TV without the words

About four times a week I go to the gym on my way to work. In the gym I use various machines. Many of them face towards a row of large TV screens, which hang from the ceiling. These TV screens show a variety of channels, usually including BBC1, ITV, Channel 4, MTV Hits, and either Sky News, or, more recently, some Sky sports channel. Being fussy about what goes into my ears, I bring my own music-making machine — OK, OK, it’s an ipod — and headphones. But it’s hard not to be drawn to the flickering lights of the screens, when you’re pounding away on some tedious cross-trainer programme. So I spend more time than I would like watching TV without the words.

I remember reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat at school. If my memory is correct, one of the essays involves a patient who cannot understand / hear what is being said on TV by a prominent US politician, but who is convinced from his looks that he is lying. As a result of my gym time, that is pretty how I feel about all TV now.

Without the words, and with the ability to pan across a couple of news channels, and some entertainment shows at once, what is most striking are the grotesque smiles which seem to be compulsory. If the early morning magazine shows can trip lightly from the latest movie release, to bombings in the middle east, to what you should or should not be wearing, it’s only because all the presenters have to show no emotion at all about anything: only the gift-wrapped grins of the gormless. To pretend that all this stuff is the same is just lying about it.

That the news agenda is driven by what footage is available is a cliche. It’s also obviously true. More insidious, however, are the way shots are framed. Day in, day out, I see bombed-out cars, houses or general wreckage. Filling the frame, even the smallest attack can seem like monumental carnage. The fleeting moments in which a camera pans, or before the zoom in, are far more telling, and far more evocative. Because they show us everyday life in what could be a European country going on around, they strip the report of the exoticism routinely attached to the warzone, to the disaster area, to the mysterious and veiled East. Then we’re back to the twerps on the sofa.

It also means there are shows which I’ve only ever seen without the words. King of Queens, I can report, is about a fat bloke with a menial job and an enormous house, and the two sluttish women who seem to harass him for no particular reason. It has George from Seinfeld‘s screen dad in it. It has no jokes. Obviously. It comes on after Everybody Loves Raymond. At least in this case, I think I’m benefiting from not being able to hear what’s going on. And oh yes, the same chuckling fools are on here as on the news channels, the same hooker-aesthetic for sitcom women as for the ones on the music videos.

Recently we’ve had the wrestling on a lot. Everything about it is fake, from mock news-reports and tearful hospital-bed weep-a-thons to the ludicrous preening of the muscle men, and the repetitive pseudo-violence, — with the possible exception of the apparent enjoyment of the craven, braying audiences — but here no-one cares, and no-one pretends otherwise. (So perhaps the joke’s on me, for even expecting there to be truth on TV?) Made for idiots, and with storylines that are easy to follow even without the sound, this is probably the most honest show of the lot.