It is no great surprise that during the first lockdown people spent more time stuck to their screens. Last year, Ofcom reported that in April we were watching around a third more television and online video than we had been a year before that, and that was when the weather was good. Netflix and Amazon Prime have both recently reported record numbers of subscribers signing up over the past 12 months, with newcomers such as Disney+ attracting big audiences, too.
During that first lockdown, I was lucky enough to be able to work from home, and I set myself some TV goals. I would rewatch The Sopranos, because I had not seen it for at least 10 years, and I wanted to know if it still stood up as the best show in TV history. It does, and plenty of people had the same idea: it was one of the breakout hits of 2020. I would catch up with Schitt’s Creek. I would use documentaries to educate myself, probably starting with Ken Burns, and I would make sure at least some of what I watched was not in English, because it’s easier not to be on your phone when you’re watching something Icelandic. (One Instagram scroll equals several crucial plot-points missed.) I thought there would be a new season of Succession soon enough. I had it covered.
But as the stay-at-home orders keep rolling in, a sort of viewing fatigue has descended. Like many, I have done the big box sets and the best shows of 2020. I have watched at least one and a half documentaries. On terrestrial TV – it’s like Netflix, except you have to watch what’s put in front of you – there are far more repeats than usual, and a growing suspicion that certain shows that might have languished in a daytime slot have been bumped to the evening without earning it. There is still no release date for Succession’s third season. I whispered it quietly, shocked at the thought that I might have to spend an evening talking, or doing another puzzle: are we going to run out of television?
The first lockdown certainly delayed production on some shows and caused cuts to be made. Line of Duty’s sixth season was pushed back. His Dark Materials lost an Asriel-focused episode from its excellent second season. A sixth Peaky Blinders was halted, and it was announced that it would be the final season. While it might take longer for the big blockbusters to come down the pipe, though, there is new television on its way – Line of Duty has now wrapped, and the final Peaky Blinders series has resumed production. Even at the beginning, programme-makers showed themselves to be resourceful, overall, adapting to their new circumstances. Talking Heads was made on the set of EastEnders with actors doing their own make-up; The Great British Bake Off managed to happen by creating a bubble for presenters, contestants and crew. Zoom-based TV has been mercifully limited but what has emerged has been largely decent. The Serpent had to relocate filming from Thailand to Tring, using the Hertfordshire town as a stand-in, which I’m sure the cast and crew were absolutely fine with, but it was finished in time for its New Year’s Day broadcast.
I don’t think we are likely to run out of new television any time soon; it might just be a case of delayed gratification. And let’s be realistic, there is too much TV for anyone to watch, even in more ordinary times. If every single show simply ceased production, there would still be decades’ worth of shows to work through. One set of calculations estimates that it would take four years, without sleeping, to “complete” Netflix’s library of TV and films. Even under this government, that is a pessimistic commitment.
I suspect there are a number of reasons for viewing fatigue, if you have it, beyond the seeming numbing endlessness of lockdown itself. It is no longer a novelty to have time to watch the series that once hovered in the back of your mind as possibilities, if only you had a spare five minutes. There isn’t much in the way of communal or “event” viewing at the moment, by which I mean Strictly, I’m A Celebrity and Bake Off, all of which played a role in cheering up the nation. And if it seems as though the top tier of television has been done, then move out of your comfort zone. I can be a snob about drama, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the daft escapism of Death In Paradise lately, and Channel 5 has grown into a haven for comfort-viewing, whether that is with shows about training dogs not to stare at their own reflections, or soaking up farm life or railway journeys by proxy.
Or take inspiration from Carmela Soprano herself, who starts a movie club with her friends, to work through a list of the 100 greatest films ever made. Apply that to television, and there might even be a way of getting through some of those long-abandoned documentaries.
Rebecca Nicholson is a columnist and TV critic