Sunday, 15 December 2013

The rise of the box set

‘What shall we do this evening?’ asks my husband. It’s 8pm on Monday, supper is over and ahead of us stretch a few blissful hours of freedom. ‘Scrabble?’ he adds, ‘Some garden planning? Or holiday video editing?’ 

‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ I bluff, ‘you choose.’ In light of all the useful things we could be doing, who’s going to take responsibility for doing absolutely nothing? Tonight, neither of us is in any danger of opting to decide on the best spot for the garden pond or plotting for a triple word score. It’s been a long Monday and all day, at the back of my mind has been the thought that once the kids are in bed, the kitchen’s clear, lunches packed for tomorrow and stove blazing, we’ll slump into the sofa, each welcome a cat onto our laps and melt into an episode of our current DVD series. Ah – what a gloriously cosy, united way to distance reality on a winter evening. 

To understand just how vital the DVD box set has become to our evening relaxation, I should explain that there is no TV in our house. This makes the DVD all the more ambrosia to the lazy-weary. We got rid of our television back in 2006, just after we’d finished watching the World Cup. Its banishment was nothing to do with football (for that it stayed), but an effort to beat our addiction to dreadful reality TV. Back then, before kids, we’d come home from work and bustle in the kitchen with a deadline to dish up supper in time for Wife Swap, Brat Camp, and more of the like. Then we would sit on the sofa with our TV dinners and stare semi-comatose at the changing images of ordinary people living their boring lives until it was time to go to bed. It was something I’d vowed I would never do – TV dinners, vegetating on the sofa – something that was restricted to a Sunday evening treat in front of the Antiques Roadshow when I was growing up. But now what I had been led to believe was slovenly, had become our shameful routine; we couldn’t be trusted with the remote. So one day, we held hands over our brave decision and junked the TV.

These days, we live with an addiction to the box set instead. And no way am I going cold-turkey on this one.

It seems we’re not the only ones with a penchant for a series on DVD. On discussing the merits of Breaking Bad with friends recently, two sets of couples claimed the box set saved their marriage. ‘It’s given us something in common,’ joked one husband with a conspiratorial grin at his wife. Another texted ‘We watched series 1 together in three nights!’ 

One of the nice things about TV is the shared experience – not just with those on the same sofa, but the following day’s conflab, whether it be at school or across the desk at work. I remember going into school during the days of ‘Just say no’ when Grange Hill was the first thing I talked about with my friends. Then there were the rather more critical appraisals of 90s’ American dramas in the office. But fear not, the experience is not lost with the box set, because as viewing habits change, we can find many who have recently watched the same production as us. Admittedly, there may be some dangerous  ground to be trodden when it comes to identifying which season you’ve got up to, but hearing from a friend ‘You wait – you’ve got the best to come!’ can only add to the anticipation.

So in the spirit of marriage guidance, and just a desire to share my pleasure with anyone who may be interested, I thought I’d list some of the series we’ve enjoyed most. Most you’ll know – I do believe when it comes to box sets, the most popular are up there with the best.

And please let me know what I’ve been missing – I’d love to hear what you’ve enjoyed. 

The Sopranos   It has to come first on the list, because this was the road to love at first sight with HBO. We’ve just watched the first season again, and despite enjoying so many excellent series in the interim years, it’s just as good second time round. It has the best opening credits of any series ever with Alabama 3 setting the scene for the New York mob perfectly. Genius characterisations, exceedingly clever plots, hilarious, dark, and still my favourite.

The Killing  Danish Noir, uncomfortable and compelling, like scratching an itch on the roof of your mouth. Another great soundtrack, subliminally disquieting. Set in the Scandinavian winter, it’s literally as well as metaphorically dark and suits a British winter eve very well.

Poldark  Set in 18th century Cornwall, an enchanting, hammy joy. I needed to imagine myself in a theatre audience to get into the spirit, but once I was there, I was hooked. Poldark, a British army officer returns to his home in Cornwall after the American Revolutionary War, where his family and fiancĂ© believe him dead. The complications that arise are fanciful, amusing and touching. It’s an interesting period piece too. This type of drama doesn’t get any better than those from the BBC archives of the ‘70s. 

Heimat  Nearly 53 and a half hours of fabulous viewing, set in Germany’s Rhineland between 1919 and 2000, following the lives of several generations of one family, and the people with whom they share their village. So different from the HBO action-format in many ways, but this gentle drama shares the winning recipe for a top-class box set with clever storylines for something for everyone to relate to, with convincing acting and completely believable characterisations. Well worth putting up with subtitles.

The Wire  Dare to enter another world, where you may not understand the rules. The Wire is an initiation into the lives of drug dealers in Baltimore, and the cops who police them. I challenge you not to feel sympathy for the bad guys. Some of my favourite scenes were those with Prezbo, cop turned teacher. Immensely touching. 

Six Feet Under  There’s so much that’s wrong with the characters in this series, it’s a bit like watching a freak show. Set in the home of a family of undertakers in California, every episode begins with an untimely death which can’t help but make you laugh, as well as shudder. This is a dark comedy.

Breaking Bad  The story of an insipid, high school chemistry teacher who turns to criminal behaviour when diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Brilliantly written, and a fascinating portrayal of the justification of moral decline. Plenty of action here – a visual page-turner.

Das Boot   Set on a WWII German U-boat, where horror and terror prevail. The director’s cut is about three and a half hours long, and evokes what must have been sickening conditions vividly. It’s so traumatic you may emerge like a hostage from a long period in captivity.

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