Yes I know - How phony is it to brag that you’ve never seen The Kardasians or Wife Swap or The Biggest Loser or the Bachelorette? No one believes you of course. I mean really, who can we escape these little escapes into non-reality reality? We all seem unable to resist them, as there is a show for everyone; bikers, fashion designers, bounty hunters, regular hunters, treasure hunters, car lovers, dog lovers, beauty contest contenders, hoarders, miners, oil drillers, brides and just ordinary people like the rest of us.
Deeper thinkers and far better writers then I have explored the dichotomy of the American psyche and ended up scratching their collective heads. How could we have given the world the likes of T. S. Elliot, Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, John Ford, Martha Graham, Walt Disney, John Muir, Eugene O’Neil, Frank Lloyd Wright and so many others, and then to follow up with such a silly, lightweight collection of television programming?
What does how we entertain and express ourselves tell us, about us? Are we F. Scott Fitzgerald or Soupy Sales? Are we The Three Tenors or the Three Stooges? If we look at ourselves honestly, we will most likely find that we are a bit of both with a lot of other things mixed in… The ridiculous and the sublime all wrapped together in a Gordian Knot. Where does Cole Porter start and Weird Al Yankovic end?
One thing we can rely upon is that we are all easily bored.
Thomas Hood, a 19th century English poet said, “There are three things the public will always clamor for, sooner or later: and they are, novelty, novelty and novelty.”
Television understands perfectly what we want and that, as Thomas Hood said, is novelty, novelty and more novelty. Show me a newly discovered five thousand year old cave painting and after ten minutes I’ve seen all I need, you know, like the Grand Canyon. But show me a three headed chicken and I’m fascinated, entertained and eager to share the image with all of my friends.
So why are we so shallow while at the same time capable of such flights of creativity and genius? This is what I want to think about and in order to give myself a kick start I need to immerse myself in the ridiculous and get it out of the way because I can’t envision one existing without the other – sort of like Heaven and Hell.
On the topic of Hell - I subscribe to a cable service like most Americans and like most I have gone up and down in the size and scope of service I’ve ordered over the years. Currently I have a fairly basic package with about 140 stations available to me. Many of these I would never watch and resent having to pay for but without any regulation I am stuck with a bundle that includes a number of faith based networks that want to save my soul and open my wallet, a surprising number of Spanish language networks, many that are just plain raunchy and melodramatic and the a spattering of women’s networks that offer a course of poorly produced weepy movies and infomercials on makeup, weight loss and hair products the rest of the time.
Now to be fair, my wife has no use for all the ESPN’s or the car and speed networks, the Country Music or much use for the Food Channel, which I love… So at the end of the day we probably watch twenty or so networks out of the 140 available.
I’m wandering a bit here but stick with me if you can…. I’m repulsed and yet fascinated by the landslide of reality shows that have become the de rigueur fare, most especially for cable networks. I don’t know whom to blame or whom to congratulate but I can start with Mark Burnett and his “Survivor” series that got American used to not noticing the camera crews following the castaways around as they ate grubs and struggled just to survive. I actually worked on his first series that was titled Eco Challenge, so perhaps I’m partially to blame, or to be congratulated? In any event the Reality thing went viral and just like rap music, which I swore would not last, it has lasted and thrived beyond anyone’s expectations.
So in order to take a look at how we entertain ourselves there is probably not a better place to start than with reality shows. In these productions there are bits of art, drama, craft and insight – just as you may find at the neighborhood barbershop and that’s what makes them work. So with a tip of the hat to a new American favorite, let’s take a glance at some of the offerings the networks have cooked up for us.
I should warn you that I have included a few shows (6) that exist only in my head. I thought it would be fun to throw them in, just in case any reality show producers should read my blog and want to help me develop the shows. See if you can pick out my BS from the other BS…..
Judge not lest you be judged.
