the only way is out: how towie’s structured reality fell apart

[Originally written in March 2013]
 
The writer of this piece is real, although some of what he has done has been set up for your entertainment. 
 
On a recent transatlantic flight, I was delighted to see that not only could I watch some of the latest Hollywood blockbusters, but I could also relive some of the finest episodes of British television. Alongside ‘Only Fools…’ and the ‘Father Ted’ (staples of entertainment at thirty thousand feet) was a single episode of BAFTA award-winning reality show ‘The Only Way Is Essex’.
 
Having been a fan of the show since its debut in late 2010, I was curious to see which episode from the oeuvre Virgin Atlantic had picked for my viewing pleasure. After a few minutes it was clear that Dickie Branson had gone for the final episode of Series 3, notable for being the last episode which featured the perpetually grinning Mark Wright. 
 
Like Indiana Jones at the end of ‘The Last Crusade’, Virgin had chosen wisely. In terms of ratings, this episode is by far the most successful in the TOWIE’s history, grabbing the attention of over 2.2 million people when it first aired at the end of 2011. As I sat in Economy, I laughed, I sighed, and I almost shed a tear (and this was all before the in-flight meal). 
 
Mark and best-mate James Argent’s blubbery heart-to-heart, as the former announced his intentions to leave Essex, was a welcome anomaly considering the lack of emotion showed by cast members in the previous series. However, it was Mark’s eventual exit which left a scar on 21st century popular culture. Sound-tracked by a power ballad, Mark sauntered around a Fireworks party, declared his everlasting love for real-life Kat Slater Lauren Goodger, bear-hugged Arg, and simply walked off into the night like a permatanned cowboy. Brentwood jus’ weren’t big enough for Marky Wright. 
 
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Now, eighteen months and five series later, TOWIE is a dark shadow of its former, vajazzled self. The first year or so of the show was characterised by a saucy, British silliness and a noticeable helping of heart, seen when Kirk Norcross nervously walked Amy Childs around the zoo, or when Arg had a colonic irrigation and subsequently did a very cleansing poo. Moments like this were few and far between in later episodes, and there are, I think, a number of reasons that I would like to suggest for this dip in form. 
 
Firstly, a novelty of TOWIE is that it is filmed three days before its transmission date (Wednesdays and Sundays). This has some advantages, as the show can respond to public opinion, tabloid interest and whatever is trending on Twitter to create a wholly interactive and involving television experience. TOWIE is, I would argue, the modern equivalent of Dickens’ novel serialisation. Dickens was very sensitive to what his readers thought of his narratives and characters, and by publishing in weekly or monthly instalments, he could respond to what his adoring public wanted to see happen (or not). We have, over time, seen a similar practice in TOWIE. The positive public response to Joey Essex, for example, has meant that he could be catapulted from fawning wannabe Wright to arguably the protagonist of the whole show. Less popular characters, like Georgina Dorsett (Series 4) and Danni Park-Dempsey (Series 5) were lost quickly among the bodycons when the powers that be saw their lack of pulling power. 
 
This is all very good when it works (as in the case of Joey and Mario Falcone), but TOWIE is like the floor of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory; it is littered with failed experiments. Since the show’s first episode, there have been 44 named cast members, and that is before you even take into account those who did not even make it past one or two episodes. A hardcore TOWIE fan might remember staccato-speaking Greek gnomes Dino and Georgio, but I doubt they could envisage the face of beautician Paloma, band manager Julian, or Bobby, the hunk who Lydia Bright once met in a car park. 
 
Part of the reason why the makers of TOWIE can get away with such inconsistency is because everything happens so quickly. The show airs in bi-weekly slots in a five week burst, which suits the hard, fast and now tastes of the average twenty-first century telly fan. This is the Decade of the Fad: one second we are raising awareness about African war lords; the next second we are dancing to Gangnam Style; one second we think we’ve found the best American drama ever made; the next second we think we’ve found the best American drama ever made. The same is true of TOWIE. Despite running for eight series,TOWIE has only been on for two and a half years, suiting the public’s need for brevity. Much like a soap opera, the show encourages the viewer to think about multiple storylines at the same time, with the crucial difference that it only asks this of us over a short time frame. There is no long game here, as there is with ‘Eastenders’ or ‘Coronation Street’, and instead TOWIE capitalises on throwing characters and narratives at the screen and hoping that some of them will stick before the next episode in four days time. 
 
