*One day I asked my dad why he only watched sports on television. His paraphrased response: “I don’t know what is going to happen. In every other program I can tell what will happen in the end.” And for the most part he was right.
When I was growing up we knew the guy would get the girl, the crisis would be resolved, the patient would live (unless it was a very special episode designed to teach us about the harshness of life), and all within a half hour.
Reality television was supposed to change that. It was supposed to be unscripted. When MTV began producing the Real World in the early 1990s viewers were given spontaneous scenes in the life of ordinary people. MTV stacked the deck a bit in pairing people from divergent backgrounds, but for the first few seasons the producers simply pointed the cameras and pressed record.
The problem is that much of today’s reality television is over scripted. Perhaps the exception are those reality programs that are competitions, which are really simply game shows with a different label. But shows like the Bachelor, Jersey Shore, and just about any program aired on VH1 are as choreographed as Broadway finales. And the insult is that we are meant to believe that the conflicts and resolutions are as authentic as they were in 1992. There is currently a program that constructs a scenario in which a select group of people are left to construct a society in a desolate area. Essentially the producers are scripting the drama via the setting.
The other insulting aspect of reality television is that the casting of these programs are not realistic either. Each show is packed with young attractive folks who help the show reach its quota of bitchiness, self-righteousness, level-headedness, spirituality, etc.; instead of portraying themselves, the individuals on these shows are caricatures portraying a stereotype. And the fact that each cast member is an aspiring model or actor underscores the fact that these shows are not realistic. When was the last time you randomly happened upon 7 people who look like 8 x 10 glossy head shots? Even the current show “Dating in the Dark,” the premise of which is that people should get to know someone without relying on a visual image, casts young good looking model types.
But why is this insulting? After all there are only but so many interesting situations and personality types, so some repetition among television shows is bound to occur.
The insult is not in the repetition of ideas, but in the dilution of talent. I would be insulted if the hospital gave me a woman who watched the entire run of ER and aspired to be a doctor. Because even though she might be able to stop my wound from bleeding that doesn’t make her a doctor. Reality television stars grew up watching television and feel that they can portray certain emotions. But that doesn’t make them actors, even if their failure at acting can be entertaining. Television executives are insulting us, the consumers, by passing an inferior product that is mislabeled as the new standard. And we’re eating it up.
Ultimately if I want to observe people get into and out of sticky situations I can always simply live my own life.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. You can reach him at [email protected].