The Reality Show Label


Now it’s 812 channels and nothing on but Lena Dunham.

Snobs on Parade. My alternative title. This is all getting mighty silly mighty fast.

As I suggested in my post on the Duck Dynasty flap, I’m not responding to a free speech issue per se. I’m seeing a cultural bias that amounts to a religious issue because A&E’s decision was so obviously self-destructive from the standpoint of business. Phil Robertson got to express himself, and A&E had a right to sever its business relationship with him. Part of believing in free speech is accepting that it can have consequences, fair or unfair, that simply go with the territory.

I don’t have any particular problem with what he said, unlike most of the, uh, conservatives who bravely rallied to his defense. I think it’s disingenuous for the family to claim he was set up, because I think there’s an equal chance he set them up, knowing exactly what he was doing.

As a matter of fact, I don’t even think it’s a gay issue. Rather, it’s a class issue that is gradually revealing itself in the second wave of essays and commentary that’s following the early headline reactions and declarations.

Here are two stories that illustrate this second wave, the first from an LA Times columnist and the second from a witty young thing at National Review, meaning left and right both represented.

Let’s Pluck Duck Dynasty and Sweep Away Trailer Trash TV.

Let’s Cancel All Reality TV Shows.

I’d quote teaser excerpts, but I’ve learned when I do so my wife only reads the teasers. I want you to read the articles.

However artfully or (rarely) logically expressed, the desire to banish what we personally dislike or suspect of being injurious to others who are not as enlightened as ourselves is inherently dangerous, fascistic, and/or narcissistic. It is also anti-market, anti-freedom, anti-community, and anti-democratic. Which means that it’s a huge and complex question not resolvable by either denunciation or ridicule.

Both left and right are guilty. For example, on the right, there are moral crusaders like Brent Bozell, whose MRC would like to return television to a state best exemplified by Murder She Wrote, Matt Dillon, the Dick van Dyke Show, and The Waltons. There are also economic crusaders like John Nolte at Breitbart who inveigh constantly at the wide variety of “bundled” programming we get with standard cable packages, because it would be maybe cheaper if we got to pick exactly which channels or programs we desire to pay for, without being exposed to accidental encounters with the Logo Channel, FX, MSNBC, the E! Channel, Oxygen, or the various murder channels, including ID. Much much better not to know or care what the broader culture is concerning itself with.

On the left, there’s a Pravda-esque sense that there’s stuff suitably worthwhile or at any rate acceptable and stuff that blatantly promotes racism, sexism, homophobia, and other lower class diseases which should be stamped out by the U.S. version of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. NPR, 5-year-old Global Warming documentaries on the so-called learning channels, and a few incredibly stale bits of pseudo entertainment called Law & Order SVU, Seinfeld, BBC Apocalyptica, and whatever current sitcom has the most sexually eccentric cartoon characters at the moment. When’s the last time you watched nightly news on NPR? Like a time warp. Everyone pretending to be Eric Severaid, all throaty patronizing platitudes and no hip-hop. Kind of like Brit Hume on FNC. An inside-the-beltway version of “All your base are belong to us,” no translation offered. They know. We don’t need to.

It’s all the same thing. A desire that the ideas and convictions and beliefs we hold most dear be subtly or energetically reinforced by the mass media we should choose to watch. Funny just how tedious are the preferences of those on both sides. NPR’s Frontline is every bit as coma-inducing as reruns of Quincy. (I could go on and on and on and on… But thankfully for you, I won’t) though I will say I’d rather see an episode of Andy of Mayberry than the nth pledge drive repeats of Andrea Bocelli in concert or anything new and loaded with tits and f-bombs on HBO or Showtime.

But my vote doesn’t matter, even to me. Reality TV was conceived as an antidote to the mannerist cliches of 50 years of television programming, both drama and sitcom. It has proven so successful that it is no longer a genre to be sneered at and swept away; it is the new context of an entire medium.

As such, it does not exist in any single category. Sure, there’s white trash, but that’s not really a category at all, just an easy label. Fact is, Reality TV originates from more than one pole, and despite a few superficial resemblances, there is a spectrum within each category that shouldn’t be dismissed on snooty grounds by either left or right.

As I call these out and comment on them, bear in mind that I grow weary of most series within a very few episodes. Doesn’t mean there’s never anything to be appreciated or learned.

Pseudo-celebrity Junk
. This runs the gamut from the Kardashians to Awful Housewives to Spoiled Rotten Daughters to Life with Real Rockstars You Wouldn’t Want in Your House. I call it public service programming. If I could lock it out, I wouldn’t get the vivid reminder five minutes of one episode accidentally showing up on my TV gives me.

Competitions. Survivor was the first one. Never watched it. Not snobbery just no hook. But there’s no end of them, pitting people against one another in situations that if artificially created do have some documentary aspect. Riflemen. Aspiring chefs. Models. Celebrities who play military heroes trying to do in fact what they pretend to do in front of blue screens. At the other end, wannabe singers and dancers who go through a seemingly unending audition process that reflects if not duplicates what it takes to succeed in a realm where talent is an arbiter, if not the final one. Perhaps the best of these is Face-off, a grueling marathon of would-be special effects makeup artists, who touch us by helping one another even while locked in do or die competition. The worst? Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. (Unless it’s really Fear Factor or The Biggest Loser.) Something to be learned by viewing the spectrum. Sticking your head up above the crowd is hard, no matter who you are.

