Friday, September 17, 2004

Raiding the Archives 7 - Unreality TV

As the ghostly excuse for the new television season gets underway, one thing is abundantly clear: reality-based programming still dominates large chunks of the broadcast landscape.

I know it's upsetting in a way our ancestors will never even come close to understanding. I hope you're not too upset by this. Please move away from the ledge, will you?

Seriously, in recent weeks, folks have been asking me whether I'm going to write about reality television because, frankly, they think this would be effective fodder for a Good Old Carmi Rant. I know they're being nice - and this is their friendly way of telling me I've devolved into an ornery writer with a huge chip on his shoulder. But writers have to have thick skin, so I simply smile and thank them for their idea before heading home and writing what I truly think about them in my blog.

[Pause for a good, soul-cleansing-yet-sinister laugh.]

There, I feel better. Let us continue.

Anyhoo, I wrote this almost two years ago as the fifth "season" of Survivor was winding down - meaning the last figurative knife was in the process of being forcibly inserted between the shoulder blades of the last-to-be-ousted contestant - and it seems to have held up well to this day.

May you watch Survivor - or whatever else that passes for entertainment in today's world of television - with the following happy thoughts in mind. And may we all collectively pray for the day when the wizards who control the dissemination of motion picture-based culture decide to return to more fundamental production values like writing, production, and acting. Perchance to dream.

Originally published Tuesday, December 17, 2002, in the London Free Press.

Survivor survivors moved on

Forget the winter weather outside. Yank the kids in from building that snowman. Put down your book and flip on the TV. Survivor: Thailand, the fifth edition of the original reality series, concludes Thursday.

What do you mean you don't care?

When the first Survivor hit the air more than two years ago, it built a massive following.

Viewers tired of the generic sitcom/cop show/talk show/newsmagazine drivel clogging the cable universe connected with a ragtag bunch of non-actors from all corners of America who spent an hour every week complaining about everyone else's laziness before voting one of them off the show.

"Voted off the island" became the catchphrase of the year. Water coolers echoed with conversations about nasty truck driver Susan and crusty old Rudy. Local bars and restaurants held Survivor parties. Rock & Roll Jeopardy host Jeff Probst became an unlikely anti-star.

The reality TV phenomenon was born. Admit it: you watched. At least once.

Which leads us to Hollywood's golden rule: if something works once, then it must be relentlessly ripped off. It doesn't really matter whether you copy yourself or copy someone else's show. Originality takes guts. Predictability demands something less. And nowhere is the law of diminishing returns more obvious - and painful to watch - than on TV.

As a result, successively smaller audiences have watched the Survivor franchise hopscotch from Malaysia to Australia, then to Africa and Marquesas before stopping (we should only be so lucky) in Thailand.

We can only watch so many innocent insects get eaten in the name of tribal immunity before we look for something more, um, substantial. Besides, the shock factor of drinking cow's blood wore off somewhere in Kenya.

And as we've tired of Survivor, we've also tuned out of the copycat shows, like The Mole, Temptation Island and The Osbournes, that were introduced in its somewhat tarnished wake and now litter the TV landscape.

OK, maybe The Osbournes are still around. But I see a short shelf life for Ozzy & Co. because even the masses of easy-to-please television viewers will eventually want to watch something somewhat more intellectually stimulating than listening to Rice Krispies after you've poured milk into the bowl.

Beyond the dumb factor, there's the minor issue of reality; rather, the lack of it. How real is it when these so-called Survivors' every move is captured by camera crews who live in luxurious villas on the other side of the hill?

I'm convinced the producers are secretly smuggling in burgers and root beer when the cameras are turned the other way.

There's a reason Canadians - with the exception of pseudo-Canuck Kel Gleason, who went down in an infamous scandal over beef jerky and an activity unsuitable for mention in a family newspaper - haven't been eligible to be on the show. We're simply not obnoxious enough to qualify.

We don't whine as loud. We have fewer tattoos and body piercings. We use terms like "bond" or "alliance" and mean them. We say please and thank you.

It won't be long before Survivor heads to the same TV dustbin that claimed the original island jigglefest, Gilligan's Island, a generation ago. Its contestants' 15 minutes of fame will wear off before we can reach for the remote.

On Thursday, the water cooler will be silent. London bars won't hold Survivor parties. Few will care who gets booted and who wins the million dollars (American!) Most conventional TV addicts will have already returned to the permanently-stuck-in-adolescence gang on Friends.

Despite all this, I'll be watching our beloved island buddies. Maligned and misguided as they are, part of me will miss these whiners who have virtually visited my home for the past three months.

The other part of me recognizes the displeasure my wife would feel if I didn't watch it with her.

Reality television, indeed.

Carmi Levy is a London freelance writer. He may be e-mailed at



carmilevy said...

The sad irony of Survivor and all related shows that have come since its debut is that idealism, education, and personal growth have precious little to do with the final product. All of these shows exploit the very worst behavioural traits of interpersonal relationships in our modern society.

And the legions of folks who tune in merely validate why we all turn our heads as we slowly idle past the car wreck on the highway.

Interestingly, we'll need a steady supply of fresh car wrecks to maintain our interest, since there's no fun in watching the same one for too long.

carmilevy said...

You will be in my prayers, Tara, for I understand what that must be like. It's a similar affliction to people who watch sports non-stop with the volume turned way the hell up.

How to explain to them, nicely, that the kids can't fall asleep with the amplified white noise-like sounds of crowds cheering vibrating the very structure of the house.