Reality TV was taken to a whole new level last year with ITV’s The Only Way is Essex, which achieved unprecedented success with mind-numbing viewing. The show follows the lives of real people who tick the boxes of all the usual Essex stereotypes, and sets them up in ridiculously dull situations for our viewing pleasure. And yep, you’ve guessed it – it’s back, this time with thicker slatherings of fake tan, bigger boobs and more “shaaa aaaaap!”s than ever before.
For those of you not down with the lingo, “shaaa aaaaap” is Essex-speak for “shut up”, and is used indiscriminately by everyone regardless of age, situation or level of shock. From Mr Darcy the pet pig who gets walked on a lead and his trotters painted the same bright red as his owner’s nails, to serious considerations of getting a boob job for no other reason than it enables the woman in question to wear backless dresses without the worries of an unsightly bra strap, there’s “shaaa aaaaaps” aplenty. There isn’t a word that does this level of banality justice.
This week, Mark, the show’s handsome playboy, has resolved to get back with his long-suffering ex, Lauren, to the despair of Sam and Lucy who had both been his loved-up bits on the side. Lauren, on the other hand, is having none of it. Fed up of being treated like the dirt on the bottom of his shoe, she’s just had her tattoo of Mark’s name removed from her groin and is mid-conversation with her sister about finally being rid of such a scumbag once and for all. Suddenly Mark shows up with a gumball machine engagement ring and proposes, promising to change his ways and dedicate his life to her. Instead of running for the hills and being the one breaking his heart for a change, she promptly accepts to the utter shock and disbelief of her sister, not to mention every other person on the show.
As Mark’s family look back and forth at each other continually asking if it’s a joke, it becomes clear that they genuinely don’t know if he’s really proposed or if it’s just another TV gimmick. It’s all very well laughing at the mindless ridiculousness of the programme, and to scoff at how set up it all is, but the reality beneath the bling and seemingly harmless triviality is that the subjects are reduced to no more than money-making objects whose actions are controlled to suit the needs and desires of the programme-makers. Watching The Only Way is Essex is like watching a (very poor) soap opera, but of course such TV is a million miles away from anything resembling real life. The producers have found the most vulnerable and easily manipulated subjects who are willing to do as they are told without question, no doubt in the hope of achieving overnight celebrity status and wealth. And with demands for increasingly high-tension storylines, it’s inevitable that long-term if not permanent damage will eventually be done to their real relationships.
But what’s that? Turns out Mark spent the night with Lucy only last week? Shaaa aaaaap!