Bright light on the Dniepe

Little-known and often misreported, Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko is a well-kept secret — a boo

A woman sits bolt upright in the middle of the night. She jumps out of bed and rushes to the bathroom to look in the medicine cabinet. Then, she runs into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. Finally, she dashes to the window and looks out into the street.

Relieved, she returns to the bedroom. Her husband asks, "What's wrong with you?"

“I had a terrible nightmare," she says. "I dreamed we could still afford to buy medicine, that the refrigerator was absolutely full, and that the streets were safe and clean. I also dreamed that you had a job, that we could afford to pay our gas and electricity bills."

“How is that a nightmare?" asks her husband.

The woman shakes her head. "I thought the communists were back in power."

This Bulgarian joke, as told by Maria Todorova in the Guardian and now doing the rounds across eastern Europe, doesn't work here in Minsk. This is a capital city where the streets are safe and clean, where ordinary people can still afford to buy medicine and basic foodstuffs and where the unemployment rate is less than 1 per cent. It's the side of Belarus you won't read much about. After last month's presidential elections - in which Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected to serve a fourth term with almost 80 per cent of the vote - the arrest of opposition candidates and hundreds of their supporters led to the reappearance of the old "last dictatorship in Europe" headlines. But shocking as the scenes of police beating protesters were, it would be a mistake to equate Belarus with Burma, or Lukashenko with Joseph Stalin.

Lukashenko's rule is unquestionably authoritarian, as he has conceded, but his policies, which combine aspects of the old communist system - social security and full employment - with a mixed economy and greater personal freedoms than existed in the days of the Soviet Union, have proved hugely popular with the majority of ordinary Belarusians, as his election results testify.

While other former Soviet republics rushed to embrace capitalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall, privatising their state-owned enterprises and removing subsidies to industry and agriculture, Belarus kept the old collectivist flame alive. My guidebook describes it as a country "so unspoilt by the trappings of western materialism that it's very easy to feel a sense of having slipped into another time and dimension". Yet even here - a country where roughly 80 per cent of the economy is nationalised and statues of Lenin still line the streets - times are changing. Pressure from the IMF and Russia and a desire to court the European Union, among other reasons, have led Belarus to embark on a major privatisation programme of its own. Ninety per cent of state-owned businesses have been earmarked for sale. Does the move mark the de facto end of Europe's last socialist planned economy?

During a press conference at Belarus's wonderfully retro ministry of economy, where the BBC could quite happily have filmed the Life on Mars series, Nikolai Snopkov, the minister in charge of the department, denies that his country is changing course. "All the successful economic systems in the world are mixed systems. We are committed to combining the principle of the free market with social justice. The economy is not for itself: it has a human purpose." Asked if Belarus will roll back the state, he answers with a resounding "nyet".

Ukrainian rhapsody

Afterwards, we are taken to see one of the country's industrial gems - the enormous Belarusian Autoworks (BelAZ) factory in Zhodino. BelAZ, which launched in 1948, employs 12,000 people, and is the biggest producer of mining dump trucks in the world.

Our guide Natalia proudly escorts us round the factory museum, with its scale models of BelAZ vehicles. There is a photograph of a beaming Hugo Chávez, a strong ally of Luka­shenko (he recently said that Venezuela would supply Belarus with oil for the next 200 years), driving a BelAZ truck. This is more than just a company - it's an extended family. There is a sanatorium for the workers, two sports and fitness centres, and a cultural centre where a theatre collective plays. Such enterprises used to be common in eastern Europe before 1989 - but economic reform put a stop to all that.

On our return to Minsk, we find the bars and cafés full of well-dressed young people. Aggression and public displays of drunkenness are refreshingly absent from the streets. Outside the state opera (cheapest tickets US$2), we meet an Irish restaurant owner who has emigrated to Belarus. "This is the place," he says. "The economy is booming and there's a real vibe. My son and I went to Ukraine recently and everyone was saying to us: 'Can we have the Belarus president in charge here for a year?'"

It's not difficult to see why. Unlike Ukraine and Russia, Belarus's economy is not dominated by billionaire oligarchs. There is no underclass: according to UN figures, Belarus has one of the lowest levels of social inequality in the world. Lukashenko wins elections not through fear, but because he has delivered social protection and rising standards of living. Growth now stands at 7 per cent.

The danger, some feel, is that a move towards a more market-oriented economy will destroy these achievements, and leave Belarusians sharing the same bitter-sweet jokes as their fellow eastern Europeans.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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The Okay Place: the psychological value of mediocre TV

Why do we watch comedies that don’t make us laugh?

I’ve been watching Brooklyn 99 on the train. The comedy cop show makes me laugh roughly once an episode, but nonetheless I watch it compulsively. I watch it on my commute, and I watch it while cooking dinner. It’s in the background when I’m paying my bills. I consumed so many episodes last night, Netflix sent me its most notoriously judgemental pop-up: “Are you still watching?”

Yes, Netflix, I was still watching. The real question was: why?

