Reality TV: Lifestyles of the Sometimes Rich and Questionably Famous
Prior to taking on the role of Entertainment editor here at Trapit, I was (like so many other devotees) a lover of the highly-stylized and often guilt-inducing reality series Jersey Shore.
For those unfamiliar with it, the Jersey Shore is a hugely successful series in which several self-identifying “guidoes and guidettes” (all supposedly Italian-American) live in a house and basically party, when they’re not half-heartedly working one service job or another. The formula is simple: put a bunch of loud people in a confined space and watch them scramble (I’m looking at you, Big Brother). Yet it has proven itself so many times in the world of reality TV that Ryan Seacrest is currently producing a spinoff that would insert wealthy young Persian-Americans into the shoes of a Shore-inspired cast. He’s using “Shahs of Sunset” as a working title. I’m not making this up.
Truth is, sometimes I couldn’t tell what it was that kept me addicted to the Shore. Was I looking on with an ironic mind, appreciating the show from a safe distance for its full-blown machismo and ethnicized oddity? Or did I truly connect to The Situation and Snooki when they celebrated their faux workweek by clubbing as hard as humanly possible? Sometimes I found myself in a near trance as I watched the Shore house implode one season after another; sometimes I felt the bile rise in my throat when the fists would start pumping. In both cases, however, Jersey Shore had an indelible effect on me–I couldn’t bring myself to look away, no matter how knotted my stomach became at the prospect of watching another second.
It is within this love-hate paradox that I found my fascination piqued for reality television. Since the 1940s, television has flirted with the concept of evoking an unscripted (read: less scripted) version of “reality.” As one NYT editorial written by Alessandra Stanley last year reminded us, reality TV is far from a brand new idea:
“Reality shows that exalt indolent, loud-mouthed exhibitionists may seem like almost biblical retribution for our materialistic, celebrity-obsessed age. But actually, these kinds of series are an extension of a time-honored form of entertainment, one that reaches back to the era of landed gentry, debutantes, and social seasons in places like Newport, R.I., or the French Riviera.”
That said, we have inarguably entered an era in which that flirtation has formed into an outrageous love affair. I figured that even if I didn’t entirely believe in the medium, I had to give it more credence than a cynical viewing of Jersey Shore. One of the first topics I began following on Trapit was (unsurprisingly) reality TV. My access to information about the subject had long been limited to the gossip mill: Kim Kardashian is going to make at least 2 million dollars on her wedding; that one girl from 16 And Pregnant got arrested; Bentley Williams is a jerk and Vienna Girardi from The Bachelor got a nose job, etc.
As you can see, I still got a lot of that stuff–and I don’t regret reading one juicy word of it–but what really got under my skin were those occasional editorial gems I found, placing the life of reality television into a historical and cultural framework wherein it could be better understood. Interestingly enough, those same articles identified the gossip mill as a primary reason for our fascination with the genre. To put it simply, “Bad behavior serves as a warning but succeeds as entertainment.”
So why do I watch reality television? It certainly has a lot to do with perspective. It’s fun to watch people “behave badly,” especially when they fit so nicely into a social stereotype of some sort: the grating tones of our “Real Housewives,” the representation of Louisiana gator hunters or “hillbilly handfishers.” I’d like to think that there’s a better justification than that one, but chances are, I probably watch reality shows for the same reason most people do: because it toes that line between the real and the absurd so well.
All this said, what benefits do I derive from watching it?
I’ll get back to you on that one.