Lockdown TV: escapism, or a mirror to reality?

When I look back on the beginning of this year, I can barely believe how busy I was. My friends and family were forever recommending ground-breaking box sets to watch, all of which I figured I’d get round to ‘eventually’, but for the time being I was perfectly content watching Peep Show on a constant loop until I could recite entire episodes.

However, in late March the country came to a standstill, and millions of us found ourselves with no social lives, and consequently more free time than we could ever have dreamed of. With the world falling apart at the seams, you could be forgiven for thinking I would’ve taken a disproportionate amount of comfort in Mark and Jez’s bickering. Instead, I found myself gravitating towards more serious dramas, and wondered if there was a trend at play here.

It all started on the 26th April, when BBC Three dropped all 12 episodes of Normal People, a stunning adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel. By the 3rd May – exactly one week later – I’d already watched the whole thing twice, exhausting the soundtrack to the point where I was fully expecting a ‘u ok hun?’ from Spotify.

As it turns out, it wasn’t just me. Although viewer reactions have differed slightly, it’s not an exaggeration to say everyone I know watched it in those early weeks. I spoke to Rachelle, 25, who found the lack of communication between Connell and Marianne infuriating to the extent of being off-putting. On the other hand, Josh, 24, was much more complimentary, raving: “Normal People grapples with feelings that you didn’t even realise you’d experienced. The cinematography, the silences, the acting and the soundtrack come together to give you the most compelling window into human life and emotion that I have ever seen on screen”. Either way, BBC iPlayer reported 21.8 million viewers in that first week, signalling a resurgence in collective TV watching on a scale we likely haven’t seen since the X Factor final in 2006 (Leona Lewis’ performance of ‘A Moment Like This’ is worthy of another article entirely).

I was experiencing the quintessential Single Person’s Lockdown – living with my mum, working from my childhood bedroom, and knowing deep down that I probably wouldn’t be dating even if I could leave the house. Naturally, I was reluctant to watch Normal People out of fear that this beautiful love story would cut a bit too close to the bone. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the opposite happened; I was filled not with despair, but with hope. It gave me a context in which to process the nostalgia of first love, and come to terms with the fact that nothing will be quite like that ever again. The world won’t look the same if and when we come out of this crisis. I believe this show leaves us hopeful that the other side could somehow be better.

Another series I binged throughout lockdown was BoJack Horseman, which perhaps couldn’t be more different to the BBC romantic drama. I know a cartoon featuring an ensemble cast of animals doesn’t scream ‘hard-hitting’ – but that’s how it gets you. You settle in for a wee bit of light-hearted comedy, and instead, BoJack’s story forces you to reckon with deep questions about the nature of your own humanity and relationships with others. This feels especially pertinent in 2020, a year marked by isolation.

One of the show’s most profound quotes – ‘in this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make’ – underlines a running theme throughout the show, one which is particularly poignant in these times. It was comforting to be shown, time and time again, that while people can come into your life, altering it irrevocably in the process – they don’t necessarily have to stay forever. Pre-Covid, we were living in a world saturated with contact, but lockdown gave us more autonomy over how we choose to spend our time, and with whom. BoJack Horseman taught me to pay more attention and nurture those healthy relationships whenever I get the chance – even if, at present, they exist online. No one person can save you in a time of crisis but you can’t do it all on your own, either.

For those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed a reasonably comfortable lockdown, we’ve had the luxury of excess time. Time to process our feelings, and time to work through what we may have chosen to avoid before. As the world around us has suddenly shrunk in size; we’ve had a unique opportunity to look inward at both ourselves and our relationships, without interference. In the final episode of BoJack, aired in January of this year, Todd asks: ‘Isn’t the point of art less what people put into it, more what they get out of it?’. I bet its creators never imagined quite how much we would take from it a mere few months later.

By Gillian Reynolds