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Reality TV’s Unreality

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In the good old days when we were all doing drugs, the object was to change our perceptions of reality. Take a hit of acid and look at the world from a different angle. Once we found that we were more likely to end up on the psych ward like a blithering idiot from frying our brains, rather than gaining any great insights into the mysteries of the universe, people gave up on messing around with reality.

That is until network and cable television got their grubby little hands on it. Ever since the first “reality” show aired, reality hasn’t been the same. The poor concept doesn’t know if it’s coming or going. Who am I? What am I? You can almost hear it yelling in its green room as it prepares for the next closeup of someone doing something candidly scripted.

I’m very much out of touch with a lot of popular tendencies because the black box in my living room can only play videos and DVDs. I don’t have cable, a satellite dish, or even an antenna and so can only pick up one station on my television. Sometimes I feel a little guilty, as it sits there in the corner of the room staring at me with its big blank eye, it looks so lonely and neglected. But I figure it can cope without me.

A few years back I was at work one day and heard these two women discussing something they called Survivor. They were sort of stunned that I had to ask what it was, so one of them breathlessly explained the concept to me. When she finished, she was looking at me all expectant like, certain I would want to run out and subscribe to cable just so I could watch. Well, I must have disappointed her because all I could think of to ask was: “What about the other 6 days and 23 hours”?

She looked at me like I was crazy. Which then again maybe I am, but that’s a story for another day. She and her friend went back to their happy conversation about who was thrown off the island the night before, who they liked and disliked and why. I’m sure these are common conversations in the workplace North America-wide.

Back in the sixties a British filmmaker started a project called Seven Up where he followed a group of seven year olds around. Michael Apted has continued to check back in with each person every seven years since 1963 and has just completed the latest installment,49 Up. His idea was to track these seven people from different backgrounds and check in on them at seven-year intervals to see how the world had changed them.

He doesn’t trail them around with cameras through the minutiae of their days, he just sits and talks with them about life and what’s been happening with them. There are no false situations or coerced emotions.

It’s reality, pretty much the same stuff that happens to you and me on a daily basis in all its dreary boredom and tedious detail. No exciting locations, or pretty people in artfully ripped clothing having to play truth or dare type games to win people’s approval. Compared to something like the current batch of T.V. “reality” shows it’s pretty tame stuff.

How many of us actually live on tropical islands where we have to figure out how to light a fire? Or how many of us share a house with ten other individuals where, once a week, one of them is going to be evicted? Or, oh I don’t know, the permeations are endless. The point is that none of these are any more real than Fantasy Island back in the seventies was reality.

What is the basis for even calling these shows “reality” television? They don’t use actors? Give me a break; you don’t have to be an actor in order to perform when you are given a tightly scripted scenario and tasks to carry out.

If, as they claim, the cameras are rolling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, that means that they’ve got 168 hours of raw footage they can edit down to make forty minutes worth of television. A good editor and director working together could manufacture an amazing performance from a corpse with that much raw video to work from.

In some ways the show Lost is one of the best pieces of satire on television right now. It takes all the elements that work so well from the reality shows and scripts them for real, instead of pretending to be real and unscripted. The only difference between it and Survivor is that the people who survived the plane crash want to get off the island.

There has always been a blurring of the lines between reality and television, with people identifying strongly with fictional characters on shows. They’ll stand around and talk about “Jerry” or “Sam and Diane” as if they know these people, or at the least are people who have real lives. These lines are being even further blurred by the fact that the people they now stand around the water cooler and talk about are no longer fictional characters.

Nobody wants to watch real reality. They don’t want to sit around and see people like themselves on television doing their shit job and leading their boring life. But everybody would like to change their reality, and these shows give them at least the opportunity to watch others doing just that: living a different reality.

In the good old days we took acid to alter our perceptions of reality; now you just turn on the television almost any night of the week and get the same experience. It’s still too early to tell what the long-term negative effects of this mind-altering experience will be. Although judging by the slack jawed, vacant expression on so many TV viewer’s faces, early indicators aren’t good.
Ed: JH
COR:LM

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://biggesttent.blogspot.com/ Silas Kain

    Nice piece. Next Reality show I watch, I will spark one up in your honor. I’m a fan of some Reality TV but also see that America’s obsession with it may be very unhealthy.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/cmpwrite/ Connie Phillips

    The interesting thing you touch on here is the amount of reality in “reality TV.” Not only in as you put it, controlled environment and games, but in how those directors and editors influence who will become fan favorites by what clips they chose to air. This was discussed some during the last season of American Idol but also happens in shows like Survivor.