Giving up on narrative
With voyeurism, we bring nothing to the table and thus
take nothing away. It is a transient thrill without the emotional risk
that is necessary for any kind of real growth or self understanding
If only television executives had a sense
of irony. Then perhaps concepts like "reality television" might
not be quite as absurd and, ultimately, offensive. Sadly, oxymorons have
always made good marketing slogans. Look what the term "jumbo
shrimp" did for the restaurant industry.
Here is a sample of reality coming to us
from the wizards of television:
Temptation Island is brought to you
by Fox. Four unmarried couples are put on an island with 26 "fantasy
singles." The mission of the single people is to seduce someone,
anyone involved in a committed relationship. And, yes, Fox tested everyone
for sexually transmitted diseases ahead of time. At a Jan. 7 press
conference, Fox executives refused to answer questions as to whether the
participants were provided with condoms.
UPN is serving up two gems. The first is Chains
of Love in which a woman is chained to four men for a week.
UPN’s other cultural contribution is Manhunt.
"Real" people are put on an island and then hunted down with
laser rifles, snares and booby traps. Any "prey" who survive the
run of the series gets some unknown amount of money. ABC and Fox are
supposedly developing similar bounty-hunter shows.
Of course, there will be Survivor 2
by CBS (version three and four are planned).
ABC’s foray into reality will include
airing games of the new XFL football league. The XFL games will have
modified rules (no fair catches on punts, microphones in the huddles and
sidelines). Coupled with the game will be insight into the sex lives of
the cheerleaders. If that doesn’t intrigue you then perhaps the
commentary of Jesse Ventura will brighten the action.
No doubt there are more of these shows
coming down the line. They are profitable. They tend to attract the most
coveted and highest-priced advertising targets: young male viewers.
Further, production companies don’t have to pay writers or actors,
except for the nominal cash prize to the various "survivors."
Indeed, some critics think this trend is simply an economic calculation.
Script writers and actors are expected to strike in the spring, so the
television production companies want to have some fodder to offer the
masses. And perhaps that’s all this is about.
Still, I can’t help but find the whole
business somewhat unnerving.
Take Temptation Island for example.
The underlying premise is that we are to be entertained by someone else’s
real emotional pain. We, as viewers, are to eavesdrop on a couple as they
grapple with infidelity. Why would we want to watch three people
emotionally torture one another? Perhaps for reasons of prurient
voyeurism, which seems like a bad reason.
The defenders of the show would say,
"But it’s real." My response is that the pain is real, but the
scenario is staged. By way of analogy, what if I proposed a TV show as
follows: A real husband is given a two-wheel-drive car in Hailey. His real
wife, pregnant and in labor, is placed on the sidewalk in Ketchum. He gets
$100,000 for every minute under 10 that it takes him to navigate the icy
highway. And, of course, the audience gets to watch the crash, if he
crashes. Putting someone in a potentially devastating situation for our
own amusement can never be justified by the participants’ motives—whether
good or bad.
I hesitate to moralize on the message a
show sends to kids, but, in light of an epidemic of teen violence, a show
like Manhunt really pushes the limits of responsible programming.
Bounty hunters with guns—whether paint guns or laser guns, the idea is
the same—are hunting down human "prey." Yes, it is a TV show.
Sort of. And this is the very problem with "reality television."
The narrative distance—that between the reader and the narrative—is
Narrative, in general, relies upon the
skill and imagination of the storyteller. One’s goal in creating a
narrative is to cause the reader or viewer to suspend disbelief for a
while. And if he creates credible characters and intriguing human
dilemmas, it is a successful narrative. While we as readers might suspend
our disbelief for a time, we know in the back of our minds that it is
still a story. An effective story may have a short narrative distance, but
it does not disappear altogether. When it does, we become voyeurs.
Successful narratives are reflexive. They
resonate with elements in our own lives that are meaningful. In a way, we
participate in the narrative, because we bring our own experiences of
love, compassion, anger, or wisdom to the story. We relate to it, and,
therefore, can glean meaning from the story.
With voyeurism, we bring nothing to the
table and thus take nothing away. It is a transient thrill without the
emotional risk that is necessary for any kind of real growth or self
The other big problem with this trend is:
Where do we go next? When imagination is taken out of the equation, the
only way for television producers to continue to hold our attention is to
make the next show or episode even more shocking. And the more people are
shocked, the more they have to be shocked to elicit a reaction.
If there were a nobler cause to
"reality TV" than the search for profit, it might be more
palatable. But it basically boils down to an admission by the creative
figures in the television industry that they don’t have the imagination
or talent to intrigue people. They have fallen back on providing the
equivalent of a nightly diet of car wrecks for us to watch. Watching a car
wreck is interesting simply because we are not in it. We have this bizarre
notion in the back of our minds that there is only so much tragedy and
heartache in the world. If someone else is suffering through it, then that
is one less booby trap for us to fall into. It is a perverse comfort that
I don’t think jibes with reality.