The Maybe-Reality Of Reality TV


Do you know we are being led to
Slaughter by placid admirals

& that fat slow generals are getting
Obscene on young blood

Do you know we are ruled by T.V.

— Jim Morrison, An American Prayer

I have the habit of sleeping with the TV on. So much so, that P90X success stories and internet wealth tutorials make the cosmic me super rich and studly while I sleep. Point being, I watch too much TV. Studies indicate that an average American will spend seven to ten years of their life watching TV. Personally, I believe that statistic is off and short of the mark. If the average person lives to be around 70, and seven years is 10% of their life, they would watch, on average, around two and a half hours a day. That may sound like a lot, and it is. But the obesity epidemic didn’t occur because Johnny Doritos was too sedimentary while cross-hatching bibs, it was because he watched TV more than two and half hours a day. If schools out, I’m talking Price is Right to Squidbillies, maybe working in a nap. And trust me, I’ve done the same.

But I digress. TV is an innate part of our culture and has informed and entertained America for over 70 years. For better or worse, the entire world idolizes American media. On a lot of grounds demonizing TV would be easy, but for me, it would also be hypocritical and counter-productive. I’m not clean enough to own a soapbox.

What I would like to understand however is what our cultural reliance of turning on, tuning in and dropping out is creating in our society, besides a culture of heart-crumbling Sally Salamis. While my Leary-ism is taken out of context, I think it remains a relevant mantra for any alternate reality that is induced by external forces. Whether that reality is seeing a tiny hype man with a Viking helmet and a bucket of fried chicken as a true object of romantic desire or staring at a lava lamp and believing Syd Barrett was a better lead singer than Roger Waters. Both are products of outside inferences spoon-feeding a reality. One fed by the media, the other, drugs.

But with both the Flavor of Love and the flavor of psilocin, the reality of what we digest as truth, even for a moment, means we have to drop out of whatever reality, or conditioned expectation of what was real, that preceded it. In other words: dating before elimidating, having a wife before swapping a wife, having some pride before eating bull nuts for money. Are we creating the reality of the media or is the media creating the reality of us or is it the symbiosis of, “Why is the ocean blue? Because the sky is blue. Why is the sky blue? Because the ocean is blue.” Is Flava Flav actually Flavio? And is “Vegetable Man” actually a great Pink Floyd song? I don’t know. But what I do know is that with the advent of reality TV, that line of perceived reality differentiation hasn’t been blurred, it’s been put in a script.

The last line in Morrison’s poem is interesting to me for one reason. It was written in 1970. The time of Ajax commercials, Dick van Dyke, Maude and Bonanza. If Bea Arthur reigned with a poorly produced iron fist in 1970, then who runs the Third Reich of primetime in the 21st century?

Short answer. We do—Blitzkrieg style.

“It was kind of just a spur of the moment thing,” explained MTV’s Kristin Cavey. “I saw an ad on MSN or something for Paris Hilton’s New BFF. One night my boyfriend just taped me at a club, and I sent the tape in. I definitely didn’t think about getting a call back. But MTV called me and flew me out to a mansion in California.”

Through my super in-depth research, I found out that apparently Hilton’s first eternally favored boo was actually a “hungry tiger,” which means that the fake scoundress was in it for the media attention and sadly, and shockingly, not in it for Paris. Slut. Thus a new friend search was to emerge. A New BFF. And Kristin Cavey, a levelheaded, college educated Baltimorean, was going to try to be just that.

Kristin Cavey entered the belly of the beast of reality TV as a 27 year old, attractive, financially wealthy (she is an heiress herself), intelligent, stable, self-assured and all around normal and pleasant young woman. And seemingly left the same way. I know. Normal and pleasant? We’ve all seen the toxic id monkeys that bang sticks at each other on these type shows. She was the exception. (Yes, I watched Paris Hilton’s New BFF back to back to back.) And maybe toxic id monkey is a little harsh. Maybe that term should be reserved for the puppet masters.

“The producers definitely pushed us to fight. We got there and we didn’t know one another. They wanted fighting, and definitely didn’t want us to get along,” said Cavey. “It’s just not what people want to see. I went into it because it seemed like fun. For some girls it was kind of like the end of the world. For me, it was just like, ‘let’s see what happens.’”

Paris Hilton’s New BBF is a good example of dual realities but in a strange way. On the show, Paris sits on extravagant thrones as her man/woman/boy slave, Onch, kneels at her side. The contestants, who are competing to be her ‘best friend forever’ have strange competitions that apparently prove their adoration. One of which involves 12 people in bathing suits scouring through a giant cupcake looking for hidden plastic eggs with surprises inside them. OK, entertainment, I got it. But some aspects of this “pursuit of friendship” are not only bizarrely distant from real life social skills, they are just demeaning. For example, Hilton has one contestant on each episode as a sort of confidant. They are referred to as her “pet.” Does anyone remember Butters, er Mr. Biggles, from Southpark? You can’t make this stuff up. Or can you?

Now this is the strange part I am referring to. According to Cavey, apart from the show, Paris is cordial and polite. “You know, when the scene cut, Paris was really very approachable and nice. We actually had a lot of contact with her. We met her parents. We went to a party at her house, where we met her grandparents and her sister. She really is a normal person.” This is what I mean by BFF having a strange dual reality. Paris, on a show about friendship, is shown to be cold, patronizing and all around condescending to these people who have nothing but adoration for her (real or not). But off screen, she’s friendly?

