People Watching

A show where we watch people watching television, The People’s Couch is a such an amazing reality TV concept you can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. Except it has.

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Of course, the idea of doing a retrospective of the week’s TV with clips and commentary is familiar from E!’s The Soup. But while that program was about what celebrity comedian Joel McHale made of the week’s TV (and always a certain kind of bad and bizarre reality television), The People’s Couch looks at how members of the public reacted to the biggest TV shows of the week as they watched them. Even then, The People’s Couch is a re-make of a British reality series called Gogglebox. The format stayed virtually the same. In both shows, we watch reactions to and conversations about specific TV programs from different sets of viewers (families, couples, groups of friends), some of whom are regulars that re-appear each week and the rest new faces, who may or may not be seen again. Each segment centers around a particular program from the week, which all tend to be popular, new or somehow different. The featured TV viewers watch the same programs, although we don’t know if they normally do or have been prompted to (if the producers don’t rely solely on luck, I suspect the latter). We flip between different sets of viewers depending on who has the most interesting or entertaining reaction to what they see, and we get substantial extracts from the shows so we know what they are specifically reacting to. You quickly learn that you’re not alone in what you say and do while watching TV and yet the people featured continually defy your expectations in what they make of TV. But rarely do these viewers act how networks think they do and want them to.

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There are, however, some subtle changes that make all the difference. Gogglebox tries to be as representative as possible of the diversity of Britain in terms of class, race, ethnicity, age sexuality, politics and region. The People’s Couch tries to be as representative as possible of Bravo viewers, with sassy women and gay men of all ethnicities. While Gogglebox showed viewers from all over Britain (although to be fair that’s easier done in a small country), The People’s Couch doesn’t seem to stray far from the Hollywood axis that TV producers prefer for reasons of convenience and Bravo viewers like because of the associated wealth and glamour. It’s remarkable to see middle-class families on a network that tends not to care about people worth under a million but there does seem to be a class cut-off point in The People’s Couch that there isn’t in Gogglebox. However, this probably has more to do with the relative affordability of digital TV in Britain compared to extortionate pricings of cable in the US, which prevents many lower-class homes from getting any kind of extensive TV service and disenfranchises them, from participation in the national TV conversation. The voiceover on The People’s Couch is more minimal than Gogglebox (possibly due to time as the US version runs 40 minutes less than the British original), and hence we lose all the information and background we used to get about the people involved in the show. Not only do you identify less with the participants, they seem far more shallow than their British counterparts, and that’s a shame because they’re not (or not necessarily), just portrayed without depth or empathy.

It’s not as if Gogglebox ever said anything truly profound about British society, but all I really got from The People’s Couch about American TV viewers is that they’re mainly comprised of women who RAISE THEIR VOICES AT THE END OF SENTENCES!!!!! Gogglebox is primarily about entertainment, and I have laughed longer and harder at the show than perhaps any other TV program, but there were always deeply submerged anthropological nuggets that I just can’t find in The People’s Couch. It was always fascinating when programs aimed at minorities would actually alienate their target demographic or when your social profiling prejudices about someone’s politics would completely miss the mark. Gogglebox features a lot of reaction to news stories and public service programming, which bring out social and political commentary organically, whereas The People’s Couch tends to stick with entertainment, which keeps the dialogue pretty superficial. If some reflection on culture has been lost in translation, then it might have something to do with the format moving from one kind of TV network to another. Channel 4 in the UK is a commercial station with lots of reality and entertainment but still has remnants of a social conscience and responsibility it had in its early years. Bravo is unapologetically about garish reality-based entertainment focused on a small elitist sector of wealthy, privileged individuals. The People’s Couch has done a lot better in figuring out how to make the comedy of the premise work. The show at least realizes that the best material comes from those unsuspectingly ordinary families that aren’t trying to play up to the cameras rather than those who fancy themselves as reality stars.

Britain and America are becoming two nations separated by a common television, and Gogglebox and The People’s Couch manage to be radically different shows despite being the same show. Both shows have incredible entertainment value, but for the moment only the original has any worth.

reverenddejesus aka Tom Steward is a TV blogger, film and culture critic and television studies professor. You can read his blog posts at Watching TV with Americans | Whether they're on the screen or on the couch and follow his TV tweets @tvinaword.