Joke’s on Us: Reality TV Always Gets the Last Laugh

God knows I love me some reality TV. For years now I have sat — seat-edged and far too often — through more “tribal,” “eviction” and “elimination” ceremonies than I care to remember. And now I have even been sucked into that second tier of reality, those non-competition shows that follow the famous (or simply infamous) around as they live their “glamorous,” pointless, high-maintenance lives. As hard as it is for me to admit, I now know far more about the Kardashians and Hulk Hogan’s brood than anyone ever should.

It is no great feat of cultural theorizing to realize that half (if not more) of the appeal of these shows is the smug superiority we feel when we watch them, comfortable in the fact that while the rich and famous may be different than us, they certainly aren’t any smarter. After all, though we may not have Gucci shoes, live in plush townhouses or have million-dollar record deals (or even our own reality TV shows), dammit, at least we know the difference between fish and chicken! We also know that Wal-Mart doesn’t sell “wall stuff”, as Paris Hilton once thought, and that not all Midwesterners “work in fields” as MTV’s now long-forgotten Rich Girls once assumed.

Even when we aren’t feeling like bone fide Mensa members compared to the Britneys, Snookis and Kardashians that populate our TVs, we can still glean pleasure from the fact that, no matter what, we are not nearly as superficial as these people either. That, in our lives at least, there are things that matter more than just getting our hands on next season’s Prada handbag; that our world is bigger than just a few blocks in downtown Manhattan. In a perceptive article from the 12 April, 2009 issue of The Washington Post, Robin Givhan surmised that some of the appeal of these shows–specifically Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise — is the healthy sense of outrage we get when we watch them. That even in a post-9/11, post-Katrina world we still have the capacity to be shocked by naked displays of rudeness, shallowness, selfishness and outright social climbing. In short, that the old adage “money can’t buy class” is as true as ever.

And yet…

And yet, as smart and superior as we all like to feel, I am beginning to wonder if the price we are all paying for this momentary boost of self-esteem is becoming too high. The current crop of TV “reality” — ranging from Jersey Shore, to the all the Real Housewives, to all the Kardashians (in all their mix and match varieties), not to mention Mob Wives and such recent but now defunct fare as the CW’s High Society, and E!’s Pretty Wild (all of which, sad to say, I have watched sporadically) — has made me wonder if even I, with my proven high tolerance for all things superficial, am reaching my saturation point with this particular subgenre of “reality” TV and, especially, with its molten group of manufactured “stars,” famous for being infamous or, in other words, famous for nothing.

Of course, such baseless fame is nothing new. In recent years, when friends have bemoaned the omnipresence of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, or some other vacant personality in the culture, I have always pointed out that every era seems to have its own dim-bulb debutante who has managed to “work” her way onto magazine covers and into the public consciousness. Brenda Frazier, Barbara Hutton and a whole host of other poor little rich girls from the last century enjoyed a level of celebrity even when they did nothing more than be born lucky, rich and pretty. And nearly since its inception, television has given us a steady stream of the curiously celebrated, from the glory days of Dagmar and Zsa Zsa, up through legendary letter-turner Vanna White. But the proliferation of cable TV, with its voracious need for content, has meant that more and more series seem to be being built around less and less substance and ever smarmier people.

Higher competition and ever-splintering audience sizes have also meant that newer shows have gotten even more desperate for attention and even more anxious to shock and appall us. Increasingly, channels seem only too willing to point a camera in the direction of just about anything — racists on High Society, possible felons on Pretty Wild, walking stereotypes on The Jersey Shore. But as much as they try to do something new, the more they begin to look, and be, the same.

For example, on Pretty Wild, the tale of three barely legal Beverly Hills hellions (surprisingly produced by comedian Chelsea Handler), not only did most of these girls’ actions seem sadly cliché, so too does everything else about them, from their much meditated over outfits (a uniform of skinny jeans, loose tops, oversized bags and a Blackberry permanently adhered to the palm), to their catwalk aspirations to their insatiable hunger for new shoes, to their utter self-absorption. Meanwhile, we have long since passed the point of by-the-numbers casting to be found on shows like The Real World and any incarnation of Real Housewives. In regard to each yearly installments of Real World, the formula for its “cast” is set in cement: we always have the hunk/athlete; the slightly lesser pretty boy; the innocent girl and the street-wise diva, not to mention, usually, the token gay guy. Housewives has its parameters too: one woman you can relate to, one who’s funny and at least one to bring the crazy. (Yes, Ramona of New York, I’m talking to you.)

But it’s not just that these archetypes are getting played out. And it’s not just that the obsessive attention to designer labels has begun to wear out their welcome. (Though it has; as Elinor Wylie once wrote, “Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones / There’s something in this richness that I hate…”) No, it’s the inevitable byproduct of these programs: the sense of relevancy and importance that gets bestowed on these so-called “stars.” If these shows’ participants — from Snooki and “The Situation” to Khloe and Kim — exist as some sort of animals in a modern-day video zoo for us all to look in on and laugh at, it is still they, in the end, who reap the rewards of our voyeurism. They obtain the fame (or at least some bastardized form of it) and the small fortunes derived from their behavior. Certainly the aging frat boys and girls of Jersey Shore are making the most of their new and notorious notoriety, and each of the housewives is now referring to herself as a “brand.”

Lifetime’s recently debuted Dance Moms is a perfect example. (I’m actually loathe to even mention this show as I don’t want to attract more attention to the whole vile enterprise.) This series has accurately been described as a mash-up of Real Housewives and Toddlers and Tiaras. It follows five or six shallow and high-strung stage mothers and their soon to be anorexic pre-teen daughters who all attend the same dance studio in the great dance mecca of Pittsburgh, PA. Overseeing the lot is dance instructor Abby Miller. “Miss Abby” is a rude, insulting, and surly sort whose massive ego leaves no room for concern for her young charges. It’s the saddest, most revolting reality show since the days of Anna Nicole. But I am counting down the days until all or part of the “cast” end up on a talk show—drinking in the polite applause as their rightful due—just to make endless excuses about their behavior and blame everything on “editing.”

Even when their own networks and channels treat these “stars” with a certain level of contempt—as Bravo seems to be doing with some of their housewives, as MTV often does with the “guidos and guidettes” of Jersey Shore, giving all the participants just enough rope—the matter is moot. One way or another everyone is already getting what they want out of their programming: “buzz,” ratings and profits for the programmers, “fame” for the participants. And whether, ultimately, each show’s participants are in on the joke or not is also beside the point: they are still reaping the spoils of their often reprehensible behavior via book deals, record releases and personal appearances.

One has to wonder not only when this TV trend will end but where it will take us before it does. Alexis from Pretty Wild faced prison for being part of southern California’s “Bling Ring” theft ring, various housewives keep dodging bench warrants, foreclosures and bankruptcy. If they aren’t careful, soon every series on Bravo and E! is going to look like MSNBC’s Lockup.

Maybe the potential prison sentences, embarrassments and other misfortunes that befall them all — from all the various housewives to the cast of The Hills — is the final comeuppance that all these reality TV whores (them, not me) ultimately deserve. Of course we wouldn’t be so anxious to see them tumble from their pedestals if we hadn’t so willingly put them on those pedestals in the first place.

Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers