Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I Missed the Boat on Reality Television

I have very little shame in admitting that, as an impressionable youth, I was a fan of The Real World. I liked it when folks stopped being polite and started getting real. I like pegging who was the slut, who was the party animal, who was the one with the “alternative” lifestyle. The show started to lose me when it became one big extended spring break. It’s hard to get into a show when you don’t root for anyone. You’d just rather see them all be confined to some VD clinic or contained in a Biodome, ensuring mankind’s well-being. It seems that my disinterest in the Real World intersected perfectly with the explosion of reality TV’s popularity. I have not only missed the boat, I have run from the pier in the opposite direction screaming.

First there was Survivor and Big Brother and Fear Factor, none of which interested me because I couldn’t find the backstabbing and immunity challenges and alliances interesting in the least. But the next wave of shows were the ones who nailed my reality television coffin shut for good. Laguna Beach and The Hills didn’t just manage to bore me but they actually annoyed and enraged me. Why in the world would I care about the (obviously staged) drama of the very spoiled, very dim, very white and very selfish? I can’t keep my Kristin Cavallaris apart from my Audrina Patridges and the name LC still only conjures a vague and hazy picture of a skinny white girl with a large handbag who drives a much nicer car than me.

As you can tell, I am aware of the existence of these people. I’m not one of those types who scoffs at anyone with a working knowledge of empty pop culture as some unenlightened Neanderthal. Also, I’m a big gossip blog reader. I just can’t keep them straight. And the fact that those two shows gave the world Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt makes my head hit my desk with terminal velocity. This is what we’ve come to, folks. People who take hot knives to their face in order to sell 600 copies of their self-produced pop album or make the cover of a tabloid weekly which will be thrown away by an airline cleaning crew and forgotten next week.

While I don’t enjoy the shows, I am fascinated by those who do. I think there are genuinely people who watch these shows to see all the twists and turns of the cast members, as if they really are just going about their lives with the small intrusion of a discreet camera crew shadowing them. I assume this is the same mentality that keeps professional wrestling going. But far be it from me to begrudge anyone their “stories”. What interests me more are people I know who, by and large, believe the shows to be mostly fiction but see them as a guilty pleasure. I don’t think anything is actually a guilty pleasure (maybe outside of heroin or the spoonfuls of butter flavored Crisco I used to sneak into the kitchen and enjoy late at night as a kid) if you actually like it.

Some shows, like The Amazing Race, I do understand the appeal of. Not for me personally, but I can understand rooting for your favorite team. But then there’s a show like The Bachelor. I know plenty of people, almost all female, who admit to watching The Bachelor regularly. This blows my mind. Even if they claim they watch it in an ironic, smirking kind of way, how in the world is that show anything short of complete science fiction? So you’re going to fill a house with women who will go to various bases with one “hunky” man, all in the hopes of being the one to get the rose or the ring or the Chili’s coupon or whatever the final token is? And then you’re going to pick girls to root for and girls to “boo! hiss!” based on the footage you are shown. And these friends of mine are intelligent people who surely understand that anyone, with a little creative editing, can be made to fit whatever character mold a show’s producer thinks would be most entertaining. Blows my mind.

Then, while on vacation visiting family in Georgia last week, I saw my first episode of American Idol. I have never had a negative opinion, or for that matter any opinion really, on American Idol. I think that some of the people who have won or come close to winning (Jennifer Hudson springs to mind) are fantastically talented. I even have quite the burning crush on Simon Cowell, based on his appearances on my reality show of choice, Top Gear. In fact, I always wonder why people go on and on about how mean he is. He’s playing a character, one who elicits strong reactions from viewers. I think the man might be borderline genius. And since I had never watched AI before last week, I didn’t ever see a clip of him saying anything that was either heinously mean or grossly untrue.

So my family likes American Idol. And I thought I would watch a bit. And I officially find its’ appeal as mystifying as Area 51 and the Bible. I don’t hate it. I’m just so confused by it. So so confused. So the point of the show is to find the next great entertainer? Obviously, as it is a TV show and only pretty people should appear on TV, I understand the need for all contestants to be young and, for the most part, nice to look at. But the songs! And the singers singing those songs! Maybe I caught a bad episode but it was like listening to buckets of wallpaper paste audition to be entertainers on a Carnival cruise line. There’s a guy who plays a guitar, like a mall Santa version of Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, John Mayer et al. There’s the edgy “could be country/could be pop” girl with streaks in her hair. There’s soulful black guy/girl.

Bearing in mind that on a good day, I can maybe carry a tune in a bucket with the assistance of a Radio Flyer wagon, I have no criticisms to offer on their actual singing. In fact, the clips that I have always seen of the first few weeks of Idol (when we all get to laugh at the silly people who have been told by loving relatives that they really do have a nice singing voice) always leave me looking around the room. Wait, was that a bad one or a good one? I know I’m supposed to laugh at William Hung or the Pants on the Ground guy. But there’s a big grey area where I can’t tell if the girl singing the Mariah Carey song, replete with histrionics, is going to be pitied or told they’ve made it to the next round. It’s a razor thin line between awful, laughable singing and the next Maria Callas apparently.

I thought that American Idol was supposed to be like singing summer camp with the added humiliation of being run down by millionaires on national TV for fun. I thought that if you showed enough promise and potential, the American Idol juggernaut would chisel you into a (jazz hands) true all-around performer. So why is it that 80% of the show’s focus is how the judges get along, which judge is nicest, phone numbers and nuclear codes you should text into RIGHT NOW so that you are a living, breathing cog in the machine and you have done your small part to make someone’s dreams a reality. The performers and their performances that I saw on the show seemed to take an obvious backseat to Ryan zinging one of the judges or one of the judges breaking rank and issuing forth their gems of wisdom. Because apparently being a stand-up comedienne turned sitcom star turned talk show host is what makes you a good voice coach.

I don’t want to sound too “shaking my cane at neighborhood kids” about all of this. I’m sure that there’s something I’m missing. But I can’t summon up the interest to pull for any of these kids. I don’t care how that one person that’s not Randy, Ellen or Simon gets along with either Randy, Ellen or Simon. The fact that I’ve been able to write this many words about it means that there is obviously merit to the show. I just can’t understand the appeal. Maybe I’ll give it a shot again when The X Factor starts up since the wider spectrum of contestants might make things a little more interesting. But I’ll probably just watch a few episodes to objectify Simon Cowell with my eyes and gaze at his pretty teeth.

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