DivorceCourt The Original (1957) Trashypeople – trashy show. The People’s Court The Tin Standard! FromJudges Wapner to Milian. Judge Judy Stern but Fair. Don’tannoy her, this old bird is tough! Judge Joe Brown Yet another tough judge – who wants a wuss on the bench? Texas Justice Judge Larry Joe Doherty (Needs a Curly in there somewhere). Justice of Judge Jeanine Pirro – Fox politico hack becomes a TV judge! Swift Justice Jackie Glass – Vegas judge who preferred a sham court. Judge Alex Judge Alex Ferrer – An ex Flordia law-enforcement/Judge guy. Judge Hatchet Judge Glenda Hatchett – Juvenile court – kids beware!
What can be said about this mixture of carnival and silliness? It may be said that these shows of course have little or nothing to do in reality with justice or its administration. On safe ground there I think, as these have no more correlation to legal principals than Gomer Pile has to Cary Grant. The odd thing is the networks and the media call them Reality Shows. Who said the bigger the lie the easier to believe?
Are they harmful? Probably no more than fad diets, circus clowns, truck races, tractor pulls and putting horseradish on your hotdog. Are they something we should aspire to? Hopefully not. Would we be better of spending that half-hour doing something else? It may be argued….
All of this stuff is trying to be the lowest common denominator but they have a lot of competition on the way.
Let’s move on with Law Enforcement:
Bordertown:Larado Cops versus Narcos in Texas Dog the Bounty Hunter 8 seasons – A&E (Art, no - Entertainment maybe?) Cajun Justice Oxymoron? Coast Guard Alaska OK, more of a documentary/reality mix. Alaska State Troopers Outdoor law – sober bears and drunk hunters. A Gizillion police chases Lumping all the exciting patrol car chases together. Law on the Border Fairly real but relies on camera to bring out the ham. NW Woods Law Poachers and such.
“Wars, Warriors, Battles and Felons” (Using “War” in a title is like putting “Free Beer” over the bar, everyone shows up):
ShippingWarsCompetition in hauling. "They drive by Night" it isn't. Storage Wars Bidding on treasures and dirty laundry in storage lockers. Border Wars Illegals and Agents play hide and seek. Great Lake Warriors Tugboat men against the clock. Baggage Battles Same as Storage Wars but with luggage. Property Wars Same as Storage Wars but with houses. Parking Wars A lot of fussing as cars get the boot. Cupcake Wars You need to take the Angst with the Icing. Craft Wars Crafters battle for dough. Market Warriors Barbarians at the gates – Even PBS, really? Coin Battles Coin collectors in free fall. Not worth a cent. Texas Car Wars It’s always bigger and better in Texas. Car Warriors Teams fixing cars – Novel concept! Hard Parts – South Bronx Dems and Dose guys race against the clock to find old carparts.
Speaking of Competition:
Herecomes Honey Boo Boo Annoying little pagent girl pampered byannoying mom. Dance Moms More moms with trailer park mentality. Toddlers and Tiaras Little kids under the camera fulfilling mom’s dream. America’s next Top Model Sort of like above but a few years later. Project Runway Fashion and competition – It’s a win, win! Natural Born Sellers More competition, but natural of course. Say Yes to the Dress Do I have to? Say Yes to the Bridesmaids Why not? We’ve alreadysaid Yes to the Dress. I Found the Gown Thank God! I wasworried she’d have to wear a Mumu.
