‘Connected’ women offer the real deal when it comes to reality TV
Opinion: ‘Human behaviour explored on television doesn’t need to be sensational or controversial’
‘One of the most fresh aspects of the programmes is that it is female-led and a-stereotypical.’ The Connected cast (from left): Alanna Diggin, Nicole McQuillan, Elayne Harrington, Venetia Quick, Anna Ryan and Kate McGrew.
You wouldn’t want to be waiting around for television to do the right thing. It’s not exactly a decent medium. Conversations are rather inauthentic. You act on television, even if the conversation is “real life”. It’s all projection. And so watching television is a superficial pastime because most of the stuff on it is superficial itself.
And that’s what makes a new series on RTÉ 2 so unexpectedly good, a series where cheap gags or mediocre shock factors aren’t the currency. A series that actually means something. Connected is an Israeli format that has been exported elsewhere and the concept is very simple. Six women film their lives separately from each other. They are different, real characters, with the familiar common denominators; bravery, insecurity, relationship issues, family problems, uncertainty. Everyone is trying to find their place in the world, and nothing is quite as it seems.
You have the on-paper glam Venetia, who works for a radio station and has a familiar voice, but open the front door and her marriage is straining under financial pressure. There’s Kate in Cork, an American with a accent that Madonna might have tried when she first got to New York, and a blinking Carrie Bradshaw aesthetic. She’s a stripper, a performer, and – about time she told her family – a sex worker.
There’s Anna, the seemingly straitlaced advertising executive whose creative outlet is standup comedy. There’s Elayne, who comes across as a rather tough rapper, until her intellectualism is revealed, and her reflective nature as she transitions from being homeless. Alanna is making the move from studenty accommodation to a new house, and you might put her in that arrested development-type category until she speaks into the camera about the recent loss of her father and her family home abandoned.
IncisiveAnd then there’s Nicole, a 20-year-old with boyfriend problems, a model who might fulfil “ditzy” stereotypes apart from the fact that she’s incredibly incisive and also a law student.
It’s easy to be hard on RTÉ 2. The perception is that it falls on its face whenever more innovative or youthful programming is commissioned. But generally, that’s not what happens. What happens is, new programmes come and go and rarely make an impact. Irish lifestyle programming is slightly mindless, churned out with competent presenters to hook into new schedules whenever it can.
For “reality”, once an exciting and insightful element of television, we’re now left with sensational and ridiculous schemes, spin-offs, mind-numbing escapades of people who are famous for mind-numbing escapades, and cultural and class extremes. My Big Fat Whatevers, The Real Housewives of Wherever, Minor Celebrity’s Boring Day, Classist Exploitation, and People Fighting and Potentially Having Sex are the umbrella groups that make up much of what television bosses now call “content”.
Connected is a different something to behold. It’s so rare that television feels honest. In a world where everyone constantly maps themselves with selfies, and projects their feelings with status updates and tweets, you’d imagine that transferring that sense of confessionalism to screen wouldn’t work. But you can sense truth when you see it. And Connected is all about truths; daily lives meshed with challenging perspectives.
One of the freshest aspects is that the programmes are female-led and astereotypical. The type of female voices we encounter on television are generally utterly two-dimensional (and I say that as a television presenter). It’s so rare to hear a non-Irish person’s voice on television, a young person’s voice who hasn’t been filtered through the goofy school of presenting tropes, a working class voice. We are presented with impossible ideals and shiny female images; skinny, well-groomed, posh, expensively dressed, always delighted. That’s not real.
Cheap but not shoddyConnected’s “cast” aren’t just smart, well-cast contractions; they are reality. There is value to having alternative female voices and moving away from the hysterical, confrontational, forced emotions of contemporary reality television into something calmer, more reflective, more nuanced and thus, more revealing. Cheap television – that is to say TV less expensive than drama – doesn’t have to be shoddy. It can have depth, and it can have soul.
There is something so sweet, and so brilliant (thanks to what is clearly an extremely talented production and editing team) about real lives being told in a raw way. It’s especially welcome on a channel that has faced accusations of dumbing down or supplying cheap, light relief to the more serious and middle-aged RTÉ 1. What it does show is that Ireland has incredibly talented programme-makers, and an outlet to show them on that we should actually be grateful for. It shows that these Irish women on TV are not ideals, but loaded with contradictions and strength and ambition and fears. And it shows that human behaviour explored on television doesn’t need to be sensational or controversial. Sometimes the quiet nuances that unravel slowly provide the best drama. Otherwise known as real life.