The industry of happiness: why watching American TV at Christmas sucks

It’s actually quite scary.

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“Enough, ENOUGH,” I say, striding into the middle of the living room and, with an almost athletic flourish, gesturing to my parents with my arms as well as my words that something gruesome – something rancidly inhumane is taking place.

For the past 20 minutes, my eyes and ears have been on the receiving end of a bombardment of pure energy. I’ve seen lights brighter than military grade lasers designed to annihilate entire nations’ retinas screaming their incandescence into the echoey void. I’ve endured weaponised smiles from directions I never even knew existed. Words farted, deafeningly, from the bellies of human birthday cakes have stomped, repeatedly and without a crumb or remorse, on my head.

“OUT, SATAN,” I scream at a modest television in the corner of the room, in our New York Airbnb.

How could such an unassuming object produce something so unearthly? It’s as if scientists have isolated the Loud gene and the Big gene and spliced up something world-eating. And it’s hungry. American TV is energetic at the quietest of times. At Christmas, it transpires, its amphetamine ration is quadrupled. Producers, I imagine, are ploughing coke into each other’s dilated anuses as if Armageddon is finally upon us.

This evening is part of my parents’ drive to finally get to grips with the core defining philosophical features of the United States. Now that they have two American grandchildren, they obsess over what sort of an environment, culturally speaking, these two miniature Yanks are going to grow up in. Television, they’ve decided (as if the internet never happened) is the answer. Television will reveal all. Not HBO series scripted by writers so talented they can’t shit without shifting a paradigm; they want the barrel scrapings. The rot. The televisual herpes. Exposure to this, and this alone – they have resolved – will teach them America.

Twenty minutes into a reality programme in which families compete to decorate their houses in the most elaborate Christmas light displays, and not a single joke has been cracked. This is a peculiar sort of jolliness. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is shrill. The presenter, a glamorous automaton, trumps the collective energy of the entire small towns that have shown up to greet her. And yet there is no funny to be seen.

This is what happens when you turn happiness into an industry. When you suck the wit and spontaneity out of lighthearted entertainment, you’re left with something that’s actually quite scary. A sort of sterile, hormone and antibiotic-fed joy. Even the most flamboyant British telly – X Factor, I’m A Celebrity, etc. – seems subdued in comparison. It’s a comparative calmness I can only imagine is cultivated by our ability to take the piss out of ourselves. All even moderately tense moments are extinguished by sarcasm.

The lights and screaming programme cuts to adverts and the TV is still punishing me with loud. In an ad for Toys ‘R’ Us, a woman in full fatigues returns home from whatever the hell war is happening elsewhere (read, who the fuck cares?), to her five-year-old son. Army presence in a commercial for a toy shop, an actual toy shop, must point to a society whose military-mindedness could give North Korea a run for its money.

I’ll give my parents some credit – this is educational. But I can’t take any more Loud. I can’t take any more Big. I’m broken and all I want to do, for the rest of the winter quite possibly, is take a Valium and listen to Radio 4.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.