reality tv: too little of a bad thing

Yesterday I finally got around to a great piece by Andrea Seigel in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a really incisive analysis of reality TV and deserves to be read.

As with many things, when I complain about reality TV, I feel obliged to complain about it in an entirely new, fresh way. Sensing that this may be impossible, I have to make due with complaining in a way that’s merely unusual.

Anyway, my complaint runs like this: The problem with the little reality TV I’ve seen is not that it’s too cheap or tawdry. It’s that it isn’t tawdry enough.

I understand it when people want to indulge in the sensational. I get that, and I do it myself with fictional things like ‘Damages,’ an absurdly melodramatic show that I find compelling. There are secrets to be uncovered, after all, with reveals slowly parceled out over a season. TV shows are so good at doing this that one suspects they have a scientifically tested formula for feeding us twists at just the rate we need to be completely addicted.

Compare with reality TV, where many reversals of fortune are presented as tricks played on the participants/victims by the producers of the show. We always see the deus behind the machina.

And that’s no good. See, I want my tawdry entertainment to obscure the fact that it is a cultural product designed entirely to capture my attention long enough that it might accidentally run over the end of the show into an advertisement.

Moreover, as an outsider to reality TV fandom, I have the strange impression that it rewards patience and dedication. Reality TV is actually character-driven, with the exception that the characters are dull.

Here again, the problem is not as obvious as the critics make it out to be. Reality TV is not too fake. It’s too realistic. Most real people and their ordinary lives are boring to watch most of the time — even if they’re interesting to live — and that’s why you don’t tell you spouse every detail of what happened to you today. Only a few great artists have ever used boredom as an effective aesthetic device. Boring is mostly exactly what it is, which is to say, something I would pay to avoid.

So, no, I don’t watch ‘Survivor,’ ‘The Bachelor,’ or ‘Say Yes to the Dress.’ That said, I’m glad Ms. Seigel does, because her take on them is fascinating.

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