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

Cary O'Dell

The "rich" and "famous" are NOT like us... at least not on TV. Reality 'stars': Whether we love them or loathe them, if we watch them, they win.

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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