It is no surprise that TOWIE’s star is now waning, considering the pace with which it has been transmitted over the past couple of years. It was almost inevitable that the show would burn out, taking the toll from too many hits of adrenaline over a concentrated period of time. The audience has now seen Mario accused of unfaithfulness at least eighteen times, while Arg has been losing weight for so long now that even he must think that he is living in some kind of Super Mario screenshot, where he gets to the end of the screen only to find himself back where he started. 
 
If this is boring for the audience, imagine what it must be like for the cast members, who are forced to spew out the same old faecal talk because the exhausted production team have nothing else for them to do. If it wasn’t for Mick Norcross, who hosts a party in almost every episode, one fears that the cast would be tucked up indoors, melancholically discussing the weather and gas prices while watching someone else’s life on the telly box.
 
This exhaustion is certainly clear from the most recent series, currently showing on ITV2. We began with a repeat of the Mario/Lucy saga, this time with added Northern birds, and then a repeat of the Gemma/Arg ‘Fat Friends’ sequel. To fill the time before the long sleep, the other cast members have been busy selling stuff in their shops on Brentwood High Street and occasionally going on awkward silence-filled dates. It is clear that the panic stations button had been hit with the introduction of a new cast member, machine-gun-jubblied Abi Clarke. With nothing left to offer, the producers gave us massive plastic tits, which have buoyed the viewing figures to just above one million per episode (which is, admittedly, still quite good for a show in a 10pm slot on a digital channel). 
 
Mick and Kirk Norcross have recently jumped the sinking ship, realising that a whole harem of bouncing boobies will not keep TOWIE afloat. Kirk tweeted that he thought the show had ‘changed too much’. This was certainly evident at the end of a recent episode, in which Joey Essex confronted Ricky Rayment about his conduct towards the shell-like Walia siblings, Jasmin and Danny. We have, over the past few years, become accustomed to seeing an explosive argument as the climax of an episode (the die-hards among you will remember Kirk’s “you’re just a fuckin’ extra!” speech in Series 2), and it looked like the beef between Joey and Ricky was going to kick off. Yes, any minute now they are going to go mad… Just wait… Hang on, they are talking civilly. Oh… Ricky has agreed to lay off the Walias for a bit. They are now shaking hands. This episode ended with a shot of a pensive Ricky, perhaps thinking about the gentlemanly and un-dramatic way in which the ruckus was dealt with. However, such tired eyes have not been seen since Hugh Jackson was brought home in ‘Les Miserables’. Ricky looked weary: weary of the repetition, weary of the banality; and weary of the fact that, somehow, enough people are still watching for his exhaustion to continue. 
 
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Final Thoughts
 
I do not wish merely to observe the demise of TOWIE without offering some solutions or suggestions. It seems to me that if TOWIE is going to continue (a likely outcome considering the ratings), there are three things that could happen to restore faith in the show and return it to the award-winning celebration of British sub-culture that it once was.
 
First, I think the scheduling and transmission process needs to be changed. A weekly, slightly longer episode would suffice, which would give more time for planning storylines and would not result in the exhaustive overkill seen over the past two and a half years. There would be fewer storylines, fewer characters and ultimately less waste. 
 
A more daring option would be to ‘do a Skins’ and completely start again, which a new cast and new locations. Part of the reason that TOWIE was so successful when Mark Wright was on it, is that he was the top of a very clear hierarchy. Every storyline was somehow linked to him (his family, his girlfriends, his rivalries) and this meant that the show had a clearer focus and protagonist. Since his departure, both Arg and Joey have fought to be the main man in Essex, and neither has created the web of scandal that Mark left in his wake. A new cast would need a new hero, with sufficient connections to carry the show. 
 
Finally, it has become apparent that TOWIE can be at its most poignant when dealing with the world outside of materialism and phony relationships. The swift appearance of Chloe Sims’ daughter raised interesting issues about single-motherhood, while this series he have seen Joey and Frankie Essex come to terms with the suicide of their mother. Too often these real-life issues are washed over in favour of tits and scandal, completely undermining their importance in how we view and feel about the characters. Kirk’s inferiority complex and Arg’s blatant misogyny are two more issues that could be dealt with in subtle yet educational ways. I am not calling for TOWIE to become a kind of new-age ‘Grange Hill’, but if the public become bored of the fakery, then one option is to create the kind of warts-and-all programming that we used to call ‘reality television’. 
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