ, a kickboxer becomes a ballet dancer, a chess player becomes a football manager. It would be a great just for the gimmick alone, but the humanity of it elevates it to greatness.
The pinnacle episode has a sensitive and slight posh-guy become an East End bouncer. He starts extremely at having to live on an estate, but the generosity and hospitality of his mentors opens his eyes to a world he was taught to fear. A particularly moving scene sees him admit to being gay while in a stripclub, petrified that his hardmen temporary flatmates will disown him, only for them to barely bat an eyelid, slap him on the back and buy him another round. He passes his doorman test with flying colours, his mentors whooping with genuine pride, and they share a teary farewell.
Turns out there was a time when reality TV used to be about unity, not conflict, and was actually… nice?