Elizabeth Day: How billionaire house hunters saved my sanity

It was T S Eliot who wrote that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. He was talking about our ability to distract ourselves from the things that matter such as connection, understanding, spiritual awakening and cheese. (OK, so I lied about the cheese.)

Elizabeth Day
Dan Kennedy

What I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about was the joy of watching a marathon session of Married At First Sight Australia or of bingeing the back catalogue of The Real Housewives of New York over an empty lockdown weekend. No, Eliot wasn’t talking about reality TV. But if he was, I dare say he would have rewritten the line to state that humankind (by which I mean me) can bear a lot of reality. Not only that, but I actively require it in order to stay sane in a global pandemic.

Truly, I don’t know what I would have done without reality television. It has been my saviour, my support system, my bridge to the outside world. It has made me laugh, cry and feel less alone. It has picked me up when I was down and comforted me when I’ve been anxious. It has been better for my mental health than any number of lockdown walks, and here’s why.

At a time when truth is stranger than fiction, when we are living through a virus that has given a zombie-apocalypse feel to our everyday, my televisual tastes have changed.

I do not seek out the Scandi noir dramas of old because I don’t need to be scared any more than I already am. I eschew the comedy box-sets that everyone describes as ‘must watch’ because the laughs feel hollow. As for a dystopian fantasy film? I’m already living it.

Occasionally an exceptional drama will slip through the net (The Queen’s Gambit, for instance), but generally speaking, my happy place has been reality TV because I want to be reminded of real life as it used to be. I want my screens to be full of real people hugging each other in crowded bars. I want to watch Married At First Sight (whereby two strangers are matched by ‘experts’ and get hitched) to remind me what weddings were like and to provide a window into other couples’ arguments which makes me feel better about my own dysfunction.

I need to watch the sheer pettiness of an argument about the fortunes of a rescue dog called Lucy Lucy Apple Juicy unfold over the course of an entire season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. And because I can barely leave my house, I crave the sun-soaked holidays of Below Deck (life on a luxury yacht) and the multimillion-dollar homes in Bling Empire (rich Asians living in LA) and Selling Sunset (high-end estate agents on Sunset Boulevard).

I need reality TV because drama feels too bogus and straightforward documentary too depressing. Reality TV has the right amount of producer interference to mould entertaining storylines. It is rooted in factual, and yet given editorial pizzazz.

I’ve always loved and routinely defend it against the myth of its trashiness, but lockdown has given me a newfound passion for all that it represents. I’ve been revisiting Vanderpump Rules (the eventful private lives of waiting staff at a top-notch restaurant) with all the fondness someone else might reserve for re-reading a cherished Dickens novel. The plots are just as long-running and the personalities in question are just as complicated, funny and memorable as a Uriah Heep or a Miss Havisham. It has been inordinately comforting and will continue to be until real life stops resembling a disaster movie.

This week I’m…

Lusting after

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