Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Sarah, You're Stumped

Yesterday I viewed multiple commercials for upcoming reality shows. In My Favorite Brady, some middle aged former child star, past his prime, which happened when he was about twelve, married to a much, much younger model, past her prime, which happened when she was about twenty, contemplates the possibility of fatherhood. His bride seems to be worried that she has a choice between her beloved breasts and motherhood. In Rock of Love 2, a very, very former rock star searches for love amongst not-so-young ladies who appear to be in need of some lessons in manners. Worst of all, there was Celebrity Rehab, which seems to be exactly what the title says. No doubt the Baldwin that I spied in the ad will be joined by others in justifying doing something so private so publicly. "My being here, sharing this way, will help the regular, less pretty people to seek the help that they need." These shows are all coming up on VH1, the network that used to play videos that were meant for people past 20, but now is the sleaziest network on the air. So, why, you may ask, was I watching such a sleazy network? Well, I was watching a reality show. I was watching America's Next Top Model. This is the reality show that I'm most embarrassed to admit I enjoy.

Friends, I come not to bury reality shows, but to praise them. My shameful secret is that I love reality shows. It's not that much of a secret since everyone who is likely to read this already knows this all too well. I don't love them all. In fact, because I do love some, I really hate others because they stain the genre. I have been trying to figure out why I love some, hate others, and can't be bothered with many.

I really hate all shows in which washed up celebrities want to get on television at any cost. I hate shows that make people seem so much more hideous than they probably are in real life (I Love New York), especially those that justify their existence by acting as if they are helping people (Wife Swap, Cheaters).

There are shows that I never watched in the first place because I was afraid I might like them and knew that I really shouldn't, like Kid Nation and Biggest Loser.

There are shows that I loved the first season of. Those shows I have watched, using my biology background to make observations to myself and anyone unlucky enough to innocently ask me if I watched the show. In the first season of The Bachelor, I watched women compete for one man, and they actually behaved in very interesting ways to get his attention, trying to make themselves the most attractive to him while realizing that they had to still be part of the herd. In the first season of Big Brother, I also watched, fascinated, as people decided how much of their personal lives to air in these very crowded conditions, where, in order to win money, they had to be liked by their housemates and by the American public. Americans, as a group, don't really like or trust people who are too private, but don't like people who are too out there. In the case of these shows, by season 2, the "real people" have decided what character they will play, and there is very little reality left (I'm going to be the virgin, I'm going to have the drinking problem, I'm the bitch). They lose my interest.

Why do I love others? For one thing, some are very well done. In the case of my favorite, Amazing Race, I have literally been on the edge of my seat, cheering for my favorites to get to the check-in point first. I'm smart enough to know that editing and music are responsible for much of my reaction. The best ones are also actually real. In fictional television, which I also love, you know that the shy girl with glasses is going to eventually be noticed by that good looking playboy, who will realize how shallow his life has been up to now, and that the character who coughs in the first episode is going to be dead of tuberculosis by the last episode (there's a lot of Masterpiece Theater watching in my past). I'll never forget how bad I felt at the end of one season of Amazing Race, when the pair that won was not the pair that was supposed to win. They had no obstacles to overcome, they weren't particularly kind to others, they didn't really appreciate the cultures they were rushing through. I like reality shows like some people like sports. There are no sure outcomes in the best ones.

I have memories of nice moments shared with loved ones over reality shows. D and I have shared meals while watching episodes of Project Runway, discussing the good and bad of clothing we would never buy, as if we were critics at Fashion Week (a week I didn't even know existed before I started watching Project Runway). When Marin came home from Russia, I told her that I knew she'd love Project Runway. She didn't seem interested, and then a couple of days later, she disappeared for a few hours, and when she finally emerged to eat, it turned out that she was downstairs watching a Project Runway marathon and loving it. I love watching American Idol with PJ, even though I'm sure he would never watch it on his own (thank you, PJ, for indulging me). I only watched Dancing with the Stars because he enjoyed it so much (and made excellent points about how the judges were actually giving good advice most of the time), and I enjoyed talking about my favorite dancers with my mother. Cameron dislikes most reality shows, but he and I both enjoy Top Chef and we used to both watch Amazing Race together.

This brings me back to America's Next Top Model, and another thing that most of my favorite shows have in common. America's Next Top Model is not a great reality show. I don't watch it during its regular season. I hate seeing young girls fighting with each other over little things. But I love the last twenty minutes. It is there that the girls have to face their photo shoot pictures and that the truly bizarre panel of judges (more than three of them!) gives them good advice. It is here that the girls, who spent their teen lives being told that they should model only because they are skinny, join with young people who have been told they can sing, and artistic people who think they can design or cook, in learning that these jobs actually involve skills. And here are the moments that I love because I, too, do something that everyone thinks is easy or fun. I'm a schoolteacher, and I have to spend my days hearing either condescending remarks about how little I make (people, go to any school district's website and find the teachers' salary chart in the employment section before you say that again), unthinking remarks about my hours (you try being "on stage" for about five hours a day, followed by meetings, parent conferences, tutoring or clubs, duty at dances or sporting events, and then go home for assessment time), or most insulting of all, listening to people who think they'd like to try teaching because they have a lot of knowledge to share or because they'd like to "give back." Modeling is not easy, even if you are tall, skinny and pretty. Singing to an audience is not easy, even if you can carry a tune (which, strangely, many AI finalists can't do). And my job is a profession that takes a lot of work to do it well.

All that being said, I know that there's a lot to make fun of in reality television. This brings me to the origin of today's entry title. If you haven't seen Operation Kitten Calendar, please do so. The more actual reality shows you watch, the funnier it is. Be sure you check out all the episodes (each 5 minutes long), including the obligatory reunion show.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

LOLAHSI on the reality shows that stain the genre.
I think I disagree on Cheaters, though -- I mean, I doubt I could watch more than ten minutes at a time, but there's something about the smarmy, earnest, and obviously false pretense that they're just there to help people that makes it especially hilarious to me. And I would feel awful laughing at the pain of the betrayed parties if they hadn't been the ones who contacted Cheaters and signed all the release forms in the first place.

vicmarcam said...

PJ--It is hilarious on paper. But it is just disgusting to watch because the people are just so stupid you start to feel that they need a court ordered protector to help them decide which foot to stick out first when they walk. And I find it really scary that we seem to live in a society where the need for attention is so much stronger than the need to aviod embarrassment. Maybe Cheaters just reveals our decline so strongly that I prefer to draw a veil on it.