Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Up Series: The Mother of All Reality Shows

In 1964, Michael Apted interviewed 14 seven-year old children in England from a mix of backgrounds, then returned every seven years to ask them about life and the future.

IMDB links:

Seven Up!
Seven Plus 7
21 Up
28 Up
35 Up
42 Up

I'd heard about this documentary series off and on for years, and I'm finally getting around to seeing them all at once. I've queued them all in my Netflix list, and tonight we watched the first two: Seven Up! and Seven Plus 7

It's interesting in these reality-TV times to look back on the longest-running documentary ever. The project is still ongoing -- 49 Up will be filmed this year -- and set a precedent for social commentary in the form of a serial documentary film.

Some articles:

Oct 18, 2004 - MSNBC: 'Seven Up' kids back under the lens at 49
Oct 26, 2004 - review by Bill Gibron

Right now the 'Up' series is my antidote for American Idol. I started following American Idol for the first time three weeks ago, and found myself both fascinated and turned off by what I've observed. At the same time, I couldn't very well scorn it on the basis of one show, so I decided to continue watching until the finale, and figure out if my original observations were deserved. However, there are some major differences between American Idol and the 'Up' films aside from the premise of singing contest versus documentary. Both are trying to capture the drama of life -- one being the drama of competition, the other the drama of ordinary life. It sounds like an oxymoron to say there's drama in everyday life, but that is -- to me -- where reality TV drama has left me cold.

I'm not sure whether television audiences have become so desensitised that reality just isn't entertaining enough, so we must artificially create drama, or if dramatic fiction TV isn't entertaining enough that we have to artificially create reality? I guess the question lies in each person's definition of entertainment.

For my money, the documentary wins over reality TV for entertainment value. Granted, not all documentaries are interesting, most documentaries do not have a fraction of the production value of a TV show, and some toe the line of the very truth they purport. But I believe documentaries are extremely underrated in terms of entertainment; at the very least they can make us more socially aware.

Take, for instance, the documentary Dark Days, a film by Marc Singer about the people living in the subway tunnels of Manhattan. He lived with them underground for five and a half years, and later -- with no previous experience -- made a film about their lives and what it's like to be homeless. When I first saw it, I was riveted and watched it again. This is reality at its starkest, yet the film has a great deal of aesthetic value -- it's shot well (even though it's underground) and DJ Shadow's score is phenomenal. It's been years since I saw it, but the images and soundtrack are still burned into memory. (*opens another tab to add it to Netflix queue*)

The 'Up' series, in contrast, does not follow its subjects around. It's a series of interviews with occasional clips of their activities, so in that respect it does not follow reality TV format. The first, 'Seven Up!', was filmed in 1964 and it's still in black and white. The children at the age of 7 are cute and innocent, telling us their thoughts unabashedly most of the time. Even with classic British reserve, the shy ones are still charming. When David and I weren't laughing, we were alarmed at the level of class and racial prejudice some expressed in their ideas. (Not surprisingly, from the privileged.) Their parents are never shown, so we are left to wonder how they were raised and what kind of people their parents were. In the second installment, 'Seven Plus 7', the kids are 14 and much more canny about life in general. It's a bit saddening to see their cuteness and innocence give way so quickly to worldliness; it's an indication that life has been less than idyllic for some -- it's reality, after all. We can only imagine what internal struggles they may have, or the pressure they feel to represent themselves properly to the world at 14 when they're in the throes of adolescence in 1970.

David's review of 'Seven Up!' and 'Seven Plus 7' on Multiply

We're waiting for the next four installments to arrive, when the group are 21, 28, 35, and 42 years old. More reviews to come.