Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Say No To The Show:

Hi. Um, so it’s been a while, first off. That’s what we’re all thinking. The old blog’s been a fair bit neglected lately, and now here I am typing again for my own gratification again, apparently out of the blue. “What is going on?” you might well ask. 

Well what’s going on, boys and girls, is that I have been inspired. Roll your eyes if you like, but it’s the truth. I’m deadly serious. From once-dry earth the muse has brought forth fruit, because I have something on my mind. Something, which needs to be talked about openly. Something which has managed to infiltrate every household in the Western hemisphere. Something that has burrowed into the back of my skull like some sinister mental larvae, driving my private speculations into the realms of the obsessive. Tonight, this blog is jettisoning any former pretension of discussing the human condition, and taking a GCSE Media Studies class instead. 

So thus enthused, I would like to borrow just a few minutes of your time, to talk about a television program which has -and I feel it’s no exaggeration to say this- ruined my entire life.

And that program is Say Yes To The Dress. 

(Abandon Hope All Ye Who Watch This)

Say Yes To The Dress is a reality show airing on TLC, and it is honestly one of the most baffling pieces of broadcast media that I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. I can’t understand how someone could enjoy it. I have never watched anything where so little happens in the space of 22 minutes. I mean, in 1990-whatever, when Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David sat down with the mission brief of writing, in their words; “a show about nothing,” they couldn’t manage it. Seinfeld had a point to it, even if it was only concerned with the little things.

Say Yes To The Dress on the other hand … Well, let’s just say that Seinfeld’s failure was TLC’s triumph, because believe me when I say this, Say Yes To The Dress is about absolutely fuck-all. It’s almost like something written by Samuel Beckett, except with utterly no subtext whatsoever.

(They beat you to it Jerry.)

Ok, I’m getting ahead of myself here. So the premise of Say Yes To The Dress, (or ‘SYTTD’ if you’d prefer to wring my dignity dry) is that we view some random women filing into a Manhattan bridal boutique to buy themselves a wedding dress. They um and ah and over the merchandise for an indeterminate period, and then they pick one. 

Then they buy it. Then they leave. That’s it.  

Lather, rinse, repeat, then roll credits. Occasionally a hissy fit will break out over some perceived sartorial crisis, but moments of actual tension are pretty remote. This is the whole show, and there’s 10 seasons. I wouldn’t have thought you could get 10 minutes out of it, but apparently I’m out of touch. 1.6 million people tuned into last season’s opener. Think about that for a second. 1.6 million people had nothing better to do for twenty minutes than watch strangers go shopping for an event they’re not invited to. If that sounds like a pointless exercise, then that’s because it is. 

For those of you who have never seen it, or are unfamiliar with it, or simply prefer to forgo self-harm, I’ve included a YouTube link below to a typical episode, so you can get yourself up to speed. Watch it, and you’ll appreciate the level of inanity I’m talking about:

That episode you watched was chosen completely at random, because it really didn’t matter what particular episode I showed you. Each instalment is more or less indistinguishable from any other: if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. It’s as formulaic as they come.

Now conventionally speaking, formalism is simply an attribute of most reality TV, and in many cases a good formula becomes a real strength of the programme. If you think about the way things like The X Factor or Big Brother are put together, this makes a lot of sense. Shows like those are broadcast to the general public at a very specific time of transmission, with the intent of making the live shenanigans feel like a big event. The well-known formula involves the viewer through a familiarity of structure. It draws out the anticipation and makes you feel like you’re participating in a telly institution. Heck, drama can be formulaic; think about Buffy, or House or Friends – they all follow familiar patterns. Formulas can be used cleverly, inverted or subverted, to play with audience expectation or meta-textuality.
(It's like, deep. For real yo.)
But Say Yes To The Dress doesn’t do anything like this, because the formula is all it has going for it. The episodes are so homogenous, they can’t do anything unique. Once 'women buying stuff' is your premise, you’ve really limited yourself - the experience will be the same no matter what. Which makes me think that Say Yes To The Dress isn’t really entertainment, so much as heroin you can watch. What TLC has done essentially, is produce the exact same episode 181 times, and gotten away with it. 

If pressed to assign a genre to this show, I’d call it ‘wedding porn.’ There’s no regard paid to anything except immediate gratification. Any given episode will open with a montage of wedding dresses: a rapid-fire cutaway collage of them, paraded in front of our eyes for about a minute before anything actually happens. It’s almost ballsy how confident these sequences are in themselves. The director just blithely assumes that wedding dresses are what we’re here for, and that we’ll enjoy watching them for the sake of it. It’s unrestrained spectacle, of a style which has more in common with advertising than entertainment; as if marriage wasn’t an institution, but a ubiquitous product, much like life insurance, to be shoved down our throats. 

("Why d'you need three mirrors? Why not just turn your head?")
From there we’re introduced to our host, Randy Fenoli, the fashion director at Kleinfeld Bridal, a man who has managed to become something of an icon for this show. If I had to pin down why this was I would attribute it to Randy’s almost saintly levels of patience when it comes to dealing with rude and entitled people. Underneath Randy’s Botox injections, I see a guy with a lot on his plate. Nominally, Randy and his beleaguered staff are the only people in the show you wouldn’t hurl into a wood-chipper at a moment’s notice. 

