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How potent cheap reality is

Feb 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Can anyone remember a junkier sweeps? It’ll be a relief to see February end this week. If it fails to go away, someone should beat it to death with a stick. Never has a short month seemed longer.
Constant Viewer couldn’t believe he was sitting in front of his TV set last Thursday night watching something called “The Bachelor: Aaron and Helene Tell All,” and that this was being passed off as a sweeps-month special. Aaron and Helene? Who could care if they told more than all?
Of course, the show did confirm what I’ve said all along: that Aaron is a big, nasty creep.
Oops, there I go, getting sucked in, just as millions and millions did for a February sweeps absolutely choking on reality shows. But as Noel Coward wrote, “How potent cheap music is.” The appeal of the reality shows is pretty clear by now: They are a rich source of meaningless gossip for citizens of the global village. Or at least the national neighborhood.
It’s gross, it’s dross, but it serves a purpose. It supplies ridiculous drivel for us to worry about vicariously, thus replacing in our brains, at least for a while, all the serious business of actual reality-which, if you think about it too much, can really bum you out. We have Prozac, we have Celexa, we have Zoloft, we have Lexapro, we have Buspar-and we have Television. Especially Reality Television.
Marie Winn thought she was insulting the medium when she called it “The Plug-in Drug” in her diatribey book of the same name. But the world got meaner, and the popularity of chemical antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications got greater. And television got, in the aftermath of 9/11, sillier than ever, and that may not be so bad after all. That may be a key component in the therapy we need.
Although as of Friday, there had been, thank God, no terrorist attack, despite what our beloved federal government had scared us into expecting, it was a cruel month in the news, and Friday was one of the cruelest days, with reports of the nightclub fire in Rhode Island (at least 95 dead) vying for time on CNN with reports of an oil refinery fire on Staten Island.
Meanwhile, news writers were having a hard time finding new ways to say that George W. Bush was running out of patience with Saddam Hussein, that he had just about had it with Saddam Hussein, that he was really getting ticked off with Saddam Hussein, and so on. Anti-war and, implicitly at least, anti-American demonstrations erupted in Europe. America was looking like a bad guy less than two years after it had suffered a terrible vicious attack.
It is sinking in, of course, that Bush will take us to war no matter what happens-no matter if polls say a majority of Americans oppose it. Hey, a majority of Americans didn’t elect Bush, so why should he care? Turkey doesn’t want to provide staging areas for U.S. attacks on Iraq? Bush says to throw some money at them to change their minds. The old image of “the ugly American” threatens to come back and haunt us anew.
We can pull the covers up over our heads or do what roughly amounts to the equivalent: Watch “reality” television programs that are about nothing that matters. If the choice is between dwelling on the hopelessness of the current world situation or contemplating the ever-changing contours of Michael Jackson’s face, Michael’s face is the easy winner. Ten hours of network prime time (so far) may seem a tad excessive, but it still brought us fast, fast, fast relief from whatever we’d just heard on the evening news.
(Of course, when the newscasts themselves become escapist fantasy, that in itself is worrisome. In Washington, with war looming, gas prices soaring and public morale sagging, WTTG-TV, the Fox affiliate, offered on its newscast a hard-hitting report about … bed bugs).
The big rhetorical question of the February sweeps may not be, Does bad television drive out good? but instead, Does bad junk drive out good? ABC, understandably desperate, scraped rock bottom yet again with “Am I Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People” (on the second edition of which, incidentally, male contestants were allowed to wear brief bathing suits just like the female contestants, though ABC blotted out as “too hot!” a shot of a man revealing his butt cheeks. Perhaps just as well). This was part of a Thursday night lineup that, last week, also included the riveting session with Aaron and Helene, plus the debut of the specious “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”
The week began on a loud low note, the commercial-stuffed finale of Fox’s “Joe Millionaire.” Incredible as it seems, it was downhill even from there. But there are still reasons for hope. ABC’s Thursday night of really junky junk didn’t do all that well in the Nielsens. By the third hour of the mini-marathon (“I’m a Celebrity”), the ABC audience had dwindled to about 7.8 million from an 8 o’clock high of roughly 13.6 million.
And CBS, which was providing by far a better class of crumminess with the return of “Survivor,” the first and now most seemingly dignified of this kind of reality show, lured more than 20 million people, beating even “Friends” on NBC, or so preliminary figures show.
CBS could hold its head higher than any other network as the sweeps moved toward the finish line. It had aired fewer hours of quickie crap and on Sunday nights had presented quality original movies, all in addition to respectable dramas like the two “CSI” shows, “The Guardian,” “Without a Trace” and “Judging Amy.”
And let the record show that no network, Fox included, has during sweeps weeks or at any other time sunk as low as NBC does on a regular basis with “Fear Factor,” its mob-baiting showcase of sadism and sickness.
For people who love good TV, of course, February was no banquet. If you couldn’t care less how many nose jobs Michael Jackson has had or whether he has been reckless when dangling his baby over a balcony, you were pretty much relegated to cable and whatever little crumbs of quality you could collect.
With millions in the Northeast trapped in their homes by snow, the captive cumulative audience was even larger than it normally would have been. And with our beloved federal government quixotically suggesting we all run out to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting, the prospect of being not just trapped in your house but sealed into your house was pervasively depressing.
Think for just a moment, please, about our nation’s valiant TV critics. One can ridicule reality programming, spoof it and hoot at it and call it names, but you can’t really review it. All you can really do is bang on your duct-taped, plastic-sheeted door and scream, “I’m a critic! Get me out of here!”