Brooklyn 99 doesn’t really make me laugh, and it’s far from the most critically-acclaimed show available on the streaming service right now. It’s not technically mediocre – the sitcom has won two Golden Globes – but it is to me*. It provokes the same feelings in me as Netflix’s The Good Place, a kitsch sitcom set in the afterlife. I am compelled to watch at all costs, but on the whole unamused and occasionally frustrated by formulaic storylines. (Sometimes, The Good Place even makes me cringe.)

I enjoy both shows, sure, but I don’t love them. So why am I wasting my time?

(*Because this is the internet, it's a good time to specify that "mediocre" here means in the view of the person being quoted, not objectively.)

“To understand why people are drawn to certain shows, it’s helpful to look at the type of feelings the shows elicit,” says Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist and assistant professor at West Virginia University. Cohen says media often has a “mood management function”, in that we use it to make ourselves feel better.

“Sometimes we are looking to be emotionally stimulated, so we might choose to watch something that we think will thrill us,” she says. “But other times we might decide to forego the dark cerebral drama on our DVR and opt for a safe sitcom instead. That could be because we need something that will help us wind down, relax, and boost our mood.”

Photo: Netflix

A desire to unwind is one of the reasons Oliver Savory, a 30-year-old grad student from London, watches The Big Bang Theory, a comedy that has inspired much ire.

“It fills a niche of something to watch while eating, when you can’t focus fully, or you’ve just got in and want to unwind without thinking too hard,” he explains. Oliver says “average” TV comforts him more than “good” TV because he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up to date. “Good TV you have to make time for, average TV can fit around your own schedule without imposing itself.”

Cohen says this is referred to as “comfort food TV”, the entertainment equivalent of eating boxed mac and cheese even if you have the recipe for mum’s spaghetti. “These are shows that people watch not because they are exceptional in quality, but because they are simple, predictable, or nostalgic.”

Sometimes, we watch “okay” shows because we feel they have the potential to be great. Karen Dill-Shackleford is a media psychologist who explains this was her experience with The Good Place.

“I love The Good Place, but there was a stretch when I thought it was poor,” she says. “I kept waiting for it to right itself because I thought it had real potential.”

The potential many of us see in the show is its fresh premise, and its engagement with moral philosophy. As Dill-Shackleford puts it: “[the show] is a palatable way to ponder life’s biggest questions. So, even if the jokes are lame, the potential for real value is still there.”

Charlotte Mullin, a 23-year-old illustrator, says she doesn't laugh at the jokes either. “But what keeps me watching is the premise, and the characters. I’m a sucker for good character development, and The Good Place has it in spades,” she says. (Cohen tells me she does laugh at The Good Place, once again illustrating that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder.)

Photo: Netflix

Ross McCafferty is a 27-year-old journalist from Glasgow who couldn’t tell you anything about NBC’s Parks and Recreation, even though he’s seen every episode. During a difficult time at work, he consumed the entire show.

“It’s actually quite a derivative, even mediocre show,” he says. “But I still ate it up, because at the time it was oddly comforting to me, self-contained and uncomplicated and unobtrusive, like so little in my life at that time.”

The reasons McCafferty liked the show, he says, is because it was “nice”, “brightly lit”, “nonthreatening” and “so sweet it was cloying”.

Bright lights and pretty colours certainly feel like one of the reasons I keep going back to mediocre sitcoms, but I also find comfort in certain characters: Chidi in The Good Place and Boyle in Brooklyn 99 are comfortingly familiar – I almost switch on to keep up to date with them, as if they were friends.

George Clarke is a 25-year-old management consultant who finds similar comfort in Seinfeld characters, even though the show doesn’t make him laugh much. “Some days I might fancy Netflix’s latest psychological thriller, but most of the time I’d just prefer to sit and watch Kramer doing something ridiculous or George stuff it up with the girl of his dreams for the fourth time that season,” he says.

But couldn’t Clarke and I find our televisual buds in prestige dramas?

“I find the idea of watching prestige shows non-stop to be exhausting,”  says David Renshaw, a 30-year-old news editor, who jokes it can feel like you “need a map” to keep up with Game of Thrones. When he finishes watching something acclaimed, such as Breaking Bad, he “cleanses the palette” with shows like Masterchef or Gogglebox. “They are much lower maintenance… especially if you’re switching between TV and phone as often as I do.”

Photo: Netflix

The comfort of the mediocre is so powerful that it can often override other emotions, such as the cringing I experience during some of The Good Place’s more strained jokes. Lizzie Roberts is a 25-year-old masters student who enjoys Gilmore Girls even though she dislikes the character Lorelai’s “painfully unfunny monologues”.

“It’s my way of letting my brain reset,” she says of the show, as well as reality TV such as Towie and I’m A Celeb. “It’s not taxing, it’s tolerable.”

“Not taxing and tolerable” are perhaps the words that best sum up the complex psychological reasons we continue to watch mediocre TV during the Golden Age of Television. Streaming services like Netflix are also designed to keep us watching, with episodes auto-playing one after the other (plus it's easier to find a show you've essentially already paid for on the Netflix homepage than go out and hunt for something more prestigious).

Although watching mediocre TV can feel like a waste of time, it does seem to have a psychological purpose. When we're stressed, busy, or tired, it can be exactly the entertainment we need. Nothing is more stressful, busy, or tiring than a commute – so I'll be watching Brooklyn 99 on the train home.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze