Back when we were isolated at home for weeks – two adults, one cat – I satisfied my need for company by voyeuristically immersing myself in the shenanigans of other, bigger communities. My favourite was a joyous binge-watch of “Schitt’s Creek”, a Netflix series following the trials and tribulations of a formerly wealthy family who had fallen on hard times and relocated to the distinctly unglamorous small town they’d purchased once a joke.
We watched all eighty episodes in an enchanted romp. We’d given the series a bit of a go when it first launched five years ago, but I’d sighed and given up somewhere into episode three. Back then, I hadn’t been in the mood for watching wildly privileged Americans look down their snouts at small town hicks. “I don’t like any of them,” I’d said, “and I don’t care what happens to them – shall we try one of those cheery Scandi noirs?”
But come lockdown, and with the sixth and final series gaining traction, we gave it a second glance and couldn’t take our eyes off it. First impressions dissolved, giving way to something that felt a bit like… well, love. I couldn’t wait to catch up with them each evening. Their heartbreaks broke my heart, their triumphs lifted my spirits. I had a new friend-goal in “David Rose” and a fresh role model in his mother, “Moira”. They were deeper and more interesting people than I’d given them credit for, and they had the ability to do that extraordinary thing – remain essentially themselves while becoming better people. At the end of the final episode, I cried – because it was deliciously moving, and because it meant we had to say goodbye. I still miss them. I continue to imagine them out there somewhere, being complicated and happy.
Feeling viscerally attached to people we have never actually met – either fictional or real – is a phenomenon much older than television. We can adore (or despise) anyone who lives large in our minds, from characters in books, to royalty and politicians. When Princess Diana died there was genuine grief from vast numbers of people who had never been in the same country as her, let alone the same room. We all navigate a range of emotions when an American president is shot, or becomes ill, or gets (or doesn’t get) elected, and there are local public figures who arouse genuine distaste or adoration depending on where we’ve placed them in our “friend or foe” file.
Sometimes, the emotional attachment to people we’ve never met – or who aren’t even real – defies rational thought. Back in the 1980s when “Dallas” was the TV show du jour, there was a woman who possibly lived alone with cats who would phone TVNZ the morning after each week’s episode and pass on her advice about what should happen next. Occasionally, instead of simply logging her call, reception would put her through to the most junior member of Avalon’s publicity department (hello) for a chat. I think we all felt a bit of company was the least we could provide. The nice lady – we’ll call her Joyce – would have preferred to speak directly to the people who had been in her living room the night before, but I would do. “Tell Pammy not to listen to JR – her Bobby is a good man, and that brother of his is just out to make trouble,” she’d tell me and I’d promise to relay the message to Southfork. She quite liked Sue Ellen but felt she had made some terrible life choices and we agreed she was best left to sort things out as best she could.
Joyce also had concerns about real, actual people on her screen – there was a Wellington newsreader whose hair she disapproved of because it looked to her “too much like a hat”. I explained that perhaps this was down to the way the make-up artist styled it, to which Joyce replied, incredulous, that the newsreader in question was surely old enough to do her own hair? I promised to nip downstairs to make this suggestion, but despite bumping into the newsreader occasionally in the Avalon corridors, it never felt like the right time to say, even with 1980s ambiguity, “Joyce called and she thinks your hair looks unreal”.
Heaven knows what Joyce would have thought of Schitts Creek – though I would definitely have been up for a chat about Moira’s wigs nailed to the motel room wall like trophies, evidence of who she was yesterday and might be tomorrow. When anyone wonders aloud about the point of actors and writers and other creatives, I think about this basic human need we have to attach ourselves to each other, to feel something towards the people – real or imagined – who live our heads, and remember Joyce.