Imagine that you’ve spent the last five years in cultural exile, and you’ve never seen an episode of a reality TV series. Why, you would be… me. Until last week, that is, when I finally decided to immerse myself in the medium. Swan; Extreme Makeover: Home Edition; The Apprentice; The $25 Million Fraud; The Bachelor; and much more. If it was real, I watched it.
And I was, of course, appalled. And pretty bored. But also, intrigued: Are all these people out of their minds? Reality TV isn’t real at all. (Razing her house is going to help a hay farmer out of hock? Gorgeous Maribel has to go on national TV–twice!–to find true love?) Plus, it’s demeaning and stupid. So why is it clicking?
Maybe it’s the same thing that worked for an episode of the old show “Queen for a Day,” that I remember seeing as a kid. A woman in her 50s, widowed, was asking for a miniskirt and go-go boots, so that she could be sexy and meet men. It was pitiful, of course.
And it was amazing TV. Amazing in that, 30 years later, I remember what that woman looked like and the sound of her voice. There’s power in pathos–emotional power, and commercial power. Television is cruel to exploit it, and we’re boorish to enjoy it–but man, it sure gets to the heart of who we are real fast.