Given the alternative, I’ll take reality any day

Sep 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The other week, my dental hygienist was making the usual attempt at one-way chitchat while scratching plaque off my teeth. Out of the blue, she asked me, “So which of the reality shows do you like?”
There are trendlets and then there are trends. When TV critics started using the term “reality shows” a couple of years back, it was a trendlet. And an unwelcome one at that, evoking images of whiny MTV 20-somethings, police-chopper chase videos and people with 300-pound tumors.
But when the tooth lady starts quizzing you about reality shows, you know the trendlet has become a trend. As it happened, I had just come from a long session in the TV bunker, screening fall comedy pilots. I could’ve used some Novocaine there.
It’s not that there are any more bad comedies than usual in this year’s batch. One welcome trend is the growing number of single-camera comedies that don’t have laugh tracks providing forced giggles every 7.9 seconds. We have “Malcolm in the Middle” to thank, or blame, for that.
The problem, it seems to me, is the same one that afflicted comedy clubs about a decade ago: Sitcoms are everywhere. There are more TV stations than ever, plus cable, programming more hours than ever, showing more syndicated sitcoms than ever, channel after channel, morning, noon and night. And there are only so many classic capers to go around.
These days, if a comedy lives to see a 14th episode, it can’t get to syndication fast enough. The feeding frenzy was especially intense three years ago when “King of the Hill,” which had been on the air little more than a year, was sold on pure speculation to stations desperate for product. Critics loved “King of the Hill,” but the show had never been tested outside its cozy Sunday night time slot. Sure enough, after the sale, Fox moved “King of the Hill” to Tuesdays, where it nearly vanished from sight.
Of course, I’m delighted that “King of the Hill” will enjoy a long afterlife. But so will “Caroline in the City,” “Unhappily Ever After,” “Boy Meets World” and scores of other shows that were intolerable the first time around.
That, I think, is the single biggest reason America-or at least this TV critic-is comedied out. Everybody is telling jokes and nobody is laughing. At least in the comedy clubs the two-drink minimum made even the bad acts funnier.
(The one exception to this rule is Comedy Central, which has built a network that is almost entirely sitcom-free and where the funniest new show of the season, “Let’s Bowl,” uses tenpins to resolve disputes among Minnesotans.)
We’ve all read about how terrible “Emeril” is going to be, and “The Ellen Show” and “According to Jim.” The halfway decent sitcoms even seem out of gas. “Scrubs” is a cartoon-like show told from the perspective of a bumbling first-year medical resident. Why does it always have to be a doctor show? The WB decided to revive ABC’s tired old “TGIF” idea, and while they were at it, they revived Bob Saget from whatever chamber he was mellowing in. I liked “Raising Dad,” but haven’t we all been down this road before? Then there’s “Undeclared,” a Fox show about horny post-adolescents in college. No kidding.
Maybe that’s why readers aren’t asking me about the new fall comedies. My readers are following the hijinks on “Big Brother 2” or buzzing about “Survivor: Africa.” I think I now know why. Reality shows are rarely about reality. But because they put ordinary people in contrived situations and then force them to react-as honestly or cunningly as they please-viewers can relate to them in a way they can’t relate to comedy. Did you watch “The Amazing Race” last week? Do you know a mother and daughter that get along (or don’t) like that mother-daughter team? Do you know a gay couple that would name their team after their precious little doggie?
I do.
Reality shows and sitcoms both present a warped view of the world, but a sitcom is the opposite of a reality show: It takes everyday problems and contrives bizarre (and usually implausible) solutions to them. Sitcom characters are predictable and reliable and bear no relation to the actors who play them. Reality characters are surprising and idiosyncratic, and even Jerri Manthey, who was cast somewhat unfairly as The Survivor Bitch, admitted to her Playboy interviewer that the “real” Jerri isn’t much different than the TV Jerri. (Instead of “bitch,” though, she’d rather you think of her as a “proactive, independent woman.” Whatever!)
Above all, reality shows are different, and they aren’t ubiquitous, and they haven’t yet been done to death. That’s why they’re wired and sitcoms are tired. Doubtless they’ll soon be everywhere; The WB alone is rolling out four reality shows in the next three months. But think about it: For every hour of reality, that’s two half-hours of network comedies that we’ll be spared, two sets of nosy neighbors, idiotic officemates, sex-starved single gals, reheated celebrity guests and charity-auction episodes.
That may be the most compelling reason yet to love reality shows.