Saturday, September 18, 2010

the appeal of reality shows

We want our art to be life-like, but somehow also, larger than life.

In 2008, more votes were cast for American Idol than for Barack Obama for president: 97 million for American Idol and, on Election Day, 70 million for Obama.

I try not to watch reality TV, but it happens anyway. My aunt and uncle, both of whom are pretty intellectual, live two doors down from me and watch reality TV, so I watch it with them sometimes. My wife (another vety intelligent person) watches America’s Next Top Model, so I’m all too familiar with that show as well. I think different people get sucked into reality shows for different reasons. My aunt and uncle seem to like the competition aspect. It becomes a blurry vision of televised sports (which also has that added sense of immediacy because it’s unfiltered, is "really" happening, and therefore there’s the feeling that in the next minute anything can happen adds to the excitement of a competition). My wife seems to like America’s Next Top Model for the elements you would find in a soap opera: the intrigue and fighting among the contestants. The producers have a way of typecasting and highlighting aspects of each girl’s personality for greater effect (nearly everyone wants to see beautiful young women gossip and argue). There’s also always at least one minor subplot. However scripted the show is, it’s more compellingthan standard soap operas. I like to see how reality shows are put together, especially the way in which the shows are a hybrid mutant of documentaries, game shows, and soaps. The producers have no problem blurring the lines between these three types of shows: they take what works and discard the rest.

My big-picture philosophy is that with shows like this, I don’t think our viewers necessarily differentiate between what’s scripted and what’s not. Our primary goal is to make a show that’s compelling.

Readers thirst for a narrative, any narrative, and will turn to the most compelling one.

Bored with the airbrushed perfection of Friends, we want to watch real people stuck on tropical islands without dental floss. We want our viewing to reflect our complicated, messy, difficult, overloaded, overstimulated lives. Let’s see messy houses getting clean, bratty children caught on hidden cameras, actual arguments between genuine young people being authentically solipsistic.

The bachelorette on the brink of true love with one of several men she has known for seven hours; the cad who manipulates his beloved on cue narratives: false actualization and authentic shame. The success of the genre reflects our lust for emotional meaning.We really do want to feel, even if that means indulging in someone else’s joy or woe. We have a thirst for reality (other people’s reality, edited) even as we suffer a surfeit of reality (our own--boring/painful).

Forms serve the culture; when they die, they die for a good reason: they’re no longer embodying what it’s like to be alive. If reality TV manages to convey something that a more manifestly scripted and plotted show doesn’t, that’s less an affront to writers than a challenge.

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