So I just finished the book Reality Matters, edited by the lovely Anna David, which is a book featuring top-drawer writers dishing on their favorite reality TV shows. Each writer explores not only each show but how and why they relate to them. It is a kind of voyeuristic theme that is a main appeal of this book for me. I know what some of you are thinking, “Axxman? Reality TV? You?” and you might be right in questioning my sanity but hear me out.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, followed by the Iraq War, and then the banking/mortgage/economic collapse of 2008 America has begun to change. What Reality Matters illuminated for me were some of the deeper causes of the cultural change as each individual writer expresses very real connections to these shows, and then reveals some positive under lying change in them. To be honest, when I talk about a cultural shift I confess that I cannot put my finger on what exactly it is, but I get the feeling that what is shooting through the undercurrent of American society is akin to the regret and horror people feel the morning after they’ve rioted. The realization of just how out of control we have been as a people at every level of society from the nightclubs of Hollywood and Miami, the exclusive offices of Wall Street, the Mortgage guy at your bank that you thought that you could trust, and Washington D.C..
While the Tea Party is the most visible reaction to this awakening I would point to the election of Barak Obama to the Presidency as the left’s version of the Tea Party. However I submit that reality TV has played a big part in this awakening as well. Instead of pretty actors pretending to be somebody that they are not, reality TV pointed cameras at a wide variety of real people and gave us a new version of reality. Sure most of those shows are scripted, and all are edited for enhanced drama yet they ring true. Desperate Housewives is a well written and wonderfully acted show, but on many level The Real Housewives of New Jersey was far more decadent and juicy. Plus you could feel better about hating characters on Real Housewives because they are themselves, where as when the director yells “cut” on the Desperate Housewives set those women disappear as the actresses who portray them wander off to their trailers. One time I met J.T. Walsh, who played the evil Sgt. Major Dickerson in Good Morning Vietnam, and he was just the sweetest guy you could ever want to meet. Conversely when I met Michael Bean, who played “Hicks” in Terminator as well as many other “Cool Guy” roles, Bean turned out to be a dick. Generally with reality TV stars you are getting what you see.
I think that this underlies the cultural shift, while we still enjoy good fictional TV shows we also want to see what the neighbors are up to. When we watch those idiots on Jersey Shore we are confirming that our society’s decadence needs to be replaced with something else, something more real. Okay, when the two cast members tried to light charcoal on a gas bar-B-q I was indeed hoping that it would explode and disfigure them. I’m not going to try and tell you that there isn’t a gutter-level of enjoyment to reality TV.
My first reaction about reality TV shows is disgust. This reaction is based on MTV’s stable of shows headed by The Real World, which always bothered me and has continued to degenerate into worse anti-social behavior with each new season. What Reality Matters did for me is force me to think about the shows that I do watch, and low and behold many of them are reality television shows. I have sat through the Military Channel’s Making Marines and BUDS: Class 234 multiple times. Both shows took an often traveled road and used a reality show-style format to present their stories. Recently I sat through the Discovery Channel’s Two Weeks in Hell about the first two weeks of U.S. Army Special Forces selection, and this show also used the reality show-format. Compared with the Discovery Channel’s classic show: Navy SEALs, the Silent Option, Two Weeks in Hell new show offered much more insight into the men who try out for Special Force, and featured much more of a human connection.
Then I am forced to admit that my favorite TV shows are Deadliest Catch, and Ghost Hunters. In many ways Deadliest Catch is a thousand times more manly than “24”. The show features rugged dudes risking their lives to catch Alaskan King Crab, man against the sea, man against man as nerves and fatigue wear away nerves, and all around man-stuff (smoking, drinking, swearing, not showering, and missing their women). Ghost Hunters features a Rhode Island paranormal research team headed two Roto-Rooter plumbers. Each episode consists of the team rolling up to a haunted historical location, unloading the van, setting up the equipment, and running around in the dark saying “Shhh! Did you hear that?” The climax of each show is called “The Reveal” where they unveil the findings from the investigation. The show is a lot of fun and sometimes they don’t find anything. Both shows feature regular people doing extraordinary things in scary places.
As the 21st Century takes shape and we dust off the residue of the decadence of the last 20 years of the last century; I believe that reality TV will be a proven factor in our progress as a culture. I know that this sound wild, crazy and more than a little stupid, but I think that there is a connection. I think that as we search for the new “Truth” that reality TV offers us a glimpse; either as a window onto a world that we want, or a world that needs to be discarded.