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NOTES ON THE DECADE: TELEVISION

Reality? Hardly

Blame 'Survivor' for a format that celebrates the petulant and the utterly mundane.

December 20, 2009|By Mary McNamara television critic >>>
  • SPEIDI: "I'm a Celebrity" was too much for Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, with contestant Janice Dickinson, left.
SPEIDI: "I'm a Celebrity" was too much for Spencer Pratt… (Tyler Golden / NBC )

Balloon Boy, the White House party crashers, Octomom, Jon & Kate, Speidi -- nearly 10 years after the first "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 -- for all their bravura, 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 into " Jon & Kate Plus 8." It was all those kids and that oh-so-familiar veiled hostility between the parents. Look, it's Kate heaving a martyred sigh and being compulsively controlling about cleanup, just like Mom.

So now we have celebrities who are not just famous for being famous, they're famous for being depressingly ordinary. Oh, for the days of Liz and Dick, or even Princess Di. But she is gone and our current crop of movie stars does nothing much but adopt and procreate. Alas, we are left with fascinating uproars such as the one this spring when Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, stars of "The Hills" and royalty of the reality age, joined the "cast" of "I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!," only to quit after claiming they had been "tortured" by the show's "primitive" conditions. There they were, badly behaving "celebrities" who came to be celebrated for . . . behaving badly. In no particularly interesting way.

(Memo to Tiger Woods: You want to know why we're so fascinated with your sexual peccadilloes? Because celebrity-wise, we've hit bottom. Although it is gorgeously predictable that one of your alleged liaisons was with a former "Tool Academy" participant.)

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, despite repeated opportunities on every media platform available, no particular insight on either topic.

But the point of the Gosselins and the Pratts, of Octomom and the contestants of "The Biggest Loser" and all those housewives is not illumination but reassurance. We call the shows 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. Since Phil Donahue posited and Oprah Winfrey proved that personal experience is just as significant as any history book or sociologist's report, 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 currently has its own television show.

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