At a dinner party I confess that I love the reality show Teen Mom. Eyebrows go skyward and the host's college sophomore daughter goes “ewww,” and then, “ick.” She seems completely repulsed although when I go on to describe the tribulations of the young, fertile and unwed it becomes apparent that she is more than a little familiar with the show. Embarrassed, she confesses to seeing bits of the program when her “roommate is watching.” Himself, who thoroughly excoriates me for my addiction to reality shows, weighs in that, yes indeed, Farrah is a bitch to her mom. Himself reddens when the assembled turn to him in shock. The professional intellectual squirms and mutters, “I hear it when she has it on.” The word “she” is pronounced with a derisive edge. After making eye contact with Himself and enunciating a request that he perform a small household chore, I assume he is hearing impaired. I usually end up doing it by myself. Nevertheless, he is not a auditorilly challenged when it comes to the trevails of Maci and Amber.
There are so many reality shows that there are sub-sub genres. From a production standpoint and in a rotten economy with a zillion channels to fill, these shows are cheaper to make. But they are indeed made because we do indeed watch. It started back in the 70s with An American Family. I loved the show but there was a Margaret Mead quality and PBS provenance that relegated it outside the realm of popular entertainment. During the writer's strike of 1989, the show Cops, the first successful mainstream reality show debuted and opened the floodgates.
There are very few facets of society that haven't been realitized. Even the technology shunning Hutterite sect has its own show. It's on the National Geographic Channel. The erstwhile bastion of intellectual edification has become quite the bottom feeder. The Hutterites don't have televisions although some of the sects, called colonies, have some cellphones and limited Internet access. The young folks have uncannily nailed the reality show convention. Nineteen year old Claudia is the colony rebel. She wants to wear modern clothes, date “English” (as non-Hutterites are called) boys and not be manacled to woman's work. She is sort of the Hutterite Paris Hilton and she plays to the camera. The older colonists are stiff and wooden. They repeat a mantra flatly. “You can't work with the men Claudia” More fascinating to me than the video of the Hutterites interacting in front of the camera is the obvious cynicism of the show's creators.
A lot of reality programming capitalizes on hard economic times. There are at least two shows that are set in pawn shops. Storage Wars is about the auction of lockers that have gone into rental arrears. Most of the units are chock a block with possessions, lost to auction speculators, because the owners are unable to keep up payments, which run about $50 per month. There is never a nod to the irony that this default on personal belongings has spawned such a profitable hit show. Operation Repo stays on only when I have my hands in meatloaf and am unable to change the channel. The show, by the way, has become a huge international franchise. It's such an enormous hit because the vehicle is never wrested from a mom driving her kids to school or some poor schlemiel trying to get to work. Cars are taken from the reprehensible, snotty debutantes and arrogant Hollywood types. Justice is served. Schadenfreude apparently translates well into every language.
The thirst for immersion into the lives of every day people seems insatiable. Movies and fictional television are escapist entertainment. Actors are more beautiful, better dressed, wittier than any creature of the real world. People spend far more time on-line or in front of the television than engaged in social interaction. The digital age has fomented a pervasive loneliness and we yearn to connect with real people. And it is comforting to companion with those who are less beautiful, less well dressed, highly stupid and who appear on camera to be staggeringly bereft of self awareness.
Which brings me to two favorite shows and a pending spin-off which are controversial, and I guess despicable because they involve children. Nevertheless, when channel surfing, Dance Moms and Toddlers and Tiaras trump all. I haven't watched any of the real housewife shows but I presume the boozing, sniping dance moms are cut from the same cloth. The daughters study at the Abby Lee Dance Studio, Abby Lee herself being a 300 lb harridan who heaps abuse on mothers and dancers alike. We forgive the mothers a bit for forcing their daughters to endure this. When the moms aren't going at each other they unite against Abby. On every episode the moms exact a comeuppance and Miss Abby is somehow humiliated. Nevertheless, Miss Abby's girls almost always beat the rival Candy Apples in competition so her tyranny is endured. While the moms on Toddlers and Tiaras are more low rent than the dance moms, the show actually springs for some music rights. Miss Abby's girls go through their paces to public domain production music while the toddlers rock it to Beyonce and Madonna tunes.
There are about ten reality shows I keep an eye on. Even though TLC ostensibly stands for “The Learning Channel” Toddlers and Tiaras is lower on the food chain than even Hoarders, perhaps even Animal Hoarders. This week though I learn of a spin-off that will make Toddlers and Tiaras seem like Proust. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo focuses on kiddie pageant queen, Alana Thompson, a stand out out on the last season of the show. The pudgy contestant swills a concoction of Mountain Dew and Red Bull that her mom refers to as “go-go juice” and is animated, to say the least, for the judges. Mom defends her use of the energy beverage. Most of the other kids get Pixie Stix, which are referred to as pageant crack, but Alana, it is reported,consumed fourteen with no sign of improved vivacity.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo follows not just Alana, but the whole family. Certain motifs seem to be effective for reality show success. Poetic justice- like when the mean girl gets her corvette repo-ed-is is good. People also like to watch fat people. Really fat people. This makes other really fat people feel less freakish and less fat people feel thinner. I don't know how Honey Boo Boo is going to employ the device of justice being served but this family gives Biggest Loser a run for the money. As insurance that the non-severely brain-damaged viewers will feel superior to the Honey Boo Boo family, there are lots of arm farts, butt jokes and genuine mud wallowing.
I wish that this genre of television hadn't early on been dubbed “Reality TV” My kids frequently instruct me that the shows I watch are all faked. What kind of moron do they think I am? Maybe we wouldn't look down our noses so much if it were called“Manipulative TV” It's real life playing out a fantasy of itself in front of a camera. Everyone is acting. Most of the characters aren't very good actors. But it is fascinating to watch people create characters based on their selves. The choice to indulge in such exhibitionism is very telling. Who, with an iota of decency, would attempt to convince a fat family to wallow in mud? What, short of the threat of torture by starvation, would convince a fat family to wallow in mud?
There is a self righteous gratification that comes from being embarrassed for another human being. I am embarrassed for myself, having typed here several times. "Honey Boo Boo." Despite the association with ickiness, this genre's day will come. There is an art to this manipulation of reality. No cover is blown when we acknowledge the cunning, relying on non-professional actors no less, this manipulation requires. It takes is a special editor to manipulate the manipulation to its best effect. Just like in fictional TV, it's about character, tone, arc and setting. Even the most naïve viewers see the artifice. There's karmic justice and beau-coup blubber. Still, reality TV studies will inevitably become part of the cannon. Then maybe my family won't give me so much grief about watching crap.