DanLrene commented on my last post about how little TV I consume, responding in a nut shell, that reality TV is terrible and where has the real talent gone?
My response to that is: It’s complicated and it’s simple. Like a lot of “problems” I think I can point to the simple cause of the problem, but the solution is complicated. The problem is the viewer. I’m not so sure there is a solution because there are so many different viewers out there. Essentially, the crappy Reality TV wouldn’t be out there if people didn’t enjoy it.
As far as talent is concerned, I don’t think the acting is of a lower quality on TV compared to twenty or thirty years ago. In fact, I think the quality of the acting has gone up dramatically. This may sound odd, but I think the quality of the writing has also improved. (Especially for cable television, though I’m going to focus solely on network television here.) Magical elements that were standard when I was younger, for example ex-military guys blasting “bad” civilians with machine guns and rifles and doing nothing but hitting the ground and killing no one, would be ridiculous today. (I’m talking about the A-Team, of course.) I could come up with all sorts of examples from my childhood, but I don’t want to pull out a dead horse just so I can beat it.
Viewers slowly demanded better, smarter, higher quality writing. Shows like Law & Order and CSI came along and were plot driven. Having the cheesy character archetypes (the smart character foiled against the dumb one, the scientist foiled against the magic/ghost/psychic believer) were removed from the equation entirely. Instead we had shows featuring a competent crew of normal people just doing their jobs.
I enjoyed this TV trend for a while. But like anything new, it eventually gets formalized, patterns emerge, and all these shows blend into each other. The next logical step would be a show like NCIS, which has apparently been around for seven seasons, but I watched my first episode during a holiday marathon while staying at my mother’s this past Christmas. I can see why this show has been successful. It combines the plot driven procedural with the old character archetypes to create a solid formula for the show.
I guess that’s where I would say, “smart” entertainment has taken us. And I put that in quotes because this type of show has a lot of flaws. In particular, everything is wrapped up neatly with a nice little bow at the end of the show. And we accept this even though we know the wheels of justice grind slowly. So even though it is the smarter side of TV, it is a caricature of reality and I find it understandable why people might not enjoy this type of programming. Alas, to me, the alternative is even more mindless. The people who don’t want to think even this hard about their TV viewing.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s always been mindless television. The old-time variety shows where people would have a number of differing segments featuring comedians, singers, dancers, and other forms of entertainment were all mindless viewing experiences. These died out in the late 70′s and early 80′s when I was young. I’m also not saying the people showcased weren’t talented or unentertaining, I’m saying those shows didn’t usually get you thinking too hard. They were barebones entertainment; a stage, some lights, an audience; go.
In the 80′s game shows were huge, fueled with mindless trivia, and gave housewives something to dream about. And no, I’m not saying housewives are the ones fueling mindless TV, only that games shows are the precursor to modern Reality TV. These were slowly replaced by the talk shows which probably started out smarter, but slowly (quickly?) devolved into simpler/base entertainments. They were also cheaper to produce. These days, the only main stream game shows I can think of are Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.
Any group of seven people with six firing brain cells knows most of the crap on the talk shows is director contrived and the people are hand chosen to be volatile or out right told to be explosive. Alas, that still means one of the seven people isn’t thinking and actually believes what they see. These shows are professional wrestling without all the steroids and slicked up biceps. It never ceased to amaze me how many people followed Oprah Winfrey uncritically considering how many crazy people she would show case on her show, but that’s another post all on its own. Anyway, once TV execs realized that such mindless drivel was eaten up by seemingly reasonable people and so cheap to produce, the next step was the Reality TV Show. The Circus for the New Millennium showing off the freaks of society for all to see.
As far as I can tell, most Reality TV has done nothing but devolve back into game shows only they’ve removed the mindless trivia. Unfortunately, we have 60-70 years of television data to use so we can pick out personality types that will conflict just so the directors can spice up the competitor pools.
I recall watching ten minutes of a cooking reality TV show in a waiting room; Worst cook ever or some nonsense. A contestant was criticized by a judge and burst into tears on and then again off camera. It was obvious this person was emotionally unstable and chosen for the specific purpose of using them for their emotional break-downs over someone abusive chastising them.
My response was: Wow, this person needs therapy, and no one is helping them. In fact, they are being put on display so their neuroses can be mocked by thousands.
The response of the other person in the waiting room: laughter.
I have no words for why my response was so different than the other person, for clearly there is one. I can only throw my hands up in the air and say, enjoy your circus freaks. Fortunately, I have Cirque du Soleil, and cable television.