How do you decide what to watch on telly? Sometimes you want a real bit of escapism, and so don’t mind watching a brother and sister have sex before trying to take over an empire (Game Of Thrones). Or you’d like to watch a chemistry teacher try to become the area’s biggest drug dealer (Crawley news. Just kidding: Breaking Bad, of course). On other nights, you might have an acute case of brain fry and the only thing you really feel like following is whether everyone likes Sarah’s lasagne despite the fact she made the maverick decision to put fish in it (Come Dine With Me).
But my wife and I have discovered that, these days, some shows are just too stressful to watch. Writers have got better and better at ratcheting up the tension. This, combined with our shrivelling attention spans (thanks to the internet desiccating our brains), means that some episodes can provide a full hour of relentless anxiety, the only relief coming when we look away at our phones to bask in the warm glow of social media.
We often find ourselves watching a highly wrought crime investigation where the detectives are working against the clock to find a murderer before they strike again, and desperately hoping that one of them has to pop to the bank or something equally mundane, so that we can have a much-needed breather. Television has always thrived on tension, of course, but over the past few years, some shows have become entirely composed of it, every scene dripping in pressure and high stakes, to the point where watching is a physically draining experience.
Recently, we started watching Your Honor, a US series where a judge (played by Bryan Cranston, who what with this, Breaking Bad and Sneaky Pete seems to be making tension telly his oeuvre) has to cover up the fact that his son has run over the son of the city’s biggest crime boss. As I wrote that last sentence, I realised I have made it sound absolutely ridiculous – it is actually great. The problem is, it’s also absolutely bloody relentless. Every new scene brings another cock-up or disaster that unravels their plans; in our house, the show is punctuated with my wife and I gasping and saying, “Oh no oh no oh no.”
There is one dinner scene, midway through the series, where lots of lies become exposed and pressure is put on various people at the table. It was so stressful that I would have preferred half an hour of watching them get on with their meal in silence – or talking me through the ins and outs of the recipe for the shrimp they were eating.
Despite the show being excellent, we have to steel ourselves to watch it. We make sure we have a relaxing book to tuck into straight afterwards to bring our adrenaline levels back down (a method, incidentally, that my wife never seems to have to use after sex). On other nights, though, we settle in for our late evening screen session and realise we just can’t handle our favourite show any more. That’s when we cosy up to find out whether somebody’s tarte tatin will stick to the pan, or not.