It sounds like a “Brave New World” setup, or some kind of aggressive NSA surveillance sweep. A small camera sits on a TV, recording the viewers’ reactions while they sit watching TV, capturing every eye roll, every teardrop, every snark bite, every bored yawn.
But these TV viewers aren’t trapped in a privacy-free dystopian state. They’re reality performers on “The People’s Couch,” a Bravo series that invites us to watch them as they watch TV. The concept — based on a popular British series called “Gogglebox” — is an Escher drawing come to life, as we watch the watchers on our TVs as they watch their TVs, a circular chain of meta-regard.
For an hour every week, on Tuesdays at 10 p.m., the show features recurring “real people” viewers, or couchers — including three ladies sipping wine in a retirement community and a dad with three daughters — as they react to shows from “The Bachelorette” and “The Voice” to “Pretty Little Liars” and “Believe.” An example: Watching the improv series “Riot,” one of a trio of gay pals says, “Who has naked pictures of Steve Carell that made him have to do this?”
Some of the couchers are more dynamic than others; BFFs Brandy and Julie are quite the entertaining pair, not least of all when watching “The Bachelorette” reminds Julie of the time she was mistaken for a man at the Ramrod gay bar in Boston. And one of the couches on the show is actually a bed: We watch the Egber family — Mom, Dad, and their two teen sons — watch TV from a giant bed together, leaning up against the headboard, tossing off commentary. It sounds creepy, but it looks cozy.
In a way, “The People’s Couch” is a close cousin to Twitter and Facebook. It’s part of a larger phenomenon that allows everyone to be a critic, the democratic promise of the Internet in action. During any significant telecast, from the finale of “The Good Wife” to the MLB playoffs, turn to your Twitter feed and you’ll hear a medley of reactions to specific moments. Using hashtags, Twitterers ring out their opinions — and many of the networks and showrunners actually listen. The tweet queen of TV shows is Retta, the comic who plays Donna on “Parks and Recreation.” While online recappers offer their literary interpretations for millions of next-day TV fans, Retta tweet-caps her favorite shows with unadulterated honesty and language in 140-character increments. She’s fun to watch watch.
The oddest — and perhaps the purest — manifestations of watching watchers are the folk-art videos of viewers watching shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey.” There’s one video that compiles reactions to the “Red Wedding” episode of “Game of Thrones,” and it has gotten over 10 million views at this point. We see viewers’ jaws dropping, hear their laughter, and screams erupting, and watch all the violence and bloodletting register on their faces. It’s all wonderfully theatrical, if not as red as the wedding itself.
When did watching TV and talking back to the screen become an art form, a performance? Before “The People’s Couch” and Twitter, there were a few shows that focused on the viewers more than what they were watching. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” gave us a human and his robot pals living on a space station and watching crap movies against their will. Their snarky comments ranged from the juvenile to the impressively allusive. MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-head,” which premiered in 1993, gave us a pair of boobs making fun of the tube, and showing MTV kids how to be critical of — instead of merely getting hypnotized by — music videos.
Both shows were valuable for the ways they encouraged viewers to watch analytically, to not treat pop culture with too much passivity and respect. They reminded viewers that you could have a conversation with what you see, that TV is not monolithic. But neither of these shows gave us real people watching; that’s a development that has come with the Web and reality TV. We’re watching ourselves now, in a way, as we watch real people react; it’s that place where selfies and otheries are nearly the same thing.
So have we fallen into a hyper-narcissistic frame of mind, where we love to gaze at ourselves gazing? Has TV, pop culture, and camera technology devolved to the point of asking us to essentially watch paint dry? Is allowing cameras on our TVs another dangerous step closer to a surveillance nation in which we are too used to being filmed? Those interpretations contain truth, of course, but only part of the truth.
“The People’s Couch” and other reaction phenoms are also a kind of adaptive feat of the human spirit. They’re an expression of just how much we need to connect, to form community. Technology has been pulling us further apart with each new convenience; with DVRs, on-demand services such as Netflix, and TV on computers, no one needs to watch TV in time with others — or even with others — ever again. That old sense of communal viewing has become endangered, while solo ventures into seasons of TV series have become the norm.
And yet here we are, with social media and “The People’s Couch,” still reaching for that feeling of collective experience. It hasn’t died. We see how other people watch, we see other people laugh and cry and scream out loud at their TVs, and we still want to share it with them.
“The People’s Couch” on “The Bachelorette”:
“The People’s Couch” on “Pretty Little Liars”:Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.