Friday, January 16, 2009
How reality TV ruined television
It's just a theory, but roll with me here for a second.
Waaaay back in 1992, when I was just 10 years old, a little show called The Real World made its debut on MTV. The premise was simple: seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. (To find out what happens when people stop being polite.....and start getting REAL!) It was the very first TV show with a documentary-style theme that didn't center around anything specific. It wasn't a show about the animal kingdom or an investigative report on the Nixon era; it was just a show about some people living in New York. In a way, The Real World was reality TV's version of Seinfeld--a show about nothing. And people LOVED IT. In fact, people loved TRW so much that 17 years later, its basic premise still exists. (And by "basic premise," I mean only that 7 people are chosen to live together.)
The first RW season I watched with any interest was San Francisco. In 1994, the RW producers put together in one house a Cuban gay man with AIDS, a 3rd-year medical student from Harvard, a classless punk named Puck, a staunch republican, a comedian, a white chick named Cory, a black musician named Mohammad, and (after Puck left) a CRAZY British woman named Jo. All the makings for fabulous reality TV, right? You just read all that and thought to yourself, "Man, if that show was on NBC today, it would be the a #1 hit." Well back in the '90's, the creators of TRW weren't interested in killer ratings and book deals. There were interested in controversial, REAL TV. And that's exactly what they gave us: a bunch of different people living together and dealing with every day life.
If you ever get a chance to watch old episodes of the San Francisco season, you'll notice right away how "real" it was. Bathroom doors closed, there were no cameras set up in bedrooms, conflicts were not scripted. Pam was a medical student and went to work every day. Pedro was campaigning for gay rights and speaking out about AIDS. Cory actually went out and (gasp!) looked for a job because MTV didn't pay her. And Puck... well, we'll get to Puck in a minute. But the point is that back then, it was real. You can tell that the only involvement the producers had was filming what went on in the house. They didn't stage conflict, they didn't pay the cast or set a curfew so they would spend more time in the house being filmed, and they didn't hand out trips or concert tickets so they would have something new to film. They just turned the camera on and let life happen. Sure it wasn't as interesting as hot tub sex, but it was real.
As for Puck.... well I think Puck was truly the catalyst, the one who started it all. You know it was Puck's booger-picking and self-absorbed, ignorant opinions that made the producers go, "I wonder what this guy will do next... wait, we can use that as a marketing ploy! And if it works, we can do the same thing again next season with an equally crazy cast! Can you imagine the ratings?!" A few years later, roommates were bitchslapping each other and having sex while the cameras rolled. And voila, reality TV as we know it today was born. (Thanks, Puck!)
Today, "reality" TV isn't just passive filming, it's not based on the idea of "sit back and watch what happens." Today, reality is centered on manufactured ideas and ridiculous, fucked-up shit that makes people go, "Oh now THAT I have to see!" Take American Idol for instance: hundreds of people who can't sing or dance making fools out of themselves on national television, and whoever "wins" is deemed the next big pop star. This idea is now so interesting that it holds the #1 time slot every week TWICE a week. And when you're not laughing at someone having their voice compared to a pig on crack, you can watch wives being traded. Or someone's mom choose their spouse. Or idiots in shopping carts falling off a roof. Because somehow, THAT has become interesting. And I think the result of such fuckery is that people have come to expect too much from regular, scripted TV. No longer is a show about lawyers in Boston interesting, unless those lawyers are also rogue assassins out to make sure justice is done. A medical drama must now include sex with ghosts or drug-addicted doctors with a God-complex to be deemed worthy of the 9 o'clock spot. People want controversy, they want to be awed, they want to see dads kicking in each other in the nuts. Consequently, little people dressing up as teddy bears and eating out of honey pots is now considered entertainment.
Somewhere in Hollywood, Lucille Ball is turning over in her grave. And I don't blame her.