The Only Way Is Essex: beyond trash TV
I’m confused by the success of ITV2’s The Only Way Is Essex. What makes the show’s mix of staged dialogue, vajazzling and missing consonants so popular.
Some of you may have been looking forward to the return of The Only Way is Essex last night. You may have greeted the cast like old friends, cheering at the likes of Amy and Mark with joy and wild abandon. You may have even bought the official The Only Way Is Essex single and played it on a loop all weekend, bobbing up and down and intermittently chortling at the word “vajazzle”.
Because, make no mistake, The Only Way Is Essex is a phenomenon. The stars have become tabloid staples. The official The Only Way Is Essex Facebook page has close to 200,000 fans – almost 50 times the number that Question Time has. Last night’s episode was so highly anticipated that ITV2 prefaced it with an hour of highlights and a shriekingly awful music video. People seem to genuinely love The Only Way Is Essex.
But here’s a confession: I’m not one of those people. It’s not that I object to the trashiness of The Only Way Is Essex. I love trash. I devour it to the extent that I’ve got My Dog Ate What? – a show about dogs that eat unusual things – on series link. It’s more that I just don’t understand it. Put me in front of The Only Way Is Essex and I turn into your gran trying to programme a VCR. It’s embarrassing.
Perhaps the most off-putting aspect of the show is its staginess. Not so much its much-discussed lack of fly-on-the-wall realism, but everyone’s uncomfortably stilted delivery. All the conversations on The Only Way Is Essex are full of weird little pauses, as if they’re all communicating via a faulty 1970s satellite link-up. It’s like watching an old Open University programme on Advanced Pointlessness.
I’m also slightly hamstrung by the fact that I don’t understand anything that anyone says. Maybe there’s an inexplicably heavy tax on hard consonants in Essex and that’s the reason people say “arrrra?” instead of “hello” and “shaaaaaap” instead of “be quiet”. At one point last series a character said “naaaloooor” and it took me about five minutes to work out that they meant “nightclub.” Between this and the pauses, The Only Way Is Essex comes off like a nightmarish Teletubbies update starring several flourescent Bratz dolls (vajazzled, of course).
Last night’s episode didn’t help matters. Narratively speaking it had a structure that was somewhere between scattershot and nonexistent. A couple got lost in the woods, an old lady went swimming, a Playboy model got a spray tan, a boy legitimately decided that he wanted to be known as Joey Essex, a woman asked where south London was and a pig urinated on the floor and then started drinking it. In fact I’ve made it sound much more exciting than it actually was. Nothing was captivating enough to make you want to tune in for a second 45 minutes, unless you harbour an inexplicable fascination with incontinent pigs. If things keep up at this rate, I’ll be no closer to understanding the show than I was during the first series.
So if you watched and enjoyed The Only Way Is Essex last night, then please explain it to me. Am I supposed to be rooting for these people? Or does the pleasure come from judging them? Is it supposed to be good, or do people watch it because it’s terrible? And, if so, is it terrible by accident or design? Honestly, I’m so confused.