Social Structures, Anger, Angst, Feigned Emotion and Suspension of Disbelief:
Survivor Still the King. The Medici in tank tops, eating bugs. The Kardashians The show that keeps on giving. The Bachelor A bevy of real beauties compete for one guy. Really? The Bachelorette Who’s said no one would believe this is real? 19 Kids and Counting Leporid like couple just can’t stop. The Apprentice A scowl and a bouffant - “You’re fired!” The Celebrity Apprentice A Clown and his court. “Your Hired!” Stripper "U" Six girls compete for lucrative jobs in Japan. Bachelor Pad Kinda like “Survivor” but indoors with better food. American Colony Hutterites proclaiming, “We are not a cult!” American Gypsies Psychic shops and gold chains - classy! Big Brother An International hit – what’s not to like? Family Jewels Gene Simmons, an iconoclast to the end. Mrs. Eastwood & Co. Dina makes cookies - Clint scowls at an empty chair. Housewives of everywhere You name a city - It has real housewives! Big Rich Texas Skinny, snarky, rich Texas women feud with one another. Fun, fun, fun. Virgin Diaries The title says it all. Jersey Shore When you think you’ve hit bottom – keep digging. Beverly Hills Nannies How cute these little devils and what idiot parents. Wife Swap Take my wife….. Please. Four Weddings A few years before you Swap Wives. Trading Spouses A want-to-be Wife Swap. A Baby Story Trials and tribulations of pregnancies and parenthood. Undercover Boss So who’s this new guy being followed around by a camera crew? Bunker Families 3 Nebraska families share an old missile silo and wait for Armageddon. Million $ Contractor Pretention, Pretention, all is Pretention. Elbow Room Contractor expands poor family’s homes – who pays for this? Lizard Lick Towing This coupe wants to impound your car –beware. Wigged Out Sisters Mary Jayne & Taryn spat, buy hair, make custom wigs. Little People/Big World A series about a family of little people, duh. Breaking Amish Young attractive Amish kids bolt and try the fast lane in NYC. Collection Intervention Collectors helped - too many robots and action figures. Week the Woman Went If you don’t mind uber stupid, this might work for you. Women on Death Row Sad, intrusion wrapped in a cloak of sympathy. Hoarding Buried Alive The more shocking the higher the ratings - very sad. Tia and Tamara New reality rolls forthe sisters. Abby & Brittany More sisters, more drivel. Bayou Millionaires The Beverly Hillbillies meet The Simpsons Duck Dynasties The Beverly Hillbillies meet Ma and Pa Kettle. The Biggest Loser Heavy People perform amidst tsunamis of emotion. Redneck Island As the joke goes, 'There ain't no cure for stupid.' The New Confederacy Good ol boys form a militia. Wives design uniforms. Gator Boys Alligator rasslers – How could you have known? Call of the Wildman Turtle rassler in Kentucky. Billy the Exterminator Got a wolverine in your library? Call Billy. Swamp People More alligator hunters needing dental work. Hillbilly Hand Fishing Do I need to explain this to you? Bering Sea Gold Gals and guys dive and yell at one another lot.
Odd jobs, Building, Cars, Pawning, Restorations, Guns and other stuff:
PawnStars Old man, son and two idiots run Vegas pawn shop. Hardcore Pawn Bargain basement version of above. American Restoration Spin off from Pawn Stars – Many deadlines. American Hot Rod They build Hot Rods – Many deadlines. American Chopper They build Choppers and argue – Many deadlines. American Pickers They pick up old rusted stuff. Abandoned They look for stuff in old run down buildings Barter Kings They Barter with deadlines to be met. Sons of Guns They fix guns – Many deadlines. Top Chefs They cook – Many deadlines. Cake Boss They bake – Many deadlines. Ice Truckers They truck – Many deadlines. Ice Pilots They fly – many deadlines. Picked off They compete to find valuables – many deadlines. Cajun Pawn Stars They Pawn and eat jambalaya and crawfish pie on the bayou. Junk Gypsies Two cowgirls bring junk to your home and you pay them. Toy Hunter They hunt for old toys. Iron Men NYC They work on tall buildings and go out and drink beer. Dumpster Divers Teams compete to collect food for a dumpster dinner. Tanked They build lavish fish tanks for lavish rich people. South Beach Classics Older guy, young hot wife sell classic cars – He's happy, she's ambitious. The Dog Whisperer Cesar plays Freud to mutts and owners. My Cat from Hell Weird guy plays Jung to Cats and owners.
Hold on, I just heard someone scream “Enough!” from the back row.
Alright. Alright. There are a lot more of these offerings but by now it should be clear that P.T. Barnum was spot on when he declared, “No one ever lost a dollar underestimating the taste of the American Public.” Certainly not cable network programmers.
