February 20, 2003


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For entertainment, don’t try reality TV. Though its dominating the national consciousness, today’s shows are a plastic repackaging of the TV drama. Writers make the plots, producers train the real people, and cameras go for the full cheesy bait and switch style of the soap opera.

FOX has perfected the new form, where they place ‘real’ people (underwear models, former foot fetish performers, and other titillating dregs), into zany setups where they react about as you’d expect someone to react and all of the spontaneity and surprise is sucked out.

Remember the good old days of The Real World? When MTV let blond-haired, “bad-ass” bike messenger Puck piss off everyone because he was just like that? The days of letting real people shine for their 15 minutes of fame are over. And Andy Warhol is sad about that. It’d be naive to imagine that The Real World captured ‘real’ people’s behavior as in their off-camera typical behavior. But who cares? At least it was an entertaining fraud.

The Real World’s innovation was that the people on TV were not actors. The Real World’s conceit had the beauty of a simple design: put very different people together and film the experience. It was a recipe for surprises and, at its trashy best, occasional chaos, screaming matches, and revelation.

Today, those not-so-innocent, but oh so amusing days are gone. The perverse sensibilities of FOX executives mold TV’s most popular shows. These are the people who brought you Temptation Island, Celebrity Boxing and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, and yet they are determined to edit the crudeness of real people. Like vampires, they suck.

They took your average construction worker/underwear model, Evan Marriott, struggling for success and transformed him into Joe Millionaire, a monster who would dazzle dames by posing as the recent inheritor of $50 million. Then they let a national audience in on the secret, while Evan had the unenviable task of whittling down a pool of stereotyped gold-digging women contestants to one.

Fox planned this lie by sanding down the rough edges on Marriott to make him behave like wealth should, boorishly. The dramatization of reality TV emphasizes the lameness of the American schmoe.

The drama’s whole setup couldn’t have produced a more obvious outcome: of course whatever girl is picked will come back and love Evan forever … who needs money when you’re on national TV! But as the ‘big secret’ at the show’s end revealed, Evan and his lucky lady will split $1 million between the two of them. It’s not bad, but it’s way under the union rate for lead thespians, even bad ones.

For sheer entertainment, I just walk out into the streets of Ithaca, and meet some of the most random folks around. Without a plot mold, misogynistic stereotype, or anything but the most simply designed scheme, real people make my day. Walking home last week, I crossed paths with someone going towards campus. Just past me, he let out a huge belch and as I reeled he let out this this huge, knowing grin. Now that’s entertainment. And it’s free. And Rupert Murdoch isn’t polluting my mind with trashy yet conservative programming.

If reality bites, then Reality TV needs wake up because it’s lost all of its chew.

Archived article by Peter Norlander