Typing Faster

December 10, 2009

How Reality TV Destroyed America

Filed under: Kvetch, the biz — petertypingfaster @ 2:33 pm

Vanity Fair has a charmingly over-the-top piece on how reality television has destroyed America. Now I’m no fan of reality television, but even I have a hard time chalking up all of society’s ills to reality tv, no matter how bad it is (alright…I might make an exception for Jersey Shore).

Still, as far as rants go, it sure is an entertaining read.

I was recently in a Duane Reade drugstore, having a Hamlet fit of temporizing over which moisturizer to choose, when the normal tedium pervading the aisles was suddenly rent by the ranting distress of a young woman in her early 20s, pacing around and fuming into her cell phone. She made no effort to muffle her foulmouthed monologue, treating everyone to a one-sided tale of backstabbing betrayal—“She pretended to be my friend and shit all over me”—as mascara ran down her cheeks like raccoon tears. Judging from the unanimous round of stony expressions from customers and cashiers alike, her cri de coeur engendered no sympathy from the jury pool, partly because there was something phony about her angst, something “performative,” as they say in cultural studies. Her meltdown was reminding me of something, and then it flashed: this is how drama queens behave on Reality TV—a perfect mimicry of every spoiled snot licensed to pout on Bravo or VH1 or MTV. The thin-skinned, martyred pride, the petulant, self-centered psychodrama—she was playing the scene as if a camera crew were present, recording her wailing solo for the highlight reel. Proof, perhaps, that the ruinous effects of Reality TV have reached street level and invaded the behavioral bloodstream, goading attention junkies to act as if we’re all extras in their vanity production. There was a time when idealistic folksingers such as myself believed that Reality TV was a programming vogue that would peak and recede, leaving only its hardiest show-offs. Instead, it has metastasized like toxic mold, filling every nook and opening new crannies. Idiocracy, Mike Judge’s satire about a future society too dumb to wipe itself, now looks like a prescient documentary.

…The influence of Reality TV has been insidious, pervasive. It has ruined television, and by ruining television it has ruined America. Maybe America was already ruined, but if so, it’s now even more ruined.

Say what you will, but Mr. James Wolcott has got a fire in his belly, and that’s something I can definitely applaud. If his screed stopped there it would have been entertaining, but it goes on to offer a list of all the ways that reality TV is destroying society.

Reality TV has lowered network property values. On his weekly blog, author James Howard Kunstler (The Long Emergency) noted the significance of a memorial tribute to CBS news giant Walter Cronkite on 60 Minutes being followed by “a childish and stupid ‘reality’ show called ‘Big Brother,’” an Orwell-for-dummies exercise set in a hamster cage for preening narcissists where cameras surveil every calculated move. Kunstler observed, “This [scheduling] said even more about the craven quality of the people currently running CBS. It was also a useful lesson in the diminishing returns of technology as applied to television, since it should now be obvious that the expansion of cable broadcasting since the heyday of the ‘big three’ networks has led only to the mass replication of video garbage rather than a banquet of culture, as first touted.”

It’s pretty hard to argue with that. Reality TV is so easy, that its proliferation has led to a race for the bottom. What we’re seeing today is that “…reality programming has lowered the lowest common denominator to pre-literacy.” The same people who spend hours of their week watching Jersey Shore and the Real Housewives franchise are the same people who are voting for the next President of the United States.

How can we not be terrified by that?

Reality TV has annihilated the classic documentary. When was the last time you saw a prime-time documentary devoted to a serious subject worthy of Edward R. Murrow’s smoke rings? Since never, that’s when. They’re extinct, relics of the prehistoric past, back when television pretended to espouse civic ideals.

I’ve spent the majority of my career in the film industry working for production companies that specialized in producing documentaries. To say that making a doc is a hard road to hoe is an incredible understatement. But why would anyone want to spend the time to make a great doc when you can just throw a bunch of neanderthals making fools of themselves on television?

Reality TV wages class warfare and promotes proletarian exploitation. While the queen bee of Reality TV, Bravo executive Lauren Zalaznick, is fawned over in a New York Times Magazine profile by Susan Dominus that elevates her into the Miranda Priestly of the exegetical empyrean (“To her, what she’s producing isn’t rampant consumerism on display to be emulated or mocked, or both—it’s a form of social anthropology, a cultural text as worthy of analysis as any other, an art form suitable for her intellect”), temporary serfdom is the lot of the peon drones being pushed to the breaking point. In an eye-opener published in The New York Times of August 2, reporter Edward Wyatt revealed the sweatshop secrets of Reality TV’s mini-stockades, where economic exploitation and psychological manipulation put the vise squeeze on contestants. “With no union representation, participants on reality series are not covered by Hollywood workplace rules governing meal breaks, minimum time off between shoots or even minimum wages,” Wyatt wrote. “Most of them, in fact, receive little to no pay for their work.” The migrant camera fodder is often kept isolated, sleep-deprived, and alcoholically louche to render the subjects edgy and pliant and susceptible to fits. “If you combine no sleep with alcohol and no food, emotions are going to run high and people are going to be acting crazy…”

Class warfare? That might be a bit over the top, but I think we can all agree that the business practices a lot of reality TV productions engage in could be charitably described as “suspect.” There’s a reason these shows are so cheap after all, and if cost is the main reason broadcasters keep flooding the airwaves with this crap (and it most definitely is), then of course producers are going to cut corners wherever they can to churn out the cheapest product possible. And if the human chattel stupid enough to agree to star in these productions are put at risk, well so be it.

