The TV show, Seinfeld, was famously said to be “about nothing.” But that is not actually true, is it? It was about a group of self-absorbed mooks in New York City. But more than that, it was about humiliation. In every episode someone — usually George — is humiliated. Sometimes it is painful to watch.
But there really are programs about nothing, or at least, in which nothing happens. These shows are primarily British and they are a subset of English television that I find increasingly attractive.
As I have gotten old, I find my attention span increases, and I prefer to float along at 4 mph, soaking everything in, instead of racing through a frenetic plot in expectation of reaching a conclusion. Even British cop shows tend to move more slowly and proceed with less overt violence. (There may be a grisly murder, but usually we are spared the actual crime and the story opens on some unsuspecting person coming across a body. In medias res.)
But it isn’t just the police procedurals and detective shows. Many a British sitcom moves at the pace of the sun across a blue sky. More on them in a moment, but it isn’t only the comedies. There is a gentleness that pervades most British broadcasting. Just consider David Attenborough’s calm and reassuring voice.
Still, nothing could quite prepare me for Great Canal Journeys. Over eight series, actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales take us down canal after canal, from England to Venice to India. All at the aforesaid 4 mph.
Both in their 80s, they have been married for over 50 years, and for more than 40 years, they have been devoted canaliphiles, owning their own “narrow boat” and spending luxurious moments drifting down verdant waterways in a boat 8-feet wide and 60-feet long, raising a family and taking them along the way.
I doubt even the England’s Channel 4 expected the reaction to the series. Who would want to see an elderly couple navigate obscure waterways, drinking the occasional glass of chablis and discussing old plays they have been in? But the series is mystifyingly hypnotic.
A viewer commented, “Tim & Pru brilliant once again on Channel 4 — awesome adventures and dealing with real life issues.”
And another: ”Is there a more lovely and gentle programme on telly than Great Canal Journeys? Proving life never stops being an adventure.”
Can the suits at Channel 4 have ever expected the reaction to the series on first broadcast in 2014? Or that the series would continue through eight sequel series?
With each journey, you feel you have spent time with old friends you have gotten to know intimately.
That last is not an exaggeration. Because we learn in the very first episode that Scales is suffering from dementia. “A condition,” West calls it. “a slight condition.” While Scales can remember “a hundred-thousand lines of Shakespeare” and things that happened 60 years ago, she cannot always remember the morning. And what we see with astonishing tenderness is how West and Scales manage their relationship in the face of her increasing sense of being lost. We can often see it in her face.
Yet, there is nothing maudlin about the show. They two obviously love each other and their is a glint in their eyes that shows how much they enjoy each others’ company.
There is also a lot of gorgeous B-roll, featuring the green landscapes, the decayed relics of the Industrial Revolution that spawned the canals, and the cities they once made possible.
But it is West and Scales that make the show real. They speak in “real time” aboard the boat, but also in voice-over, commenting on what we just saw, and their different takes on it. So, there are three levels to every scene: the journey, the conversation on the journey, and the commentary afterwards. It gives the series texture.
This sense of enjoyment, spending time with people we come to know and feel almost as friends, is what animates several of the British shows I find myself watching.
The oldest and earliest of the “nothing happens” TV is a series called Last of the Summer Wine, which ran on the BBC for 37 years, from 1973 to 2010.
Over that stretch, the show hardly changed, and through all 295 episodes, very little happened. In every episode, three Yorkshire pensioners sit around and talk, walk through the countryside and talk, visit the cafe and talk.
They might plan a trip and we see them discuss how to manage it. They may gather supplies, but by the end, they haven’t traveled at all. Credits roll.
Last of the Summer Wine is a leisurely visit with people you enjoy spending time with. You don’t watch to see what will happen; you watch to visit friends. The cast changed over the years, with actors dropping out due to illness or death, and new pensioners added to keep the level up to three.
The half-hour series was funny, but gentle. The cast of subordinate characters eventually numbered in the scores, all of them idiosyncratic and memorable. After each episode, you felt refreshed by the quiet, if frustrated humanity of the Yorkshire village — and the sometimes impenetrable North Country accents.
A bit more conventional was the series, As Time Goes By, starring Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer, which ran on the BBC from 1992 to 2005. The premise is that in 1953, they fell in love, but were separated when he went off to the Korean War and did not see each other again for 38 years; they meet again and fall in love again, now older, with full lives — and backstories — behind them.
Again, lots of subordinate characters, all distinct and memorable, and the sense, with each episode, that you are spending time with friends you are eminently comfortable with.
Two more recent shows take this nothingness to extremes.
From 2011 to 2013, over a scant 13 episodes, The Cafe follows three generations of women who run a seaside cafe in the resort town of Weston-super-Mare on the southwest coast of England. Created by Michelle Terry and Ralf Little, and populated with a dozen or so regular characters, it follows the cafe-owner’s daughter, Sarah (Terry), who wants to leave the town and go to London to become a writer; she doesn’t pull it all together until the final episode; in the meantime, the worries and happenstances of the dozen characters play out in a complex web of relationships. Again, it is the calmness of the series, the lack of violent crises, and the three-dimensional cast that make you want to sit through the half-hour in which nothing happens. It is a kind of therapy, and all your pent-up angst drains away.
Most recently, beginning in 2015, Detectorists follows two sad-sacks in rural Essex County, just northeast of London, who spend all their leisure time with metal detectors, scouring the farm fields looking for “Saxon treasure,” but mostly finding beer-can pull tabs and buttons.
The series was created and written by Mackenzie Crook, who also stars as Andy Stone, one of the pair (with Toby Jones as Lance Stater). Stone is lean and wiry and through the first several episodes establishes himself as a true loser. He is living with a schoolteacher, Becky (Rachael Stirling), who is bright, energetic and — what the heck is she doing with this droopy hound dog?
One of the things that makes the series so compelling is that over the course of three series (the show ended in 2017), we discover that Andy has genuine substance. Beneath the fecklessness is a solid man, who earns a degree in archeology, marries Becky and raises a child.
Yet, in each episode, nothing really happens. Andy and Toby walk fields swinging their metal detectors back and forth and commenting on the weather, or asking about what happened on last night’s QI (another British TV series — and a quiz show in which panelists score points not for the right answers to questions, but the most interesting answers, answers that are “quite interesting.”)
This is so much different from standard American TV, with its roots in vaudeville, with its relentless set-up and punchline. “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in your pants.” It is a rare sitcom that transcends the cliches of the genre, or the monotonous pace: set-up, punchline; set-up, punchline. Something has to pop every second in fear that the viewer might grab the clickerator and change channels.
But as you get older as a viewer, you don’t need the buzz so much as you need the connection.
In these British series, the viewer is drawn to empathize with the characters (or, with the canal journeys, the real people). They all become friends we enjoy spending our time with. At a pace for sipping and savoring, for taking it all in and processing it. At 4 mph.