There may be more to reality TV than meets the eye.
Maybe we are all depressed; maybe this is why we watch reality TV. The conventional rationale for the ascendancy of reality shows over sitcoms is that they are wildly cheaper for the networks to produce. With Seinfeld and Friends now but two vast and trunkless legs of stone in the antique lands of the 1990s, NBC, on the one hand, is releasing only two new comedies and three dramas this fall. Numerous upcoming reality shows, on the other hand, from various networks, will include The Contender, about wannabe boxers; Making the Cut, about wannabe NHLers; and Wife Swap, about—well, sigh, as Charlie Brown would say.
It’s easy to make fun of reality TV, and sometimes it’s even fun. In his short story “Sea Oak,” from the collection Pastoralia, George Saunders has his characters watch a show called The Worst That Could Happen, “a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.” The ironic chaser here, of course, is that Saunders’ imaginary reality show is itself a simulation of a reality show that has never actually occurred but theoretically could.
But there has to be more to reality TV than its badness, and more to thinking about reality TV (pace Francine Prose, whose comparison of reality TV shows to Republican politics in a March 2004 Harper’s article entitled “Voting Democracy Off the Island” was the paragon of the form) than really clever ironizing. We watch reality shows because they scratch a profound itch; we watch them for the satisfaction they provide at that deep, unspoken, awkward level where there is no irony at all.
Now, I’m not arguing that reality shows are all forthright and nutritious, like the nightly news or The Nature of Things. They are, however, easy to watch. I’ve chosen this phrase with some care, rejecting along the way “entertaining” (people eating slugs is not entertaining, exactly), “funny” (beautiful people squabbling in tropical resorts are about as funny as Safeway shoppers squabbling over who is first in line when the next checkout opens) and “addictive” (I never made a point of sitting down to watch every goddamned episode of Survivor or The Apprentice or American Idol as I did Da Vinci’s Inquest, for instance, or Canucks games during the playoffs—sigh).
Reality shows also provide deep narrative structure, and this is where the surface ironies start to peel away. Structure connotes direction, connotes meaning. It feels good to see life coherently shaped into high points and low points, into acts with climaxes and denouements, with mysteries resolved, murderers caught, loves consummated, winners triumphant, or (if your mind bends tragic) heroes brought low, loves lost and so on. Reality TV is based on tried-and-true literary structures, with elaborate set-ups (castaways, fake millionaires), rising action (the date, the competition, the “reward challenges”) and, finally, the clever coincidence of what Aristotle called peripeteia and anagnorisis, which Extreme Makeover calls the “reveal” (sudden revelation leading to an “inevitable” change of fortune). There’s nothing inherently ironic about these structures; they’re the bedrock of the Western literary arts.
But reality TV doesn’t just put these appealing narrative shapes on display. It goes one step further, allowing the viewer to pour herself into these shapes like Jell-O into a mould. If her own life seems vague, static, without direction—if she is at all depressed—how satisfying to write to a network and get herself picked for a show that will put her down in the middle of a highly structured, life-changing competition (the million dollars, the new face) that will make her life a vector rather than one of a billion other faint, meandering lines.
This trope of transcending the mundane or merely vicarious—the trope of falling bodily into books and stories that can rescue our flailing lives, or at least make sense of them—is also a literary one, showing up in works as varied as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Gould’s Book of Fish by the Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan. We don’t just want to observe stories; we want to get sucked into them, body and soul, and live out the shapes that seem to give such meaning. We want to be lifted out of the fog to a place where, for better or for worse, we can see clearly at last.
Hence the unlikeliness of there ever evolving meta-reality TV, in the manner of meta-fiction. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner defines meta-fiction rather handily as a “fiction-like critique of conventional fiction” that “give[s] the reader an experience that assumes the usual experience of fiction as its point of departure,” and whatever effect a work of meta-fiction may have “depends on [its] conscious violation of the usual fictional effect.” A reality show about people making a reality show would take us back to the land of small, self-conscious ironies, missing out on the larger pathos that straight reality TV, almost in spite of itself, manages to evoke.
A meta-reality show structured as fiction, however, might work. You can imagine Ken Finkleman trying it for the CBC: a meta-miniseries about the loves and travails of a wily producer, a Ken-doll host and a group of hot-and-articulate-but-engagingly-morose camerapersons filming Survivor: Ellesmere Island. You can see it, can’t you? The contestants nibbling seal blubber, the camerapersons taunting them with coffee and muffins, and the inevitable fun-house moment when the social order breaks down and all the invisible barriers between real and unreal are crossed: that moment of peripeteia and anagnorisis, your big reveal, when you turn off the TV, yawn, stretch and drift off to bed, because it’s late, because tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow is a work day, and because—if you’re hoping for any kind of clarity in the morning—goodness knows you need your sleep. Sigh.