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In Britain, where reality has ruled Britannia's (air)waves for years, TV writers are starting to learn from reality's success. The sitcom The Office uses reality-TV techniques (jerky, handheld camera work, "confessional" interviews) to explore the petty politics of white-collar workers. Now airing on bbc America, it's the best comedy to debut here this season, because its characters are the kind of hard-to-pigeonhole folks you find in life or on reality TV. On Survivor and The Amazing Race, the gay men don't drop Judy Garland references in every scene. mtv's Making the Band 2--a kind of hip-hop American Idol gave center stage to inner-city kids who would be portrayed as perps or victims on a cop drama.
But aesthetics aside, the case against reality TV is mainly moral and there's a point to it. It's hard to defend the deception of Joe Millionaire which set up 20 women to court construction worker Evan Marriott by telling them he was a multimillionaire as hilarious as its fool's-gold chase can be. Even the show's Potemkin Croesus contends that producers hid the show's premise from him until the last minute. "The day before I left for France, I signed confidentiality papers which said what the show was about," Marriott tells Time. "At that point, could I really back out?" Others are concerned about the message of meanness. "There's a premium on the lowest common denominator of human relationships," says James Steyer, author of The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children. "It's often women degrading themselves. I don't want my 9-year-old thinking that's the way girls should behave."
So The Bachelorette is not morally instructive for grade-schoolers. But wallowing in the weaknesses and failings of humanity is a trademark of satire people accused Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain of being misanthropes too and much reality TV is really satire boiled down to one extreme gesture. A great reality-TV concept takes some commonplace piety of polite society and gives it a wedgie. Companies value team spirit; Survivor says the team will screw you in the end. The cult of self-esteem says everybody is talented; American Idol's Simon Cowell says to sit down and shut your pie hole. Romance and feminism say a man's money shouldn't matter; Joe Millionaire wagers $50 million that they're wrong.
The social criticisms of reality TV rest on two assumptions: that millions of other people are being taken in by reality TV's deceptions (which the critic himself or herself is able to see through) or are being led astray by its unsavory messages (to which the critic is immune). When a reality show depicts bad behavior, it's immoral, misanthropic, sexist or sick. When The Sopranos does the same thing, it's nuanced storytelling. We assume that viewers can empathize with Tony Soprano without wanting to be him; we assume they can maintain critical distance and perceive ironies between his words and the truth. Why? Because we assume that people who like The Sopranos are smarter, more mature better than people who like The Bachelorette.
And aren't they? Isn't there something simply wrong with people who enjoy entertainment that depends on ordinary people getting their heart broken, being told they can't sing or getting played for fools? That's the question behind the protest of CBS's plans to make a real-life version of The Beverly Hillbillies with a poor rural family. Says Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, "If somebody had proposed, 'Let's go into the barrio in L.A. and find a family of immigrants and put them in a mansion, and won't it be funny when they interview maids?' then people could see that's a step too far." It's hard to either defend or attack a show that doesn't exist yet, but it's also true that the original sitcom was far harder on Mr. Drysdale than the Clampetts. And on The Osbournes, Ozzy another Beverly Hills fish out of water was "humiliated" into becoming the most beloved dad in America.
Indeed, for all the talk about "humiliation TV," what's striking about most reality shows is how good humored and resilient most of the participants are: the American Idol rejectees stubbornly convinced of their own talent, the Fear Factor players walking away from vats of insects like Olympic champions. What finally bothers their detractors is, perhaps, not that these people are humiliated but that they are not. Embarrassment, these shows demonstrate, is survivable, even ignorable, and ignoring embarrassment is a skill we all could use. It is what you risk like injury in a sport in order to triumph. "What people are really responding to on these shows is people pursuing their dreams," says American Candidate producer R.J. Cutler. A reality show with all humiliation and no triumph would be boring.
And at their best, the shows offer something else entirely. One of the most arresting moments this TV season came on American Idol, when a single mom and professional boxer from Detroit flunked her audition. The show went with her backstage, with her adorable young son, as she told her life story. Her husband, a corrections officer, was murdered a few years before. She had taken up boxing her ring name is "Lady Tiger"--because you can't raise a kid on waitress money. Her monologue went from defiance ("You'll see my album. Lady Tiger don't stop") to despair ("You ain't going nowhere in Detroit. Nowhere") to dignified resolve for her son's sake ("We're never going to quit, are we, angel?"). It was a haunting slice of life, more authentic than any ER subplot.
Was Lady Tiger setting a bad example for her son on national TV? Or setting a good example by dreaming, persevering and being proud? American Idol didn't say. It didn't nudge us to laugh at her or prod us to cry for her. In about two minutes, it just told a quintessentially American story of ambition and desperation and shrinking options, and it left the judgment to us. That's unsettling. That's heartbreaking. And the reality is, that's great TV.