by Coop Cooper
I don’t watch popular reality shows. Not to sound like Holden Caufield from “Catcher in the Rye” but I can’t abide the phonies and wannabes making fools out of themselves for their seemingly entitled fifteen minutes of fame. Traveling circuses used to have freak shows, nowadays we have the “Kardashians,” “Teen Mom,” “Jersey Shore” and an abomination called “Toddlers and Tiaras.” On one hand, I love horror movies and the fictional train-wrecks that movies and TV provide, but as Milhouse once said on “The Simpsons”… “I only like it when I’m pretend scared.”
Having said that, I now have a lot of friends and colleagues to apologize to. Reality shows currently employ a large portion of Hollywood, everyone from executives and actors to janitors and catering crews. Formerly out-of-work actors now have opportunities to become contestants on game shows, dramatic reenactors, competitors in talent searches, participants in big-budget practical jokes and reality show stars themselves. People with unique skills, jobs and talents now have a platform in which to showcase their passions and become famous while making a little extra money on the side. Some altruists can also use these shows to administer therapy and raise awareness for important issues.
Additionally, there are many educational reality shows. The History Channel features nearly unlimited documentary content. Animal Planet’s “Shark Week” is one of the highest-rated cable events in history. Some channels and shows also teach do-it-yourself skills and provide valuable life-enriching information. Some cater to hobbies and passions like hunting/fishing, sports, technology, music and art. Others, like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” engage in good-hearted philanthropy.
Reality shows are relatively cheap to produce, making them an attractive cash cow for every single free and pay network channel available. While this might sound like corporate greed (and that is a motivating factor), it also generates movie-caliber budgets for quality one-hour dramas. Networks are still interested in creating fictional content and the extra revenue generated by these reality shows allows them to hire A-list talent and spend more money on creating shows like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Dexter,” and many other TV dramas that have captivated both audiences and critics.
Regardless, some reality shows simply can’t be excused. The worst of them exploit children and the mentally unbalanced. They also exploit cultures with impunity and intentionally force (sometimes violent) conflicts in racial situations. They often reinforce reprehensible and illegal behavior. The worst of them turn greedy, ignorant sociopaths into movie stars and role models.
I suppose I don’t get a thrill or a laugh out of it like the creators of these shows are intending. I find it far too depressing to think the players in these programs are a cross-section of America which may or may not accurately represent the people or culture. Sure, much of it is fake and scripted like pro wrestling but I find that particular scenario equally disturbing… that viewers would WANT to believe what they are seeing is real enough to continue supporting the awfulness in these shows.
I once took a college class taught by the late Hollywood producer Martin Jurow (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Pink Panther”) and back in 1995 he made the prediction that “original programming,” including reality TV, would soon take over the airwaves. He also said once it started, it would be a part of entertainment for good.
If that thought distresses you, consider a potential upside to this apparently true prediction. For example – here in Clarksdale, Mississippi – I constantly run into people from outside of the country, out of state and even locals who have an idea for a documentary or a reality show about Clarksdale. So far, all of these ideas focus on the strengths and positive qualities of the town and its people (Blues music being the most popular subject). If the reality TV trend does continue, as we all know it will, I am optimistic it could be beneficial for a small town like Clarksdale, not only to share culture, but to shatter stereotypes. In fact, many of these reality shows (“American Pickers,” “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” etc…) have already visited Clarksdale and it would appear the results of these visits were positive from both local and entertainment perspectives.
In other words, here’s to hoping we have more “Extreme Makeover: Home Editions” and less “Jersey Shores” in our future.