The interesting question is what do all of these programs have in common and why are we so fascinated with them? First of all, whether set in a Beverly Hills mansion or a Louisiana swamp, they all have the keystones of drama; love, loss, trial, fear and redemption without the demands that real drama, literature and art require. We can watch the gypsy guys take baseball bats to someone’s car and six minutes later they have gone before the High Gypsy Council, hugged and settled their dispute. Like the Grand Canyon, six minutes is enough. These shows present life in shorthand and they hit all the marks along the way – You get a laugh, a conflict, and a worry and then a resolution and you’re done until the next episode – and then it starts all over again. The shows are oh so shallow but oh so very cleverly produced and professionally crafted. We are really good at what we do, the best in the world and we can make really good commercial crap if that is what can be sold.
Another aspect of our affection for reality shows is that most feed our need to know and in someway control who won and who lost. We want to participate and the way we do that is to identify with someone or some group in the show and pull for them.
We also need villains and the sociologic centric shows understand that viewers not only need someone to root for but also to root against. Like in the Broadcast Network ‘s performance shows we want to not only watch a program we want to interact with it – we want to feel empowered to effect the outcome of a contest – who stays, who goes, who wins. In short we want to be part of the program itself.
Animus is a strong emotion and after all in great drama, a great hero’s always needs equally great villains. Where would Batman be without the Joker or Sherlock Holmes without Doctor Moriarty? Then of course you could have two antagonists like Donald Trump and Omarosa. Stirring emotions brings far more viewers than stirring “the little gray cells” as Hurcule Poiriot might say. The highest rated talk shows on radio are always the posers that spew the most hatred and fear from their microphones – and ever it shall be.
In a way of course the cable networks need to jump on the reality show bandwagon the same as the original three networks (CBS, ABC and NBC) needed to offer highly limited animation for television in the late fifties. Money talks and grand designs often need to walk. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera figured a way to create shows that could be produced at very low cost compared with the theatrical shorts that had been made at MGM and Warner Brothers. Today’s reality shows are dirt cheap compared to broadcast scripted shows and when shooting digital, the camera can just keep running and the show gets put together in the editing bay. Of course there are scripts of a sort, notes that tell all the real people how to be the character that the show’s staff need them to portray. “Bobby Joe, today you are going to be jealous of your sister flirting with your German boyfriend, Hans.”
Well I’ve worn myself out so I want to wrap this first entry up by closing with a few observations – If animation was made primarily to entertain and amuse children and those adults that weren’t afraid at times to be childlike, then these light weight reality shows offer the same kind of escape for others. They do not have to be anything but novel to get our attention and at the end of the day I don’t suppose we actually have to believe they are real any more than someone reading Hamlet would believe he was the actual Prince of Denmark. But for a certain time period we are willing and desirous to suspend disbelief in order that we may enjoy the drama, a drama that demands to be viewed within the framework of reality.
Now let me jump out of this by admitting that we all like junk food and we shouldn’t feel the need to apologize for accepting an occasional lunch of double-cheese burgers, fries and milk shakes. However if we find that we are being given that same lunch everyday we might begin to wonder why we couldn’t have a little more balance in our diet (This is not a good analogy for me). There is nothing deadly or evil about reality shows but the networks may be force-feeding us and I think we should be wise enough to want a little more diversity. Remember what I’ve always said in my articles/blogs: The networks are not arbiters of culture, fashion, ideas or anything else but ratings. We want Fyodor Dostoyevsky they will give us Dostoyevsky but if we prefer Jackie Collins, you can bet your boots that’s who we will get. Comic books are wonderful but we might want to take a few minutes to look at some Post Impressionists, just to clean the pallet.
OK, enough. If you have comments, arguments or anything you’d like to say please do so – I will pick this up more in a week or so and try to draw a tangential line between art and films and a whole lot of other stuff just to see where it goes.. Oh, and if you haven't figured out which 6 shows on the list are bogus (as opposed to the other 105 shows that are really bogus, but in a different way) I will list them on my next blog.