It’s Randy’s job to sell these women a dress to wear at their ceremony, and it’s a tough gig. There’s always some seemingly-inconsequential problem barring them from actually handing over the cash. Maybe the bride’s gained weight. Maybe she’s on a tight budget and has to compromise on the quality. Maybe she’s a mother of two and doesn’t want something too provocative. Maybe she wants something to impress her husband and her dad, but can’t get them to agree, maybe the dress has to be themed, or maybe she just wants something that shows off her tits. Maybe longer, maybe shorter, less frills, more frills, without sleeves, with or without a veil: it goes on and on. Every choice is agonised over at length in a quest to find the right outfit.  
(Pictured: The Messiah.)
You see, from my limited male perspective, what to wear to a wedding comes down to one choice: suit or kilt. What either of those outfits will actually look like is entirely immaterial. But women can ill-afford the luxury of such flippancy when it comes to the bridal gown, and the show certainly does not shy away from this anxiety. Randy makes it continually clear that This Dress Is The Most Important Piece of Clothing You Will Ever Wear, and that Every Marriage Is Special, and that Every Woman Deserves To Look Beautiful. He repeats these tenets over and over again, like the newspeak of some nuptial thought-police. 

Now I’d like to make something clear. As I am now, I’m not at all interested in the prospect of marriage. This may well change. In a few years I could have a totally new opinion on it. If you ask again in 2025, I might well have a ring on my finger. But as I am now, typing these words, I’m not interested. The idea of the ceremony doesn’t fill me with any excitement, the vows ring hollow, and the whole thing just seems like a sentimental, over-expensive waste of time. Were it not an ancient tradition, nobody living today would think it was a good idea. Nobody thinks “we need some legal documents to make our love official”, without prompting I feel.
(The theme is 'whipped cream'.)
But on the other hand, I can be prompted to care about marriage, provided there’s something personal at stake. For example, two of my very best friends are now engaged and will marry in the near future: this is an event I do care about, and have a vested interest in. I will play an active role in the proceedings, and so naturally I want the event to be a success. (It’s much the same attitude I have to football: I don’t enjoy the sport myself, but that’s not to say I would begrudge others an enthusiasm for the world cup.) 

With this in mind, it’s interesting that the show doesn’t exploit emotional empathy properly, something which is particularly egregious if you recall that most of the brides seem to have been specially selected from a pool of the most obnoxious people on the face of the Earth. It tries: there’s ham-fisted music cues and slow-mo shots of teary-eyed girls, but no genuine pathos. It’s so hard to care about the plight of these women when we’ve only had two and a half minutes to know their entire life story. That’s less time than I spend in the company of the average taxi driver. It feels like having an autobiography thrown at you from out of a moving train. Just sayin’.   
(Gripping stuff right here.)
I will admit, very occasionally I’ll be roused from a stupor of total indifference by the appearance of a same-sex couple on the show.* I say this because what usually follows is a  genuinely interesting study of the way in which lesbian couples manage to manoeuvre archaic tradition and enjoy the same ceremony as heteronormative couples, without compromising on the issue of their own sexuality. These women sometimes need two dresses, both of which cater to their individual tastes and physiology, yet also compliment each other stylistically. At a time when this issue has been so hotly debated over, and the right hard-won by its supporters, it’s actually refreshing to see the minutiae of gay marriage shown so candidly and sensitively.

(From the gay spin-off; 'Say Okay To The Suit.')

But I still contend that when the unexpected appearance of lesbians is the only thing holding the audience’s attention, your programme’s format is probably doing something wrong.**

So if I had to boil down my displeasure down to one caustic criticism, then it would have to be the fact that there is simply nothing at stake. There’s no jeopardy whatsoever. The entire concept is a foregone conclusion. I mean, they’re going to buy a dress, right? If not actually on the show, then at least offscreen. A dress will be said yes to; it’s simply a process of elimination. It’s not as though there has ever been an episode where, by the end, the bride has shrugged and gone: “Well fuck it man, we can’t find it. I guess the dress I want doesn’t exist. Shit, we’ll have to cancel the whole thing. The wedding’s fucked, and I’ll have to dump Allan and move back in with my parents.” The lassie will have to wear something down the aisle, even it’s only a bin bag with a paper napkin on her head. I can’t be the only idiot to work this out.
(It would look better than this.)
It is this sense of useless routine more than anything else, which inspires the ontological tedium of ‘Say Yes To The Dress.’  TLC have told the same shaggy dog story over and over and over again for a decade. Even by the standards of your average television executive, that’s a pretty cynical exploitation of the general public’s spare time.  

And it’s not as though its content is the problem. For example, BBC 3’s ‘Don’t Tell The Bride’ is a successful reality show about the pitfalls of wedding planning. The premise is that the groom has to plan and pull of the entire ceremony single-handed, without contacting the bride face-to-face until the big day. The results are often disastrous and cringeworthy, but it’s exactly this which generates drama. There’s tension in every decision, because there’s every chance that it could all go horribly wrong, and all the while the gormless groom is running out of time and money. The show tries to ask “how well does he know her?”, which is surely a more interesting question than “what shoes go with that?” Okay, it’s not exactly I, Claudius, but it’s a start.

(A patrician's show if ever there was one.)
But the sheer laziness inherent in SYTTD puts me in the paradoxical state of being simultaneously bored to tears and also angry at the show for wasting my time. It’s not just that I didn’t enjoy it, it’s that I’m offended anyone even could. The sad part is that a bunch of suits actually sat down in room, ordered lunch, looked at a demographic of women, decided what sort of content they would enjoy, and came up with this. 

I don’t know who those women are, but I hope to god they’re as pissed off as I am. 


* And now, after the Supreme Court Ruling, this post is now officially Topical. Aren’t you glad you waded through 2000 words to get some kind of point?  

** Unless it airs on Babestation, in which case it’s what some might call a climax.