Saturday, 5 July 2014

Who are these people, and why do they all look the same?

I love my TV, and a lot of my obsessions relate to TV shows. But my taste in programs is a bit odd and very specific, for reasons I've never entirely been able to work out.  Now, I think I might have cracked it: it comes down to a mix of things like not relating to theoretically relateable characters and situations, but a big part of it is sheer faceblindness.

Photo by Pacian on Wikimedia Commons
I have a list of specific programs I enjoy and can watch over and over again, shows like The Goodies, Top Gear, Doctor Who, QI, and Dangermouse. Also the Marx Brothers' films and The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, which aren't TV shows but I've only ever watched them on TV or computer so I'm counting them. Then there's Jonathan Creek, which I simultaneously love and hate; I can watch it over and again, but find myself skipping over the long Jonathan-less scenes and the more cringey One Foot In The Grave style humour, which isn't really my thing at all.

Then there's the stuff that just doesn't interest me at all: drama and crime in particular, most sitcoms, and absolutely every soap opera ever.

Part of that is because soapies are largely about relationships.  Even though I understand and can navigate relationships a lot better now than I used to, I still find them hard work and kind of baffling.  So me watching a show full of people emoting confusingly about a series of complicated interpersonal matters is a bit like expecting an NT person to relax with a nice sheet of quadratic equations or some complex legal arguments to untangle.  Possibly while the paper's on fire.  It's just not fun.

The other part, and one that perhaps plays a much bigger role than I've ever realised in what telly I like, is faceblindness.  I've known for a while that I sometimes get guests on panel games mixed up, even when they don't really look alike at all except in the general sense of being adult human males.  Now I'm realising that a common thread through all the shows I like is characters that are very easy to tell apart.

Tim, Graeme and Bill of The Goodies not only look very different from one another by nature, but wore very different costumes as well.  The Top Gear guys each have a distinctive look. The Marx Brothers looked very similar out of costume, but in character are unmistakeable.  (Except Zeppo.  That poor guy could be anyone.)  Jonathan Creek stars Alan Davies' hair. 

Compare that to the sort of thing you get in crime shows or gritty modern dramas, which tend to feature a series of dark suits, police uniforms, white coats and little black dresses.  Is that guy on screen now that one guy from before?  Is he cheating on his wife, or is that the same woman in a different top?  Who the hell are these people?

In a discussion of standup comedy on Reddit, someone described open mic nights as "a generic mass of sweaty 20-something white male, telling dick jokes and fumbling with the microphone stand".  (That's paraphrasing, because of course now that I want to use that quote I can't find it, but that's the general idea.)   That's kind of how this feels - given that there are mobile phones out there with better facial recognition capabilities than I have, a lot of TV just starts to blur together into a big samey ball of anonymous humanity.

True stories of televisual faceblindness: in an episode of Jonathan Creek, the plot hinged around the physical similarity of two characters.  I didn't really think they looked that alike.  I still don't, even though I now know they were played by the same actor.  And when Bill Oddie shaved his beard off halfway through Earthanasia, I genuinely didn't recognise him and had no idea who this random dude was who'd just walked onto the set.  And I'm a really big fan of Bill...

...when I can recognise him.


  1. I have similar problems with movies. I don't like James Bond movies for that reason, especially older ones - they tend to cast very look-alike good & bad guys. ( I don't really watch any TV show, so I can't tell in relation to that).

    However, I'm not faceblind when it comes to real life and people I see many times (or people who have a characteristic look). For example, when I looked through old family photos with my uncle, I could immediately pick out his daughter as a child in the photos, and he could not! (he is my dad's brother ... my dad has mistitled some old family photos due to confusing me and my little brother!)

    My uncle said "You must have a really good ability to recognise faces!" and I was flabbergasted... because due to my movie issues, I considered myself to be probably not directly faceblind, but in the low-normal end when it comes to face recognition.

    1. Yes on the James Bond thing! I tried really hard to get into it, but the succession of identical men in suits and political stuff I had to really work to follow just killed it for me. I've only tried the older stuff though - Die Another Day and earlier. Maybe the newer stuff with Daniel Craig will be easier? (Or, maybe not!)

      I don't really understand how my faceblindness works, because it's so dependent on other things like context (only recognising work people at work, for instance) and whether the person's got distinctive hair/glasses/clothes etc that let me bypass the whole face thing. For a long time I'd have sworn it didn't affect me at all, but then I started adding up my long history of embarrassing mistaken identity incidents, and realised it so very does.

      I used to think it only affected me IRL not with photos. But then the other day I spent ten minutes staring at a story in the paper, trying to work out if the twins in the photo were identical or not. I'm still not sure. Honestly.

    2. :-) Yes, Daniel Craig is not a problem.

      My history has occasional embarrassing incidents, but I mostly don't have recognition problems in ordinary situations, and not at all with familiar people such as family, co-workers or class mates. With strangers, it really depends on how people look... Some people have very generic looks and just look like anyone else of the same type, others have a distinct/unique look that make them easily recognisable.

      I also think I use many contextual cues like situation, clothing style, and gait to support recognition. Actually how people move play an important role for me not only for recognition but also for understanding people. I can intuit peoples' emotions with ease when they move and I can see their whole body in action, see them interact with things and other people et.c. but when they sit down and become "talking heads" (especially if they want to talk at length), then they start to seem fragmented and meaningless, and the communication becomes very draining.

      Ps. This is mados, just using my Google ID now. The mados blog doesn't exist anymore (the ID may still work though) and I can't get OpenID to work with my new blog domain so far.

  2. James Bond movies: not for that reason only, but also because they are so fast paced, disorientating and politically complicated.

  3. This is why I'm so selective about which crime shows I do watch. I won't watch just any crime show because they're just like you describe, but I fell in love with NCIS (the original one. I hate NCIS: Los Angeles) because the characters I cared about were easy to tell apart. Gibbs has white hair and an extra-commanding attitude (beneath which lurk a heart of gold), Abbie is totally goth-punked out, Ducky is older than everyone else, British, and never leaves the morgue/lab (identification by location -- a big specialty for me. :-) )

    It's the "brainy" crime shows I like. I watch Criminal Minds even though I often struggle with figuring out who is who, just because I love the super-genius Autistic crime-fighter, Spencer Reid, and would happily watch any show that had significant amounts of Spencer in it!

    And, yeah, faces. Ouch. I have been working cash register and had my father tell me who he is because I was calling him "sir" and had no idea it was Dad.

    1. Ouch! I've never not recognised a parent, but I have blanked on cousins, aunts and the like. They're mostly people I'm not close enough to have even told them I'm on the spectrum, so they probably just think I'm a huge bitch.

      Sounds like Criminal Minds should go on the to-be-watched list... :)

  4. Ah, prosopagnosia, my old friend. I wonder if watching tv has actually HELPED you with it? ;)

    1. I don't know... I know some Autistic peeps say TV has helped with stuff like social skills and body language, but I can't say it has done for me. Possibly because I tend to go for odd, stylised things that don't translate well into reality. Maybe if I persevered with some of the more realistic stuff it'd help. But that'd cut into my watching-old-QI-episodes-on-Youtube time. :)

    2. ...just ran into an old college friend from pennsylvania this weekend here in vermont and had NO IDEA who he was...there's no help for me ;)