Guest post by Nadia Ramoul
I’ve written about The Only Way is Essex before but feel earnestly compelled to revisit it in the light of last night’s live episode. Truly it rendered me speechless at the time, but now, following a good night’s sleep and several sobering coffees, I, like one who has witnessed untold terror, am blinking in cold sunlight, now ready to speak. Regarded by most of Twitter as ‘the worst TV episode ever,’ it needs to be seen to be believed. But please don’t try to see it.
In the two years since it’s initial inception, TOWIE has matured into a barely comprehensible clusterfuck of bronzed ladies and doleful weepy men bumbling around in sports cars. Every now and again someone will open a boutique or attempt to launch a singing career, engagements are celebrated then repealed and tiny dogs are bought as reparations for past grievances. I have seen enough shots of shaking, verge of death chihuahuas in costumes to last a lifetime. Yet somehow I cannot look away.
My love for TOWIE is strong and true, long have I marvelled at it being a perfect little piece of postmodern theatre, somewhere between reality and deception, with “authentic” relationships tempered by nonsensical set pieces. You can almost see the switch when things get real for the characters, faces distorting in rage and confusion as semi-scripted dialogue hits a nerve. It is unashamed in its content yet mysterious in its machinations, and for years I have sat, enthralled, attempting to figure out just how much is real and how much is fake.
A live show seemed like a pretty brave move considering the pretty hit and miss nature of the live format with some of the soaps who have recently tried it. TOWIE would go one better than merely a standard episode, staging a theatre “variety performance” of stilted and downright bizarre skits and musical numbers with setup conversations both in the “audience” and behind the scenes.
Last week sister channel ITV made the curious choice of airing David Lynch’s labyrinthine masterpiece, Inland Empire, a deliberately disturbing piece that offers a harrowing look at the psychological trauma of the life of an actor when reality mirrors fiction. I can’t help but think perhaps it was from here that the producers of TOWIE took inspiration: the motif of the stage itself, the comparison between performances on and off, the blurring lines between role and self. I could go on, but I assume you get the idea.
TOWIE’s live foray could have been beautiful and triumphant – Pat Sharp was there for Christ’s sake – yet it fell flat, so flat, a bloated mess of poor editing and wide-eyed confusion from an obviously bewildered cast. At points floor managers could be heard prompting characters to speak about certain topics before cutting them off completely, and, most distressing: wee little Joey Essex shed actual tears at the pressure of being cajoled into proposing on TV. Poor mite, the episode ended on his sad, lovelorn face which mimicked my own after 50 minutes of fraught televised confusion.
More Lynchian than the premise itself was a frankly terrifying performance involving a drunk woman pretending to be a ventriloquist’s dummy that got a staggering amount of air time and is now seared onto my mind forever. These skits were bookended by self-congratulatory, fluffy dialogue and the odd debate over who slept with who, though of this however, none could be sure. Characters were left to ramble at length, every now and again glancing round for reassurance like frightened deer before being inexplicably cut short. If the vertical-haired auteur himself had a hand in this exercise in discomfort I honestly wouldn’t be surprised.
My fierce affection for TOWIE and it’s bullshit balm on the mundane nature of real life has been shaken somewhat, but I don’t see this failed experiment as a harbinger of bad news. The curtain has been drawn, Oz-style, to reveal a shambling mess of bewilderment that I never want to see again, but I think it can trundle on, chalk this up to experience and throw in more shots of trembling handbag dogs for posterity. I feel now I am owed this.