Monday, April 4, 2011

Reality TV

This morning, the TV and  radio talk shows as well as social networks were all a-twitter about Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey engaging Snooki, of the reality TV show, Jersey Shore, to be a guest speaker for the student population.  Her fee...$32,000.   Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison is also engaged to speak...she will earn $30, 000 as the University's commencement speaker.  Reality bites.

I am all for free speech and I am sure that Rutger's is proud of Jersey's own Snooki.  Perhaps they consider her the anti-role model.  The gist  of her message was, and I am paraphrasing her, Yo, youse guys it is important that you should study hard, but make for damn sure you party harder.  Groan.

This got me thinking about Reality TV.  I surmise that this phenomenon arose around the same the Writers' Guild in Hollywood went on strike back in 1999.  In order to satiate our gluttonous need for TV, networks and producers struck upon the idea of slinging together regular Joes and Janes, sans scripts, plots and character development and taped the ensuing mess.  MTV started things off in the early '90's with The Real Life, which was a much needed filler, with them having moved away from music videos...VH1 was crushing them in that department.  The first notable reality TV that filtered into our household's 21st century viewing was Survivor.  It was exotic, provocative and a six week series during the summer.  It was something to watch other than old Seinfeld episodes.  I have to admit, it was kinda cool watching the castaways using primitive tools and skills as they competed in strange competitions; and of course there were the alliances.  I watched about 50% of the first survivor series and less and less of the next two series...and now not at all.  I just didn't like the meaner, coarser side of human nature.

Since the writers' strike, a spectrum of really good to really bad reality shows has emerged.  I get it that reality and what's good are in the eyes of the beholder, but there is some real dreck on TV these days.  You can still watch 20 somethings on The Real Life, use and abuse each other or you can watch talented performers on American Idol (thankfully without sharp-tongued Simon...I never watched the show because his cold criticism seemed mean spirited and made me very uncomfortable...not the reality I wanted to experience, thank you very much.)   There are a slew of Housewives from Orange County to Miami who bring a new definition of witch to our lexicon.  These are 30, 40 and 50 something  year old women who pull hair, flip tables, scheme and sabotage against other women whom they call friends.  It proves money doesn't buy happiness or class.  I used to watch these disasters...kind of rubber-necking on just couldn't look away from the horror.  My year in France cured me of my predilection for that particular genre of Reality TV.  Books are way better and less stupid.

I like the reality shows that teach me something. Top Chef , can be a bit soap-opera like, but all in all, I learn about techniques and trends in cuisine and often, you can see the better nature of people who are comfortable and confident in their craft.  Most other cooking shows with celebrity "chefs", I watch with the sound off because you just can't fix stupid sometimes.  "I like to toast walnuts and add them to salads for their toasted, nutty flavor."  Duh! I thought you added them because they taste like cheese.  "Mmm, mint is so fresh and minty."  Shut up already.  Tell me something I didn't know like, tearing basil leaves is better than chopping them if you want to use them as  a fresh garnish...cutting them with a knife darkens the edges. 

Some of the talent shows are pretty good and then there are those that aren't.  I only watch the finale of Dancing with the Stars,  on occasion, because I like beautiful ballroom dancing and you don't see that until the end of the series...Skating with the Stars, not gonna watch it...America's Funniest Home it when there is nothing on and my reading glasses go missing...and it is good to laugh at the silliness.  Wipeout on the other hand is just dumb.  My favorite talent show is The Sing-Off.  A Capella groups compete to win a recording contract.  Judges evaluate and educate the performers.  The groups cheer each other on, demonstrating good sportsmanship...and the music reminds me of my days in High School and College choir.  It is a short and sweet 4 drama, no bitchiness...just people who love to sing. 

From wasted enterprises like Bridezillas or My Super Sweet 16 Party and even John and Kate Plus Eight, we see the worst of American life; the selfishness, the wanton excess, the crudeness and the thoughtlessness of our society.   Considering that more and more programming on TV falls into this ilk, it is shaping how young people view themselves and society.  Recently there was a study done by the Culture and Media Institute demonstrating that the once sexually charged cable reality shows are moving more toward violence to entice viewership...Rutgers' Sweetheart Snooki has been filmed and arrested for fighting on her show and out at public appearances...and she still has a place on TV despite her actions.  I guess it proves the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity...after her arrests, viewership on Jersey Shore increased.  What is this saying about reality...the real world?

My kids are gonna cringe, but I have to say it...when I was a kid reality TV came in the form of documentaries, educational specials, sporting events and a few cooking shows, thanks to Julia Child.  I watched Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic, Boston/New England sports teams and PBS. I loved The French Chef and Crockett's Victory Garden.  The other thing about the "reality" shows of the '70's was, although some were on once a week and most others were looked forward to them and the content served to enhance your reality, not morph it into some degradation of culture and society.  We were not overexposed to anything...and what I call "crap" TV just wasn't an option. 

But, there is a super-saturation of crap TV on today...hundreds of cable and satellite channels...Netflix, on-demand, TiVo...and people watch it. People, Americans in particular, have become used to watching reality TV rather than living their own realities. 

Is it no wonder that Snooki can get $32k for a speaking appearance?  Stupid is as stupid does...and most of  reality TV is making us stupid.

I'd recommend reading a book...maybe something by Toni Morrison.  But if you  and your kids want to watch TV, ask yourself, Is this something I would watch with my parents or grandparents?  If the answer is no, think about why and change the channel.

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