Mary McNamara, Decade of reality TV glorified the mundane
Chicago Tribune (December 26, 2009)
Balloon Boy, the White
crashers, Octomom, Jon & Kate, Speidi -- nearly 10 years after the
"Survivor" offered us winner and dubious role model Richard Hatch,
reality television remains the genre that just keeps on giving.
Ten years ago, who among us could have imagined a nation riveted by the semi-scripted rantings of various "real" housewives or the emotional and physical exertions of the morbidly obese? (P.T. Barnum being already dead and all.)
Certainly, as a concept, reality programming offers the possibility, and rare actuality, of personal drama and cultural revelation. The various talent competitions -- "American Idol," "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing With the Stars," "Project Runway" -- showcase the grueling effort required in the creative process, as well as its often-stunning outcome.
But from the nurse log of "American Idol" and "The Amazing Race" have sprouted all manner of shows in which the time-honored division between fame and notoriety has been unforgivably mangled, creating a pop culture smoothie in which there is not so much flavor as sensation. Raising children, surviving marriage, gossiping with your friends, looking for a job, losing weight and buying expensive things -- most reality shows celebrate nothing quite so much as the utterly mundane.
Which would be great if the message were something like: There is quiet beauty in the ordinary life lived well. But reality show programmers are not, by and large, Transcendentalists. They, and we, are much more interested in the ordinary life lived petulantly -- it wasn't all those kids that kept us tuned in to "Jon & Kate Plus 8." It was all those kids and that veiled hostility between the parents.
Society has always celebrated people of little or no actual accomplishment -- before there was Kate Gosselin, there was Evelyn Nesbit. But Nesbit at least was involved in the murder of famous architect Stanford White; her story provided a tantalizing glimpse of the imagined and possibly real depravity of the cloistered cultural elite. The Gosselins have done nothing more than reproduce and split up, offering no particular insight on either topic.
But the point of these shows is not illumination but reassurance. We call them our guilty pleasures, and there's a reason for that. Too many reality shows and their "stars" have become the small, dim mirrors in which we examine ourselves, finding comfort in the fact that if banality is televised, perhaps it isn't such a bad thing after all. Excellence is hard to achieve; why go to all that trouble when mediocrity will make you just as famous?
To a certain extent, reality television reflects our fairly recent obsession with full and electronically instant disclosure. We have become a nation of memoirists, obsessed with examining every previously shameful inch of our social intestinal tract. My alcoholism, your gender confusion, his sex addiction, her binge eating, their dysfunctional family. And every issue has its own show.