Friday Night Dinner: How scheduled TV could cater to a nation in quarantine

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It’s not news to anyone that streaming is the present and future of home entertainment – especially now that quarantine has made us even more reliant on instant video. But let’s just take a minute to think about what we could be losing if we cut our safety ties to the TV Times and dive right into the unlimited world of Netflix. Isn’t there a part of all of us that’s nostalgic for that buzz of weekly excitement? For coming home from school and waiting patiently – or not so patiently – for the next instalment of Arthur, the world’s least anatomically correct aardvark? For nights sat wide-eyed on the sofa, embroiled in an episode of Sherlock?

Whatever your daily or weekly indulgence, these are shows you can rely on, and that’s exactly what we need in this time of uncertainty. A TV schedule implements structure in a chaotic world. At a time when no one has plans save House Party gatherings, you can be the one to say those all-powerful worlds: “I have to go.” As it stands, no show is safe; in the last year ratings have even dropped for The Great British Bakeoff. But those of us who stayed loyal and watched the recent Stand Up to Cancer edition were able to revel in the luxury of actually having a commitment.

More than being consistent, scheduled TV is a social tool. As Gogglebox has proven, people like to commentate when they watch TV, to react and discuss and debate. What could be more unifying in a time of social distancing than a nationwide conversation about the same programme? What’s more, you’re at no risk of spoilers if you are watching in live time. No season finale reveals before you’ve watched episode one – unless Prue Leith is allowed near the keyboard, of course.

What’s more worrying about spoilers, perhaps, is the fact that people are consuming shows so fast. Binge-watching seems to be the norm these days: new release Tiger King: Murder, Mystery and Madness is Netflix’s new hit. But we are so used to instant gratification that some of us have forgotten the rewards of something that’s worth the wait. Scheduled TV helps cultivate a sense of self-restraint; with a show like Netflix Original Ru Paul’s Drag Race, which is released weekly, you have time to let each episode breathe and build the suspense. It even gives producers the added bonus of being able to edit a contestant out during their current season scandal. Besides, you’re missing something when you binge-watch an entire series: at a certain point, a dwindling attention span could prevent you from taking in the artistry and detail.

And on the other end of the spectrum, so much TV is made that sometimes there really is no artistry to be found. On some of these platforms it seems that the “quality over quantity” mantra has been thrown out the window in favour of releasing so much content that it takes five hours to sift through, causing “paralysis” among viewers. We don’t need 500 mediocre shows, just a few mind-blowing ones that keep us on our toes or give us a pick-me-up in the midst of the gloom. For instance, Channel 4’s Friday Night Dinner has been charming the nation by offering us the family gathering we are missing, and reminding us why we should be thankful for isolation.

Think of it like eating a cake: if you wolf down the whole thing in one sitting you won’t feel satisfied, you’ll feel sick. In the same way, viewing a show slice by slice, as intended, allows you to savour each moment – and maintain a healthy relationship with reality. As unappealing as the world may seem right now, assuming a vegetative state is unlikely to give you the comfort you crave.

Rosamund Kelby

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