Reader’s voice: Hold on…what’s this? Is The Escape Artist suggesting I watch the Gogglebox? Isn’t TV just a form of slow lobotomy for consumer suckers?
Well, yes and no. True, advertising and TV news are toxic. And, according to Ofcom, the average Briton spends about 4 hours a day watching TV. With TV (and financial independence generally) comparing yourself to “normal” may not be the right starting point.
But TV can be fun in small doses. And, so you don’t have to, The Escape Artist has waded knee deep through the sewers of light entertainment and found some diamonds amongst the floaters.
The Path to financial independence (FI) needn’t always entail hard work, self-denial and recycled hessian under-garments. So let’s put our jim-jams on, make a nice cup of tea and take to the sofa.
10. Only Fools & Horses
The most iconic British TV comedy of the 1980s and 1990s. An absolute comedy gem whose intro music contained the rhetorical question and tribute to passive income:
Why do only fools and horses work?
The show revealed many of the blind spots that British people have about money. Del Boy, seeking financial independence, was portrayed as a lovable rogue, hopeless dreamer and spiv.
Unfortunately, this classic show has been the bane of many marital discussions on financial independence.
Back in the day, The Escape Artist would argue when discussing the Escape Plan with my wife that we should be stashing 50+% of our income. The Escape Artist would try to paint a picture of a rich future….as long as we put our money into a compounding machine now rather than buying more shit to clutter up the house.
This would usually get a sceptical response like:
Ohhh…you mean, this time next year we’ll be millwionaires eh Rodney?
9. Desperate Housewives
My wife and I both loved this show. Some friends thought it odd I watched a TV show seemingly aimed at women…but they were missing the underlying messages.
On the surface it looks like a soap opera set in a perfect suburban world. The people are all easy on the eye. White picket fences, large houses filled with knick knacks and soft furnishings, SUVs etc etc. No doubt millions of viewers just watched it on that level, aspiring to that suburban lifestyle.
Which is hilarious, because the show was actually a satire on that way of life and illustrated beautifully the gap between the characters desire for suburban respectability and their dark secrets which usually included money troubles as they lived beyond their means.
It wasn’t just about the girls…Carlos was the type A investment banker that decided to quit and become a better person. Which gave The Escape Artist food for thought. But, for me, Bree van de Kamp was the star character: beautiful, uptight and obsessed with creating the public illusion of a perfect life…whilst in reality everything went to shit.
The underlying message was: stop worrying about keeping up with the Joneses….they are dying on the inside.
8. Breaking Bad
Walter White is a middle aged man who has slept-walked through life. Just being nice has not got him very far. He’s lost touch with his masculinity and become a Walking Wallet. And not even a particularly effective one at that.
He’s become institutionalised in a job that uses only a fraction of his talents. He has 20 more years to serve before accessing a defined benefit pension scheme and then sliding towards death via golf.
But White’s plans change when he gets cancer: a financial disaster, thanks to poor personal finances and America’s private healthcare system. With death in prospect, Walter decides to start living and to pursue financial independence aggressively.
Truth be told, a bit too aggressively. Walter develops new skills at cooking crystal meth, firearms handling and mafia style intimidation. He develops a side hustle par excellence, making million$ in his new found vocation as a drug manufacturer and dealer.
The Escape Artist does not encourage drug dealing and murder. But you have to admire the sheer ambition and the scale of the personal transformation.
7. The Island
Bear Grylls is one of my role models. He’s tough but seems like one of the nicest guys you could ever meet.
Bear is financially independent…even with no money. As an ex SAS soldier and survival expert he can find food and shelter anywhere in the world. For free. Like anyone, Bear probably needs about 25x his required annual spending to be financially independent. For anyone struggling to do the maths, 25x zero is…errr….zero.
True, this occasionally requires a strong stomach and a level of badassity that MMM (let alone The Escape Artist) could only dream of (see video clip here).
The Show takes a dozen or so people and leaves them to survive on a desert island, living off the land without spending. Its interesting how the challenge strengthens them.
My favourite part is when the people get taken back to civilisation: hot showers, crisp white bed linen, fluffy towels, unlimited hot food and alcoholic beverages. They feel incredible euphoria. Sadly, you know that hedonic adaptation is gonna kick in eventually. Being only human, most of the contestants probably end up back home moaning about their chardonnay not being quite chilled enough and other first world problems.
6. Top Gear
Cars are money incineration units, lardmobiles and clown transporters.
But, The Escape Artist had a soft spot for Top Gear. True, it wasn’t always the most realistic of consumer advice shows, omitting as it did the downsides of car ownership.
