Sunday, February 07, 2010
How real is reality?
Sally and I like to watch The Little Couple, a reality show about a married pair of "little people." Jen and Bill are likable and smart. Bill Klein is part-owner of a company and Jennifer Arnold is an M.D. You can see the inherent problems both had getting to their current positions, the kind of fortitude it took in the face of public skepticism.
But my underlying thought while watching the show, which is my thought on any show which features real people in real situations, is, how real can it be with a camera crew filming night and day? How much would a camera's presence change the dynamic of any situation?
To Jen and Bill's credit, I believe that the public persona they project is also their private persona. They could not have surmounted all the obstacles they've encountered, both physical and mental, without being very strong-willed, intelligent individuals.
On the other hand, shows like Jon and Kate Plus Eight, which Sally loved but I hated, showed a very shallow couple who had eight children: one set of twins, one set of sextuplets. Their talent was in reproducing themselves in multiples, and I saw nothing about them that would make me want to know them. As most of us Americans are aware--we couldn't escape the screaming tabloid headlines in grocery store checkout lines--the Jon and Kate phenomenon ballooned into something big and ugly as their lives dissolved into divorce and soap opera. Would they have divorced without the notoriety they had gained on their so-called reality show?
A reality show star (name withheld) appearing on CBS Sunday Morning said, "the idea of reality shows is conflict. You are either in the middle of the conflict or starting it." The lady, who is African-American, represents something else I have hated about talk shows, judge shows and reality shows ever since: the voyeuristic and racist desire to see black people make fools of themselves on national TV by fighting and arguing. I don't know how many times I saw a clip from The Jerry Springer Show (maybe the nadir of this sort of entertainment) with black women calling each other "bitch," fighting over a man, knocking over chairs, pulling hair and screaming, all for the entertainment of the audience. It reminds me of the story by Richard Wright, white men getting black boys to fight so they could watch.
Some people, the Heenes, for instance, who set off a saucer-shaped balloon and claimed their young son was aboard, think it's the pinnacle of success to be on a reality show. They were willing to risk jail, to gamble their deception would work. (They lost.) Just the act of being known on television is a mark of success to people of such dubious intelligence.
Personally, I see no "real" in "reality" when it comes to television. I'll bet if we saw outtakes of almost any reality show you can name you'd see that events are staged or re-done because the light wasn't right, or the sound was muffled, or the microphone was in the shot. Think of it. Think of having a crew with lights, cables, microphones and cameras in your house, following you everywhere you go. To me it doesn't sound like success, but more like the 7th circle of hell.