I might as well confess up front: I’m a reality TV slut. After a hard day’s work, I’ve often plopped down and vegged out to The Real World, Survivor, Trading Spaces, The Osbournes. I’ve comforted myself with all kinds of lame excuses: (1) These shows are the direct heirs to the noble legacy of cinema vérité, (2) my viewing habits are an ironic gesture or, alternately, (3) a populist gesture. The third defense holds up particularly well, since vast portions of the population are watching this stuff along with me.
The problem is, those justifications suggest a rigorous, conscious engagement with the programs, whereas their very raison d’être is mental disengagement. Jean Baudrillard, the prophet of hyperreality, denounced a French TV show modeled on Big Brother as an “obscene spectacle of nullity, insignificance, and platitude.” Exactement, mon frère—that’s what they’re for. Isn’t the whole point of these shows that they have nothing whatsoever to do with real life—mine, yours, anybody’s? They’re all about escaping the real real world.
The vicarious thrills of these “human amusement parks” (Baudrillard, again) come in an assortment of flavors. Reality TV is really an umbrella term for a host of subgenres. There’s the makeover show (from Trading Spaces to Extreme Makeovers), whose appeal blends traditional American motivational positivity with the fantasy of total self-reinvention. Fly-on-the-wall programs like Cops mix gritty authenticity with a titillating violation of privacy. Then there are scriptless soap operas in the mold of The Real World—laboratories of human behavior that are carefully engineered and cunningly edited to create drama out of the humdrum disorder of everyday life, in the process transforming ordinary people into quasi-celebrities. Conversely, shows like The Osbournes and the new Fox series The Surreal Life allow us to observe famous (or formerly famous) folk doing mundane stuff: The absence of drama is the draw.
Perhaps the ultimate reality format treats life itself as a game show. Friendship and romance serve as the raw material for elimination contests in which the victor gains a fortune (Survivor) or a spouse (The Bachelor), while the losers get to watch themselves repeatedly humiliated in reruns. Almost medieval in its cruelty, The Bachelor is structured so that the more rounds a woman survives, the more emotionally enmeshed she becomes—gradually falling in love with the prize hunk and bonding with her female roommates/rivals. Shows like The Bachelor offer an addictive combo of suspense, schadenfreude, and pseudo-intimacy, along with the beauty-pageant kick of rooting for particular competitors. Plus you can do the Joan Rivers thing and rag on the dumpy or dimwitted.
Although it’s being marketed as a subversive twist on The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire (Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox) is actually a whole new ball game: a TV show in which real people are placed inside a fake situation with the intention of bringing out the worst in them. Brought to us by the ethically impaired makers of Temptation Island (couples in shaky relationships incited to infidelity), Joe Millionaire whisks 20 women to a French château and dangles before them the tantalizing possibility of marrying a very rich guy. Of course, the concealed reality of this program is that Evan Marriott is no mogul, just a humble if handsome construction worker who’s been groomed Eliza Doolittle-style with a crash course in etiquette, fine wine, and ballroom dancing. As it turns out, “humble” is a lie too—the tabloids outed Marriott’s other career as a model (saucy underwear catalogue, photo shoot with Bruce Weber) last week.
Like The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire is designed to mindfuck its female contestants. The women spend weeks on end living together in a house, competing with their new pals for one prince. They must perform an emotional striptease and risk the crushing rejection of being cut from the show before an audience of millions. Although the women’s feelings drive both shows, the acceptable range of expression allowed is horribly narrow. (The Bachelor‘s Aaron Buerge frequently eliminated candidates because they were too reserved, but also rejected one weepy woman as a “Fatal Attraction type.”) Meanwhile, the male star reveals only as much as he wishes—just enough to keep multiple chicks on the boil for weeks on end, but not so much that he looks like a vulnerable fool or gives away the game’s conclusion.
In most reality shows, the director’s hand is virtually invisible; the last thing viewers want to be made aware of is the highly manipulated and contrived nature of what they’re seeing. What’s striking about Joe Millionaire is how conspicuously it flaunts the puppetmaster’s strings. The women are unwitting dupes of a fictitious scenario, while rugged hunk Marriott struggles to play the role in which he’s been cast. The intro montage emphasizes his agony over his role: “Now that I’ve met these girls I feel bad about deceiving them, but I’m waist-deep in it now.” So you didn’t feel bad about it before, lunkhead? The most charged moments of the debut episode involved him muffing his lines. After riding in on a stallion to meet his would-be princesses, Marriott slips up and bangs his chin on the saddle. Later, he splutters idiotically when a suitor asks his middle name. Surely they could’ve found a guy who’s better at lying? But this predicament—will he blow his cover? will the girls smell a rat?—spices up an otherwise formulaic setup.
At least after episode one, the women seem fooled. Words used to describe Marriott: hottie, yummy, rich. Several contestants compare him to Gaston from Beauty and the Beast or make reference to feeling like Cinderella. Not surprising, since the women are ferried to their castle in a horse-drawn coach and introduced to Marriott at a ball. But the creepiest thing is the way the show sets up these working women (doctors, bankers, marketers) to look like gold diggers and scheming hussies. Marriott the Deceiver, perversely, takes on the serene righteousness of a morality play hero as he searches for true love, albeit on false pretenses. His mantra is “I want to find a woman who likes me for me”—a statement that defies even the most demented logic, given that fraudulence is built into the structure of the show. How can anyone like you for you if you’re pretending to be someone else?
Just as reality TV grants a bizarre sense of importance to life’s more banal moments (watching The Real World‘s Puck pick his nose and then take a swipe at the peanut butter jar; hearing Sharon Osbourne cuss out the neighbors), it also has taken on the dubious mission of exhuming ropey celebrity has-beens and also-rans for public display. If you’d asked me back in the early days of VH1’s Behind the Music (a pioneer in the career resuscitation movement), I would have cheered the concept. Give balding ’70s teenybopster Leif Garrett his own series! Base a sitcom around the cheesy infighting of Styx!
Behind the Music spawned The Osbournes, but few celebrities have the weird anti-charisma of Ozzy and his brood. Just check out The Surreal Life, one of several ex-celeb shows clogging the airwaves this fall, with more to follow soon (an American version of the U.K. hit I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here; Second Chance Idol). The show’s lineup is audaciously mediocre, from Gary Coleman clone Emmanuel Lewis to Gabrielle Carteris, the nerdy smart girl on Beverly Hills 90210. Slightly higher up the Hollywood food chain, there’s pudged-out Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil and fallen rap superstar MC Hammer. Every scene in the first episode seems orchestrated to play on our disdain, providing us with a series of flimsy comic tableaux. Crammed into a minivan with $500 to spend on groceries, the faded luminaries are deposited at a suburban supermarket, where they run the gauntlet of sniggering fellow shoppers. The producers trigger the episode’s one moment of drama by offering a sushi dinner for the housemates, served on a woman’s naked body. Vince chows down enthusiastically, as do Gabrielle and the other women, but Hammer stalks off, outraged by the sexist exploitation. Former child actor Corey Feldman boycotts too—but only because he’s a vegetarian.
The appeal of The Surreal Life is seriously one-dimensional. Deluded, the celebrities see this as the first rung on the climb back to fame’s firmament. As Feldman says on his first day, “I’m all about image repair at this point.” But the show is all about stripping them of whatever dignity they still have.