Wednesday, December 23, 2009

#9 - Reality TV

It was the decade when...

Reality got really fake.

Growing like a cancer throughout the Aughts, Reality TV began as a benign fad that quickly metastasized into a full-blown fixture of television programming, threatening the health of the entire medium. Reality TV was junk food: cheaply made, bad for your health, greasy, deeply addictive and prone to cause indigestion. Never had the term boob tube seemed so apropos. As the appetite of the audience grew more and more insatiable, the competition to create new content devolved fast into a race to the bottom, the shows growing ever more outlandish and sensationalistic. With nearly as many channels as there were viewers to watch them, the need for cheap and salacious material to stand apart from the fray became all consuming.

And who were the stars of Reality TV? From the evidence on display in show after show, the only casting criterion was that you be as unreal as possible. A unappetizing lot of stripper skanks, desperate nobodies, muscular meatheads, nerds with the social skills of small rodents, and celebrities climbing their way back onto the D-list, the stars of reality television were Hollywood's shortbus of non-talent would-bes and has-beens. Though they all ostensibly have passed psychological exams, watching the programs one would be hard pressed not to suspect that a few unscrupulous doctors were slipped a bribe or two; how else to explain the Charenton Asylum level of insanity on display?

As the decade wore on the format consolidated into recognizable mini-genres, each with their own cliches and quirks. A quick run-down of the two most popular, and abysmal, types:

Celebrity Verite
Beginning with the surprise success of The Osbournes, Celebrity Verite was one of reality television's most durable genres. The idea: take a quirky, off-beat celebrity and document their daily life, it's bound to be entertaining. The Osbournes worked because, despite the obvious eccentricities of its leading man, the show captured an honest dynamic of family life. As with all reality TV trends, when series came and went the spark of originality soon disappeared, replaced instead by ridiculously contrived scenarios and spontaneity-free dialogue. Whatever gonzo verisimilitude made The Osbournes a surprising charmer is totally absent from more recent Celebrity Verite exercises. The unwatchable Keeping Up With Kardashians is proof enough of that. Other prominent examples: The Anna Nicole Show (Anna Nicole Smith), Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica (Lachey and Simpson), The Simple Life (Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie), Hey Paula! (Ms. Abdul), Hammertime (M.C. Hammer), Hogan Knows Best (Hulk Hogan), The Girls Next Door (Hugh Hefner), The Two Coreys (Haim and Feldman), Tori and Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood (Tori Spelling), My Life on the D-List (Kathy Griffin) and Being Bobby Brown (Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston).

Reality Romance
Reality dating (quite opposed to dating in reality) in the Aughts began with a sour note, the now legendary Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire, a one-night special aired on Fox in 2000 in which a terrified blonde named Darva Conger found herself betrothed to a "multi-millionaire" with a lounge singers name, Mr. Rick Rockwell. The marriage, it need be noted, did not last. It wasn't even consummated. From this blatant glorification of gold-digging and misogyny, the only place to go was up. And yet, descent was achieved. With the bland Bachelor and Bachelorette as the template, dating shows became the most formulaic of all Reality TV. The Set-up was always the same: A central "bachelor" is looking for love. A harem of contenders longingly pines for their would-be suitor. A weekly event or outing or contest helps determine that weeks elimination, chosen, ostensibly, by the bachelor him/her self. At the end of the series our lead selects his/her soul-mate; riding off into the sunset together they live happily ever after. (Or at least until they receive residuals.) From show to show, the structure is practically set in stone.

The difference between one show from the next is the novel band of contenders that the producers select and whatever manipulative twist can be thrown in at the last minute to spice up the otherwise tired formula. Same-Sex romance was explored on Boy Meets Boy (gay bachleor, with both gay and - unbeknownst to the lead - straight boys vying for his affections) and the hastily canceled Playing It Straight (the exact opposite of Boy Meets Boy, with a bachelorette seeking a male companion). Those of ample appetites got their moment in the reality sun with More To Love, the dating show for people with waistlines as big as their hearts. Various has-been celebrities got into the act, looking for love as the star of their own dating reality show. Tilla Tequila swung both ways on A Shot at Love, while Brett Michaels made it his goal to nail each of the contestants on the ludicrously skanky "Rock Of Love." Rap star and human timepiece Flava Flav scored big ratings with his show, Flavor of Love. It lasted three seasons despite its star finding true love at the end of each iteration. Curious. Failed Flavor of Love contestant "New York" proved so popular that the outlandish loudmouth got two seasons of her own dating extravaganza, I Love New York.

Fooling no one, the pretense of romance on any of these programs is about as authentic as Tila Tequila's breasts. That's not the appeal. We just like to watch the carnival. The freak-show is alive and in full force. My favorite of the genre? Joe Millionaire, the 2003 Fox dating show in which a gaggle of airheads think they are being courted by a dashing young millionaire only to be told in the finale that he is, in fact, a construction worker. The show was nasty, ridiculous and impossible to stop watching.

The structure of reality dating has been copied in other reality shows from America's Next Top Model to Scream Queens to the dating-in-all-but-name Brody Jenner vehicle Bromance. The format itself has gotten so old it almost makes one pine for the days of Love Connection.

Of course there is so much more to Reality TV! I didn't even get to talk about the surfeit of dance-focused shows like So You Think You Can Dance or Dancing With The Stars. And what about competition programs like the original reality phenom Survivor or Emmy darling The Amazing Race! Wife Swap gave us the "God warrior" as well as Richard Heene, the man who would go on to give us the hoax of the decade - the balloon boy. And RuPaul's Drag Race! I didn't even get to talk about RuPaul's Drag Race! Our cups runneth over...

And lest anyone be concerned about my viewing habits after reading this, fear not; I don't actually watch this crap. I learn everything I needed to know from The Soup!

You AUGHT to Remember...

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