Forced to Watch: Reality TV

From The Donald to 'America's Top Model', a lot of it I like. For real.

By Steve Burgess 26 Jan 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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It was the most unfortunate transition possible--a classic case of near-fatal TV whiplash. Wednesday night on CBC's The Nature of Things I watched Stephen Lewis, Canadian envoy to the UN, crisscrossing Africa in a heartbreaking attempt to bring needed drugs and money to desperate AIDS sufferers. That was at 7PM.

At 8PM on NBC: Donald Trump in The Apprentice. (This program shift was made by a professional TV critic. Do not attempt in your own home. Possible side-effects may resemble those demonstrated in Clockwork Orange.)

The Trump/Lewis contrast was only an exaggerated example of the sort of contempt reality TV often inspires. Stating that reality TV sucks has become a conversational rite of cocktail and dinner soirees. Reality TV is a pox, an idiot parade, a sign of deteriorating standards, etc. To say otherwise will likely stop the table chatter colder than a ringing endorsement of George W. Bush's foreign policy. And admittedly it is bizarre that Trump's adventures, not Lewis', are what we commonly refer to as reality TV. 

But it's not a fair comparison. Programs like The Apprentice, in which a group of scrambling, soulless young mogul wannabees vie for a top job as Trump's assistant, do not deserve contempt--at least, no more than the usual amount.

'I'm a mercenary'

True, network attempts to find new reality formulae are frequently misguided. And purveyors of reality programming often seem addicted to fromage--they appear to believe the conventional wisdom that they are selling crap, and thus must package their goods with over-hyped promos and out-of-context teaser clips. ("Coming up--our most dramatic rose ceremony ever!")

But at their best, reality shows offer something that scripted dramas can never match. The situations may be unnatural, the editing may mislead, but people are people.

Even when placed in human ant farms with cameras tracking them around, they will behave in revealing ways. No amount of trick editing could make the venal Melissa cozy up to Joe Millionaire by proclaiming that she wanted to "wash Third World babies" because, as she put it: "I'm a mercenary." (It was a scene that raised an important and previously unconsidered question: Is it still a Freudian slip if she doesn't understand the word?)

Reality shows are easy targets. As a relatively new form of television, they stand out from standard fare. People who find CSI: Miami lame do not go on to trash episodic dramas in general or say that detective shows are a sign of cultural decay.

There's no doubt that a great dramatic series like The Sopranos can aspire to heights reality programs will never reach, while offering performances that thrill us with their artistry. Reality shows offer a different kick.

Model effort from Tyra Banks

What good reality television provides is something more raw than finely-crafted drama. It offers personalities--personalities at war, hopefully. For a good, rolling catfight, check out America's Top Model, the UPN franchise from host/producer Tyra Banks, as good an example of solid reality programming as any.

The original version of the series, now in re-runs on Life Network, eventually boiled down to a showdown between two savvy, free-thinking candidates and two Southern evangelicals crammed into a tiny Paris hotel room with not enough beds. What do you value? Whose side are you on? Drama can make you ask those questions, but ultimately it places you at the mercy of scriptwriters and their agendas. Reality TV can give you human beings, unfiltered.

Bosh, say critics of the genre--everything you see has been shaped by the producers and editors before it reaches your screen. Clearly, reality shows are rigged games. The situation is contrived. Scenes are often selected to unfairly emphasize one aspect of a person's character. Clips are often replayed out of context.

But today's TV viewer is generally a savvy creature. Most have built-in filters for obvious manipulations. And once the cameras have followed participants for a sufficient amount of time, it becomes harder and harder to distort the basic nature of the personalities and their interactions.

Reality TV is for voyeurs. The enjoyment derived is rarely noble or uplifting. Even this points up one of reality TV's advantages, though--a popular reality TV show gives people the opportunity to engage in victimless gossip about people they will never meet. Having a shared group of TV acquaintances can be very handy in unfamiliar social settings.

Consumable karma

Are these shows enlightening? Frequently. Take the granddaddy of the reality genre, Survivor (returning to CBS and Global this Sunday night with an all-star cast drawn from past series). Along with the backstabbing and political gamesmanship, part of the show's enduring appeal surely comes from watching recognizable types--various contestants who embody styles and personal strategies we have all encountered.

Life being the mess that it is, the consequences of real-life behavior can be frustratingly vague (or if displayed by the boss' offspring, nonexistent). In the intense world of the typical reality TV laboratory, consequences are not long in coming. It can be very satisfying.

Can reality TV teach us about ourselves? This week's shows did lead me to a personal revelation, unfortunately. Having watched Stephen Lewis highlight the plight of AIDS sufferers in Africa, I was forced to admit that when The Donald provided me with a welcome means of escape I was only too happy to take it. I won't stop watching The Apprentice, but I will make atonement--The Nature of Things directed viewers to Lewis' website (www.stephenlewisfoundation.org) where they can make donations. I plan to do that right now. That way I can watch Trump and stay smug.

(Not all reality shows work. In my next column I will discuss my favorite varieties of reality cheese.)


Forced to Watch is an occasional column at The Tyee about what's good and not on television, and widely published writer Steve Burgess is hogging the control.  [Tyee]

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