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.