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The Unreality of Reality Television

Mar
30
2006

Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t watch any reality programs? I’ve got to believe there are others out there.
I don’t watch much television. For the past month I haven’t watched at all, save for the usual snippets as I’m walking through the room on the rare occasion my husband is watching.
Admittedly, my knowledge of reality programming is not first hand. People refer to them or tell me about them. News about them filters into my life from the internet or newspapers. During one particularly catastrophic winter we were forced out of our house due to water issues and spent almost a month living with my brother and sister-in-law, their twin sons and their TV, which was never turned off if one of them was awake. Nighttime’s sole activity featured flipping around several reality shows, first-run and rerun. Since the livingroom of their small house was also our bedroom, we came to know more than we wanted about the genre, since it’s pretty hard to focus on a book with all that drama going on. (At the time we also did not have cable and it took my brother a long time to convince me that Iron Chef was not a satire.)
So my first question is, why are they called “reality shows?” The situations are contrived and the participants, who are handpicked by the producers to provided maximum friction, are fully aware they are being watched. It doesn’t take a genius to know that anyone acting like a normal, boring human makes for dull TV, resulting in more manipulation by the producers to get rid of them, if they ever make the cut in the first place.
A friend of mine used to watch Survivor all the time. If I understand this correctly, a group of people are dumped on a tropical island and they are given assignments to complete as a team. Then they all take a vote about who they hate the most and that person effectively disappears. So I glean from this that Survivor is a show based on high school girls’ gym class.
One of the Survivor losers appeared in a local parade one year and my friend was all excited about seeing her in person.
“But you said she lost,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, she was a real bitch. They voted her off the island,” she said to me, waving enthusiastically to the woman riding by in a white convertible.
“Then why are you waving to her?”
She shrugged. “Well, you know, people do funny things under pressure.”
Pressure? What pressure? She loses, she goes home, right? She gets off the deserted island. And gets a parade! Even without the parade, she goes home no worse off than before. Now, if they were holding her mother hostage or something, that’s pressure. Then you’d see reality kick in.
Which leads me to my second question: Why would anyone, knowing the kind of manipulation of circumstances that goes on, subject themselves, and sometimes their family with them, to this kind of torture? Is it true that everyone has a price?


One show that epitomized the sort of personality finagling guaranteed to bring out the worst in its participants was called Wife Swap. Two families trade mothers, who are chosen for their particular and peculiar obsessions. How do they explain this to their kids? “Okay, Frankie, mommy is going to abandon you for a few weeks. But don’t worry because a strange woman will come to live with you and totally change everything about your home and your world and it will all be on TV, even if you cry like a big wussy. But it’s okay because, when it’s all over, we’re going to buy you a pony!”
Third question: How far in the dumper does a celebrity’s career have to be for he or she to do a reality show? I guess this question is just for Mr. Osbourne, whose show even my brother couldn’t keep on for any length of time before it got just too painful, and Ms. Ally, whose show I have to admit I caught about 30 second of while searching for the DVD remote. And I guess this question is also rhetorical. But one does have to wax nostalgic for those past-the-moment celebrities that bowed out of show business gracefully and moved on to other things without requiring an audience.
Now, in an ironic twist, news about reality TV is showing up next to articles about state politics. Recently I read in the newpaper (the newspaper…) that Donald Trump and Martha Stewart are feuding over some show she took over from him. Fourth question: What are they really feuding about? Who has the most unlikely hair color?
I can’t help thinking that the attraction of reality television is the same one that causes rubbernecking at accidents. We’ve just got to see the wreck and just a tiny little part of us is hoping it’s going to be gory. So why don’t they just get it over with? Offer some people a boat load of money to get on a cross country train and let them know that at some point the producers are going to derail the engine. Certainly some of them will die and their families will receive lovely parting gifts. But the real drama will be in watching what everyone does whenever the train so much as jostles! What hilarity! What tension! Will it be this week? And the excitement of the rescue, like Cops only everyone will be sure to wear their clean underwear.
I have no doubt they’ll find plenty of pinheads to participate — and, sadly, probably the biggest audience in history.

Share  Posted by Jeanne Jackson at 1:04 PM | Permalink

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