Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Reality TV

Tell me that I'm not the last person left in the United States who has not seen a so-called "reality" TV show.

Recently, I saw that one of the actors from The Jeffersons sitcom had died. This set me to thinking about television of the 1960s and 1970s. I don't remember much of the 1960s directly, but later I watched reruns of comedy programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show and dramas such as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In the 1970s, TV programming ranged from the tacky and tasteless (game shows like The Gong Show, the safe yet funny (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda); the not quite edgy (M*A*S*H); the sweetly nostalgic for times-that-never-were (The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie); and the ubiquitous police/detective/doctor/hospital shows (Starsky and Hutch, Baretta, Police Woman, Hooker, Barney Miller, Emergency) to the politically incorrect Lear oeuvre (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude). Most are dated, but some still have a following today.

I haven't watched much TV since the mid to late 1980s. Most shows seem claustrophobic, having been videotaped on tiny, over-lit sets that look like nothing I've ever seen in a home. Those series that included an outdoor setting are invariably set in Los Angeles, which is alien and uninteresting to me. Worst, most dramas (and many comedies) seem formulaic to me. While this could make them comforting, like other things that stay the same in a changing world, it could also make them boring and tedious., if there was nothing to set them apart.

I suppose it's the nature of episodic television; there's only so much time to produce so many episodes, which does not allow for creativity or originality, which the audience may not even desire. The main reason to keep watching would be if you liked a character or characters, or the actors who played them. How many people watched Happy Days because they liked Ron Howard's Richie Cunningham or Henry Winkler's The Fonz?

I liked the Star Trek series because the characters were interesting and well developed, and their growing relationships were well drawn and explored; the acting was generally good; and the plots were often thought provoking, such as "The Measure of a Man" and "The Drumhead." Occasionally, a bad main or subplot would sink an entire episode, but then loyal viewers could at least enjoy the performances. Babylon 5 had its own momentum, with its focus on a five-year plot line rather than on unrelated episodes.

Somewhere along the line, I gave up watching television. The new series never appealed to me, and the actors even less so. As I got older, there seemed to be less time and better ways to spend it. Part of it may have been a symptom of my unnoticed hearing loss; perhaps I subconsciously tuned out television because I could no longer hear it very well.

So now I don't watch TV except for an occasional BBC sitcom or an episode of a favorite old series like The Avengers. I don't listen to popular music, either. My disconnection from the people and the world around me seems nearly complete. Without popular entertainment to connect us, what is there to debate and to discuss? That seems to be the way of life now.

So I find myself in meetings with coworkers listening to what seems to me the unreality of reality TV. What is real about reality TV? The talk is nearly always about how badly, unbelievably the subject behaved. They were silly, boorish, greedy, whiny, defensive, shallow. In every way, the people watching deride the people performing. Reality TV gives them someone who is as two dimensional as any fictional character, someone upon whom they can look down, someone to whom they can feel superior, someone who is willing to be bullied remotely, from a distance. The new entertainment requires no plot, only drama and comedy without substance, without resolution, without depth, without meaning. For college-educated professionals across the country, there no issues to discuss, such as a program like Law and Order might raise; there is only, "She said that?" "He did what?" "Why'd she dump him?" "Why'd he pick her?" "It was so stupid."

It was so stupid, but millions of people plan their lives around reality TV and watch it and talk about it every week. Is this all there is to life—work and reality TV, TV that proves to us that we are not as silly, boorish, greedy, whiny, defensive, and shallow as the show's participants, participants who are liked or despised, depending on how the viewer's perception has been been manipulated, participants who are (supposedly) people just like us? Is this the best use we can make of our too-short lives?

A producer of some of the best-known of these shows will appear this year at an international communications conference, where he will speak and be honored by the communications profession. The conference's promotional material states that "reality television has revolutionized the entertainment industry and raised the bar for audience expectations and participation in television programming." Raised the bar? Or lowered it even further?

Reality TV is not new; it's been around since Candid Camera and This Is Your Life. And it is still a low, voyeuristic form of entertainment that appeals to our sense of superiority—the very sense that proves we are not as superior as we think.

I find myself wondering why it appeals to so many, so much so that an international organization of corporate communicators is bypassing surely more worthy candidates so that it can honor a reality TV producer. I find myself torn between a couple of old ideas—that the inmates have taken over the asylum (and the popularity of reality TV is proof), or, looking to the always dependable bard, that "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." What is my role? Where is my script? And why am I so poor at playing this role of human being, of interacting with the other players? And is that why I am in the chorus, where I observe the performance of the principals, but feel very little stake in it?

I think I will go back to watching Star Trek. Reality TV as I wish it were.


  1. I can't stand reality tv or American sitcoms. A few years ago, I gave up cable for financial reasons, and being surrounded by granite, that equated to giving up tv. Only things I have missed were the Discover channel and the History channel.

  2. My cousin is a History Channel devotee, but in his house it's known as the "Hitler Channel"—for a while, that's all they showed (after all, there's not much surviving footage from the Civil War, his conflict of choice. :))

    I should give up cable as I spend $70 a month to watch maybe 2–4 hours, which makes no sense at all. I would watch more if (1) it did not remind me that my hearing is failing and (2) I could get off my duff and buy a sofa.

    I do listen to Chuck Schaden's Those Were the Days, old-time radio classics. The Shadow knows . . . muhahaha!


  3. The History Channel does get a bit... er, warlike at times.

    I was in the hospital for a few days back in August, and thanks to insomnia, I spent my first time watching tv (for more than a passing minute or two)in years. I was apalled at how quickly I slipped into mindless, watch anything mode. (Okay, so at 2am options are limited, but still!) I chose to blame it on the meds.

  4. As a kid, I watched TV pretty readily, so when I was 14 and hospitalized for a week, I thought I would die . . . DIE . . . when my parents opted not to pay for TV in my hospital room (not a standard amenity in those days). I was forced to listen to radio, read, and reflect. It seemed awful. Now it's my life. :)

  5. Wonderful post -- I really enjoyed it. If I remember correctly, Billie Holiday once said that she knew she had kicked drugs (at least for a time) when she could no longer bear to watch television.