There's something so refreshingly boring about summer TV; all the shows you'd rather be watching are on hiatus, but there's no dearth of "reality" series to satiate your need for mindless drivel and disconnecting from the hectic pace of your everyday life. When 8pm rolls around, you know some freaks with perfectly coiffed hair and nearly glow-in-the-dark bleached teeth will light up your screen with their pep, determination and carefully edited soundbites.
It was with this expectation that I started this season of "Big Brother," that old CBS staple which has overstayed its welcome for the past 14 seasons. There were a few things we could all count on: incredibly fit and attractive women that I imagine network execs would describe as “smokin’ hot babes,” a loveable idiot, a secret genius, a bunch of randoms that are completely forgettable and a token minority or two. The lack of diversity on the show is obnoxious and unfair, but I’ve generally been able to suspend my outrage long enough to sit back and enjoy these idiots try to stab each other in the back quicker than you can say “Power of Veto”.
Here’s the problem: The mindless drivel I came to expect from the show suddenly got way too real when, early on in the competition, several members of the house were recorded and revealed to have said incredibly racist, homophobic and misogynistic things to and about each other. This didn’t just happen once, either -- it was an ongoing issue that’s still happening now, albeit in what the offenders probably consider a much more understated manner, due to CBS’s decision not to act. Huh?
I wasn’t much happier upon switching over to "The Bachelorette." Desiree’s fake ass acceptance of a marriage proposal from a dude she clearly doesn’t love made me want to vomit - but then, so does the premise of the show itself. A bunch of desperate single people vying for the affection from a single person they know nothing about in a competition just to get on TV? Well, that’s a bit distasteful.
Every single show I’ve tried to tune into in recent history -- "America’s Next Top Model" with its screeching bitchiness and eating disorders, "Extreme Makeover"’s body shaming and re-enforcement of bullshit social norms, "America’s Got Talent"’s exploitation of, well, pretty much everyone -- has left a bad taste in my mouth and the realization that we’re creating “reality” shows that portray pretty much the worst characteristics people can have in real life: greed, lust, desperation, selfishness… you name it, it’s on your screen every night in various incarnations.
I don’t look to reality TV for lessons in morality or on the expectation that some deep and abiding sense of higher knowledge will be imparted. However, I also don’t look to it for closer examination of all the shitty things we do, think, say and feel as human beings.
Suddenly, tuning in each week no longer makes me feel like I’m disconnecting from the stress of my everyday life, but rather that I’m plugging into the most intensely awful, unfair parts of it. Instead of downing Diet Coke and plucking my eyebrows, I’m now spending every broadcast biting my nails, hoping and praying that someone does something redeeming -- or at least lighthearted and entertaining without being offensive.
Here’s the thing: I don’t watch reality TV to have a mirror of society held up to my face. You think "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" is real? That Countess LuAnn doesn’t get a second take if she happens to trip over her stilettos or that Jeff Probst doesn’t carefully rehearse which questions to ask during Tribal Council on "Survivor"? Of course not, and that’s the beauty of it.
Reality TV isn’t real life insomuch as that it’s a polished version of it, to varying degrees. All the bad bits, the ugly bits, can be edited out or cut and pasted in a way that casts the person in question in a particular light. Nothing is random; even that which we’re told is unplanned and uncharted has been carefully arranged and set-up to make sure it goes smoothly as possible. There’s time for hair and makeup, for wardrobe changes and thoughtful silences where the camera just so happens to catch a contestants staring off into the sunset, deep in thought.
The most serious it gets is a “fight” that’s either been set up, re-shot several times or cut to look far more intense than it actually was. And that’s sort of how we like it.
So many people complain about the lack of, well, reality in reality TV. It’s too forced, too set-up, too scripted to be random - and that’s absolutely a valid criticism. After all, it wasn’t until this summer that I realized that those things are exactly what I love about it and what make it mindless and fun to watch. If I have a long day, I know I can count on primetime, “unscripted” shows to take my mind off the trials and small annoyances of, you know, living.
Maybe that’s my problem, though. In my daily life, I can sometimes come off as apathetic to certain problems simply because they’re so depressing and feel so much bigger than me that I can’t possibly change them and therefore, I have to ignore them in order to completely avoid having a meltdown.
Of course, if everyone thought like that, the world would be an even worse place to live and nothing would ever get accomplished. I get that. I also want to get away from it by vegging out in front of the TV sometimes -- sans any shred of reality. Forcing viewers to experience real life when they’re trying to get away from it? No thanks, I’ll opt out.