Monday, July 11, 2011

Reality Show Burnout

Are we becoming ancient Rome? Or as one writer put it, is the “law of the jungle" taking over?

We, the formerly intelligent viewing public are morphing into “the great unwashed”, as we dumb ourselves down while voyeuristically watching intimate, private conversations, outright fights, awkward situations, and people generally making asses of themselves on reality tv. Okay, I said it. "Unscripted documentation of human events in which ordinary people instead of actors are taped on film" – is a hilariously dignifying description for the trash that now dominates the television airwaves. My kids even love it.

Not that it’s all trash – there’s a place for unscripted documentation of ordinary people -- but the trend to frame situations to incite conflict and up the ante of sensationalism is definitely the mode du jour... but is it healthy?? Do we need that much escape from our boring lives? A few shows are simply good entertainment (“America’s Funniest Home Videos”) and don’t pretend to be anything more. Some aim to be heartwarming acts of community and corporate giving (“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “The Secret Millionaire”) – and generally they are, though one sometimes wonders if things need to be so totally over the top when so many in the world are starving and homeless. A few shows actually bring out the best in people. But so many more reveal less-than-virtuous human qualities. Audiences seem to be okay, if not totally thrilled, with watching others feel unsure of themselves, scared, exhausted, embarrassed, humiliated, infuriated, deceived, and deeply disappointed, while either doing the best they can (“The Greatest Loser”) or downright drunk and tacky (“Jersey Shore”).  Do we just want to feel normal compared with the freaks on the screen? And then there’s the issue of participants who magically turn into celebrities despite having no talent whatsoever, i.e. Jessica Simpson “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica”, Paris Hilton “The Simple Life”, and Kim Kardashian (“Keeping Up with the Kardashians”) among many, many others.

We grew up on sitcoms (“The Brady Bunch), evening dramas (Hawaii Five-O”) and some games shows (“The Dating Game”) – lame though they were by today’s standards. But at least the first two had real storylines with a plot, blessedly uninterrupted by participant interviews. I was interested to learn that “Candid Camera” actually began as early as 1948, which means we’ve had lots of time to develop this genre into what it has become today. Japanese variety shows and European dancing contests have influenced our tv culture too, leading to shows like “Wipout” and “Dancing with the Stars”. There’s certainly a buzz in being the fly on the wall as events unfold, either unbeknownst to the one experiencing it or actually enhanced by the knowledge that a huge viewing audience is right there. The voyeuristic desire and sense of justice is fulfilled with surveillance-type programs like “COPS”. Are we glad someone else got the ticket? “Survivor” – the runaway success story that kicked off the reality programming trend – gave us the excitement of the proverbial desert island experience (a primal scenario?) Using sensation to generate profit is the name of the game, and sadly, it works. But, true to Hollywood’s exploitative mantra: just make money, damn it, it’s not all just spontaneous life happening. The networks put forth the directive to create entertaining stories, then the producers and editors go to work shaping storylines, picking a “cast” who will create drama, even coaching them behind the scenes. The creators are professionals even if the participants are not. It’s the propensity to appeal to the lowest common denominator of viewing interests –escapism, morbid curiosity, excitement, entertainment and peeping. We’ve descended into celebutante cheese (“Real Housewives” faux socialites), fantasy renovation cheese (“Pimp My Ride”  -- take a look at the fabulous and hilarious spoof “Mom My Ride”), romance-related cheese (“Bachelor/Bachelorette”), seriously weird cheese (“Hoarding: Buried Alive”) and job angst cheese (“Shark Tank”). Perhaps the latter takes the edge of the stress off our current market woes and worries?

What’s next – a virtual reality show in which we experience what the participants do via headsets and simulators? Oy, I’m just glad we don’t have cable.

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