Nature shows used to be my idea of reality television. I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and while I never enjoyed it when the lions ate the antelope/warthog/water buffalo, such fare helped me to understand how the real world worked. The real world, I learned, was the mind numbing boredom of watching lions sleep and or groom each other, punctuated by messy moments where something was lunch.
Since animal shows were a vital part of my childhood, I introduced my son to Animal Planet and National Geographic as soon as possible. Monster Bug Wars was his favorite, but he also enjoyed Meerkat Manor reruns. The entire family also enjoyed watching Gator Boys, Call of the Wildman, and Finding Bigfoot. My husband and I watched Steve Irwin back when we were dating; we bonded over our agreement that the man was insane to stick his bare hand into a rattlesnake hideout. We weren't always about the animal shows, either. Ghost Hunters was a hit for awhile, as was the extra-hammy Ghost Adventures.
Before Zane came along, my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed season five of American Idol,
because the singers were actually good back then, and we enjoyed the
performances. We also loved the train wrecks--people completely clueless
that they were tone deaf, people with an overinflated confidence in
their abilities(as if just anyone can pick up a microphone and belt out a
smokin' hot Whitney Houston number), and those odd people who were
allowed to audition just because they looked weird enough to get the
producer's attention. Along the way, however, we started to notice that
most of those auditioning on camera were the train wrecks, not the
contestants who ended up on the show.
Reality shows have changed over the years, and not for the better.
There are many shows on these days that beg the question, "how far is
too far?" I read about these shows, such as the one where people go on
dates while naked, and I wouldn't be surprised to find that alcohol and
other substances were involved in its creation. I'm not sure that I want
my son to learn the lessons that I have from these reality shows. Here is some of what I've learned:
It's what you look like. Did you ever notice that there is never an ugly person on some of these reality shows? Everyone looks plastic, manufactured. Even the geek shows, such as Comic Book Guys, make the stars put on a clean shirt and trim their beards. The Bachelorette, all dressed and pressed, doesn't show up to meet a room full of overweight nerdy guys from the IT department; she is greeted by a room full of gorgeous man meat, especially cleaned up and dressed for her. Where on earth does that ever happen to the average woman, and can I get a ticket to that place, just to see what it looks like?
Andy Warhol was right. Everyone gets their fifteen minutes, in the form of a reality show. Anybody can use their cell phone to film someone doing something stupid these days. Some of the shows I've seen advertised have led me to believe that there's a producer waiting in the produce section of the local Walmart, consent forms in hand, cameras at the ready. That is the only way some of these reality stars could have possibly been "discovered".
It's all about the drama. Television is all about the drama. That's why television exists in the first place. Every moment on television, something has to happen, or we lose interest. Even Seinfeld, a show purported to be about nothing, was often about something happening, or at least the character's response to the something. The opposite is true in real life, where nothing happens for long periods, punctuated by the occasional dramatic moments.
Bad manners are entertaining. That has to be the only explanation for some of the behavior I've seen. Kids say rude things to their parents, or throw huge tantrums. Men get drunk and film their escapades and laugh at the injuries of others. Girls get into cat fights, throwing their shoes and cursing like sailors on shore leave. The only reality show that reveals the consequences of such behavior in the real world is Cops. If I had imitated the behavior I see on television, I would have been grounded for the rest of my life. At least.
It didn't happen if you edit it out of the scene. Most reality footage ends up on the cutting room floor. If it's boring, or doesn't build up the drama, it is cut, plain and simple. Animal shows are the worst, because most animal lives consist of three activities, two of which are eating and sleeping. Watching things sleep usually puts most people to sleep, so *snip*! Wouldn't you just love to be able to do that sort of editing in real life? There would be entire years that I would just want to *snip* right out of my life, and not just because of my poor fashion choices.
Stereotypes? We gots them! Ernie Brown, the star of Call of the Wildman, is called back woods. He has maybe seven teeth in his head, and he lives in a house that does not appear to have indoor plumbing. He is a stereotype of the ignorant Kentucky man who lives off the land, but has a heart of gold. Honey Boo Boo is a stereotype. The Housefraus of the various Counties are ridiculous stereotypes of the rich wives who have nothing better to do all day long but go to the salon or do lunch. Real women, whatever their income, have a lot more to do with their time.
Truth is not required. Many of the dramas that occur on reality shows are fabricated, if the drama doesn't happen on its own. Want some action? Throw two women who hate each other into the same room! Know people who are suing each other? Make sure they run into each other in the lobby of the courthouse! Even the great Walt Disney did it; the myth that lemmings commit suicide as a group began when Disney filmmakers needed a dramatic shot, and drove a bunch of poor lemmings off of a cliff. I'm pretty sure that if the creators of Finding Bigfoot could bus in a primate to stomp around in the woods, they would, just to see who noticed.
Finding Bigfoot is all about fun, and I can say that nobody except the stars seem to be hurt by what they do. The same can't be said for other "reality" shows. What sort of message does The Bachelorette send to young women about their bodies? How many people see American Idol and believe that all they need to make it is to be outrageously crude or pitiful? How will the couples who meet on Dating Naked describe their romantic beginnings to their children?
Wouldn't you like to see that on television? I'd call that show Embarrassing Life Stories Explained to Children. I think it'd be a hit.