I recently got my foot smashed to hell while doing something stupid. Crippled and couchbound, I indulged the great American painkiller: Reality Television. That just made me more stupid.
We all know the Idiot Box is an insidious device. The TV snares your attention and lulls you into a passive stupor, polluting the subconscious with compulsive memes and corporate logos. It’s like getting blown by an android in a Wal-Mart stockroom. Yet there I was, swilling beers and letting Jersey Shore, American Idol, and truTV’s All Worked Up drown me under electromagnetic waves of human detritus.
Reverend Ron is a redneck repo man with a bleached flattop and cameras in his face. Ron cruises Lizard Lick, NC with Bobby the badass sidekick, reclaiming unpaid vehicles from ignorant white trash and whippin’ ass when necessary. That’s what All Worked Up is all about. Real people with detestable occupations, whippin’ unemployed ass. The rural South is hard, and folks will occasionally draw weapons when their Camero is at stake. Ron and Bobby get cussed at, spit on, manhandled, and shot at, but they always come out on top. Again and again and again. Then the Reverend offers some wordy gem, like “I was sweatin’ like a sinner on the front pew on Sunday” or “I’d rather drink 50 gallons of gasoline and piss on a forest fire than mess with you, Bobby.” You know, real people, like you and me.
The thing is, real people are never themselves with cameramen buzzing around like bottleflies on a fresh turd. More importantly, when bumpkins catch repo men loading their cars onto tow trucks—surrounded by flood lights and boom mikes—they don’t pull out their rifles and unload. And if they did, no cameraman would get in the shooter’s face for a close-up—at least, not twice.
Does that mean that All Worked Up is not entertaining? Of course not. It just means that it isn’t real. It’s like Chris Angel floating from an off-camera crane on Kevlar cables, or Benny Hinn healing hired plants in his congregation, or glowing testimonials on any Kevin Trudeau infomercial, or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin crushing skulls. Reality TV is about as genuine as North Korean fans at the World Cup. But you already knew that.
I’m not suggesting that the booze-soaked baked potatoes on Jersey Shore aren’t really idiotic. They are. But you can be sure that when they’re out on the town being tailed by film crews, they are only acting like idiots. It’s no secret that “reality” producers create drama with deceptive editing techniques and cast manipulation. Some shows even use a script with directed improv. No matter how hands-off the production is, you can bet that “reality” personalities are caricatures at best, hungry for attention and baited by producers. America loves them all the same.
Despite a slip with the networks, nearly a fifth of this season’s new programs are reality shows. While broadcast favorites like American Idol, Cops, and Survivor are still drawing millions of viewers, new reality programs keep springing up on cable like designer drugs in your local highschool. The genre may have lost its novelty, but its staying power is phenomenal.
In this age of self-induced credulity, it comes as no surprise that midterm elections hinge on the rants of double-talking pundits and 30 second character smears. Everyone knows that all politicians—even the Messiah—will say whatever it takes, that rock stars won’t solve world hunger, that the wars will never end. We are well aware that the pill’s side effect is lifelong addiction and there will be no cosmic season finale on 2012 to erase our mistakes. No one believes that Reality TV is real, but no one is turning off their set either.
With cameras on every street corner, it seems that American society is awash in the “reality” aesthetic. This alarming combination of surveillance and exhibitionism has become the norm. Social networks are a prime example. People put the dismal minutiae of their lives on display in this burgeoning alternate universe, where checking profiles and posting updates passes as friendship. 500 million mini-reality shows strung mouth-to-tail, an egocentric feeding frenzy of webcams, blogs, and Twitter accounts. Despite all odds, every member of this “community” hopes somebody out there cares. It should be a great comfort that no matter how much your friends ignore your evolving profile, marketing analysts and government agencies really do care, and they are watching intently. You are the star on Facebook, and who knows, maybe Paris Hilton will add you to her Friends.
How ironic that despite this outpouring of “real” stories, the art of storytelling rapidly dissolves as inexorably as a tooth in Coca-Cola. In the olden days—say, fifteen years ago—to tell a story meant capturing the essence of events and bringing them to a significant point. A good storyteller is admired for craft and clever twists. His or her task is to condense the complexities of real life into comprehensible myth. Remember? Literary expression was never perfect, but it wasn’t “just gott 2 tha house… bout to eat pb&j w bff. i h8 my life ; )))” either. Even at the height of Dallas (which should have shot J.R. the first episode), critically acclaimed drama did not consist of cameramen hovering over dumb sluts slapping each other’s snot-smeared faces.
American talent has not been drowned in this pedestrian tsunami, but I would say that true genius is paddling for its life at this point. Mediocrity has always existed, but when was it ever held in such high regard?
Sometimes I find this encouraging. After all, in the Land of Paraplegics, the one-legged man kicks everyone’s teeth in! But as my metatarsus knits back together and Western civilization’s adoration progresses from Astarte to Aphrodite to Snooki, I suspect that we’ve lost something along the way.
Years ago, I walked through a park in Nimes, France, built in the days of ancient Rome. Gorgeous marble statues of Roman deities stood silently near the mouth of Namuz’s spring. I approached one of them, a lovely young woman of perfect proportions. Her naked flesh of white marble stirred me deeply. I remember the inscription, “Vers D’amour.” When I got closer, I noticed that some barbaric fuck had recently carved his own witty inscription into her lovely white posterior. Two thousand years of perfection, and then this cretin came along—the star of his own little show.
I suppose we’ve come a long way since Juvenal’s Rome. Our bread is pre-sliced and our circuses have moving lights. I mean, we don’t throw our Christians to the lions, right? On the other hand, at least the Christians were real in those days. And so were the lions.
[Also posted on Disinformation]
© 2010 Joseph Allen