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Reality Check

Reality TV shows are the disconnect that fuel a dysfunctional heroic narrative, writes Andrew E. Hall.


WHILE the equally deadly viruses, ebola and Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL), decimate populations in West Africa and the Middle East, a deeply sinister social scourge has knocked them from atop the electronic pages of otherwise reputable newspapers … at least in Australia.

The story (that gained more hits than egregious human circumstances in the northern hemisphere) is about the aftermath of the most recent run of the “reality” TV series (let’s call it RTV), The Bachelor Australia – a programme out of the US, franchised to production companies throughout the world.

In my extensive (and, frankly, depressing) research for this article, in one major Australian newspaper alone I counted no less than 40 top-of-the-page stories – parading as legitimate journalism – between October 7 and November 4, 2014 … before I stopped counting.

While I have never watched an episode of The Bachelor (why would you?) I sadly feel I now know the protagonists in this story in a somewhat intimate way.

Here’s a quick synopsis about the basic premise of the show:

First and foremost, The Bachelor is founded upon an elimination-style format – as are most other contemporary RTV shows – where there are “winners” and “losers”
… the tension element.

The show’s producers (in this case Shine Australia) engage in a selection process for “suitable” contestants which results in one “eligible” bachelor being chosen with a far larger number of similarly “eligible” women (average age, 25). They are thrown together into a large and fluffy villa … let the fun begin.

Most recently the bachelor was a chappie named Blake Garvey (31) – a real estate agent, and, it has been reported, co-owner of a company that hires out male strippers.

During the first couple of weeks of filming there are activities, dates and cocktail parties and female contestants are whittled by way of being denied a red rose from Blake … out the door you go darling.
In the final week/s of production the show goes on the road with Blake and the four remaining women to exotic locations throughout the world – this one ended up in Cape Town, South Africa – and, long story short, Blake presents a

AUD58,000 engagement ring to a woman named Samantha Frost (25).

It is shortly after the final enthralling episode goes to air that things go pear-shaped – much to the delight of the Australian media and broadcaster, Channel 10.

Horror of horrors, Blake dumps Sam (she gets to keep the ring) and hooks up with third-placed contestant Louise Pillidge (26) – whom he was allegedly “in love” with all along and only dumped to protect her fragile sensibilities – amidst rumours that second-placed, Lisa Hyde (27), is “in the family way” thanks to Blake – she denies this and says she’s “lucky” to have been ousted by Blake.

People are shocked. They are outraged.

As Ben Pobjie writes in the Fairfax media: “Love is dead. The magic and mystery of the human heart have been crushed to dust by the relentless gears of modern life, and the insatiable maw of popular culture has left the very notion of romance a bloated, reeking corpse mocking itself even as it decays in the gutter of our befouled imaginations.

By which I mean, of course, that it’s time for another episode of The Bachelor Australia, the show where a man with abs instead of personality engages in light petting with numerous women who have been raised to consider philandering a desirable quality in a life partner.”

Meanwhile ebola is killing people in the thousands and ISIL is murdering people in the hundreds, if not thousands.

“News” organisations update every thrilling twist and turn in the tawdry saga and a rapt audience sends social media into hyper-drive – which is exactly what “news” organisations revel in these days. And largely why the “news” agenda is driven by “hits” and “likes”. C’mon news directors and editors, I dare you, say with a straight face it’s not true. Do it. And vilify me at your leisure.

Interviews are organised by all manner of media and “tell-all” stories are promoted; the protagonists paid large sums. A financially struggling Channel 10 receives a fountainhead of free publicity.

Fuck my old boots.

And at the time of writing it’s far from over.

Sorry, Arab and African peoples … this is “reality”.

REWIND: In 1948, Allen Funt’s Candid Camera – arguably the first “reality” show – became immensely popular for its depiction of ordinary people placed in unusual, often prankish, situations. In a psychosocial sense Candid Camera probably fulfilled a similar post-war and (at the time) mid-depression role played by the slapstick movies of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin et al in the 1920s and ‘30s … humour and hope in the face of adversity in a world rebuilding from abject conflict and compromise.

I can’t remember if it was Funt’s original show or a run-on from it but as a youngster in the ‘60s (‘70s?) I was (please note) “allowed” to watch a programme of the same name. It was innocent and funny. My mother – when confronted by her, sometimes, fractious children – would chant the mantra: “Smile, you’re on candid camera”. Which, in retrospect, probably didn’t have the desired effect in alleviating our moodiness. Kids …

Allen Funt’s legacy can be found in America’s Funniest Home Videos (franchised around the world), which first aired in 1990 – and marked a point in technological history whereby the average person had the capacity to capture and publish images without the necessity of a dedicated film crew. In other words, it was “cheap” content for broadcast networks.

