I don’t know if you remember, but a few years ago, when YouTube figured out its algorithm and vloggers suddenly went stratospheric, there were a number of failed attempts to port internet-famous people over to actual TV. So, like, Zoella would turn up at some point. A boyish-faced YouTuber would chuckle through an entire ITV panel show without saying anything. Someone with a gossip channel would clunkily work the red carpet before a low-level awards show. This was all fine, but the experiments were doomed – YouTubers thrive when they are in complete control of their jump cuts, how often they are allowed to make a squealing noise, and whether everything they’ve said can turn out to be a prank all along. None of those tropes sat comfortably on actual television, for people with fully developed prefrontal cortexes.
There’s an uneasy parlay between TV and internet video now – KSI is always doing Bake Off or something, Saffron Barker did Strictly – but fundamentally they are two opposed worlds. YouTube is always going to be for people who get excited to see how much a balloon can be inflated before it explodes. Television can’t compete with that.
But there’s a chance BBC Three have just cracked it. Zen School of Motoring (available from 16 January) is a directly internet-inspired new show. It started life as a quietly revered YouTube series, and takes cues from the emerging forms and shapes the internet throws up – such as ASMR whispering and the sort of visual essays of Instagram Reels or TikTok – but makes them square-shaped in a way that feels just as TV as it does iPlayer. I don’t want to overhype it but Zen School of Motoring might be so transcendentally good that it bridges the ravine between the internet and TV for ever.
First, the format: it’s a camera strapped to the front of a car as it drives through London. That is it. If you are thinking this is going to be like race-through-Paris short film It Was a Date, no: Zen … is far more pondering and meditative than that, mostly because, due to the density of traffic around Stamford Hill, our host Ogmios is forced to take a slower, more deliberate route. Every pause is narrated. Every sight is absorbed and appreciated. We stop in a cul-de-sac to watch an Amazon delivery robot struggle up a high kerb. We slow to allow a pigeon to cross the road. We congratulate ourselves for noticing a pedestrian about to cross from behind a parked van. We give appreciative waves to those who let us out of exits. We stop when a parked car has balloons tied to it for a birthday. We get caught between two garbage trucks and realise it is bin day. This is slice-of-life stuff that you could notice every day if you paid attention, but being smoothly talked through it by someone who knows the veins of the city so well elevates them to something profound.
There are recurring themes – potholes, waving, a corner where there’s always a man in a white coat doing something horrifying involving butchered meat – and, over time, it all starts to add up. Ogmios is a careful, empathetic driver – perfect signalling, patient lingering behind vans struggling to make simple turns – and what happens as we drive with him is curiously calming and life-affirming. It makes me want to be a more considerate user of roads; it makes me realise just how many people I interact with every single day. “I appreciate the ‘thank you’ lights,” Ogmios whispers, as a taxi undertakes him through Angel, “but I think you gotta drive a bit better in future.” It feels like getting a massage while watching a driver’s education video after a speeding offence. It feels like being reprogrammed in how to treat people around us in a vast world.
To an unabsorbed watcher, Zen … is just dashcam footage with a narrative track over the top (I’m pretty sure ITV used to do the same show during the early hours of Saturday evening before You’ve Been Framed came on). But that’s like saying comedic advice series How to With John Wilson is just footage of litter narrated by a nerd. Pay attention to Zen … – put your phone down and commit entirely for the ride – and it will cleanse your spirit like a meditation app. We’ve finally figured out how the internet works on TV. All it needs is a GoPro attached to a car trying to get out from between these buses.