Tag Archives: reality television

“Reality” Television

There’s a program on the Lifetime network called Unreal that’s a spoof of reality programs like The Bachelor. The New Yorker magazine – yes, The New Yorker again, you really should give it a look – published a profile of the creator of Unreal that began in the following manner:

For three years, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro worked as a producer on the reality show “The Bachelor.” Her task, as she recalls it, was to get the contestants to “open up, and to give them terrible advice, and to deprive them of sleep.” She sees it now as “complicated manipulation through friendship.” To insure that intense emotions were captured on camera, she sometimes misled contestants who were about to be rejected. “The night they were going to get dumped, I would go to the hotel room where they were staying and say, ‘I’m going to lose my job for telling you this, but he’s going to pick you—he’s going to propose,’ ” Shapiro said. After the contestant left the set, disconsolate, Shapiro joined her in a limousine while the stereo played a song that the contestant had been primed to see as “ ‘their song’ for their love story with the Bachelor.” Shapiro kept jalapeños or lemons hidden in her jacket pocket—dabbing something acidic in her eye allowed her to cry on cue, which helped elicit tears from the contestant. “I’d have arranged with the driver to have the song play just until I got a shot of her crying—then cut the music so I could start the interview,” Shapiro explained. “They’d often tell us to drive up and down the 405 until the girls cried—and not to come home if we didn’t get tears, because we’d be fired.” In hindsight, Shapiro said, being fired “would have been a great solution to my problems.”

The Curmudgeon suspects that most of us know that there’s not much reality in reality television but he must confess that he never quite envisioned this much manipulation of the people/fools who appear on such programs.



The Underlying Premise of Reality Television

Whether it’s a survival show or a cooking contest, a singing or clothes designing competition, a program about dating, or an offering featuring “friends” or families living in unusually close quarters or interacting in unusually intimate ways, the underlying objective of most “reality” television today is to put people in an environment in which they will be mean to one another.

Think about it.  Do you watch for the competition?  For the premise?  No.  You watch to see those awful housewives be vicious to one another.  To see people plotting to have someone tossed out of “the house.”  To see Kourtney use that limited gray matter between her ears to explain, in that horrendous monotone of hers, that one of her sisters has, for the eighth time in the past month, done or said something so evil that she will never, ever forgive her.  To hear Simon tell some poor soul that she is utterly devoid of talent.  To see that terrible matchmaker shrew behave in a manner that tempts The Curmudgeon to describe her with a word he has never utterly aloud.

The Curmudgeon is not an expert on reality television – in fact, he tries to avoid it as much as possible – but you’d have to live in a cave not to be aware of the doings of Snooki and the Situation, of Bethany and Ramona, of Tyra and Tabatha, of Padma and Jeff Lewis.

Are we interested in seeing the food the competitors cook or the unspeakable abuse that Gordon Ramsay heaps upon them?

Are we interested in the everyday lives of the housewives of New Jersey or are we just interested in seeing how Teresa will next demonstrate her astonishing stupidity and cupidity?

Are we interested in seeing who will be the next “supermodel” – as if there’s anything at all super about women whose foremost physical attribute is that their shape most closely resembles that of a clothes hanger – or are we really interested in seeing Tyra and the other judges she recruited from the circus freak show belittle the contestants’ “talent”?

Are we interested in seeing the Big Brother or Survivor competitions or listening in on the machinations of the contestants as they plot against one another?

Are we interested in seeing which walking advertisement for Valtrex that Bret Michaels will choose to join his harem or do we really just want to see how those silicone-inflated, tattoo-covered, attention-craving, addled-brained women will attempt to destroy one another?

No, it’s not the substance of these programs that interests people:  it’s the inter-personal fireworks.  The formula is simple:  put people who don’t really know one another in a close environment, force them to live together or spend time together in highly contrived joint pursuits, and watch the animosity bubble to the top.  (Okay, The Curmudgeon realizes he is now mixing his metaphors.  Anything that bubbles to the top would probably douse the fireworks.)  Think about it:  why else would the contestants on America’s Next Top Model need to live together except to spice the competition by fostering animosity within the I-just-ate-half-a-bagel-and-boy-am-I-ever stuffed gang that makes that competition very personal?  Why do the women on the “housewives” programs routinely vacation together when many so clearly cannot stand one another?  Do you routinely vacation with people you don’t like?