In the 1970s Australian actor Gary McDonald developed the character Norman Gunston (who is the template, whether he acknowledges it or not, for Sacha Baron Cohen’s character, Ali G). The “little Aussie bleeder” (because his face was covered in shaving bandages) interviewed celebrities all over the world. An hysterical landmark in RTV – The Who drummer, Keith Moon, poured beer all over him; ballet doyen Rudolph Nureyev chucked a hissy fit and threw Norman out of his dressing room. Others simply cracked up in the face of Norman’s sheer gall and apparent insouciance.

Those were still the days when RTV was harmless fun – although in a very clever way McDonald’s bumbling interrogations were revealing with respect to his target parties. It was also a time when there tended to be a more harmonic balance between cooperation and competition in music, the arts, industry and the public space in general. McDonald as Gunston garnered a certain celebrity but was largely dismissive of it.

FAST FORWARD: The 1990s emerged much in the fashion of a stream of projectile puke – morphing western demographics, in particular, into a chunder of divisive demagoguery.

In the academies false prophets were busy deconstructing modernity in a desperate struggle to sell a “post-modernist” zeitgeist – and in doing so drove yet another unnecessary wedge between women and men. Gen Y’s desultory disposition became mired in the desperation of “grunge”. Corporate CEOs and their minions were lionized and corporate raiders rewarded in a manner more than hideous. The have/have-not gap became a yawning chasm. The oldest investment bank in Britain was brought to its knees by a single, greedy, rogue employee – and sold for a dollar. And with unprecedented advances in technological innovation the dot-com bubble began to inflate, only to collapse with a resounding “POP” at the end of the decade and the beginning of the next – taking many a life savings with it. The aspiration to acquire “celebrity” (sans any appreciable merit) became a Machiavellian movement.

Enter Big Brother – an RTV series (originally out of the Netherlands) that took the world by storm.

I confess to having watched a few episodes. But quickly became uninterested because I’d lived in shared houses on numerous occasions and understood the dynamics … for myself and my cohabitants washing-up duty was the biggest source of conflict. That, and where the hell to find the bong after it was hidden by the last person who used it.

Big Brother, again, was franchised across the globe, attracting massive audiences and, hence, viewer ratings, which determine the level of advertising content and revenue. It was pretty much the first big RTV thing that delved into notions of tribalism.

While the initial set-up costs considerable money – the house and all the recording equipment, monitoring crews etc. – the rest of it is relatively low cost network content (because the networks aren’t actually paying the “actors” as real actors would ordinarily be remunerated on a fictional TV production).

As Thomas Fenoglio writes in A Critical Guide to Reality Television: “The cost of reality TV in itself is the final factor in its current network saturation. The fact of the matter is reality TV is cheap to make, and in order to pursue a more ‘authentic’ depiction of reality, cheap production is a must.”

The title Big Brother comes from George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Big Brother” is the disembodied “controller” who sets tasks for the “housemates” and who introduces conflict into “the tribe” – over and above the conflicts created by its members.

Why anyone who has read Nineteen Eighty-Four would want to consciously bring it to life is beyond me.

“Reality” is unashamedly manipulated and sold as a fait accompli to the chattering classes and those they look down upon. And the “new-speak” of the genre has become embedded in our linguistic cultures.

In earlier incarnations the rationale for the “game” was for the tribe to cull members by consensus until there was one “winner” left standing who received an enticing prize package. As the show evolved and personal communications technology progressed the audience played a larger role in who got the boot and who got the loot.

There are a number of points to be made here: Big Brother was more cutthroat than anything that had come before (and more so as time went on) – reflecting the mores of the era; contestants became celebrities for no other reason than they were going the biff with each other on TV; and a voyeuristic audience bayed for the blood of “losers” while idolising “winners”.

Everyone should read Ben Elton’s take on the Big Brother phenomenon in his book, Dead Famous. It’s dead funny.

Survivor is a more recent and more overtly tribal RTV show set in more primitive surrounds that rewards skullduggery and connivance to a greater degree – a deification of a faux survival of the fittest … and meanness and sneakiness: human characteristics that are, apparently, to be applauded.

How does this speak to the mentality and morality of the voyeurs who watch the stuff with rapt attention enough to incorporate it into everyday conversation … as if it actually mattered? As if it were real?

Again, what is “reality” anyway?

Christopher J. Wright in Welcome to the Jungle of the Real: Simulation, Commoditization, and Survivor writes: “each 44-minute episode is culled from as much as 72 hours of footage from multiple cameras. (The editing) team can make anyone look bad and they can make anyone look good”.

Did you ever watch a series called Man Vs. Wild with Bear Grylls? I did because I quite like nature. However, despite the fact he did hurl himself out of the odd plane and helicopter, ford the odd river, and (claimed to) walk vast distances through deserts, I knew he was never as alone as he gave the impression of being. Film crews are a dead giveaway.

I stopped watching Man Vs. Wild after an episode that was shot in the northwest of Western Australia. There’s the plonker, Bear, wandering through an apparently barren landscape when he sticks his hand into a bit of scrubby bush and pulls out an olive python – which is indigenous to the area but rather rare.