Buying an expensive car is like buying a tiger as a pet. Yes, you can show off with it. But it’s an impractical beast that will cost you a fortune. It will crap on your carpet and eat your children. Yet in the show we saw no hire-purchase installments, no oil leaks, no speeding tickets, no court appearances, no inflated garage bills, no insurance forms and no dead pedestrians.
But, as I explained here, Top Gear was never really about cars. You could replace the cars with bikes, boats or bouncy spacehoppers and it would still work. Yes, bits were staged. But it showed a winning formula of freedom, fun, friendship, intermittent frugality and political incorrectness.
5. The Secret Millionaire
Deep down, The Escape Artist is a bit of a softie and was prone to getting a lump in his throat whilst watching this Channel 4 show that shamelessly tugged the heartstrings.
True, it was incredibly formulaic…the same plotline was acted out every time. A rich businessperson went back to their childhood roots, living undercover in some shitty part of town surrounded by a mix of people: welfare addicts, junkies and the genuinely unfortunate. The businessperson had to live frugally on what they previously considered a pittance – typically on benefits – but they always seemed to manage ok.
There would always be some incredible people in these unpromising circumstances. Selfless people dedicating their lives to serving the community as unpaid social workers, community volunteers and similar. The Escape Artist, working in The City at the time, could only marvel at this level of selflessness.
Karma would be dispensed each week as the Secret Millionaire would dole out large cheques to these saints.
It would always end in tears. But in a good way.
4. Mad Men
In Mad Men, the 1960s in New York are perfectly recreated, providing a window into the origins of The Prison Camp.
We witness the early years of consumerism from its epicentre in Madison Avenue, home of the world’s leading advertising agencies, the equivalent of Wall Street in the 1980s.
Note the contrast between the admirable skill and creativity of the people working in advertising and the adverse effects of those ads. In the home lives of the characters, we see the white picket fence houses in the suburbs, the children being introduced to processed carbohydrates for breakfast (cereal) and TV dinners whilst lapping up the brain altering adverts.
People admit they’re influenced by advertising about as often as they say they’re below average as drivers or at sex. But do the maths…
3. Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey shows life in an English country house in the early 1900’s, showing the lives of the rich aristocrats above stairs and the wage earning servants below.
What is striking to the modern viewer is how regimented life was back then. Status and the pecking order are everything. It’s hilarious how upset people get over tiny differences in status. Its not just the toffs; things really kick off if the first footman is asked to do a job that is more befitting of the second footman. Of course, we modern humans would never get worked up about such trivia.
Or would we? At work, I watched grown men and women fight over seating plans, parking spaces, office sizes, who got copied on emails, the order names were listed in, who should be invited to meetings and so on.
The people are totally set in their ways. The narrative arc shows social mobility slowly increasing but the pace of change is incredibly slow. And the legacy of a feudal class system holds back the domestic staff. This is reflected in the ingrained attitudes, habits and limiting beliefs of the servants who are mostly blind to the opportunities opening up elsewhere.
2. The Walking Dead
A sophisticated satire on consumer society. And the best guide to applied evolutionary psychology you are ever likely to find.
The Walking Dead shows the world after the mass of the population have turned into zombies. Which, for many of them, wasn’t a big change.
As others have noted (examples here and here), Zombies are rather similar to consumer suckers. Firstly, most brain activity has gone. They are activated by noise. They don’t run fast or work particularly hard but they do “work” constantly in that they are always on the lookout for living flesh. They differ from consumer suckers in that they don’t buy shit. But they conduct their quest for living flesh in much the same way….lurching around drooling, lusting and feeding.
The survivors are a minority of the population. They have to accept that there is no such thing as total safety. They can’t rely on someone else feeding them. There are no more employers, no more final salary pension schemes and no government. Their material possessions are now about practical utility: food or a gun is valuable, cushions not so much. They have to be strong, self-reliant and think for themselves.
In the humble opinion of The Escape Artist, this might just be the best TV show ever.
House is a doctor with an outsized IQ. Modelled on Sherlock Holmes, House solves medical puzzles with help from his friend Wilson.
Financially independent, House loves his work but chooses only the cases that fascinate him. House is free to break the rules of his workplace without worrying about being fired. He ignores all bureaucracy and this frees him to be a better doctor.
House is a shrewd private investor but cares little for status, money and physical possessions (other than his motorbike and piano) and is unimpressed with normal middle class pursuits like consumerism, conformity and respectability.
The acting of Hugh Laurie – previously type cast as foppish English idiots – is sublime. And the beautiful Lisa Edelstein is wonderful as a career woman, working mother and House’s boss.
Don’t be fooled by his sarcastic wit and grumpy exterior: House has incredible integrity and a strong moral code. Despite his flaws, he can’t help trying to make the world a better place. But he has a tendency to self-sabotage and struggles with connection and relationships. You gotta love him, though.
Which ones did I miss?!