What do you mean you don’t own a telly? You really should
Young actor Shailene Woodley committed a cardinal celebrity sin at the recent Emmys
Shailene Woodley: “I’m a reader.” Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters
There has, since the mid-1960s or so, been a special place in hell for upmarket celebrities who boast about not owning a television.
By “upmarket” I mean the sort of poets, playwrights, and academics who rejoice in not knowing who Taylor Swift is. They find themselves on panel shows and, when some controversy concerning Great British Bake Off arises, they adopt a half-smile, wag their heads and say: “I am ashamed to say I don’t own a television.”
You wear a cowl of lies, poet person. You’re not in the least ashamed. You think ignorance of popular culture elevates you above the snorting peasants who dare to wind down with Coronation Street rather than Dreams of a Hedgehog Autumn: Collected Poems 1974-2016.
The Emmys make the Oscars seem like the Fields Prize for mathematics
You wouldn’t be bragging about not knowing who Ezra Pound or John Berryman was. Would you? Huh? Huh?
Hang on. Why am I talking about this? There were a few minor scandals at the reliably tedious Emmys last week. (The TV gongs are not nearly so vulgar as the Grammys, but they still make the Oscars seem like the Fields Prize for mathematics.)
The appearance of Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary, in an unfunny variation on Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of himself single-handedly undermined all the anti-Trump bellyaching elsewhere.
Elsewhere, pound-shop William F Buckleys such as Tucker Carlson were slamming Issa Rae, African-American actor, for daring to say: “I’m rooting for everybody black.”
How would we react if a white person had said: “I’m rooting for everybody white”? I don’t know. How would we react if a white person had said: “I want to murder Tom Hanks and wear his flayed skin as a cardigan”? That didn’t happen either.
Expressing support for a perennially underrepresented minority is a different thing to bigging-up the dominant demographic. Let me write it down for you in crayon.
I’ve got distracted again. Perhaps the least of these scandals concerned comments made by Shailene Woodley. The young actor, nominated for her role in the excellent Big Little Lies, was asked which of the competing series she admired.
“I haven’t had a TV since I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18,” she answered. “All my friends who watch TV, I just ask them when they have time to.”
Students could watch pirated content, but wouldn't because it's completely illegal
Let’s stay with this part of the conversation for the moment. Anybody who has paid the slightest attention to the cultural ley lines will know that the phrase “I don’t actually own a television” no longer means what it used to.
Many are the student flats empty of any such apparatus. The inhabitants can enjoy YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, the RTÉ player and a dozen other sources of video on their laptops, tablets and smartphones. (They could, in theory, also watch pirated content, but they wouldn’t do that because it’s completely illegal.)
This cultural shift has proved an enormous headache for those charged with collecting the television licence fee. It is estimated that around one in eight Irish people now live without a TV, and that ratio gets lower among younger people.
A recent proposal to force owners of PCs to pay the licence was quickly scrapped. It would have made as much sense as charging people for going to the lavatory.
So some of the outrage that came Woodley’s way was unfair. Millions of her contemporaries stayed up to date with The Handmaid’s Tale and House of Cards (both of which debuted on streaming services) without going anywhere near an old-school television.
Indeed, it has become increasingly difficult to define what we mean by a TV programme. Emmy voters do not consider content provided by YouTube stars, but Netflix series such as The Crown make the grade without complaint. We are in a transitional phase for the medium.
The book crime
If Woodley had stopped there, she would have been fine. “I’m a reader,” she continued. “So I always read a book instead of turning on my TV.”
We’re not going to lay into her as we might lay into that ageing Irish-language poet with the multicoloured Afghan pillbox hat. (Seriously, where do they get those things?)
It is nice to see a young person expressing enthusiasm for books. She will learn to become more diplomatic. But there is a hint of smugness in her apparent disavowal of the art form being celebrated at the Emmys. I doubt she’d tell the interviewer she prefers to play Candy Crush or Tank Attack.
If talented professionals bother to write you good material, direct it with elegance, edit it to perfection and market it towards prominent awards, then it seems plain rude to reject the medium on which that material appears.
Books are great. Music is great. So is telly. That is all.