Slice of Life Eavesdropping
. An invitation to indulge the native impulse toward contempt. Jersey Shore, Toddlers & Tiaras, Breaking Amish, and, yes, Orange County Choppers and Duck Dynasty. Lots of staged hijinks, crises, and manipulations. But all fiction is staged. This kind of show is your opportunity not to be swindled by acting talent. You get to decide what’s real and what, well, isn’t. Consider it non-method-acting. There are fewer sets, less rehearsal, more improvisation, more shots at a now and then epiphany not written by a talent above your pay grade. I watched an early episode of Duck Dynasty. I thought they were funny and inoffensive. But then where I grew up their antics aren’t especially unique. If it hadn’t been so much not news to me, I might have watched again.

Real Life, Edited
. Which, when you think about it is a genre called documentary, isn’t it? In the links above I was amazed at how easily the snobs lumped Reality Shows like Honey Boo Boo in with shows about Alaskan crab fishing, logging, and other respectable blue collar professions, which probably differ from Cannes Film Festival nonfiction entries only because they eschew socio-political commentary for personal narrative. Ice Road Truckers doesn’t harp on the grievances of the class of tractor trailer drivers who keep the far north’s oilfields linked with equipment and supplies. They just put us in the cab with the drivers.

My strongest image of contemporary female emancipation and courage doesn’t come from Corporate America or the DC political class. It comes from Ice Road Truckers. She repeatedly put herself in, well, fear to prove that she could do the job, and I spent a large part of my youth driving everything I could find with a steering wheel and a gearbox. Couldn’t do what she does in the show.

But by all means let’s sweep everything into a big pile of trash that has no redeeming content, educational value, or cultural interest. Let’s laugh at the people who do all the work, sacrifice everything for the merest chance at success, and tar them all with the brush that applies to the very worst. All reality TV females are Snooki, all laborers in the Deep South are toothless troglodytes, and all the competitions are fraudulent. Except that they aren’t.

The guy who hosted America’s Dirtiest Jobs did all those jobs. The Mythbusters have busted a number of dangerously wrong myths. The crab fishermen have allowed us to kibbitz even while they lost members of their own families. But the fact that they’re hard-drinking, chain-smoking and quarrelsome makes them risible nonetheless. Get rid of them. Because they’re all of a piece, disposable trash with no pedigrees or stunning glossies. And those of us who live in the tower are entitled to sneer and brush them away like crumbs from our immaculate table of life.

What the best among us know is that the way and the light for progressive utopia is BBC America, beginning with 40 years of The Truth of Doctor Who and ending with the apotheosis of Graham Norton. Andrea Bocelli is a sop for the fools who keep tuning in during pledge drives.

Got it?

I’m thinking, the more I think on it, that Phil Robertson knew precisely what he was doing. Let’s see if I’m right.

In the meantime I’ll keep my 812 channels of dross. It makes me feel like I’m not living at the bottom of a loudly echoing well.

P.S
. Yeah. There’s this one other thing, which doesn’t mention reality TV at all. But read it. Every goddam word.

2 thoughts on “The Reality Show Label

  1. I would say something about each of those articles and authors, but you have captured it completely. Some I enjoy, others I don’t, but censorship is always a dangerous cliff.

    Almost as much as elitism.

  2. Until you posted this, I wasn’t clear on the enormity and sweep of this brand of TV. I know a little bit about all of them, but just one at a time

    I was deep into Survivor for a few seasons, and while I wouldn’t enjoy it now, I really liked the social aspect of it. A large group of friends would get together, have dinner, then watch the show and laugh, cringe, and make snarky comments together. It was just before they intentionally staged the drama (so they didn’t need to record hundreds of hours of pointless footage), but of course the competition itself was a big, slick setup. The Amazing Race was also fun at times, but now I realize that was all about a decade ago. I just don’t watch them anymore.

    The only ones I can get behind are the learning ones. You can learn something from the competitions, and you definitely get exposed to our country with Dirty Jobs, IRT, Ax Men, all of those. I love the Mythbusters, show them in my classes to illustrate great physics lessons.

    There’s some great stuff going online as well. Have you seen Destin from Smarter Every Day? Tremendous footage, a bit of redneck flair (Alabama), and deep science content. He’s a Christian and he tests missiles for NASA and the military by day. For just plain fun and goofiness, try The SloMo Guys. Again, incredible shots from these Brits, how do they get those expensive cameras? Michael from VSauce always has something interesting to say, even though his delivery gets a little annoying. Much to learn from real people, and the internet allows them to actually be themselves without a network honing the ‘reality’.

    Anyway, because you wrote about it, I’m now watching the Duck Dynasty thing unfold. That first piece was right, he could’ve tried to duck out as a comedian… but I hope that he’s doing something bigger, making a real statement.

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