Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reality Bites

This week the public gets a well-deserved break from this insulting brand of reality TV we’ve had to endure since last season’s sweeps. American Idol returns to the airwaves. With apologies to MTV’s The Real World, which in the last 10 years has degenerated into a caricature of what it once was, Idol is not only the greatest reality show ever made, but maybe one of the greatest TV shows period. Here’s how I see it: Seinfeld is the greatest comedy, The Sopranos the greatest drama, The Honeymooners, and Lucy were great for their time, but can’t touch Seinfeld or The Sopranos for actual content. Friends is the highest rated sitcom and Frasier has won the most Emmys. I say American Idol is as good as any of them. But before we look ahead at the upcoming season, let’s look back at the modern history of reality TV.

In 1992 when Bunim and Murray released MTV’s The Real World, a turning point in TV history arrived. The show was compelling, and above all else, REAL. I’m not saying Real World was the first reality show. That was The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (minus the love triangles, race/religious debates, and sexuality, both gay and straight) which ended its TV run in 1966. But let’s get real (no pun intended), The Real World is the reason you have to comb through Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, and The Sing Off to find a decent sitcom or drama. The Real World is also the reason MTV has abandoned the airing of music videos, instead choosing to ride Road Rules, True Life, and Teen Mom to surefire ratings in the 18-35 demographic.

The Real World is the pioneering force behind the quasi-relevance of Nick Lachey, Tila Tequila, and Ray J, not to mention the regretful reemergence of Hulk Hogan and that god-awful Flavor Flav. But now, after 20-plus years of this sorry chapter in TV history, we have finally scraped the bottom of the reality-TV barrel, a dark place where David Hasselhoff and that annoying girl from The Apprentice dwell. That’s right folks, The Bachelor is bland, there’s no life left in Rock of Love, and I can’t survive another season of Survivor. The copycatting concept has derailed, and the spinoffs have hit a skid. (Sorry Whitney from The Hills and your super-exciting shot at making it in the NYC business world). And, E! Network, don’t try insulting me with a reality show where we’re forced to stomach Lamar Odom and Khloe Kardashian stupiding their way through obviously-scripted scenarios so far removed from reality it would be like watching extra terrestrials in designer jeans. You already made America choke down Kourtney and Khloe idioting it up in Miami. The only scene from that feeble-minded mess I remember was when Khloe (the taller, not-so-smart one) was having a conversation with a store mannequin in some misguided attempt to be funny for the cameras. It was bad, really, really bad. And oh by the way, before you fall in love with oh-so-famous sister Kim Kardashian’s airbrushed body and flowing hair extensions, know that her boulevard of fame was paved in part by her late father’s successful defense of killer O.J. Simpson.

But what bothers me more is the fact that all these quote-on-quote reality shows are so blatantly fixed with a script. Blatantly fixed to some degree at least. The Real Housewives of Wherever. Nope, not real, sorry. I defy you to sit through the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fist fight of a single episode of Jersey Shore and tell me that show’s not staged for ratings. Oh yeah right. I’m sure on a regular day Hulk Hogan and his bottle-blond family would dress up in disguise and take on Disney World, then take turns retreating to some weird “confessional” room with rainbows on the wall to give their personal perspectives of the Disney day. MTV’s True Life is anything but, and the vapid wastes-of-space on The Hills are so clearly puppeteered through that 30-minute train wreck, it’s ridiculous. These Spencer Pratt, Brody Jenner, Heidi Montag space cadets are so devoid of any actual brain energy that they fully carry on these TV-show angles in real life, for the sake of the always-existent tabloids. So if a show is “sort of reality” and the rest is situational, is it really reality? Can a non-fiction book be called non-fiction if half of it is made up? Ask James Frey about that. Can a show like Bromance or Paris Hilton’s BFF be considered real if the winners are never allowed to start a real bromance with Brody or be best friends forever with Paris? So what’s the point? What are they competing for? Reality TV has fallen so far and chosen to examine the lives of so many different people not made for the TV-waves, for instance repo men and custom motorcycle makers. There was a time when reality TV was real. There was a time when it was good. MTV had it right once. That time was long before that insufferable bore Tyra Banks on America’s Top Model and the mindless ramblings of Heidi Klum on Project Runway. And for anyone who’s seen the new season of VHI’s Celebrity Rehab I pose two questions: Why is MacKenzie Phillips using claims of sexual abuse against her dead father to take her 15 minutes of fame? And why is Dr. Drew Pinsky, an addiction specialist, wearing a stethoscope when interviewing these celebrities for intake to the rehab house? Is that so the “stupid” viewers from Middle America can recognize him as a doctor? Oh by the way, has anyone seen that soulless, exploiting piece-of-junk The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty? Wow that show is about as transparent and lowdown as it gets. And don't even get me started on those two pigs Jon and Kate.

So anyway, back to American Idol. Already in its 9th season, Idol is as relevant and real as it has ever been. Need proof: more people phone-in votes for Idol than Americans cast vote for president. Its contestants, like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, are household names. There is never any contrived drama between the participants. The contest is real and every singer shows up to win and that’s it, regardless of rumors that the early-episode’s rejects are actors. They are not. The 3-judge panel (Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson) with the hooky, over-enunciating host (Ryan Seacrest) has been pathetically copied too many times to count. Some competition shows have even gone with the token British-accented judge with the bad disposition. See Hell’s Kitchen for an awful, horrible version of that once-unique concept. As far as ratings go, Idol pulls 30-million twice a week every week, which if you know anything about ratings is what Friends pulled three or four times a season, maybe. If Idol can survive the recent shakeups of replacing Abdul with Ellen DeGeneres and the talk of Simon’s jumping ship, and make it to a tenth season this strong, I would argue that Idol is one of the two or three most important shows ever made. And although Real World was first on the modern-reality circuit, Idol has remained real, and today is the only actual reality TV show left. Trust me I get the thinking behind these bad VHI shows. I do. Placate to the lowest common denominator. But if you want something with a bit more substance, put your tuner to FOX every Tuesday and Wednesday night and enjoy American Idol. And if you’re not an Idol fan but still want reality TV, there’s always the national news or Sesame Street.

Brian Huba

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