dumb and dumber: reality based television drops the bar again

I stop short of adding reality T.V. to those things that define our humanity. It frightens me to think that television has not yet reached its highest level of evolution, that point at which it will transcend its present form and become a defining aspect of humankind. Of course, by that I mean it must become much, much worse…”


by marc covert


There are four things that absolutely have to exist in human history: art, religion, Alcoholics Anonymous, and professional wrestling. No matter what twists and turns of history or fate could possibly have occurred since we first coalesced from the primordial stewpot, these things simply have to be. Period. They make up the perfectly natural outcome of our basic human nature; somehow they each serve an elemental need within us. Crazy, maybe, but no matter; this dictum I stand by, confident of my vindication by what is manifest around us. And now, thanks to the madness of television, I would almost say we could add another inevitable outcome of humanity to those four stalwarts: reality TV programs.

One thing each of these share is the fact that if you don’t play along, if you have even the least resistance to what it is they are and what they represent, you are ruined. You will never reap the full rewards and enrichment they offer to humankind. Without receptiveness, blind faith, a willingness to turn your life over to a Higher Power, or suspension of disbelief you can forget about anything they have to offer.

Maybe that explains why, while the rest of the country (and good-sized chunks of the rest of the world) was transfixed for thirteen weeks by Survivor, I was blissfully ignorant of what was going on. I didn’t buy into the game; I was not able to make the leap of taste so necessary to be fully engaged by the antics of a bunch of half-naked Darwinists running around on an island dining on rat tartare. It wasn’t the first time my inability to play along caused me to miss out on the latest collective craze; these days I can’t even stomach the news, contenting myself with Cops and The Red Green Show.

But I stop short of adding reality T.V. to those things that define our humanity. It frightens me to think that television has not yet reached its highest level of evolution, that point at which it will transcend its present form and become a defining aspect of humankind. Of course, by that I mean it must become much, much worse, much more of an outright horror, and reality T.V. will prove to be just another milestone on the road to depraved perfection. Impressive or depressing (your call) as Survivor’s numbers may be-25 million viewers in its first week alone-I don’t see any sign that it heralds a lasting influence on the fecal feast to be set before shit-starved television adherents in days to come.

Even with its wild success, Survivor (and every one of its copycat imitators) has nothing to do with reality; “reality T.V.” is an absolute misnomer. It’s got nothing more to do with actual survival of the fittest than professional wrestling has to do with a bona fide street brawl. The fact that none of those knuckleheads were ever in any danger of starvation, ritual murder, or cannibalism made it a yawner to me. And try as they may, the networks, who have long had shameless hucksterism and outright theft of what few original ideas are ever generated down pat, have not been able to come up with anything that has attracted nearly the same numbers, save for “Who Wants to Whore Herself to a (Supposed) Multi-Millionaire.” And there lies the problem.

TV viewers, while I am careful not to give them credit for having any actual brains, do have an uncanny ability to follow the herd; that is, to blindly go along with trends, perfectly orchestrated to each other like needlefish in a school. Somehow that huge chunk of mentally addled humanity has managed to comprehend, however dimly, that something is missing here; that there is no “reality” to reality TV. The closest it ever got was Darva Conger and her terrified nuptial kiss to that toad Rick Rockwell, and even then it was over before it ever began. The actual outrage generated by the fact that they really did get married right there on TV must have had much to do with the spineless premise of Temptation Island. You know, damn it, you just know that when they came up with this piece of crap they must have wanted to send actual married couples to the island, but backed down in the face of the moral outrage (hypocritical though it may be in a country with a better-than-50-percent divorce rate) that would have been heaped upon them.

Desperation is never pretty, never something to attract love interests, much less mass audiences, and that could also serve as a death knell to reality T.V. There is nothing more desperate than rabid, ratings-mad television executives screeching for blood as they demand ever-increasing numbers from mewling producers and writers. It will take dreadful product indeed to get them to realize Survivor was a one-trick pony; here are a few of the ass-gusts our friends at the networks have loaded and ready for our viewing disrelish in days to come:

Temptation Island: This aforementioned program is currently being hyped for its January 10 debut on Fox. It is described thusly on the Fox website: “The dramatic new reality series in which four couples who are considering marriage travel to the Caribbean paradise of Belize to test the strength of their relationships before making permanent commitments. As one of the females in a couple explains, ‘It’s better to know than not to know.'” Can’t you just taste the excitement? The intrigue? Have you ever read a more banal, carefully worded description of anything?

The Mole: ABC steps up to the plate-o-shite with this gem starting January 9; guessing who among the contestants is a saboteur is the premise. Again, in the network’s own words: “Ten contestants will be put through a series of physical and psychological tests each week. At the end of each one-hour episode, the group will be quizzed about who they think is the mole, with the person who knows the least about the mole booted off the show. In the final episode, the mole will be revealed – and the one remaining contestant will win up to $1 million.” Again, can’t you just see the viewers staying away in droves?

And of course, it breaks one’s heart to read of what could have been. In a crushing blow which will deprive unimaginable millions of top-quality reality T.V. viewing pleasure, those damned formerly-commie Russians have pulled the ultimate boner: last October 2000 they announced that they will allow the Mir space station to take a nose-dive into the Pacific in February 2001. This would be tragic enough were it not for the fact that in September NBC announced its new reality opus: Destination Mir, the rights for which they ponied up $35 million. Carefully-chosen Americans were to compete amongst themselves for the ultimate prize: a trip to the Russian space station! Um, wait a minute…isn’t that the same Mir that has seasoned American professional astronauts scared shitless due to its propensity to be, in astronaut lingo, a “fucking deathtrap?” You may recall the last time Americans were on board that flying bucket of bolts in 1997 they had just managed to put out the onboard fire when they smashed into a supply ship and lost all power. News of the Russians’ intentions caused outrage at MirCorp, a “joint venture led by Western investors,” that recently signed a lease agreement to the tune of $117 million to keep the Mir station aloft. All MirCorp wants in return is the right to sell tickets to the public for trips to an aging, dangerous antique that has been in orbit three times longer than its designers ever intended. Faced with the difficult PR job entailed by an uncontrolled plunge to earth, the Russians decided to send enough fuel to the station to allow them to bring it down harmlessly. When prodded for a response to this fiasco, NBC did what any professional outfit would do: clammed up and hoped this latest black eye would go away.

What dooms reality TV from the get-go is the very fact that there is no way to make it real. If you want to attract my attention, put those shlubs on a real deserted island, wave bye-bye, and come back to pick up the survivors in a few months. If you want me to sit up and take notice of a houseful of assholes trying to live together…well, somehow transport me back to the days when I was actually living that way myself. If you want anyone to tune in and watch a bunch of horny hardbodies snatching away each others’ mates, then goddammit they had better really be married! And don’t even try floating that stupid fuzzy dot in front of any genitalia if you want sponsors other than Sam Goody or Montgomery Ward. Then, and only then, will our society have finally let loose its slippery, precarious grip on some semblance of taste and morality; then and only then will television make the great leap forward and downward into a new level of unbridled effrontery, instead of the lazy half-assed voyeurism offered up today. Survivor hit one out of the park in sheer numbers but it fell far short of changing television forever, amply demonstrated by its pathetic spin-offs. The truth of it is, reality T.V. is hardly any worse than the endless barrage of insipid content we are floated in on a daily basis-it stands out only in the fact that it is far more contrived.


Originally published:
Issue Five
January 2001


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