November 4, 2004

Indulging in the Reality of the Unreal

If there is a guilty pleasure in my media consumption, it is the reality TV shows that have been promulgated on prime time television over the past years. I’m talking about the shows that, while they share a certain ancestry with the first non-cable network reality show success, Survivor with its premise of physical challenges and resourceful innovation, are more directly descended from the Bachelor and its over-hyped and sensationalized romantic (melo)drama.

Shortly after getting married, my wife and I began to relax by indulging in Joe Millionaire (NBC), where, in addition to the normal intrigue of the romantic competition, deception and false appearances lie at the heart of the narrative (Joe was no millionaire catch at all, just a handsome construction worker scouted to introduce the essential twist necessary to distinguish one such romance reality show from another). This lead us to Average Joe (FOX), both the first and second versions, where the twist was that the typical model-esque female protagonist—the one who chooses the guy—was confronted by very ordinary guys to choose from. Some were too fat and some were too skinny and none of them, in a superficial Hollywood/Goldilocks way, were “just right.” The first twist, as if not distinguishing enough, was to then bring in a band of “hunks”—the more typical cast for such a reality show—to compete with the Average Joes for the heart of the girl.

We ate it up.

And we liked it for the simple reason that it was not us on the screen. Whereas Jane Greer’s readers confessed that “some of their stories [in confessional magazines] are like my life, I guess,” we were smugly pleased that these situations were so contrived and so decidedly awful that we couldn’t relate at all. While these shows purport to be reflections of “reality” they are instead distorted projections and fabrications of hyperfictions set forth as unconvincing façades of real life. The accommodations are palatial, the social interactions contrived, the decisions ludicrous (represented well byFor Love or Money), and the presentation—cunningly edited footage—equally unbelievable. Such incredible settings create a safe distance from “reality” so we can enjoy the parade of human sorrow and suffering all the time believing that our humanity is fully engaged and intact when, in fact, we have surrendered our humanity in the name of cheap entertainment.

So many moments in these weekly dramas are embarrassing, even humiliating, and while we cringe at their suffering (like typical reactions to a much earlier form of “reality” TV America’s Funniest Home Videos ala the ever present “kid accidentally hits father in the groin with a baseball bat/baseball/umbrella/watering can” incident), we were really just grateful that we had never done anything that stupid before, at least not on national television.

The pleasure of “I’m glad it’s not me” voyeurism is right in line, I think, with the general appeal that makes these shows both so successful and so utterly addicting: the exhilaration of the comfortable spectator of uncomfortable human drama. On the surface, we think we are connecting with our humanity by choosing the “real” (as represented in the Bachelorette) over the “false” (as represented by Friends) and are spending our TV time watching and learning from “real” people rather than the constructed characters depicted in fictional sitcoms or dramas. The depth of that appeal is non-existent. Neither show presents a “reality,” at least so far as that term means a genuine human experience, and one simply hires amateur “actors” at a fraction of the price they would pay for Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry. The producers’ aim in both cases is the same: lure advertisers and audiences.

I never watched the first wave of reality shows; I only came on board once the producers felt compelled to introduce the multiple twists that would make their shows stand out amidst the abundant preview hype. That those twists deeply undercut the legitimacy of the “reality” designation and made the whole project a farce, on one level or another, made it possible for me to enjoy the shows given my academic identity of a critical and selective television viewer with overtones of an aspiring academic. Such an identity makes it difficult for me to buy into a phenomenon that seems to sell itself to the public so seriously as the first wave of reality TV shows did. Once the genre established itself as a surefire ratings success, it could afford to relax and indulge in a playful twist. For me, this brought the previews and the promotions to the level of the ludicrous—and it held the appeal of films that fall in the class of “dumb comedies” (Dumb and Dumber as the quintessential example). I could enjoy something that was obviously aware of how over-the-top it was, whereas I shunned the melodramas that seemed oblivious to their melo- quality.

As a white, middle class man, I think that the whiteness of the shows made it easy for me to watch them without thinking very deeply about them. Reflecting on the participants, the homogeneity is striking. The discourse and figured world of white, middle class, American, young dating were familiar and unchallenging to me. Those features certainly limit the demographic of likely viewers, excluding many who do not share these identities, or who do not desire to identify with them or their values.

Posted by ogde0004 at November 4, 2004 1:08 PM