Monday, January 20, 2014

A 7 Year Installment Plan Is Among The Best Documentaries On Netflix

By Mickey Jhonny

When you're looking for the best documentaries on Netflix, you really do need to give some consideration to the 7 Up Series. It may not be to everyone's taste, but you'd be robbing yourself of the opportunity to experience something quite remarkable if you don't at least give it a try.

This series of films manages to be simultaneously a great achievement in documentary entertainment and a genuine contribution to sociological insight. It wasn't included on our list of the top 5 of the best documentaries on Netflix only because it really is in a different category.

It's the difference between a great gangster film, like The Godfather or Goodfellas, and a great long arch TV gangster series, like the Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire. It's a totally different kind of experience. The latter is slower, much more nuanced, and requires patience to allow it to unfold.

The 7 Up series began in 1964, when British TV producers brought together 14 children from what they perceived at the time as a representative sampling of British society. Their diversity was in their gender, race and economic condition.

The explicitly stated premise of the original program was to get a glimpse into Britain of the year 2000. The assumption was that the life conditions under which they began, would determine the direction of their lives into the future. The first installment ended with a promise to catch up with them again in the new millennium.

However, director Michael Apted, who had worked as a researcher on that original installment, had another idea. Seven years later, he took the cameras back, to record what had transpired in the children's second seven years of life. And he's been going back every seven years ever since.

At the time of writing, the most recent installment was released in the U.S. in January 2013. The children were then 56 years old. This is a strange journey for those with the patience and curiosity to stick with it.

As you might imagine, not everyone considers it compelling television. Critiques complain that it's too slow and too mundane. It's not unfair to observe that these 14 people are not especially more fascinating than the people most of us know through friendship and acquaintance. So why bother watching a TV show when you could just watch your friends, as it were?

For those who get it, though, that's kind of the point. The series turns the mundane into the special simply by turning the spotlight upon it. The heroism, humor and tragedy of all our small lives are revealed through the experience of these 14 people, growing into adulthood.

This is in a sense the original reality TV show. Except, unlike the circuses that go by that name, today, this reality, really does touch something profoundly, movingly and at times heartbreakingly real. When you watch the entire series, it is difficult not to develop a sense of personal relationship with the characters: to have favorites that you cheer for.

Yet, through it all, there is an irony underlying the entire enterprise. The idea that the series is capturing real lives; the original assumption that socio-economic origins would be charted through the years as determining life choices, all seems to have overlooked the observer principle.

This is often, though somewhat confusedly, attributed to the physicist Heisenberg. Still, you don't need sub-atomic physics to understand that when people know they're being observed, it can change their behavior.

The less famous, but more apt comparison here would be the Hawthorne experiments, conducted at a Western Electric plant in the 1920-30s. Sociologists studied the practices of the workers, but the former eventually came to the conclusion that the very experience of being studied actually changed the practices of the workers.

People who are being observed, and know that they are being observed, will tailor their behavior for the impression they want to make upon the observers. Such it would seem is human nature. We can never know, of course, how the lives of these 14 people might have been different, what other kinds of choices they might have made, what other directions their lives might have taken due to those different choices, if they weren't (and didn't expect to be) visited every 7 years by television crews. I can only say that intuitively it seems obvious to me that there would indeed have been different choices and maybe even life outcomes.

Pondering that conundrum may well be the most intriguing thought to reflect upon while watching those 14 youngsters making their way through life in this remarkable documentary.

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