It’s supposed to be a tearjerking but ultimately uplifting viewing experience. So why does Linda Burgess find David Lomas Investigates such an uneasy watch?
I feel sort of squeamish viewing the lives of others when they’re at their lowest. Television specialises in it.
Literature has always done it – you’re meant to cry over Cordelia in King Lear’s arms, feel a tug at what passes for your heart when the distant bell tolls for the hanging of poor old Tess of the D’Urbervilles. But they’re fiction, also known as made up stories. It’s different when the camera goes off for a bit of prurient fun. Rich family swaps houses with poor family. A whole week! Ohmigod, look at the poor family, buying jewellery when surely that money could’ve bought shoes for the kids? Look at the rich family, reduced to playing cards around a kitchen table, hey, money doesn’t buy happiness, then it’s back to six bathrooms.
It’s not only what the makers of reality TV are asking of the participants, it’s also what they’re asking of us at home. If they could count how many viewers are getting a bit damp-eyed, a bit awwww…on the sofa, they would. Someone in an office somewhere in Auckland wants to make you cry. Knowing you’re being manipulated doesn’t stop you going along with it. A few decades ago, I bought into the lives of that family in those butter ad. Slowly I realised I cared far more than was rational about a made-up family whose purpose for existing was to sell me dairy products.
As I’m not quite sure what reality TV is trying to sell me, I generally avoid it. But if I want to watch something that will move me for the length of the programme but not haunt me in the way, say, the photo of the children about to be murdered in the Mai Lai massacre does – oh God why did I think about that again – then I’ll watch something like everyday people being taught to buy food more sensibly. Thirty minutes will pass pleasantly enough. The fact that they’re real people will add a skimpy layer of interest. It’s hard not to vaguely enjoy watching other people being a little foolish. Empathy will have been given nothing more than a gentle nudge. At the most, the programme will flicker at the bottom of your mind, and perhaps the next time you’re doing your disconsolate trudge around the supermarket you’ll hide the chippies under unbagged kale. If there’s one thing reality TV has taught us, it’s that you never know where there’s a camera.
I’m really not sure whether David Lomas Investigates is unforgivably emotion-tugging or not. Unforgivably is the important word here. If logic kicks in, you remind yourself that the people who choose to let Lomas enter their lives have done it willingly. Someone has probably said to them, “You know, you should get that Lomas guy to help you find your sister. Your aunty. Your Mum.” “Go on,” someone’s said to them. “You know you want to.”
If you haven’t seen it, the purpose of David Lomas Investigates is to reunite families, most particularly children who have been separated from their mothers when babies. Like absolutely everybody else, I know people who gave children up for adoption. Like everybody else, I’ve seen friends take children who are not blood relatives into their families and love them. I’ve known people who’ve attempted to find their birth parents only to be faced with rejection. I’ve known people who’ve searched tirelessly for a child given up for adoption and who’ve found them and at last been able to form a loving relationship. I’ve known people who quite simply don’t want to know.
There’s something so intensely primal about separating those linked by blood that I have a fear of it. No wonder there are people who go to their computer, take a deep breath, and fill in the form that leads them to Lomas.
Lomas. speaking. in quite a. deliberate. way. will talk to them on the phone. At some stage in what appears to be the near future, he sits himself down in the world’s most enviable office. After various ad breaks, a spot of googling, some time spent on Facebook, a happy hour on Papers Past, a flick through that quaint old thing the phonebook, a bit of fiddling round with the folk down at the DNA shop, and a chat with someone who pays to use ancestry.com, Lomas will stand to one side and watch the person he’s helped walk through a ubiquitous children’s playground. It will be next to a lake or the sea. Rangitoto could well be making a modest appearance. There’ll be pōhutukawa, a group of people slowly starting to move towards the camera – and the programme’s latest subject will fall into the arms of the first blood relation they have ever met. At home we’ll give a happy snivel and feel vaguely curious about what’s genetic. Teeth? Body shape? Freckles? Ears?
Four episodes into the new season, it’s clear that thought has gone into the order in which the stories are told. Softly, softly, ease us in. There’s a fascination with the first episode. Paula knows she is the child of a sperm donor. What seems incredible now was that in the early days of IVF a man could donate sperm on the understanding that his identity would remain a secret. Not just a secret, but unrecorded even. Not only does this imply a biological father is nothing more than a squirt of sperm, it’s as if no one thought, couldn’t this – um – lead to future complications? Unwitting incest, perhaps?
Paula is open and relaxed, indeed grateful, that she’s got a stranger to thank for her life. She has uncomplicated love for the man she’s always called Dad. DNA is the helper here; Lomas is just a phone call away from learning that Paula has half siblings on a DNA register. Between his first and second morning coffees, Lomas has set up a reunion. Sisters! Pōhutukawa trees and big hugs! The slightly tentative man who donated his sperm, only vaguely fazed by newfangled DNA checks taking away his little secret. Happy endings.
By episodes two and three the ground is rougher; we’re into abandonment. A newborn baby found by two girls in an alleyway not far from Wellington hospital. A young mother who left her baby with her mother-in-law and then vanished. A story of serial abandonment is unravelling.
The whole thing is starting to make me so uneasy. It’s not as if Lomas isn’t everything he needs to be. He’s quiet, compassionate and concerned. I think it’s the whole concept of reunions. Reunions imply a shared past; it’s unbearably poignant when that is pretty much non-existent. As anyone who writes non-fiction knows, real life stories are not structured packages that come with neat endings. In the cases that Lomas investigates, there are beginnings, and there are endings of the most tenuous kind, but what about the other bits?
There are happy meetings and not so happy meetings. At home on your sofa, sometimes you feel simplistically happy, relieved even, and sometimes you feel unsettled and sad. Those heartstrings of yours are made for tugging. But we’ve seen the credits and haven’t really got to the part where the child says, But how could you – or she, if the grim reaper has already visited – bear to have given me up? Or to the part where the parent in question rages against times when they were told there was no other choice; none. I guess it’s too late for that anyway. Lomas is as good as he could be in the situation in which he has found – no, in which he has put – himself. He’s not in the faces of the people he’s interviewing, his empathy is restrained, veering away from the sentimental. He’s modestly pleased with a job well done. If he’d got visibly misty-eyed each time, shown a hint of self-congratulation, I could well have despised him for it.
I’m so glad when people do find what they’ve – in some, but not all cases – spent their whole lives looking for. But this is not a butter ad. This programme gets to me somewhere frightening deep inside, and I can’t see how it’s entertainment.
David Lomas Investigates airs on Tuesday nights on Three and is available to stream on ThreeNow.