Thursday, July 01, 2010
When I was in high school I was dead serious about my art career, especially in my senior year. Since my guidance counselor was an idiot I had to take it upon myself to carve out my career path. I had a business card of an illustrator in Boston and I pestered him in an attempt to land an apprentice gig. He lived in the North End, in what was becoming a chic neighborhood. He was also a former Navy SEAL who served in Viet Nam. But he didn't take on airs and put up with me until I got the hint. But I'll never forget what he told me one Saturday afternoon as we looked out his picture window at the fashionable set beneath us. He said "these people all act like they're being filmed."
Meaning no one acts in a genuine fashion when they know a camera is on them.
'Reality Television' is a grotesque misnomer. It's one of those viruses that has inserted itself into our culture and shows no sign of abating. It's changing the way people act, even when they themselves aren't on camera, especially young people.
Life is boring, there's no way of getting around it. And most of the people who volunteer to appear on reality shows are idiots, or at the very least exhibitionists. And since the human condition itself is boring and the people on these shows are boring by default, they are encouraged by the camera to become unbearable drama queens, inflating every possible mundane conflict into the sinking of the Titanic. Reality game shows like Big Brother and Survivor are the worst offenders, and they also encourage a kind of moronic Machiavellanism, a pissy, backbiting pose in which the individual's need to win this absurd competition is elevated over every human virtue known.
Another despicable show is Hoarders, in which camera crews swoop in on deeply-troubled individuals and pretend that by two or three days of sorting of and disposing all of their junk that the longstanding issues (often from trauma) will leave the premises as well. And again, because the cameras are on, the poor, humiliated hoarders will go along with whatever the ghoulish therapist (who is also hamming it up for the folks back home) is advising. And I'll bet you dollars-to-donuts that every single one of those people will end up more damaged and more miserable than they were before the film crews showed up.
The point here is that reality TV is programming people. I'll see young people in stores acting as if they're on camera, as if they all imagine that some invisible reality crew is recording their incredibly fascinating life. And pretty soon there is no wall of separation between what is on television and what is in people's inner paradigms. But nothing is happening. It's not documentarianism we're talking about. Most of it's not Alaskan deep sea fishermen or ER trauma nurses are being recorded. It's boring people flailing away under the flimsiest of pretexts, feeling they don't need to achieve anything to get themselves noticed. Their inborn charm is enough to fascinate us all.
But the gamesmanship is the most pernicious part of it all. The Weakest Link was a moral disaster in this regard, in that losers could vote the winner out, simply because they felt threatened. Luckily that abortion has been flushed.
I remember seeing a foreshadowing of this in Sunday school, with a series of well-produced films that featured Hollywood actors in short morality plays. One episode had a game show in which the contestants were finally presented with a handgun and a jackpot- they would win it all if they could bring themselves to kill the person they loved most. I always think of that film whenever Survivor crosses my attention.
Life is boring. It's something we all need to deal with. But life becomes even more boring when the hyperstimulation of pointless drama wears off (and boredom can often become deadly when drastic measures are taken to alleviate it). But there's a even deeper issue here- how these shows are programming reality by changing the way people think and behave. When you combine reality TV and video surveillance you have an even more toxic brew. The constant media racket and the lack of reflection is probably how the Borg started off, in that Alan Moore-type parallel reality where the Borg really exist.
How close are we to that reality? 20 years ago only surgeons and lawyers had cell phones. Now we see everyone on them, all of the time. It's funny- back in the old days I could tell I was facing a schizophrenic when I saw someone talking to themselves (which I did a lot when I was working in Midtown in the pre-Giuliani days), now it's always just someone on a Bluetooth. I still get a twinge of caution- only very slight- when I encounter that. But the younger generations are constantly mediated, in almost constant communication. It is the Borg, kinder, gentler, whatever.
Bad in and of itself? I'm not sure yet. Situations like this can become unbearable, leading to a backlash. But outside of the comics field (natural stomping grounds for the young and marginal) I'm not seeing an explosion of creativity among today's youth. I see talent and facility but no one shaking the trees of complacency, and certainly Hollywood and the record industry are gagging for lack of ideas. On the plus side I do like the recent revival of unison singing, but then again that's due to the success of an old-fashioned non-reality show, Glee.
The jury is still out on how this will all play out. But I'll bet that any young person doing anything of value isn't watching a lot of reality television.
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