Reality Television Is Overrated… And Underrated

The Real World. Big Brother. A Shot At Love. The Apprentice. American Idol. What’s Next?

It isn’t exactly walking to school uphill both ways, but I remember watching the first season of MTV’s The Real World. I remember actually being fairly excited about the show, and probably for reasons that did not work for the show’s producers. I liked it because, despite the horrendous irony of the show’s title after what it has become today, it was pretty “real” back then. You have to remember that these were the days when 99% of programming was non-reality television. That is, if you exclude things like Jerry Springer, which is sort of non-reality reality.

The idea of the show, and stop me if this sounds ludicrously boring by today’s standards, was to put relatively normal (let’s say “real,” or at least “realish”) people together to live in one house, and see what happened. Somewhere in the background of this general scheme was the idea that, look, living together is hard enough for semi-rational, average people, let’s see what friction develops as differing personalities are forced to deal with each other. As every married person, and/or everyone who has ever had merely one roommate knows, living together is a vastly different spin on getting along.

As I recall, things went along pretty swimmingly for the show. People were talking about it a bit, people were watching it. For a newish concept in a land not already polluted by a sickening plethora of reality shows, it was doing quite well. I really loved the show. Then, Puck happened, and he single-handedly created and destroyed the entire world of reality television in a single blow. For those who only know The Real World from the last 20 seasons (or whatever), Puck was on The Real World, and he hurled the ratings into a realm doubtless beyond even the wildest dreams of anyone involved with the show.

Basically, as I make sense of it, when you’re standing around the water cooler playing the daily, “What are you screening?” game, it probably hooks a few people to tell them about this interesting social experiment show where a melting pot of personalities and backgrounds live together – But, it’s got nothing on, “You have got to watch this guy Puck, he is the biggest asshole on Earth!!!”

Reality television took off, and no one was playing any games about what brought those ratings in. Every subsequent season of The Real World had at least one (sometimes three) members who were obviously chosen based purely on the fact that they were arrogant, closed-minded buffoons who couldn’t get along with an empty room for five minutes, much less cohabit with a small group for an extended period of time. New series popped up by the truckload, and the fact that they were not all titled, “Will you look at this Bastard,” was a mere technicality to lessen confusion on the lineup schedule.

The popularity had its plus side though, and reality television as a vehicle unto itself made it possible to have certain shows which at least generally aimed at something worthwhile, and moderately respectable. As an example still around and doing well, we might pick Top Chef. This is a show still riddled with faults, and meaningless, petty individuals who get a lot of airtime in proportion to how laughably pompous and overbearing they are, but there is at least an interesting theory going on. And, what the hell, sometimes there are good recipes that come out of it. Even on any such show, no matter how much we might like the concept, if it’s on a major network, and on during something close to prime time, you can’t miss the people who were picked solely on their inability to get along with anyone. Shows like Top Chef, in which there is some competition going on, and people are eliminated, abuse this idea even one step further. They do this in a back door sort of way, because if you notice the fine print at the end of every show, you’ll see that who gets eliminated is decided by the cute and industry-influential people we choose as judges, but also by the producers of the show. And, when we say “also,” well…

Check the never-ending marathons of past seasons of such shows, and check how many times we have brought it down to two people who did not do so great on whatever the challenge-du-jour might be. Now, pay no attention to what the judges have to say about them, and ask yourself who is the better potential audience draw. Check the statistics. Is the better looking and/or more obnoxious person going to come back for another week? Of course. The most recent season of Shear Genius was an exercise in managing the most blatant run of “The Hot Chick Gets To Stay” in recent reality memory.

As time went on, it seemed to turn out that there were only so many obnoxious jackasses you could find to be on your show. I know that sounds crazy given the number of shows and the demographic makeup of the general population, but producers needed to be sure. New pitches for reality television had to either have some other very compelling draw, or they had to have their jackasses built in just to be safe. How about a show with Donald Trump? (I’m only going to mention, for the sake of completist fans of this rant, that Trump managed the double-whammy with Omarosa, and then avoid giving her more press – but you might be moved to check out her MySpace page which she has converted to, where she really talks herself up). How about Gordon Ramsay?

