Day 269: The Bitter Pill Of Reality TV

originally published September 25, 2012

Everyone I know claims to despise reality television. Still, everyone I know has a single exception – some piece of scriptless drek that keeps them tuned in, despite their invested time running counter to the logic of their convictions. That’s okay, we all need a vice of mindless buffoonery. Maybe you’ll make your exception for a talent show competition, a glorified game show, or if you’re not at all particular, one of those voyeuristic shows that somehow paint the most degenerate of human souls as interesting or worthy of our attention.

I’ll gravitate toward the middle category. An hour invested in watching bodies fly on Wipeout is a fine, goofy hour. My lovely wife dabbles in So You Think You Can Dance, a specific form of talent show, featuring actual talented people and a demonic she-shrew who should have been tossed into the Sarlacc’s hungry mouth years ago.

Wikipedia lists 626 non-fiction television shows (this number will probably increase by the time I post this article, and again by the time you read it). I devote the first day of every month to looking at the worst of culture, but there are simply too many that I’ll never get the opportunity to mock. This list doesn’t include news shows (no 60 Minutes), these are just ‘reality shows’. Everyone knows news isn’t reality. Neither are professional sports, if the defective referee work in the Green Bay-Seattle game last night are to be believed (and they are not).

The first one that grabbed my attention and made it want to throw up was an MTV-UK abomination called Totally Boyband.

(also known as Douchebags On Parade)

You know how boy bands – a misnomer because knowing how to play an instrument would get you kicked out immediately – are simply corporate creations? They used to have to know how to sing, though Autotune has made that an antiquated requirement. They were primarily geared as a product to be marketed. Well, someone decided they should gather up the unwanted scraps of old boy bands and host a reality show to build a new band from the wreckage. It was to be a corporate shill made up of scraps from other corporate shills. A mega-shill.

Cast-offs from New Kids On The Block, S Club, Steps, 911, and Another Level (I’ve heard of one of those) wound up forming Upper Street on the show, and releasing a single that flopped faster than a walrus falling off a roof. The group broke up literally one week later, proving that the word ‘disposable’ will always be associated with corporate pop music.

Sticking around in England, where the television has a tendency to range from the brilliant to the perverse on a near-American scale, F*** Off, I’m A Hairy Woman followed comedienne Shazia Mirza for six months as she grew out all her body hair. The show presumably tackled some tough issues about female body image and societal expectations, but it also culminated in a fashion show featuring lingerie made out of body hair. So if you were hoping solely for poignancy and intellectualism, well, sorry.

I don’t know where this show aired, or if the cameras were even plugged in. It might have just been a gag. Allegedly, producer Andy Bell noticed the success of televised poker, and figured that if people will watch a card game on television, they’d probably sit through a board game as well. High-Stakes Backgammon followed the intense action at the 2005 World Backgammon Championships in Monte Carlo. Kara Scott, the host, has also hosted televised poker, and done so with Gabe Kaplan. Working with Mr. Kotter is cool, but it doesn’t excuse being a part of televised backgammon.

Remember The People’s Court? Remember, before Judge Judy got all outspoken-mother-in-law in defendants’ faces, how Judge Joseph P. Wapner used to preside over all sorts of minor disputes, dispensing quick, capsule-form justice, and inspiring Rain Man to shirk all responsibilities to get home in time to watch? Well, Wapner wasn’t done when the People elected to watch a new Court. From 1998 to 2000, he appeared on Judge Wapner’s Animal Court, resolving real-life disputes involving animals. I assume people were involved too, though I’d tune in to watch Wapner scold a weasel for having violated some obscure tort law.

By the way, Wapner, who is still alive and rockin’ at 92, has his own brand of root beer. For all those hours of entertainment he’s given me, the guy deserves a plug.

Trippin’, in which Cameron Diaz hugs small plants on MTV, lasted for ten lovely episodes. The show featured various celebrities (Ms. Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Drew Barrymore, etc) visiting impoverished locales around the world. The show wasn’t so much about focusing our collective attention on global issues and how we can play a part in solving them, but more about watching famous people accrue some ol’ fashioned White Guilt and frown a lot. I hope this comes out on DVD.

Animal Planet hosted the Wapner show, and in 2005 they tried out something called Who Gets The Dog? Not a show about divorces of childless marriages, this was an evil plot with the Humane Society to place a dog in three different homes for 24 hours. Experts observe the conditions and activities, then “help the dog decide” which house he or she will live in. So in the end you get one household hugging a happy, slurping new member of the family, and two households (hopefully with young, wide-eyed children) who weep in solitude and toss the squeaky toys they’d purchased into a solemn fire. Fun!

Okay, try to follow me on this one. You’re sitting at home, flipping around for something to fill the gap before your next scheduled feeding, and you come across a show in which people go into someone else’s room – office, bedroom, whatever – and reorganize it. Do you realize how you’ve just spent your time? You have watched people re-order a filing cabinet, tidy up a desk, and tuck office supplies into nifty little capsules for easy access. You could have spent the last 30 minutes organizing your own life; instead, you watched some stranger organize another stranger’s life.

Maybe you were tuned in to HGTV’s Mission: Organization. Perhaps it was TLC’s Clean Sweep. It could be that you just watched an episode of Discover Home’s Neat. There have been at least three series dedicated to watching other people tidy up their filthy lair.

Is this entertainment? Is any of this stuff entertainment? We have a finite number of minutes on this planet. Those which you deem worthy to allot to television don’t necessarily have to go to thought-provoking screen-novels like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. But these are moments you simply can’t get back. Don’t waste them on crap like this.

At least watch Wipeout and enjoy people hurting themselves. Now that’s good TV!

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