Behind 'Tallafornia' vulgarity lurks message of social mobility


Television may like to hack crude stereotypes out of maligned regions. But look a little closer, writes DONALD CLARKE

OLDER GENTLEMAN in tweed suit objects to vulgar pop cultural phenomenon! Stop the presses. We have a new front page.

For once, we are not talking about your current correspondent. Senator David Norris, still straddling the line between progressive and fogey, has denounced Tallafornia in the nation’s upper house. The great man described the TV3 reality show, which goes among residents of Tallaght, as a “drink-sodden programme” that encourages its subjects to “behave licentiously and compete to bring people home to bed them”. Well, it certainly sounds as if he’s seen the series.

The good people at TV3 – undoubtedly appreciative of the publicity – adopted a tone of lofty disdain. Ben Frow, director of programming, quipped: “For crying out loud, it was not made for him. He can watch Vincent Browne.” Having pondered pornography here last week, we will push the show’s promotion of licentiousness to the side of our metaphorical plate. There’s nothing big or clever about all that rutting. But Tallafornia does not constitute hardcore erotica.

The current raft of shows about badly behaved quasi-urbanites does, however, provide us with material for a consideration of contemporary attitudes to class. The evolutionary forerunners – in a chain that, unlike biological selection, regresses from high ape to trilobite – included such American shows as The Hills and The Real Orange County. But the template came together with the launch of Jersey Shore in 2009.

Few cities boast a geographical hierarchy as strict as that of New York City. For a certain class of snob, only particular sections of Manhattan will do. If you must live away from the island then (for faux-bohemians at least) easily accessible corners of Brooklyn remain bearable. But these snoots regard the good people of New Jersey – the largest part of the despised “bridge and tunnel” demographic – with an undiluted concentration of amusement and contempt. Close enough to touch, but separated by a resistant membrane, their imagined version of the Garden State offers a repository for every prejudice associated with blue-collar suburbia.

Jersey Shore played to this bias rather brilliantly. Focusing on an Italian-American cabal, the show features conspicuous swathes of bright clothing, a smattering of domestic violence and endless amounts of noisy arguing.

So successful was the series that Chris Christie, the state governor, felt compelled to point out that most of the subjects were not actually from New Jersey. Nobody cared. Television viewers throughout the world pulled on their pince nez, sat upon the loftiest stool and savoured feeling superior to Snooki and her pals.

It can’t have taken British television executives too long to devise their own spin on this class of recreational one-upmanship. Suburban Essex bears precisely the same relationship to London as New Jersey bears to New York City. It is, according to Islington legend, a place populated by promiscuous women in white skirts and van-driving thieves with Millwall tattoos. Some of the poor dears have money. But they don’t have any idea how to spend it. Just look at their frightful fake tans and hair extensions.

Towie (that’s The Only Way is Essex, Senator Norris) really is a masterpiece in its tainted genre. Launched in 2010, the show follows the lubricious, shiny adventures of a group of brash, moneyed young people from that titular county. Though still not two years old, Towie has already gifted the language certain unavoidable expressions. Before the show, only those among the pudenda-decoration elite would have recognised “vajazzle”. Now 12-year-olds can tell you what it means. Hooray! The good burghers of Kensington and Chelsea have another reason to abhor barbarians in the shires.

The wonderfully named Tallafornia does not fit the Jersey Shore remit quite as comfortably as did The Only Way is Essex. Though big enough, Tallaght, unlike Essex or New Jersey, is not some large jurisdiction whose back rubs against the city. It is a sizeable town that acts as a suburb. But, for many middle-class Dubliners, Tallaght retains even greater mystery and encourages even more fervent suspicion than Essex scares up in posh Londoners.

So, these shows are just social pornography for trivial sophisticates? Not at all. As the cast of Towie creep towards primetime television and fashion labels begin aping the styles on display, it becomes increasingly clear that their aspirational chic has itself become something to aspire towards. Most viewers adore the stars of the bridge-and-tunnel soaps.

It’s easy to deride the vulgarity of label addiction and genital decoration, but it’s harder to regret the celebration of upward mobility in contemporary popular culture.

Of course, we don’t know how “real” the subjects are. They do slip suspiciously easily into character types. But the colonisation of the mainstream by ambitious, funny, gregarious folk from unfairly maligned outer boroughs deserves at least a tentative cheer. Maybe, some senator might like to propose a debate on the matter.

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