The circus has been in town for too long.
I’m talking about reality TV. It’s been around for quite some time, actually since the beginning of television, but it was in a very primordial state until recently. The first reality shows were mainly in game show format, like “The Newlywed Game” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos”, but they took more of a documentary style—the form we know and somehow love— in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
The first modern reality TV shows that took flight in the ratings were “COPS” in 1989, followed by MTV’s “The Real World” series back in 1992. Already, in those early stages, you can see the basic groundwork for modern reality TV taking shape: the crazier, the better. And that’s just what happened.
At the beginning of the new millennium, reality TV was already king in the ratings department. Simon Fuller was crushing the souls of no-talents by telling them they had…well, no talent; and for a grand prize of $50,000, Joe Rogan was telling people to walk on broken glass. And we loved it! Why? Because stupid makes us feel better, in more ways than none. Comedian Patton Oswalt said it best:
“There used to be a time when you would come home, and reality was so crappy, you would turn on TV to watch stuff that people had made up, so that you could escape from the crappy reality.” Oswalt said. “Now, you go out and deal with dickheads and morons all day, and you come home and go, ‘I just want to go home so I can watch dickheads and morons on TV.”
And as reality TV continued to follow the same pattern for ongoing success (which is the crazier, the better for those of you who have short attention spans), popular television has digressed into something dull yet horrific, unsophisticated yet entertaining.
Just tune into VH1 to see what I mean. Reality TV has been this station’s bedrock for about five years, though it seems like much longer. It started with the “Surreal Life”, which ran for six seasons and had the most spin-offs of any show I can think of. From that show, there spawned “Flavor of Love” (lasting three seasons), “My Fair Brady” (again, three seasons), “I Love New York” (two seasons), “New York Goes to Hollywood” (only one, thankfully), and a whole army of others that I’m failing to mention and for good reason.
I can think of no better way to describe reality TV than comparing it to a modern day freak show. Yesterday, it was the bearded lady and the sword-swallower; now, it’s Tila Tequila, Bret Michaels and Snooki. Then again, maybe I’m being a little too harsh or belittling to make such a comparison….I mean, at least the sword-swallower had talent.
But the worst part about the reality TV phenomena is not the people in front of the lens (after all, it isn’t their fault that their not avid readers), it is how successful it is. That’s right, it’s all OUR fault.
According to Perez Hilton (who is a whole other, yet similar topic entirely), “MTV’s Jersey Shore is still smashing records, making last week’s episode the highest-rated telecast in the network’s demo 12-34 in EIGHT YEARS!!…. A total of 6.5 million viewers tuned in to see Jwoww and Sammi’s cat fight! Come on, who WASN’T tuning in to watch that??”
Who indeed, Mr. Hilton, who indeed?
What I’d really like to know is how this is taking its toll on us. Are we just tuning in to these shows for the same reason that people bought tickets to carny acts a century ago, or are we admiring these people to some degree that we’re actually beginning to replicating them?
I guess it doesn’t matter, because either option is poisonous to us as a species. After all, do any of us think it was a good thing that the most sought after clip from the “Jersey Shore” series is live footage of a woman being haymakered in the face by man? I hope not, but we still watched, didn’t we? And what does that say about us?
Now, I certainly don’t want to align myself with the Christian Wrong or the pro-censorship people, but I’m really concerned for our children more than anyone in all this mess. To me, reality TV stars are our worst and dullest; and even though they’re the cream of the crop from the bottom of the barrel, they are everywhere and they are heralded for their obvious faults (like vanity, stupidity and narcissism).
So what message is that illustrating to our youth? Being rich and famous—or simply well sought after—has always been the carrot right out of reach of the horse’s mouth for those who aren’t such, but look at our treasured elite now. Reality TV is fundamentally saying that you don’t need to be Beethoven or Einstein to make it big; in fact, you can do so by being the complete opposite. In other words, why strive when you don’t have to.
For most, whatever is up next for reality TV will assuredly be enjoyable and entertaining, but as for me, it’ll definitely be the contrary. I think it’s nothing but sad proof that Mike Judge’s Idiocracy wasn’t as funny as we all thought. Then again, how much crazier can reality TV become? How much worse can worst get (i.e. Ryan Jenkins)? Unfortunately, we’ll see.