Please Don't Think
It's best not to analyze reality TV
By P.J. Bednarski, Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/23/2003 7:00:00 PM
Are you hot? I know I am not, and I would not be a very likely nominee for the new, fine ABC reality show that asks that question. What's more, having seen it, I am apparently a little rusty about what being hot looks like.
I only bring it up because, in a thoughtful essay in a recent Newsweek, Anna Quindlen theorized that reality shows are so popular now because they keep our minds off the real reality, which is being blown to smithereens while clutching a role of duct tape, or going to war in Iraq, whichever comes first.
I'm a sucker for that kind of sociological musing, and it just might be true. But I have a feeling we watch reality shows for the ugly reason you might suspect: Most of them have an undercurrent of hostility. Are you hot? Well, it's nice if you are, but, in the first episode of this program, we were presented with several faces and bodies that clearly suggested that a few contestants wandered into the wrong line. The real fun of Are You Hot? is berating Who Is Not. The real fun of Survivor is rooting for disaster for one of the players. Joe Millionaire was based on the premise that it wouldn't be hard to find a group of great-looking women who would be revealed to be gold diggers: pretty on the outside, dangerous on the inside. I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here, new on ABC, is no big hit because it dares to tell the joke from the beginning. The "contestants" aren't celebrities at all, so it would seem to me; viewers are virtually urged to ignore them all.
Of course, I'm over-thinking it. What else is there to do during these shows, pay attention? If I am not trying to understand why I'm watching, I am thinking this: "What reality scheme could I think of that is even more salacious than the show I'm watching?" It's not as easy as you'd think, by the way.
Reality shows, however, have all the addicting elements of soap opera—hidden motives, nasty conspiracies, well-disguised lies—that bring viewers back night by night. And, because the contestants are "real people," the tabloid press has lots of fun with them, and they are more or less defenseless when their real lives are generally pounded into burger meat. People do the darndest things: Who'd have thunk Joe Millionaire would be courting a woman who made bondage movies—in which she was fully clothed!
But I really don't care anymore, even for the vicious-amusement value. We now can be our own carnival act if we choose to be, and many do. And, eventually, you're a nobody again, too. Reality shows, they say, don't repeat well, so the average humiliated contestant can at least pray for the day his or her notoriety is gone. But no doubt there will "Best of" shows and reunion shows, and, if cable can have an entire Game Show Network, an all-reality channel is, unfortunately, probably already in the planning stages somewhere at Fox.
After a previous column berating reality shows, I got a call from an agent who helps get a lot of these babies on the air. In fact, he worked on some "good " ones (and I told him so), but the conversation made me realize that, in a relatively short time, reality has gone from benign (Survivor) to malicious. (ABC will soon begin airing The Family, in which an extended family will battle each other for prizes and lots of money.)
An alternative theory to Quindlen's is that journalists need to figure out deep reasons that they are attracted to goofy things. The average American doesn't have to do anything but watch. I keep hearing that reality shows thrive on the buzz they create around the water cooler, but I have never heard anyone discuss reality shows around a water cooler or elsewhere when the tone of voice wasn't derisive and just a little bit defensive.
That gives me some hope, and you too, readers: I'll try hard not to mention the subject again.
Bednarski may be reached at email@example.com
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