Saturday 24 February 2018

Reality bites: the decade of TV fame and fortune

The noughties saw the explosion of reality television and Z-list celebrity. Oh, there was some good drama too, says Joe O'Shea

James Gandolfini, left, Steven Van Zandt and Tony Sirico, right, members of the cast of
James Gandolfini, left, Steven Van Zandt and Tony Sirico, right, members of the cast of "The Sopranos."
Ricky Gervais as David Brent in the programme 'The Office.'
Simon Cowell, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh ahead the 2005 series.

It may not have seemed so at the time -- but it could be that we will soon look back on the Noughties as the last golden age of Network TV. It was just before the real arrival and dominance of social media and on-demand streaming sites such as Netflix which have radically changed our viewing habits. In the early-to-mid noughties, there was no such thing as "Binge-Watching" and most kids were still glued to the TV rather than YouTube videos or iPlayer-type sites on smart-phones, tablets and lap-tops.

Event viewing dominated and the top shows still created Water-cooler moments, where you would patiently wait until work the next day to discuss the big dramas, reality shows or comedies, rather than broadcast your thoughts, real-time, to Twitter followers or a multitude of Facebook friends.

Yes, there was a time when you would watch a show like 'Downton Abbey' or 'Graham Norton' without simultaneously tapping away on your smart-phone or laptop.

If some hapless celeb was chowing down on kangaroo rectums on 'I'm A Celebrity' (which debuted in August, 2002), it didn't instantly trend on Twitter (which started in 2006 but didn't really catch on in Ireland until the end of the decade).

The Noughties was the decade of Reality TV and high-concept, lavishly produced dramas.

'I'm A Celebrity', 'Big Brother' (first UK series, C4, May 2002) and 'The Osbournes' (MTV, March, 2002) started the huge craze for unscripted TV, following the adventures of Ordinary Joes or various C-List celebrities given another shot at fame.

'The Osbournes' in particular was a game changer, making stars of Sharon and Kelly and creating a new genre of TV, where omnipresent cameras would just follow the day-to-day lives of minor 'slebs, turning some, like the Kardashian klan, into global stars, simply famous for being famous.

In more high-brow TV, critically acclaimed American dramas such as 'The Sopranos', 'The West Wing' and 'The Wire' revolutionised the genre. There was also 'Sex And The City', which empowered a generation of women to buy cup-cakes and ridiculous shoes.

Here in Ireland, we had our own stab at the reality TV genre with the ill-fated 'Cabin Fever', a Big Brother style show set aboard a sail boat cruising around Ireland. RTE said it was unsinkable, but 'Cabin Fever' went the way of the Titanic (literally, the boat sank).

Pat Kenny captained our flagship chat show, 'The Late Late', throughout the noughties, only handing command over to Ryan Tubridy in September 2009. It was all not so very long ago.

And if you remember The Noughties, you will remember shows such as:

The Office Ricky Gervais was a comedian going nowhere on TV (it was Ali G -- pictured below -- who became the breakout star of Channel 4's 'The 11 O'Clock Show') when he teamed up with Stephen Merchant to create 'The Office'.

It was not the first "mockumentary", a style where cameras follow "real people" in a mundane setting, lobbing in the odd question. But the simple premise, a boring office full of unhappy, dysfunctional staff, and a brilliant character in the truly awful boss David Brent, was spun into comedy gold.

The original UK version was first broadcast on BBC2 on 9 July 2001 and almost instantly became a phenomenal hit, giving us the "Cringe Comedy" genre. The show ran for just 14 episodes, two series of six and a memorable, two-part Christmas special. It spawned many international versions, the longest of which, the US, has run since 2005.

Reeling in the years It started off as a schedule-filler in late 1999 -- but over the coming decade, this nostalgia-fest, featuring the news events and music of each year from the start of the 1960s, won a special place in the hearts of Irish Viewers.

The series was voted "most popular home-produced TV programme ever" in a poll of Ireland's Top 100 television programmes run by the RTE guide in 2008.

The Wire Together with 'The Sopranos', this tale of cops, drug dealers and the deeply dysfunctional US city of Baltimore is often held up as the greatest TV drama of all time. It ran for 60 episodes over five seasons from 2002. 'The Wire' made stars of English actors Dominic West (McNulty) and Idris Elba (Stringer Bell) and ushered in an era that was social-commentary as well as fiction. And together with 'The West Wing' and Tony Soprano, gave us the rise of the Box Set.

Cabin Fever It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Take nine Irish guys and girls, put them on a sailing boat cruising around Ireland and stick in a load of cameras to film it, 'Big Brother' style.

RTE were planning to broadcast it over eight weeks starting in early June, 2003. But just two weeks into the series, the show ran aground, literally, when, on Friday, 13th of June, the boat hit rocks off Tory Island. The schooner was smashed to bits but all on board, including two professional sailors, swam ashore or were airlifted to safety.

In a subsequent investigation, The Marine Casualty Investigations Board ruled that there had been a failure to keep a proper watch on deck, possibly caused by strain on the two-man crew and tiredness amongst the contestants after a night out on Tory Island.

The investigation did note the bravery of the professional crew and a number of the contestants in very scary circumstances. Perhaps a case of too much reality.

Sex And The City The first episodes seen on this side of the Atlantic arrived in late 1999 (TV3 and Channel 4) and this tale of four fashionistas living the single life in New York was a TV phenomenon throughout the first half of the Noughties.

Based on the real life adventures of writer Candace Bushnell, the 94 shows made had a huge impact on popular culture.

The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing The TV talent shows that dominated prime-time in the '70s may have been considered relics of a simpler past by the '90s. But they returned with a vengeance in the Noughties. 'Popstars' and 'Pop Idol' came first, then, from 2004, Simon Cowell's evil genius took over. 'Strictly' (right) also debuted that year. They still dominate weekend prime-time.

Big Brother Initially a Dutch TV show in 1999, from 2002 'Big Brother' UK was the Daddy of reality TV and defined the dominant theme for the decade in popular culture -- the pursuit of fame purely for its own sake.

The first series gave us Nasty Nick, made instant celebrities of "ordinary" people and created a culture where 'Heat' magazine and the like could make huge profits off the mundane lives of a slew of C-list 'slebs. 'Big Brother' changed TV forever.

Doctor Who Nobody could have foreseen such a triumphant return for the creaky old BBC sci-fi after 16 years off our screens. Writer and producer Russell T Davies took what had become a joke and gave it a spectacular reboot in 2005.

You're A Star RTE's stab at the TV talent contest genre was a huge ratings winner. The final of the first series, in March, 2003, was watched by almost 1 million viewers. Mickey Harte was crowned king.

Irish Independent

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