“Ahh,” says Bear “… dinner.”

He then dangles this “wild” (two-metre) snake around his neck and proceeds to stroll on in search of a suitable campsite “for the night”.

Now, I was brought up in that kind of country and I never met a wild snake that would obligingly hang around my neck for hours while I wandered about – pythons are quite prone to biting and strangling things if they feel threatened … and Bear Grylls is no Steve Irwin (bless him, Steve that is). Anyway, that was the bit I found funny – that this snake was likely more indigenous to a pet shop in Perth than anywhere else.

The part I found dreadfully unfunny was when the indomitable Bear battered the poor creature to death on a rock as a precursor to cooking it. Do you know what he said as he was doing this?

“It doesn’t hurt them.”


What kind of message does this shit send to kids?

Doomsday Preppers was another cracker that one just had to watch at least once … about American bible-bashing bozos preparing for the Apocolypse. I laughed until I cried when a father decided his young children needed to be taught how to handle firearms (presumably to shoot the neighbours when they came scrounging for food come the end of days) … and blew his own thumb off when he had a misfire with his AR15 – and promptly fainted.

Top Shot is another RTV show out of the US where two teams of people are banged up in a house – a la Big Brother – in the desert and eliminated over the duration based upon their ability to shoot things.
Of course, some of the most avidly watched RTV series that have exploded over the past 20 years or so involve the highly dangerous martial art of … cooking. The rabid Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen being a piquant example.
Shut up Gordon! You’re belligerent and boring.

Master Chef – same bollocks, different show. Manufactured tensions, winners, losers … smug judges.

A venal groveling for celebrity.

The RTV series with an outrageous double entendre title, The Biggest Loser, puts fat people through hell under the tender mercies of a bunch of fascist personal trainers who would not be out of place as wardens in Abu Ghraib.

Told you my research was depressing.

There are abundant vacuous series’ about becoming a “top model” – almost the antithesis The Biggest Loser.
… and then there are the ubiquitous “talent” programmes such as (pick a country)-Idol and The X-Factor.

Foo Fighter frontman Dave Grohl, speaking on the US current affairs show 60 Minutes, fired a broadside at American Idol, The X-Factor and other TV talent shows for crushing aspiring singers.

“Who’s to say they’re good or not?” Grohl told interviewer Anderson Cooper.

“Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing Blowin’ in the Wind in front of those judges?” he said.

Grohl then imitated a TV talent show judge offering a verdict on Dylan: “Sorry, it’s a little nasally and a little flat … next,” he said.

According to a November 2014 article in the Canberra Times Grohl is not alone in his criticism of the TV talent show genre, and the prominence it now has in the search for emerging talent in the recording industry.
Sir Elton John famously said TV pop competitions had “killed talent”, while Sting, the former frontman of The Police, has described The X-Factor as “appalling”.

Former Take That frontman Robbie Williams said TV talent shows were cruel.

“They fuck with people’s lives for entertainment,” he said.

I think a most pithy perspective is provided by Passenger in his song, I Hate:

“ … And I hate the X-Factor, for murdering music
You bunch of money-grubbing pricks …”

I’m pretty sure that Simon Cowell isn’t terribly fussed about the negativity.

We could go on and on because there’s a “reality” show based on pretty much any subject you can think of and we’ve already established why. Questions remain, however, about the ramifications and consequences of this peculiar ubiquity that doesn’t look like going away any time soon.

As Jennifer Friedlander writes in her essay, No Business Like Schmo Business: Reality TV and Fetishistic Inversion: “ … as viewers, we know that reality TV is, in fact, a sham. Through a combination of casting decisions, generic conventions, celebrity aspirations, etc., the participants of these shows are, in effect, not acting ‘authentically’, but are rather ‘playing roles’. Nevertheless, we enjoy watching them as if we think of them as ‘real people’.”

Reality shows, therefore, are the triumph of the manufactured image: the articulation of our desire to relate to fabricated identities and carefully edited personas. They are the blank screens upon which we can project our own need to belong.

Or as Yasmin Ibrahim puts it in Transformation as Narrative and Process: Locating Myth and Mimesis in Reality TV … “Makeover shows reflect the anxieties of our time; in a society where youth culture dominates the media, social deviance is shown in the form of poor selection of apparel, neglect of bodies or the natural process of ageing, these shows portray change as salvation and compliance as a heroic narrative.”

So, I return to the thoughts that got me into this story in the first place and my obtuse opening paragraph. In the wake of never ending news reports about (mainly) young people from many different countries making the decision to travel to Syria and Iraq to take up arms with ISIL and participate in its murderous spree, I wondered – and in a very real way, worried – what motivational force might lie in the “heroic narratives” of popular culture.

And about the sycophancy of mainstream media that makes them “real”.

Meanwhile, let’s all look forward to the next intoxicating series from the RTV networks: Kill-Factor – pilots are already on a website near you …