The reality fix

Jan 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Americans are using “reality” to escape from reality.
There’ve no doubt been ironies more profound, but this one will do for now. What reality are we trying to escape? The reality of who’s president, for one, and what he is likely to do, including go berserk. The reality of the economy that, as this column long ago observed, is in much worse shape than officialdom is willing to admit. The reality that television sucks, because there are so many reality shows on the networks now.
AOL did one of its quickie polls last week. By the end of the day (Jan. 21, to be exact), 588,585 people had responded to a question asking them to assess reality TV shows in one word. Twenty percent said “addictive.” Twenty-one percent said “fun.” Fifty-seven percent said “embarrassing.” That’s more than “addictive” and “fun” put together. And yet 27 million people tuned in when “American Idol” returned for another ridiculous, mean-spirited season on Fox, the try-anything network.
Almost every reality show on the air is a hit or at least improves mightily on whatever was previously in its time slot on that network. Even the mortifying “Celebrity Mole: Hawaii” with its has-beens and half-wits is doing reasonably well. Jay Leno said the format calls for celebrities to find a mole, but that the real trick on this show is finding any celebrities.
One positive thing has come from the reality show craze: It’s been great for the late-night comics. And as a matter of fact, for one morning talk show host as well. Regis Philbin is more entertaining describing the previous night’s “Joe Millionaire”-and other such programs-than the shows themselves are. In fact, he’s hilarious, at his ingratiating best. You almost feel duty-bound to watch “Joe Millionaire” so you can fully appreciate Regis’ description of it the next morning. Of course, he makes it sound three times as amusing as it is, but that’s OK; with the word “reality” now completely bent out of shape, “truth” may as well follow.
We can’t handle the truth. So we watch TV’s version of it.
Last Thursday night the Game Show Channel aired an inept but still fitfully entertaining marathon of “Gong Show” reruns as a tie-in with the movie “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” about game-show magnate and alleged CIA hit-man Chuck Barris, one of the really fabulous and fascinating characters in TV history. The charms of “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game” escaped me, but the charms of “The Gong Show” seemed inescapable.
And as George Clooney, who stars in the film with Sam Rockwell, said during one of the hastily produced interstitials on the Game Show Channel, there was none of the “meanness” to Barris’s parade of mostly talentless talents that there is to reality shows today-specifically, though he didn’t specify it, “American Idol.” Fox drew viewers to the two-night season premiere by promising them lousy acts (during the show, you’re told you can see “more bad auditions” at the Fox Web site) and, more important, by further promising that snippy British judge Simon Cowell (or is his name Cowell Simon?) would denigrate, insult and humiliate those guilty of not being able to sing.
“The Gong Show” was a loving look at the universal (or nearly) desire to step into the spotlight and wow an audience, a facility that a very small percentage of people have actually possessed over time. When a contestant scored poorly or was “gonged” (a device borrowed from radio’s old “Amateur Hour”), Barris would console them with a hug and a smile and some sort of essentially sympathetic or harmlessly impudent comment. “I liked it,” he would tell the contestant, “but then I like root canal.” The contestants seemed to leave happy. They’d had their moment and they took their medicine.
Humiliated by half-wits
But on “American Idol,” Cowell, who is passed off as witty because he has a British accent, berates and belittles the contestants until they are like bloody pulp. Then Fox cameras follow them out into the hall or green room because the producers are hoping they’ll cry. If they do, it will be captured on tape and the poor shnook will be humiliated further. One young man who failed his audition on the season premiere seemed mentally unbalanced, but that didn’t stop Fox from ridiculing him mercilessly and repeatedly throughout the 90-minute show.
Cowell’s insults aren’t even clever for the most part. During New York auditions, he would tell a contestant he or she “could be the worst singer in New York.” During Miami auditions, he would tell a contestant he or she was perhaps “the worst singer in Miami.” And in Texas, the same. He eventually decreed someone to be “the worst singer in the country” or maybe “the world.” “You have one of the worst voices I’ve ever heard,” he said to another Miami contestant. He’s less inventive with his insults than Rex Reed is. He’s old stuff, stale and sordid. He gives misanthropy a bad name.
Fox executives sit around worrying that even their most low-brow, demeaning and pandering shows might accidentally emit a dangerous little unexpected peep of quality or taste. So they keep up the smarm during the teases between acts. “Coming up,” said the announcer during the first of the new shows, “The fur continues to fly with a good old-fashioned cat fight!”
Never mind that this is a sexist and sleazy tease. Charging Fox with bad taste is like saying Saddam Hussein has bad table manners; both are guilty of so much worse that minor infractions must be overlooked. But in fact “the fur” did not “continue to fly.” No fur flew. There was no “good old-fashioned cat-fight.” Not that the host of the show, some sad dweeb who’s thrown integrity to the winds, didn’t encourage one. He kept baiting two young women who’d dated the same man at different times, trying to make them fight with one another. This wasn’t just a shame, this was shameful.
These shows and others are riding high at the moment, but I still cling to the hope that they’re so over-the-top and contrived-and now so imitative of one another-that as fast as viewers took to them, they will desert them for old-fashioned shows with stories and professional actors. When professionals fail, it’s funny, and we can all laugh because they’re getting paid and they’re probably head-over-heels in love with themselves anyway. Hence the hilarity over the Madonna remake of “Swept Away”; you almost wanted to see it so you could join in the jolly jeering. When amateurs fail and people jeer, it’s ugly. It’s like ridiculing people who limp or stutter or have bad complexions.
As George W. Bush keeps on appealing to the worst in us, so does our television programming and so do our networks. Either the apocalypsers are right and the end of the world is right around the bend, or these dark ages, like all such sinful epochs, will eventually give way to a cleansing, liberating light. Of course, Chuck Barris, who now seems quaintly adorable, was considered by some in his time to be a one-man scourge and a blight on civilization as well. It’s the age-old question: Will we look back at some ghastly point in a barbaric future and consider these “the good old days,” a time of innocent merriment and playful ribaldry?
My personal feeling is that God is about to scrub the earth as a failure and start over with a whole new planet. He will learn from his mistakes, too. Next time, no Fox.