The mold seems to have been cast on MTV’s Real World during a season in which a particularly obnoxious cast member seemed to go out of his way to exploit every opportunity to alienate his housemates.  Eventually they demanded his ouster from the house, the show’s popularity soared, and a new form of popular television entertainment was born.

The premise of these programs isn’t nearly as important as the casting.  The key to a successful reality program is picking the right contestants:  obnoxious people, people who want to use the program as a launching pad toward a type of stardom they believe they deserve even in the absence of anything even remotely resembling talent, people who like to be confrontational, people who are just so thoroughly unlikeable and so utterly clueless about what’s going on around them that they don’t really have to go out of their way to lose friends and alienate people.

The king of casting the dregs of society for such programming appears to be Bravo TV’s Andy Cohen, who may be more responsible for the decline of civility in the U.S. than anyone since the late Morton Downey, Jr.  Cohen has a genuine knack – calling it a talent would be inappropriate, akin to describing a pedophile’s ability to seduce young boys as a talent – for finding obnoxious people and putting them in front of a camera.  What’s worse than him being America’s foremost sleaze-monger is the degree to which he absolutely revels in it.  See him on his own Bravo program – when you’re the boss, you can put no-talents like yourself on the air.  There, you’ll find his phony over-the-top gay man routine with a hint of a boy from the hood (sort of reminiscent of Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier reviewing movies on the old In Living Color television series:  “That Nene is two snaps up, girlfriend!”). See him take utter delight in the cornucopia of crap he has created.  Seeing Cohen in action reminds The Curmudgeon of a scene in the old West Wing television series in which members of the White House staff have just met, against their better judgment, with a distasteful political consultant.  When the meeting ends, the consultant acknowledges their displeasure with him and suggests that they probably think he’s Satan.  No, replies one of the president’s aides:  “You’re the guy that runs into 7-Eleven to get Satan a pack of cigarettes.”

Cohen, of course, is far from alone.  All of the networks employ fundamentally bad people to create fundamentally bad entertainment, but he’s the only one with the bad taste to go on television and flaunt what he does.  He is as false as the programming he creates.  The others probably know that what they’re doing is bad, and even wrong, but not Cohen, who chooses to celebrate his poisonous creations.  Together, these people are chopping away at the collective American IQ and lowering the level of discourse in this country.  They foster an environment in which people believe it is not only acceptable, but also their inalienable right, to turn off that little censor we all have inside us that regulates our common sense so they can do whatever they want to do and say whatever they want to say, no matter how hurtful it might be, because that’s how it’s done today so we can “keep it real” – as if keeping it real entitles us to abandon our moral responsibility to treat one another with a modicum of respect and kindness.

And all of us – including those who miraculously have managed never to witness even a moment of any of this nonsense – are the poorer for it.

Mini-Rumination: A (Rare) Television Recommendation

As addressed elsewhere in this blog, The Curmudgeon generally has no use for what is loosely referred to as “reality television.”  His overall theory is that it consists of contrived situations that are structured to encourage people to treat one another badly – and for viewers to get their kicks watching people treat other people badly.

But he has found something he thinks is worth watching, and it will probably come as a surprise to readers.  The Curmudgeon enthusiastically endorses Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which can be seen on Wednesday at ten on The Learning Channel.

“Honey Boo Boo” is actually Alana, a six-year-old who competes in those awful child beauty pageants, and the program centers around her family – a bigger bunch of hillbilly misfits you will never find.  They make Lulu Roman and Junior Samples of Hee Haw fame seem like Alistair Cooke; they make Mr. Haney and Mr. Kimball of Green Acres seem like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett; and they make Snooki and the Kardashian sisters seem like Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk.

But they also make The Curmudgeon roar with laughter – so loud and so hard last week, when he was sharing a beach house with family members, that he woke his hard-of-hearing mother, who was sleeping one floor below.  He laughed so hard that he cried, and as a result, he wheezed all night.

And it was worth it.

Give it a try:  Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, tonight at ten on The Learning Channel.