‘I glug The Queen’s Gambit like Fanta’: my year of living vicariously through TV

I found myself so stressed watching Netflix’s psychological thriller Behind Her Eyes that there were little red marks on my face from where I was pulling at my cheeks. “Is she doing it? Is she doing it?” I screamed as Louise went into her boss’s office and started rummaging through his papers, my mum narrating the scene because I was too tense to watch it. Minutes later, I was digging my nails into my palms as Louise headed off for another gym date with that rich woman who holds eye contact for a suspiciously long time.

Normally only Dogs Trust adverts affect me like this. But since the pandemic started, I have been significantly more emotionally invested in TV than ever before. In the past month, I have cried more than that judge on The Great Pottery Throwdown who tears up every time someone makes a nice vase. That is if I am watching what is on the screen – mostly I am so concerned for characters that I am hiding behind a large sofa cushion.

When I talked to a friend about my fragile state, she snorted: “Relax, they’re just actors.” Of course, she is right – after they filmed that Behind Her Eyes scene, someone in the real world shouted “cut” and the cast went off to get a coffee and moan about the catering, or something. But knowing that doesn’t really help. In fact, her comment annoyed me, because even if it isn’t real, it feels real.

Coronavirus has meant that the life I used to lead – long evenings at the pub and overordering at restaurants – has been taken away. Now, all I do is clip my toenails and stare into the mirror for hours at a time wondering what surgery I would get done if I were to get surgery. TV is no longer just a reflection of reality; it is the only reality to which I have access. It has become my portal to the outside world, a world in which I can no longer actualise myself.

So, when Louise slept with a man I didn’t think she should be with, I took up biting my nails again, then I spent some time wondering how she could afford that perfect flat with the semi-circular balcony (according to Rightmove, they cost about half a million). When I watched Quiz and members of the public took revenge on the Ingrams by attacking their cat, I threw tea all over myself. When the Duke of Hastings on Bridgerton took his top off in a boxing ring, I scrolled through the people he followed on Instagram to see if he was single (he isn’t, but he does go out with a writer, so that is promising). I am halfway to becoming one of those people who sends death threats to actors because I can’t understand that they are just playing a part.

It is good to feel things when I am watching TV, because I don’t feel much else. I have spent the past year frustrated that I am spending my 20s doing little more than sleeping and hate-watching influencers ride Jet Skis in Dubai, disappointment and anger hardening inside me like a rock.

That was until I watched It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’s heart-wrenching account of the Aids crisis. Watching the scene when Ritchie ballet dances in the lights of a car – knowing that he won’t get to do any of the things he has the talent to do – I shed enough tears that my neck felt sticky. All the hardness inside me was kicked loose.

I felt the same feeling of release during the first lockdown while watching I May Destroy You, particularly the moment when Arabella has an imagined conversation with her rapist. When I switched the light back on after hours burning through four episodes, I felt lighter, more able to process the doom of the news cycle flashing up on my phone. My jaw unclenched and the world poured through me again.

To borrow an overused lockdown phrase, “now more than ever”, TV is the backbone of my life. Last night, I thought about picking up the book I haven’t read for a month, but then someone messaged to ask me whether I had watched Lupin on Netflix and within minutes the TV was on again.

I chug through content as if it were a sport. A series in a day. The Sopranos twice in a year. Lockdown has rendered the term “bingewatch” void, as it no longer distinguishes a particular mode of viewing – it is just what it means to watch TV now. We chomp down each season of The Crown as though it were a double cheeseburger with extra bacon. We glug the whole of The Queen’s Gambit like a Fanta Orange. We shovel down each easily digestible episode of Selling Sunset like chips soggy with chicken chow mein residue. Now, it is the opposite of binge-watching that needs to be demarcated; perhaps we could call it “intermittent watching”, a process whereby you limit yourself to one episode a week.

When I emerge from these marathon sessions – so relieved Beth from The Queen’s Gambit didn’t fully oversleep on the day of the chess final, so worried that Unorthodox’s Esty might go back to her husband – I feel slightly dizzy, as though I have spent hours on a roundabout. I have felt so much that I have nothing left to feel. My eyes are itchy. My brain is tranquillised.

I am glad TV is around to do this. Imagine how awful you would feel during lockdown if you couldn’t record shows or fast-forward advert breaks, instead watching Homes Under the Hammer and Come Dine with Me reruns in the daytime and waiting for one good show at 9pm. What would we do? Sit with our non-thoughts in our non-lives?

It has been so long since I have gone out and danced, or sat in a library and tried to guess the jobs of everyone around me instead of getting on with writing. I have forgotten what it is like to be screaming for my own journey, instead of willing Connell in Normal People to overcome his depression. I wish I could go back to when living made me feel alive. Until then, TV will have to do.