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Bright Lights, Dim Wits

Okay. I confess. I never watched Survivor. Not even once.

I also never watched Joe Millionaire, The Apprentice, The Great Race or The Swan. Are we seeing a pattern here? Yes. Not a big fan of “reality” shows. I did, though, find myself snared when a friend chose to participate in one. Each week I would tune in, and watch in a kind of mesmerized horror as she was put through a sequence of humiliating ordeals and trials. Although she is a person who is kind to animals and children, gives back to the community, doesn’t spit in public, etc. etc., by the end of the show my friend had achieved the dubious distinction of being labeled the so-called villain of the piece.

You couldn’t pay me to go through something like that. But, clearly, in our richly diverse and endlessly inventive culture, there are legions of people who want nothing more than to be allowed a chance to sit on the dunk tank seat in front of all America.

This in itself is probably not that surprising. After all, as we all know, Andy Warhol predicted the whole 15-minutes-of-fame phenomenon decades ago. He’s famous for it. However, in the curious evolution of the reality show we have now reached a disturbing new level of vacuity. Last night I sat though the first episode of Battle of the Network Reality Show Stars. Arguably not the most creative title ever, but then, reality shows don’t demand creativity from the producers. It’s the feisty, fearless competitors who are tested.

However, in the original Battle of the Network Stars on which the new reality show is loosely based, most of the contestants had some prior claim to fame which earned them the privilege of competing for the camera’s attention. In this new version of the “battle” we have people whose entry credentials consist of the fact that each of them has managed to play this made-for-TV game successfully in the past. We’re in the funhouse now.

Of course, you can see where, from the networks’ viewpoint, this is a win-win. They’ve already got these commoditized characters ready and willing to ad-lib until they run out of expletives, or repeat same indefinitely. The networks don’t have to hire writers, and editors can manipulate raw footage to ensure that some sort of narrative arc develops. And this is where “reality” really gets unreal on these shows. Because, it’s apparent as you watch these ordinary people, that, thrown into this nationally televised incubator of emotions, each one of them, perhaps unconsciously, chooses a role.

Some want to be heroes. Some choose to be whining victims. Others elect to be cunning schemers, hiding up in the trees until all the alpha apes have bludgeoned each other senseless. Although, honestly, it seems a fair number of them enter the thing without a lot of sense to begin with. Take the guy last night who promised, on camera, that he was going to pee in the dunk tank if he fell in. Sure, this was just some ordinary bozo swaggering for the crowd. But, haven’t we seen this guy at the local pool? I, for one, will never feel the same about going to a water park.

A distressing number of the female contestants seem to consider breast baring a competitive sport. Who am I to judge? I found myself thinking my friend might have been smart to invest in some quality implants before she went on the show. Ah well. Maybe with the money she gets from this show.

One would like to think this whole reality show trend will run its course, but I am not overly optimistic. Those bright lights seem to bring out the worst in a lot of people. And, the result is gruesomely compelling, like a bad accident on the freeway. You can’t help slowing down to take a look. And you drive on, slowing down just a little perhaps for a few minutes, in your relief that it didn’t happen to you.

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