Now, I have to clarify that I like every show Gordon Ramsay has ever been attached to. I like Simon Cowell of American Idol as well. Call me crazy, but I just like it when someone will tell people who suck that they suck. I know a lot of people seem to think Paula Abdul serves a purpose as a judge on that show, but finding a way to say something positive about every awful performance from runaway nutjobs is not built into the job description of “Singing Competition Judge.” And, here’s the thing, Ramsay is way over the top at times, and he is much like a drill instructor in a situation where this seems almost ludicrously unnecessary, but I believe he is very seriously trying to A)improve people who can be improved, and B)get people who cannot improve the hell out of the kitchen. Plus, as with Simon, when he does give you a compliment you’re sure he isn’t just jerking you around. It means something. But, you have to admit that Gordon Ramsay on a reality show was an idea that worked for producers.

So, after several years, it just turns out that the viewing public is addicted to any medium that will deliver idiots and obnoxious blowhards to them. We have now gone so far as to produce something like Meta-Morons. Down one road of building idiots and otherwise absolutely useless people into shows, we ventured into the genre whose King is The Bachelor. Basically, all applicants to the show are guaranteed to serve our purposes. In fairness, it turned out that not everyone trying to win over the affection of a random, cute guy was utterly without merit as an individual. So, of course, we had to turn it up a notch. How about if you think you’re trying to woo a millionaire, but surprise, he’s a construction worker? How about spaced-out has beens like Flavor Flav? How about odd, sexuality-indifferent women with the remarkable claim to fame of having their pictures downloaded off the internet rather a lot? Okay, watch this, how about people whose only claim to fame is that they were voted off those other shows? Listen, people want to watch idiots and jackasses, and who is showing up to try and win a date with someone who lost on a show where they were trying to win a date with an idiot jackass?! This show can’t lose!

Now, you’re asking yourself, “What’s the downside?” We admit we like watching love-to-ha
te-them characters, and we admit we love watching stupid people on television in some reality setting. Judge Judy is a prime example. I watch it myself, largely because I’m fascinated that people still go on the show. They watch the show! Then go on it!

The downside is that I want my Real World back. The massive popularity of reality as a behemoth has spawned some worthwhile, even valiant efforts, and the more they tank the less likely that we will ever dig ourselves out of the hole that not only gives us I Love New York, but more than one season of the damn thing. I mean, a joke’s a joke, but is there no hope at all?

On a positive note on this universe, PBS managed a range of entities, the best of which was Frontier House. Working with something very simple, and straight-forward (much like the original The Real World), Frontier House took a handful of families and dropped them into 1880, and let the chips fall where they may. Unfortunately (for the cohesiveness of my rant), the show had its own wacko, but the difference is that I firmly believe this was an absolute accident, and moreover something that did not make the producers particularly happy. It was a great show though, and it was filled to bursting with reality, and the people involved were, nuts or not, actual, relevant people. Even better, the people involved were dramatically affected by their time living out this experiment, and in the highest and purest ways, not in the, “that crazy bitch smacked me,” sort of way.

It was a show with purpose for those we watched, and for us doing the watching. There is a great deal to learn and experience by watching it.

Check out my review of the show, which incidentally managed to get Mark Glenn to leave a message on my answering machine (and of course, a glitch of technology caused that message to be erased before I had a chance to call him back).

Of course, being on PBS killed the show as far as hopes of serious ratings, and I don’t need to spell out why. No one’s at the water cooler talking about PBS at all. But, even within the realm of blind hope, Frontier House had very little audience, and no one is bothering to revisit either.

Another effort approaching brilliance which was nearly killed even before it was out of the can was Kid Nation (episodes available at the site). A gaggle of kids aged 8-15 were taken to a ghost town in New Mexico and, in some sense, given free reign to make decisions and become a community. The show barely aired before bizarre flames of child abuse flooded the screenwaves, and an unimaginably large cadre of do-gooders screamed and gnashed teeth at the idea of child labor laws being violated and child endangerment being overlooked. You know, because the kids are left alone. I exaggerate not one whit. Literally thousands of complaints were voiced through all possible mediums that these kids were being left alone (as in some kind of theoretical show idea they were), and were in any case being exploited by doing work and/or earning money for a television production company when they were underage.

Yes, in a show which displays hundreds of camera angles, night-vision shots of kids sleeping, and helicopter flybys of kids digging in the dirt, thousands of people complained that it was outrageous that these kids be left totally unsupervised. This brought to you by the people who destroyed the throwing of rice at weddings, because birds might eat it, and it would expand in their stomachs and kill them.

The show was an incredible adventure, and yes, it had its fairly nutty kids thrown in, and one of them claims producers egged her on, but you get enough people together and someone is going to be a bit odd. And, when a young girl gets home and finds that her parents watch her show, and say, “Oh my God! You little, disgusting brat!” said little girl is rather likely to come up with, “Ummm… they were like telling me to say those things and junk.”

The kids had to figure out how to get along, and some of them were jerks, and some of them veered toward unwatchably nice, and a lot of them were irritating in rather uninteresting ways. For the most part though, they were intensely interesting as a group project, and specifically because they were the most adult group on a reality show in decades. They were real, and lost, and annoying, and often unable to comprehend the idea of allowing another person’s viewpoint. But, because they were kids! Their angst and disharmony were legitimate, and their efforts (and even their lack of efforts) were relevant and telling, and serving a purpose to them, if no one else.

The show was easily worth Sophia alone. At 14, Sophia, a cute, spunky, yet sophisticated child was worth nearly everyone ever on reality television put together. Stuck with children mostly younger than herself, Sophia was the town mother, hardest worker, voice of reason, and Freudian prankster all in one. At moments when boredom became too much for her, she frequently created mindless entertainment just because she could. As one example, she put forward the hypothesis that — even though there is absolutely no reason for anyone to care if I section off a three-foot square of the town and declare it as my own, I bet if I do everyone will go completely insane. After standing in one spot for some time, and finding that no one happened to come anywhere near her, she roped the spot off and declared that no one else was allowed to enter.

That’s a kid I want to learn more about, and a kid I want to watch if I have to watch reality television. Needless to say, the illogical uproar has thus far axed future editions. A quick troll of the internet reveals some sources which say CBS nixed the project altogether, and others which claim CBS has season two in the can, but is afraid to air it. I don’t know where in the spectrum the truth lies, but it’s a sad tale, and if you can manage to catch the first season I highly recommend doing so.

Another holdout from the absolute necessity of idiots is The Mole. Now, it’s not that there aren’t laughably obnoxious people on the show, and it isn’t that they aren’t playing up their brainless ways for the camera on occasion. The Mole gives it a purpose though. A more real purpose than just watching jerks for the sake of watching jerks. These dozen or so jerks (who are not all jerks) are working together to complete missions in order to earn money which one of them will win, except that one of the is the mole, who is working against the team and trying to keep money out of the pot. It’s not quite so meaningful as other experiences reality television has put forward, but it’s certainly a lot better than most. The people involved are not exactly exploring human nature, or having what ought to become a life-altering experience, but there is not much bonus to acting like a jackass, and the audience gets to play along. (I had Mark picked as the Mole from almost the very beginnng, and then who goes and wins!)

As might be expected, the show, with original host Anderson Cooper (currently of bigger and better things) didn’t really take off in the ratings, and an attempt at Celebrity Mole probably did more harm than good. The show managed to come back recently, with fairly decent results, and we may finally be in store for a worthy series that stic
ks around for a while.

It’s hard to know what to make of all that, even for me, but at some point we either have shows that at least lean toward the positive ones I’ve mentioned getting ratings, or Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie keep having shows which should be titled, “The two most useless people on the planet have a lot more money than you.” We get something out of watching morons, I suppose. If they happen to be really rich morons, it makes us feel better about ourselves in some way. But, one day we look over and our teenagers are watching the show too, and a sickening dread falls on us like a death fog, because even though they’re watching it with us, we’re disturbed because we suspect maybe they aren’t watching it “with” us.

Look, we screen. It’s the whole point of this site. We say “lmao” more than twenty times a day, and pretty soon we find ourselves unsure how we are supposed to act when we want to type “lmao” and are faced with an actual person right in front of us, and us without our keyboard. Shows without laughtracks make us uncomfortable, and we claim to be fans of The Sopranos even though we don’t get HBO. It’s the appeal of screens. You don’t have to tell anyone you watch the show, and later you can jump right on the bandwagon of this rant to people’s faces if it seems to be the face a lot of people are putting forward. At the very least, you have to look the checkout person in the eye if you buy the Enquirer, or such, but no one knows what Hollywood gossip feed you get, or what you YouTube.

Let’s just try and have some self-respect about the whole thing. I don’t know why anyone watches that show with the guy who didn’t win I Love New York (or didn’t lose, depending), and I admit that it works for me that the show gets to be featured on The Soup. Whatever the reason, knock it the hell off. Puck was twenty years ago. Jokes over.

Now, “Wipeout” has come along recently, and the ratings are on fire.

I’m going to give you that one, but that shit’s hilarious.

Are You Screening?

Written by
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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