I understand entertainment, and the drama and personas that make it entertaining. The comedy and tragedy is as old as Homer (Iliad, not Simpson). No one can fault any show, if it’s entertaining to someone somewhere. You don’t like it; don’t watch it. But this is the kicker. It’s a well-known fact that MTV’s demographic is 12 to16 year olds, specifically to girls and the Onchs, I would imagine. What do 12-16 year old pubescent young ladies do? They try to fit in. And I would venture to imagine that this social ‘square block, circle block’ game is done in a competitive, catty kind of way. And, more likely than not, the game board cutout is the idolatry of a person or group of people. Like a high school Paris. Like a reality show.

So do shows like BFF perpetuate this social agenda or do shows like this merely mirror the sensibilities of their audience? What was the reality before? I don’t know. Forming social skills used to be a rite of passage. But it was learning from oneself and from others, not from TV. Is it reality that giant cupcakes dictate friendships? Of course not. Is it reality that bullying seems more sociopathic and tragic than ever? An emphatic and deadly yes. But does one have to do with the other? I don’t know. I’m just a dude and not that smart, but probably on a certain level.

Idolatry is a tricky thing because it leaves someone vacant as all of his or her energies are externalized on someone or something else. So when the idea of celebrity becomes so grossly unchecked in its responsibility—or the media in general—it surpasses entertainment and vicarious living and becomes the dictator of norms—simply because of the passivity of our own ability to cultivate social normalcy. It is no one’s and everyone’s fault. Why is the sky blue? Because the ocean is.

But, again, we are the media, and we’ve begun to see ourselves with a cultural reflection that is becoming more and more deluded. We’ve begun to reflect a baseless caricature of what we think reality is, simply because we’ve begun to forget. Already in leaps and bounds, nothing is sacred and nothing is shocking. But if this is the case, we shouldn’t wonder why a lot of bad stuff happens, especially to young people. They have nothing to look at. The reflection of our selves in the media has become like a hall of carnival mirrors.

TV is not the enemy. We are not the enemy. We want TV; TV wants us. But this is one reality that the young viewing audience of BFF didn’t get to see. “You know the producers all wanted us to fight with one another, but a year later we’re all kind of best friends,” said Cavey. “There’s six or seven of us that call each other on a regular basis. They really, truly are my friends.”

So, one reality is that this ‘friend show’ frames itself as callous and toxic, while another reality is that Paris is friendly and normal, and friendships are made amongst the girls. So a show about friendship offers a perverted sense of it, while in real life, because of the show, friendships are made naturally. But when does the perversion become reality? It already has. We wanted the dysfunctional version.

And don’t get me wrong; BFF is not the most nutty reality show. It’s actually a good example of some moderation. My fan favorite is seeing all the spoiled, empty brainscapes on My Super Sweet Sixteen. Or meeting all the contending penis koozies on Rock of Love. Real life seems to get pretty saturated in those. But maybe you’re sixteen, get $150,000 cars and have strippers follow you around. I don’t know.

“A lot of positive things came out of the show,” said Cavey. “I made a lot of friends and a lot of opportunities have come from it. I still have a life, a job, a boyfriend and a family. I’m a normal person, it was just fun. That’s it.” And that may be true for a lot of people. With Cavey, there was a clear distinction of realities, so put it in the bucket list, big ups for new experiences. Good for her. But this article came about because of the other side of the consequence fringe.

During SXSW, I attended a pool party in Austin for a magazine I use to write for. While a dozen girls dance all over LMFAO as they perform, I see a stunning brunette sitting alone at a table, looking deep into her drink, seemingly unaffected by the surrounded chaos. When the dance party moves around the pool, I sit at her table and instantly recognize her as one of the girls from the original Bad Girl’s Club. From what I had gathered from The Soup, this show was anything but moderate. I casually tell her I recognize her, and tears swell up in her eyes. “Yeah, I know.” Surprised, I tell her I’m sorry and wasn’t inferring anything. That it was just an observation. “Sorry, it’s just that it ruined my life. Sometimes I forget, but like, I’m here and everyone keeps their distance or yells things at me at these concerts. My friends and most of my family are gone. I can’t get a job. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was the producers and the girls and, and…” She begins to break right there.

I assure her that she seems nice and is beautiful, and that America has a very short-term memory. That didn’t seem to help, but she at least held it together. We talk a little more, and as I excuse myself to the bar, I realize that the show is probably in its fourth season. It’s been at least four years since she had been on.

It was this instance that made me realize there are real consequences to the script that we write. The way this girl was portrayed on TV ruined her life. Her reality changed because TV changed it. She was controlled by it. So was the audience that threw stones at her. TV was their fact checker. Are we solely part of the reality show? Are we inept at casual interrelations? Do we have fantasized expectations of one another and ourselves?  Or do we still own a little of our own reality?

I still hope that we can recognize, accept and cultivate our own basic emotions. That our incessant need to be told who we are has not yet completely eclipsed our own self-reliance, and that America’s new, formative generations can decipher dueling realities. If Morrison is right, and we are controlled by TV, then all we can do is check TV’s power of a fantastical society versus our own. “With great power, comes great responsibility,” said fantasy hero Spiderman.  I have to remember that when I sleep with the TV on, it only makes me richer and sexier in my dreams. And doesn’t make me poor and ugly when I’m awake. What a web we weave. God bless Spiderman.

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