Why I Wrote ‘The Episode’

And I have chosen you, Mr Beale, to preach this evangel… Why you?… Because you’re on television, dummy. Sixty million people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.” – Paddy Chayefsky (Network)

“The medium is the message.” – Marshall McLuhan

“I love all kinds of bread. Whenever I crave junk food, I want salty things like peanuts or potato chips.” – Tyra Banks

I’m trying to work out why I wrote this play. I’m finding it very difficult. So, I thought I’d try and explain why I think the inspiration for the show, ’America’s Next Top Model’ is worthy of a play and a conversation.

Growing up in Bristol, I used to watch tv with my sisters after school. We watched too much TV. Back in those days, we’d channel surf for hours watching programmes that we didn’t particularly like. We’d sit after school with endless cups of tea, biscuits, open mouthed for hours. We’d trade hours of television – one programme that I liked, for one programme they liked. I’m not sure if anyone actively loved Tyra Banks’ show: America’s Next Top Model, but nonetheless, we watched hours of it. We lapped up seasons. Catch phrases found their way into our everyday conversations. Impressions of Tyra, Miss Jay and Jay Alexander would appear unannounced. Certain characters and images burrowed their way into our heads.

The format of the show, for those who don’t know, is really classical. It’s a dog-eat-dog competition, where only one amateur model can prevail, only one can become (you guessed it) America’s Next Top Model. The seasons are referred to as ‘cycles’ for some mysterious reason. ‘Cycle’ gives the whole thing a kind of Hunger Games or Mad Max vibe, with the same high stakes.

It’s beautifully edited. Our allegiances shift and change week to week, and yet the central figure (Tyra) remains consistent and strong. She is our mentor, our mother, our symbol of success.

The America’s Next Top Model brand is wildly successful. The show has been adapted for Australia, Africa, Austria, Belgium, Benelux, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, The Caribbean, Colombia, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Far East, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Isreal, Italy, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Scandinavia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom (and Ireland) and Vietnam.

Worldwide, there have been 224 seasons. If each season is 12 hours long, this means that there have been 2688 episodes made. That’s 2688 hours of models walking up and down runways. That’s 112 days and nights of models smizing. That’s 16 weeks of posing and crying and makeovers and “two beautiful girls stand in front of me” and freak-outs and passions and winning and being sent home.

That’s a lot of content. That’s a lot of story. That’s a lot of characters and information. This show, along with all the television I consumed as a kid, along with all the media that I continue to consume, has informed and continues to inform the way I look at the world. At one level I think it’s all totally harmless, that it never hurt anyone. But from another angle, I think this stuff deserves to be re-examined. The narratives are powerful. The content is powerful. And though, America’s Next Top Model is certainly pre-watershed entertainment, it tell a particular story, and presents a particular set of values. Perhaps this needs to be thought about a little bit. What do we osmose when we watch? How does the stuff we consume change us? I think these questions are interesting.

After all, the host of the American version of The Apprentice now is the leader of the free world.

So, while I hope the play is funny in places, I hope it also pushes the audience to rethink its relationship to television, to image and to fashion.

Let’s have a chat in the bar after the show. Stay fierce y’all.