For reasons beyond my control (and the same reasons that might lead me to slow my contributions over the next weeks) I found myself watching late night reality television on TV3. Until now, reality TV and I have observed something resembling a mutually peaceful existence – I don’t bother it and it doesn’t bother me. However, watching an hour of Gordon Ramsey swear like he’d just bought a sailor’s thesaurus really just hammered home how uncomfortable I am watching reality television. What’s my problem?
Ever since reality television emerged as a genre within its own right about a decade ago with Pop Idol and American Idol (though it dates back at least a decade before that with MTV’s The Real World), I haven’t felt entertained watching it. It’s hard to put my finger on why, in particular, a whole growing subset of television makes me uncomfortable.
Of course, reality television is a misnomer. With it’s over-the-top hosts, application of mood music, selective splicing of footage, carefully choreographed interpersonal relationships and forced ‘drama’ within the concept (will the red team turn on each other? who cares?), it is just as staged as any fictional programme that appears on the airwaves from week-to-week, but somehow that doesn’t make it any easier for me to stomach.
I don’t like that these shows are produced so cheaply. I don’t mean that in a snobbish “I demand millions of dollars be spent entertaining me” sort of way, I just mean that the fact these shows were conceived solely to reduce spending on entertainment disturbs me. Reality shows obviously don’t need “writers” and “actors” (maybe they have prompt writers, producers, editors and hosts – that’s why I put the terms in inverted commas), and I think that real writers and actors are essential in what makes an entertaining drama show. Otherwise it’s just bunch of random stuff that happened while the camera was rolling and has been editted down to be the most content-free but salacious footage. There’s no structure, no rhyme, no reason.
I don’t mean that drama necessarily needs to show you rhyme or reason – the best shows like The Wire or The Sopranos revel in observing how random the universe is – simply mean that delivering that notion to the audience (in such a manner as to inspire thought) takes structure, rhyme and reason. What happens on these shows is supposedly random and chaotic real life, but to capture that randomness takes more discipline than slicing together clips of people having breakdowns and yelling at each other. It’s a story. And the defining thing about a story is that the authors have complete control over it – they can make it make sense, or make it not make sense, but every decision offers an insight into the core of what they are trying to say. Unless it’s produced by God, reality is not a story in that sense.
I like writers. I think they are craftsmen, akin to carpenters. If you want to take a pick dirty rock from the middle of some field somewhere and use it as a table (because it looks like it might be the right height or it might be the right colour), that’s your business – I’d use a table crafted by a qualified tradesman who knows what the function of a table is and what that object in the centre of my room needs to do. Similarly I trust actors to convey emotions better than reality contestants. You might argue that those contestants show us real emotions, rather than the fake stuff actors feed us, but I don’t trust those contestents and I don’t trust the editors enough to emotionally invest in them. There’s also the very simple fact that most contestants are drama queens and bad drama queens at that. Have you ever noticed how reality television shows never pick ‘normal’ people (if they exist)? The majority are more that a little… quirky. They are inherently unreal – and unable to connect, which is a problem, because equally unreal actors generally are able to connect.
But that isn’t the reason. If it were, I would hate documentaries, as they aren’t written and shouldn’t feature actors. But I don’t. If the cheapness of it all bothered me, I wouldn’t check out indie films. Maybe it’s the context. Maybe I would hate documentaries if they existed solely to squeeze writers and actors out of the market. Maybe I would hate the low-budget indie if it were produced by a large multinational conglomerate who just couldn’t be bothered funding drama. Maybe all this is beside the point.
Can I really argue that it’s voyeuristic when all art is really voyeuristic? I could argue that art doesn’t peer into the lives of real people – except when it does for docu-dramas or biographies or historicals. I’ll admit that there’s the same amount of sensationalism. And scripted drama can be just as trashy as reality television – look at Nip/Tuck, by way of example. And drama is arguably no less manipulative than the sensational editting of most reality television shows – exploiting the audience’s perceptions and emotions. All of drama is based around elliciting an emotional response from an admittedly fake scenario.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the fake nature of drama that makes it all right. It’s grand to watch Charleton Heston’s astronaut have a mental breakdown at the end of The Planet of The Apes because he’s not really having a mental breakdown and it wasn’t really Earth all along. It’s okay to be a little relieved when the wicked witch melts to death at the end of The Wizard of Oz, because she’s meant to be the embodiment of evil and not just someone who earned the wraith of the editor. There’s something more disturbing about watching a real contestant gettibng eviscerated by a judging panel and the camera urging us to savour and enjoy it. There’s something wilfully petty in watching someone give an absolutely terrible rendition of a song or dance (which we are expected to laugh at) and watch a qualified judge basically destroy their dreams.
Now, you can argue that they should have known what they were in for – they signed the forms giving the stations permission to use the footage – but that doesn’t really make it any better. I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t be allowed to put themselves through that – if they want to shatter their illusions, who am I to argue? – my problem is with the view that I should be amused at watching a (mostly harmless) person brought low and humiliated. That doesn’t sit well with me.
You could argue that most reality shows aren’t about the failure of people – yes, people, with real lives and families and existences independent of the time you spend laughing at how worthless they are – but they really are. That’s why the whole last quarter of the show is taken up with the elaborate “who is out this week?” segment. It isn’t as simple as elevating the winner, the user has to embarassed, normally with a lingering camera shot on watering eyes and a seemingly manadatory “corridor of failure” to walk. It’s never the case that the person being let go is relieved of their responsibilities in a private room with the judges being considerate, no – it’s a public announce that’s a big thing. Sure, eventually one person may win, but nearly everyone else loses.
It just seems cynical and exploitive. It’s that factor that distinguishes reality television shows from documentaries, for example. A documentary is a study of something, it doesn’t set out to humiliate anyone for your viewing pleasure (I suppose there probably are some really trashy documentaries out there – right-wing tracts like “The ObamaNation” (geddit?) probably count). I know there are undoubtedly worse things out there than shows which ask us to enjoy other people’s suffering carefully pieced together for maximum exploitation, but this just grinds my gears. These types of shows are increasingly pervasive, with a dozen launched each year. The non-competitive variants (like those Beverly Hills lifestyles shows) bother me slightly less and disturb me for different reasons, but this style of reality television is the dominant and increasingly popular.