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Opinion Columns
For the week of January 17 through January 23, 2001

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 vanishing.

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 understanding.

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.






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