Wednesday, March 28, 2012

#64 -- Why Reality TV Is Great (Once)

"Comfortably live."

Slouched on my brother's couch and combating a minor case of jetlag, I laughed my way through three hours of reality TV, comprehending in full the rage, the humor, the mendacity, and oh, the humanity that fuels this wonder-drug. I devoured The Voice and The Bachelor the same way a tourist in London consumes four pounds of fish and chips, runny grease and rubbed-off newsprint adding local flavor to the delicacy. There was so much I didn't know, and so much I wanted to know (and to declare out-loud) about each character's drama, and issues, and bullshit. To me, this whole production was such a layer-cake of motivations involving suckers and puppets that I went from giddy to superior to exhausted.

Now I never have to watch reality TV again. Nothing can top this experience. I don't want to chase the dragon. Maybe I'll come out of cryo-sleep in the year 2525 when The Hunger Games becomes real. Maybe. It's child-murder or nothing for me now. Until then, nope.

Make no mistake, The Voice's genius lies in its pop-cultural what-the-fuckery. The judges are all designed to have the most bizarre tendencies and, umm, unique silhouettes. The contest is perfect, placing singers against each other in the song battles like they were being picked for jury duty, each there to act as demographic representative and as a counter-point to one of the others. It's fascinating as hell that the producers have to cast and recast the contestants from week to week as their popularity shifts or their egos bloat. It's like March Madness: The Musical, starring Ceelo Green as a wizened desert djinn. 

Elsewhere, they were simulating an unsupervised middle school study hall over on The Bachelor. Actually, I'm holding back. It was The Bachelor: Women Tell All, a special they air it prior to the season finale to recap the season and hype the conclusion. The poor bachelor looked miserable already. Poor dude. One by one, they trot out the already-disposed contestants to talk to the host and cry and shit. Their paranoia is palpable and their self-esteem is a familiar, noxious fume that we thought we left behind as adolescents. Now though, we get to watch this drama unfold on the other side of the fish tank. We can even turn them off if we like. Personality-wise, everything we ought to know about these women is forced into two lines: age and occupation, which is enough for the audience to make a snap-judgment, and dang does making snippy comments about these awful women make us feel baddd. We get to learn the rest about them by analyzing their accents and spray-tans. These insufferable crows wear their roles on the surface, all are recognizable and understood, and even though reality TV is live, meaning it's filmed with untrained actors, it's exactly as live as we're comfortable with.

Comfortably live. Basic, rote, active, predictable, and comforting drama that we can all get down for. It's Shakespeare-in-the-Round. In many ways, reality TV, found-footage movies, and documentaries in general, with their acknowledged cameras and audience-recognition, isn't a terrible comparison to Shakespeare. It can be classy and cultured like Planet Earth or Macbeth. It can be fourth-wall breaking and aware like Paranormal Activity or A Midsummer Night's Dream. It can be cheap and moronic like Jersey Shore or Much Ado About Nothing. It's for the common man as much as it's for the dipshit British intellectual that insists any winking at the camera is confirmation that America is a failed experiment.

Reality TV is familiar theater. Bad theater, and occasionally good comedy, yeah, but it's bingable sucrose overdose that encourages you to take sides on a minute-by-minute basis in order to be in on the joke. It's a black and white cookie. Things get stale and dry up after being exposed to open air for three hours. I don't want this all the time. I don't want it year-round. I don't even want it every week. It's an event. That's its appeal, and if it happened all the time, (it wouldn't lose any mystique, because that's too strong a compliment) then we'd become desensitized to its hyper-engaging format, which is the biggest tool in its box.

And that's why reality TV is great. Once.

-- Alex Crumb
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