Friends Like These

Saturday, February 19, 2000 by

Early Saturday evening television is not really territory with which I have been overly familiar of recent years, not since the demise of the classic paring of Gladiators followed by Blind Date.

However, Friends Like These fits nicely into this early evening slot, and makes pretty damn good television. It’s influences are fairly obvious, and for the most part it can fall into populist traps, which lead to entertainment by numbers. But somehow it manages still to appeal.

The basic format is quite standard and fairly uninspiring – two teams compete against each other for the chance to then try to win a holiday. Presented by the ever lovable Ant and Dec, the teams have five members each; one comprised of “the lads”, and the other “the lasses”, who are all in their late teens, with a few possibly stretching it into their 20s, lads and ladettes through and through. Ant and Dec cajole them through a series of five “challenges”, all the time building the rivalry of boys vs girls and the posturing and inanities flow free. The “challenges” look as though they are designed to be evenly distributed in terms of boy-centric and girl-centric tasks, so that it always ends up two-all. And so to the decider. Fun enough viewing, particularly the floods of mascara and the wounded male pride on show.

The winning team get the chance to play for a holiday in a slightly more devious way. Each team member qualifies by having one of their friends answer correctly a question about them. If their friend fucks up, then they have to stay behind in Grimsby or wherever. This part of the show leans strongly towards Who Wants to be a Millionaire in everything from the lighting, music (with the heartbeat running through it), and the agonised decision making.

What they don’t know is that at the end those team members who are going can gamble their holiday – if they win the whole team go, if they lose, everybody is staying at home. Knowing this as you watch it adds to the enjoyment of their misery as they get increasingly upset at being left behind, or ruining the chance of their best mate coming with them. And that is what this show is all about really, that final five – 10 minutes where they seem to go through agonies. It is a style of programming which, it is alleged, has started to proliferate, but it is compulsive to watch.

The debate about it seems to have many of the same overtones as the upset over Moment of Truth and the deleterious effect to the children in the losing families (“Won’t somebody please think of the children?!”) The issues of responsibility, blame and guilt intellectually do not sit well with light entertainment. But let’s be honest, certainly in this case, they fit very well. OK you know what buttons they are pushing, but so what? If the contestants are acquisitive enough to put themselves through the ordeal, surely that means it’s acceptable to gain vicarious pleasure from watching their misery?

So far, it has all ended well, and the teams have gambled and won. Personally, I’ll keep watching for the one where four of them get to go, and we have one team member who gets to find out who their friends really are.


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