Reality TV has debased the time-honored art of bad acting. Bad acting comes in many bags, various odors. It can be performed by cardboard refugees from an Ed Wood movie, reciting their dialogue off an eye chart, or by hopped-up pros looking to punch a hole through the fourth wall from pure ballistic force of personality, like Joe Pesci in a bad mood. I can respect bad acting that owns its own style. What I can’t respect is bad acting that doesn’t make an effort…What kind of “acting” do we get from Reality TV? Eye-rollings. Dirty looks. Stick-figure Tinkertoy gestures. Incensed-mama head-waggings. Jaws dropped like drawbridges to convey stunned indignation.

Don’t have much else to add to that, though I can’t help but chuckle at these pathetically deluded people who think that they’re “actors” because they just wrapped their own reality show.

Emotionally, Reality TV is emaciated, envy and spite being the alternating currents. Nearly everyone conforms to crude, cartoon stereotype (bitch, gold digger, flamboyant gay, recovering addict, sofa spud, anal perfectionist, rageaholic), making as many pinched faces as the Botox will permit, a small-caliber barrage of reaction shots that can be cut from any random stretch of footage and pasted in later to punctuate an exchange.

I’ve seen the writers behind scripted series being accused of using shorthand to set up their characters, but I can’t think of a scripted series that’s as bad for this as reality television. Reality TV’s gotten to the point where half the time you don’t even need these people to open their mouths, you can tell why the producers cast them on the show based solely on their looks.

Reality TV encourages and rewards vulgar, selfish, antisocial, pissy-pants behavior. Ever since “Puck” put MTV’s Real World on the map with his nose-picking, homophobic, rebel-without-a-clue posturings and earned notoriety as the first contestant to be evicted from the premises, self-centered jerkhood has put reality’s lab rats on the publicity fast track.

Of course Puck’s Real World shenanigans seem almost quaint by today’s standards, especially when you consider just how bad some recent incidents in the reality TV world have been.

…[just look at] the latest scar on Reality TV’s record – the savage murder of former bikini model Jasmine Fiore, whose mutilated body was jammed into a trunk and discovered in a dumpster. The chief suspect was her former husband, a reality star named Ryan Alexander Jenkins, whose paltry claim to fame was his having been a contestant on the VH1 reality show Megan Wants a Millionaire, that ample contribution to humanity. (The Megan in want of a millionaire is Megan Hauserman, a graduate of VH1’s Rock of Love: Charm School, who aspires to the title of “trophy wife.”) “The case cast an unsettling light on the casting practices of reality television, in particular the sometimes tawdry shows broadcast by VH1,” reported Brian Stelter, in a New York Times story headlined, with a delicate understate bordering on self-parody, Killing Raises New Reality TV Concerns. Proper vetting would have revealed that Jenkins had been previously convicted of assault against a woman and would perhaps have disqualified him from appearing on Megan Wants a Millionaire and I Love Money 3 (also VH1). Nine days after Fiore’s disappearance, Jenkins was found hanging dead in a motel room, his suicide completing the circle of misery, brutality, and fame-grubbing futility.

Now I wouldn’t want to suggest that there’s a causal relationship between starring on a reality show and murdering your spouse, but I do think that you could make the argument that it’s symptomatic. When starring on a reality show becomes a legitimate aspiration for fame hungry attention seekers, people who are likely not the most well adjusted individuals, then you’ve got a problem. These people would exist anyway, but why create more of them if we can avoid it?

Which brings us to the articles last point. Namely that

Reality TV gives voyeurism a dirty name. For film directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Andy Warhol to Brian De Palma to Sam Peckinpah (whose last film, The Osterman Weekend, was set in a house rigged with closed-circuit TV) to Michael Haneke (Caché), voyeurism has been one of the great self-reflexive themes in postwar cinema, James Stewart with his zoom lens in Rear Window being the primary stand-in for us, the audience, spying at life through a long-range gaze. In thrillers, the idle viewer becomes implicated, ensnared, in the drama unfolding and discovers that voyeurism is a two-way mirror: Raymond Burr, the watched, glares across the courtyard and meets Stewart’s binocular gaze—contact. In the voyeurism of Reality TV, the viewer’s passivity is kept intact, pampered and massaged and force-fed Chicken McNuggets of carefully edited snippets that permit him or her to sit in easy judgment and feel superior at watching familiar strangers make fools of themselves. Reality TV looks in only one direction: down.

And that’s probably the worst part about reality television. It makes us, the audience, complicit in the egregious behavior reality television stars revel in. The difference between reality television and its scripted counterparts is that scripted shows challenge us, force us to aspire for better (at least the good ones do). Reality television just lets us wallow in the shittiest elements that make up our day to day lives. We’re better than that people.



  1. Well, your previous entry about “When TV Became Art” mentioned that the rise of Reality TV coincided with some of the best TV dramas. I entertain the notion that this is not an accident. It’s served to siphon off some of the people that otherwise would have gone into scripted TV and just got in the way.

    Comment by Ryan — December 10, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

  2. I have issues with most reality television programs, not just because they’ve reduced the number of scripted dramatic/comedic programs being made (because there have been a lot of really good dramatic TV shows made in the past 10 years)..but more so because of what damage it’s doing and has done to our society as a whole. I liked this piece.

    Comment by wcdixon — December 10, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

    • Yeah, it was definitely a fun piece.

      Comment by petertypingfaster — December 11, 2009 @ 11:44 am

      • Excellent post, I couldn’t have said it better.

        Now if we could only get the public to stop watching this rubbish.

        Comment by Garner Haines — September 15, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

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