Dw. Dunphy On… It’s a Smaller World: The Sociological Statement of Reality TV

Written by Television

Popdose.com’s Dw. Dunphy goes past the “what” of reality TV to explore the “why.”

We’ve discussed this before.

It is painfully apparent, just as painful as its many appearances, that reality TV is never going away. It is more accepted than ever, even under the accusations of being everything but ‘reality’, even under the rightful assertions of just how awful most of it is, even as the program-making industry is waking up to the concept that scripted programming can not merely be good TV but great storytelling. It persists, like the cold you thought you got over after a week of near-dehydration, but are now knocked head-over-heels with again.

The reason is mostly financial. As a “documentarian” (and don’t think real documentary-makers out there don’t feel a little nauseous whenever these programs claim they’re in league), the costs are relatively minimal. You want to make a show about young people behaving badly, so you find a small group of barflies, give them some money and a place to stay down in Seaside Heights, New Jersey and wait for the first fist to swing or the first drunk to hurl. If you create the conditions for the event, you’re not really capturing reality, but scripting it through carefully placed obstacles and temptations.

Little did MTV know the monster(s) they created, and this is not necessarily a knock against Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino or Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi. When they were approached by the network, and likely given this scenario of free room and board on the Jersey Shore, in a seaside amusement park atmosphere, and the only real job requirements were to have fun (read as: beach-hopping, bar-hopping, bed-hopping) and let the cameras roll unimpeded, and then get paid for all of it, the stupid thing would have been to turn it down. But then the show became a hit, the characters became stars and inextricable from the program, and that is where the jumper cable meets the electrodes on the neck. MTV didn’t want stars because stars want top-dollar, but wound up with them nonetheless. Sorrentino and Polizzi now can expect a big paycheck, and for fear that the lightning rods of the show would walk, MTV must oblige.

It is bizarre, isn’t it? Sorrentino’s primary talent, apparently, is the six-pack abs. The girls want to touch him, not because the guy has any particular charm or ability, but because they like his physique and might want to sleep with him. Aside from that, Sorrentino is rather a cipher, not bringing much more to the table than the t-shirt he hikes up on command, like a trained seal cavorting for a fish. Polizzi’s talent seems to be just being “Snooki,” going on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, proudly exclaiming how she regularly gets drunk until she blacks out. Still, as much as MTV might kvetch about having thrown in with these two, they are instrumental in their creation. They didn’t kill the girl by the river or rampage the village (at least, not Monster-style), but “it’s alive, it’s alive” regardless. They may have been non-celeb-celebrities once, but now they’re bona fide.

The deeper question then is, why do we find any affinity with these people, and why do others want to hijack that spotlight so desperately and completely? What drove the genuinely unstable, possibly psychotic, Richard Heene to create the Balloon Boy hoax, and why is he still bucking for his prime time slot? Why do the Real Housewives of Every-friggin’-where (who are only partially real physiologically, and are barely ‘housewives’ at all) allow their lives to be exposed, and manipulated, and the shallowness of their mutual existence to be the butt of scorn and derision? If you have a Kuato hanging out of your chest, do you wear extra heavy sweaters, or do you charge a fee to let the nation gawk at your talking tumor? (Total Recall references – gotta love ’em.)

The truth is that the population got bigger while the world got smaller. It is in part because of the digital revolution, the various communication options we share. Once this column goes live, anyone, anywhere in the world with an uncensored provider can read it. My once-little, small-town blurb can now be a global talking-point – only, it really can’t. If I record a song, I don’t need a radio station or record label to push it. I can upload it to the ‘Net and fill the world with my song – only, I really can’t.

An example of diminishing opportunities: musicians once had to record in a studio to make music. Studios were expensive, and so they needed the start-up money from a record label contract to pay their way. They needed the label to put the record out, shove it at the radio stations, drop the ads on TV and in magazines. Home recording removed the need for the studio, digital distribution knocked out the labels and digital presentation co-opted radio. What it didn’t do was make an act stand out.

That started with the ability to burn CD-Rs, believe it or not. When cassettes became outdated, an act had a leg up when they could present something people could play on their CD players. Then it was a requirement. Then the advantage came when they had their music video, until it was a requirement. A website? Once a cut above, now is just learning to crawl. Digital files? If you can’t get on Amazon Digital or the iTunes store, you’re just handing out cassettes during the CD revolution. You’re not playing the same game, kid. You’re not even playing at all.

You can apply this theory of “advantage, turning into status quo” necessity to almost every level of human endeavor, even the seediest, most degrading of them. Everyone can do it, and almost everyone is. Want to record an album? There’s an App for that. Damon Albarn did it, and that’s how we got the new Gorillaz album. You can do it too. Your neighbor can do it too. Your neighbor might even be more talented than you, and he can’t rise above the global din either.

If one person screams in a room of one hundred, he makes a big noise. If one hundred people scream in a room of one hundred, the noise makes them – they are a sonic mush, an indistinct voice, a hundred somethings creating a singular nothing. Now, if one of the screamers takes off their shirt, fondles themselves, vomits and passes out, they regain their singularity. It comes at a price, being their dignity and self-respect, but for a brief moment, they were more than just another screamer. Briefly, they were a unique entity, they had an advantage, a leg-up. Thus, one could complain about how the audience is making stars out of bad actors all they want, but the real reality of the so-called reality stars is that it impossible to stand out by being a good actor. There are too many pretty singers singing, skillful painters painting, funny comedians telling jokes, and it all congeals into quantum mechanics of something/nothing.

The planet has never been more crowded than it is now, more connected than it is now, and more small. At the same time, existential angst has never been more palpable. Science tells us every day that we’re all mayflies in the continuum of time, clumps of cosmic dust possessed with the audacity to think we’re “something,” when we’re just delusional, the gazelle that thinks it is a lion and tries to stalk alongside the pack. We’re told that when we’re dead, we’re dead, except in the hearts and minds of our loved ones, and when they’re dead, we even cease to be on that plane. We had better make our mark on this world now, or else resign ourselves to the real damnation of insignificance and the forgotten.

Yet our ability to make that mark, even with so many tools at our disposal, diminishes at a rapidly increasing pace. Every time Apple releases a new gadget, our chances at distinction decreases. There could only be one Einstein, one Rembrandt, one Shakespeare, one John Lennon, and in their time, they had much wider fields in which to scream. They got heard and their messages stuck. Our messages, like mayflies, have less than a day to become the proverbial something, and every day we lose precious seconds, minutes, hours, our windows of opportunity closing before us, we become little more than dead bugs stuck in the screen.

The Situation and Snooki may be little more than the drunken focus on the world’s stage at the moment, puking on the footlights. Mr. Heene may keep reaching for the stars with ratty, stained mittens on his hands. Teen Mom might just be another in a long line of teen moms unless she beats the crap out of the baby-daddy on-camera, in which case she rises above her contemporaries, briefly. She gets to fly through the screen momentarily. She gets to be “something,” no matter what the cost.

“They” once sang the song, “If you can’t sing good, sing loud.” Now even that’s not an advantage. You could say that, by my writing this piece, I’m just as guilty of trying to sing louder. To that, I reply, “And you’re not?”

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