A boys' year

It was men who led the demos. We weren't aware of what would soon be called women's liberation, writ

The year began noisily. In January, students were revolting in the ancient city of Edinburgh, tearing up chunks of tradition. We deposed the man we had elected as rector to represent us at the university court. One cold, wet morning he delivered his resignation from the pulpit of St Giles' Cathedral, denouncing us as sex fiends and junkies. Malcolm Muggeridge was the name. He'd been a rebel himself, but had converted to old fogeyism, taking his student electorate by surprise.

We wanted the newly available contraceptive pill to be on prescription at the student health centre. And we wanted our elected representative to make our case for us. When "Saint Mugg" refused, we determined to change the rules and have a student do the job instead. Four years later, Gordon Brown was elected Edinburgh's student rector. A result of sorts.

I was editor of the student newspaper at the time of our showdown with the rector. Student was the chief instrument of revolt. I was carpeted by the principal, narrowly escaped expulsion, finished my degree and went to work for the Observer as a cub writer on the newly invented consumer pages. In my first months there, as Russian tanks rolled in to Prague, I delivered a fearless exposé of the new shape of the Heinz tomato ketchup jar, and uncovered the secret of where to get pine furniture stripped.

I knew that students, workers and other left- wing dissidents were marching, rioting, sitting in and setting fire to things in Paris, London, Chicago and other cities around the world, that new laws on abortion and race relations had come into force in Britain, and that Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. I knew I was in the Swinging Sixties and that the King's Road was the trendy place to shop. I knew that last year was 1967. But in this, the year of my 21st birthday and my first blissful employment, I didn't realise it was 1968.

No one did. I have here on my desk a deeply yellowed copy of the Times for Tuesday 31 December 1968. It includes the "Times Review of the Year". All the apocalyptic events are there, but they are sandwiched inconspicuously between news of the UK trade balance, arrival of decimal coins, the resignation of George Brown, the trial of the Kray brothers . . . Even the Times didn't know what a year it was.

This summer, 40 years on, my daughter will graduate from university. I'm glad she doesn't want to be a journalist, but if she did she'd have less chance of landing a job on a national newspaper than getting hired by Alan Sugar. And here's the thing: in 1968 it seemed to us gilded baby boomers that anything was possible. We could make it happen if we wanted. For ourselves, other people, the world. We may have had an inflated sense of our potential, we may have been blind to its significance, but we felt it and we weren't entirely wrong.

And it wasn't just youthful innocence that fostered these illusions. Weathered trade unionists, venerable intellectuals, senior politicians: we weren't all going in the same direction, not by any means, but we were all moving away from the same conventions and certainties.

Probably the most useful thing I learned in 1968 was thanks to a fellow student at Edinburgh, who picked up a book I was reading for my final-year coursework, turned it over curiously and demanded to know "who the fuck" the author thought he was. It hadn't occurred to me to question the authority of the printed word. I remember the heady alarm as it dawned on me that I was allowed to think for myself.

I was an insouciant young thing who stumbled into some pretty parochial student politics and landed with her bum in Fleet Street's bounteous butter. There are pictures of me with lots of leg and eyeliner and long, blond hair. Strictly pre-feminist. None of the women I knew was even aware of what would soon be called "the women's liberation movement". Sixty-eight, the actual year, was a boys' year. They led the demos and the riots. But we women caught the mood of it. And in a year or two, we were on the march ourselves. Anything seemed possible, including challenging the authority of the male Establishment for equal rights, a voice of our own and a politics that reflected our personal experience.

Some of us had been radicalised by confinement to the margins of "revolution": making tea, looking tasty, keeping mum. Some were inspired by the struggle to overturn cultural and sexual norms: say whatever you like, be whoever you choose to be, do whatever you want. The old ways were no longer the right ways and the right ways were, well, what turned you on.

Briefly, perhaps, 1968 brought together two quite disparate tendencies: political challenge and social tolerance. In politics, an appetite for disrupting authority wherever it was constraining or oppressive; in society, an appetite for difference, coupled with an urge to experiment in seemingly infinite ways. Was it a helpful conjunction? Did it make things better or worse in the longer run?

I could offer an opinion, but - as my Edinburgh friend might ask - who the fuck am I to say?

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything

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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 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything