Malcolm Gladwell’s novel Blink proposes that we don’t nearly give our gut instinct the proper amount of credit. After seeing something over and over again our brains become conditioned to almost instantaneously figure out a conclusion. This explains why seasoned baseball fans stay in their seats while others jump up at the sight of a fly ball; they know what a home run ball looks like right off the bat, why drivers can tell which cars are angling to cut them off, and why we watch movies and criticize computer-generated imagery as being fake, because we have a lifetime of experience of seeing things that are real. In nanoseconds, we can suss out real versus fake, danger versus safety.
But if that’s the case, and we are a consumer base that has watched an incredible amount of “reality” television, how can we not tell what’s real or what’s fake? Why can’t we differentiate between “Charlie Sheen,” the wacky character and Charlie Sheen, the broken-down addict?
In order to understand our elastic view of the world through the television screen, we have to go back to the origins of the genre, where there were seven strangers, picked to live in a house, challenged to stop being “fake” and start being “real.” The Real World premiered in 1992 with a simple premise: put seven young people on the precipice of adulthood who come from varying backgrounds, ethnicities, and religious beliefs and see how they interact. It sounds like some sort of egalitarian sociology experiment, and, in some ways, it was. We watched as these people, essentially picked to be our doppelgangers, figure out if their preconceived notions on black people, homosexuals, and gender roles hold up or fall apart over a few months living directly with the thing they are ignorant about. In many ways it dealt with societal issues in a small area; a veritable microcosm of society thrown together to see if we could all survive.
Since the onset of The Real World, the seminal reality TV series that pitted seven strangers to live in a house…I’ll let you finish the tag line. The gimmick was to see what would happen when people from different backgrounds and ways of thinking were pushed together and confront their biases and previously-held beliefs. The reason to watch this show is to see people like you (or, in most cases, people older than you who you thought you were just like), see their reactions, and then gauge what your own would be in that situation, usually with you feeling like you would take the moral high ground.
The show took off as a cultural phenomenon with its third season, set in San Francisco, that was both its most explosive and most educational. The producers, now aware of what kind of a show they have on their hands, put together just the right amount of differing ethnicities (one Asian, two hispanic, one black, the rest white), political backgrounds (Rachel a conservative Republican, which is always fun) and social issues (what do you do after college is over? how do you deal with no longer being ‘number one’ if everything you do? how do you live a life in the arts? how do you live in America with HIV? how do you live with HIV, period?)
This particular cast is well-known for three reasons: the character Puck in a vacuum (a nickname written in the stars), Puck putting his scabby hand in the jar of peanut butter (with the cast’s reaction), and Pedro’s entire entire journey, including how he dealt with this terrifying disease we were only still rationalizing, his marriage to his partner, through the eventual (inevitable) decline of his health culminating in his death just after the final show had aired. The show had relatable people with relatable problems, even if we had to watch a series of TV to understand just how relatable HIV truly was. It was a show that dealt with real people in real situations, and we took it as such, and it was presented as such. In actuality, it is no such thing.
The misnomer of “reality shows” is that they are inherently “real.” From early on, nothing about it is true to the day-to-day experiences that goes on in these people’s lives. The producers have the cast members sit down for confessionals goad them into answering leading questions that will lead to the one sentence (or enough of a quote) to motivate the stories that the producers and editors will create from the ungodly amount of footage that is accrued when you videotape seven people with no outside distractions for hours a day for months on end. The way things happen on TV is rarely how they went down, chronologically or otherwise.
Do you ever hear someone in your office or in your group of friends take a moment and say, “man, they should REALLY tape us! That would be one hell of a show!” It wouldn’t. It would be terribly, horribly boring. How would you know? Following the monumental season in San Francisco, the producers decided to wing on over to London and set-up a show there with people from various countries, including Germany, Australia, the UK, and the United States. Despite their geographical differences, they truly seemed to enjoy each other, the city, and the experience. It was lovely. And terribly, horribly boring. Well, there was this one time when one cast member, Neil, had his tongue bitten off, like Tyson bit off Holyfield’s ear. The other high point is that someone got a dog and they weren’t properly house broken. …Then the season ended.
In many ways, the show had reached its fitting conclusion, well-earned by the previous seasons. They put people with differences in a house together, they understood each others issues, accepted them as friends, and lived a wonderfully peaceful, judgment-free life. The sociological experiment was a success. The problem, though, is that this most importantly entertainment. We need protagonists to root for, we need antagonists to hate. One can’t help but wonder if the producers realized that Puck was not an anomaly, but a necessary force in the house. Without an antagonist, an unreasonable, unmovable rock, where is the conflict? The drama? If there isn’t a lot of depravity, how can the viewers watch it and not feel morally higher than the people on the show?
As the years progressed, the casts always had a cast member or two that made the audience go, “uh oh, that guy’s gonna be trouble!” And we would sit and watch the depravity. Looking back on previous seasons now, what do we remember of them? Miami is memorable for cast members trying to watch other cast members having sex and breaking windows in order to do it. Boston is memorable for two cast members almost coming to blows over a sexual issue in front of the young children they are tasked to watch. Seattle is memorable for one male cast member smacking a female cast member and throwing her prized plush animal off their dock and into the water. Increasingly the show became less about when they would learn to get past their differences and when they’d start fucking and fighting.
The high watermark occurred when the show went to Vegas in season 12. Taking the fame and notoriety of personalities like Puck to its natural conclusion, this season is remembered for sex and violence because the show only featured sex and violence. Seriously, check out the “season highlights” as listed on wikipedia:
- During a visit by Arissa’s boyfriend, they attend a nightclub, where Arissa gets into a physical altercation with another female patron who calls her “bitch.”
- Trishelle and Steven have an on-again-off again sexual relationship (even though Steven was in the middle of a divorce), which at one point resulted in a pregnancy scare for Trishelle. Trishelle later posed for Playboy after the show.
- On the castmates’ third day in the suite, three of them (Steven, Trishelle and Brynn) have a threesome.
- Alton and Irulan begin a romantic relationship, which results in the break up of Irulan and her long-distance boyfriend Gabe. Alton and Irulan were still together when they appeared in their first season of the spin-off show Real World/Road Rules Challenge, but later broke up.
- Arissa has difficulty trusting her roommates, and at times exhibits a temper. She also has a strained relationship with her family, including her mother and her uncle who frequently call and upset her. Arissa posed for Playboy magazine after the show.
- Brynn experiences emotional outbursts, including one in which she throws a fork at Steven. This incident sparks major controversy in the suite, and Steven is adamant about having Brynn thrown out until they have a heart to heart discussion; showing Steven that Brynn is just like him when he was younger.
- Frank searches for love while in Las Vegas, starting with Trishelle, though this ends quickly after Trishelle makes out with Steven in front of him. He later dates a girl from out of town, but he admits cheating on her over the telephone. Frank also applies to USC and is accepted.
The show became self-aware. The more you stood out, the more havoc you raised, the more sexual you were, the more likely you were to be remembered. This show stopped being about “real” people in “real” situations and became a springboard into further entertainment (as they obviously knew they already had a foot in the door being cast on this show). It was “personal branding” before the term existed. If you’re of a certain age, and you hear the name “Ruthie,” don’t you immediately think of the alcoholic girl who cleaned her life up in Hawaii? When you hear of Mormons and their rituals, doesn’t Julie from New Orleans immediately spring to mind?
With that said, did I, speaking from some sort of moral high ground at present, watch every single second of this show? Yup! Did I sit incredulously thinking, “oh my god do they realize they’re on TV?” Yup! Did I go in to high school the next day and pour over every single crazy, ridiculous detail of the previous night’s show, aghast and flabbergasted and dumbfounded but ever so interested? Absolutely. NASCAR drivers know that people tune in to watch them crash , but they have enough sense to not drive into the corners. Real World cast members get rewarded the more times they crash and bail.
The ratings were massive, and when something is a success in the industry, it is fit to be copied. It signaled the cusp of the reality show boom, as the idea headed to the networks with Survivor, a show that was clever enough to mix mind games, physical changes, and the ability to watch people sickly disintegrate for a million dollars. It was a cultural phenomenon. Fox took it the next logical step and got as filthy as possible, from My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance to Temptation Island and The Swan shows based around people debasing themselves for money, all for the entertainment of the populous. This created a logical scheme for the networks: invest a small amount of money for a pliable set (or exotic locale), only pay a few on-camera talent, and let people disparage themselves to the delight of the masses huddled around their TV sets. It worked. In spades.
Naturally, after a while, people began to tire of the “contest” version of this spectacle (possibly after the 50th animal testicle ingested by a contestant on Fear Factor). Luckily for them, MTV decided to bail them out again by having a camera crew follow around The Osbourne family, headed by Ozzy and Sharon, who were incredibly entertaining as a family on “The Howard Stern Show.” The shtick there was that you couldn’t believe how normal and pedestrian the life and responsibilities of the “Prince of Fucking Darkness” were. Sure, they had a lot of money, but isn’t that a bit of the wish fulfillment? Even a burnt out rock star deals with the same problems that we all do/we could be just like them if we bit the heads off of bats and practically invented heavy metal!
Soon, every star wanted their own TV show…and nearly everyone was granted one. The producers learned early on (let’s call it the London lesson) that not every family would be naturally entertaining. Most people think they can be stars simply because they are who they are (case in point: every cast member of Real Housewives that has ever been filmed). No matter how rich you get, you can’t buy charisma. So the producers cheat.
When Snoop Dogg and his family couldn’t carry his own show, they have producers think up hilaaaarious situations to mimic with a family would go through on a sitcom. All of a sudden, “reality” meant people acting poorly giving delivery to button lines that were poorly written, jazzed up with constant music beds, sound effects, and CUH-RAAAA-ZY camera work to let the audience know “yes, this is supposed to be funny” or “uh oh, he really screwed up now, didn’t he?!” You know the beats that are supposed to happen on a show intrinsically; you watch enough of it, your brain starts to understand the pattern. All they did was just put people in their natural places and we eat it up.
The line between “show” and “reality” is never more blurred–and, frankly, more sad–than on Jersey Shore. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel bad for any cast member on that show. At all. The show is as “real” as JWoww’s breasts. They know exactly what they’re doing, which is abundantly clear on this season’s iteration, where they go back to the Shore after flying to Miami for the winter to shoot season two. They know they’re on TV and everyone in the bar knows they’re on TV and they know that they’re a gateway to getting on TV, for fame or infamy; it washes out the same in the shower the next day.
They’ve embraced their nicknames, leading to Mike “the Situation” putting his tag line in every confessional possible (and yes, he tried to trademark that along with “GTL”). They’ve embraced their roles, with Snooki getting flat-out drunk and stumbling about the beaches of Seaside as throngs and throngs of people look on, both in the moment and later on television. They’re giving the public exactly what they crave, leading to this season’s premiere getting the highest ratings in the history of MTV’s original programming. And for what? Debauchery, sex, and booze, and lots of it. Still, we come crawling back for more, like rubes walking the midway on that same Jersey Shore boardwalk, looking at each other and saying, “I can’t believe they’re doing that!” without actually believing it.
The next level of fame or infamy comes in the logical extension of a show like Jersey Shore: people with actual health problems. Celebrities get a career bump by trying to work out their drug and alcohol addictions in front of Loveline‘s Dr. Drew and a starved nation. We get to watch common folk (who don’t have the star power, but definitely have some very deep issues) mired in their addictions before being confronted about it by family, friends, a councilor, and a small film crew on Intervention. And if that’s a bit too much for you, there’s always Hoarders, where you see people living in filth and squalor who have forever vanquished the cutesy “pack-rat” from our collective lexicon. And if Hoarders is too focused on the disaster these people live in and not the people themselves, you can watch TLC’s version, Hoarders: Buried Alive.
With all of these different variations on the same theme–reality–it’s led the culture unable to distinguish any difference. And, more dangerously, it blurs the line to the point where you can still point and go “this is just TV” and be numbed, even exonerated, from treating these people like anything but figments of television’s colorful imagination. According to wikipedia, three people featured on the show Intervention have died, including one via suicide. Not that anyone that watches the show minds much. I’m sure if you watch that show continuously you saw that note and, in a detached way, went “whatever, most of those people are too far gone anyway.”
This brings us to the current case that drastically blurs the line even further, the downward spiral of Charlie Sheen. You know him! The lovable scamp who is showing up on each and every talk show platform that will have him (regardless of what medium it’s broadcast on) to talk about his tiger blood, curing his addiction disease (which is what it is) with his mind, and informing us that the only drug he’s on, himself, if given to anyone else, would make their faces would melt. And, of course, you can’t be a cultural phenomenon without a usable twitter hashtag meme. So Charlie tells us that through all of this, he’s winning.
And, really, why wouldn’t he be winning? This is all unfolding on television, the same medium where he stars in the highest rated comedy (if not show) on the air. On Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen plays “Charlie,” a misogynistic drunk who stumbles about making funny quips and bedding as many incredibly attractive women as he can in a 22-minute span. In some bizarre homage to Last Action Hero, he has come through the screen and, in many ways, beaten out his demographic. My friends and I never watch his television program for various reasons (most specifically, it’s quality, and its lack thereof) but he has now crossed over more fully into the mainstream.
Even with the tremendous success he had on that show (including being the highest paid person to ever appear on a recurring television show at an outrageous $2 million an episode) he personally never had this much exposure. His twitter account reached one million followers faster than anyone else in the history of the medium (yes, twitter is a medium). I don’t even have to follow him, someone will always retweet what he’s saying allowing me to bask in the glory that is Charlie Sheen. We’re eating it up. He’s loving it. Winning.
It’s obvious that on strictly moral grounds there is no reason to make this man a hero, as highlighted in this wonderful article by Anna Holmes in today’s New York Times. If this man was your uncle, you would be concerned. Incredibly concerned. Just look at him! He more closely resembles a homeless man on the street that we all work past every day nary giving a look down at than a television star. Is not being fit to take care of your children winning? Is degrading the creator of the show which, regardless of quality, gave him the pile of “fuck you” money he’s currently sitting on winning? Is his aforementioned repeated history of abusing women in so many ways winning?
In a more traditional time, there is no doubt that he would be able to carry this momentum to another high-priced job. His fame and notoriety make a wonderful mix. Sheen seems to be on the same path of Lindsay Lohan, an actress who is famous because her various medical and financial problems get in the way of acting. Instead, she’s on a constant loop between her house, the courts, and the bar, unable to profit off of her craft, and almost entirely unemployable. It’s very possible that Sheen could walk on to that set for Two and a Half Men, get his blocking, remember his lines, and never break character the minute he walks on the stage to the minute he gets off. I’m sure that someone will give him a platform to do…whatever the hell he’s doing now for a paying audience and, if they strike while the iron’s hot, I’m sure that it will do huge numbers.
But already we’re seeing a backlash to the incredible head of steam this story has gained over the last few weeks. And by no means is this tiring based out of some idea of morality. No, people are just getting tired of hearing “winning” everywhere they turn. They’re tired of hearing the inexhaustible rants of a man who is either on drugs or just plain crazy. The shtick is already growing old. “Alright, we get it, he says crazy shit. So?” Just how crazy can one person go? Just how much entertainment can be gleaned from the same crazy well? Eventually he’s going to run out of ammo, right? And when he’s done, when that bucket is empty, we’ll toss him aside, moving along in our continual move through the freak show, looking for another anomaly to point and laugh at until we fully get our rocks off.
We used to worry about violence on television. At a certain point, children around the world would see enough Looney Toons or bits of “Itchy and Scratchy” on The Simpsons and lose touch with the world, beating and killing everything in our path without thinking of others as people. That hasn’t been the case. Thankfully, we can very easily differentiate between cartoons and reality, keeping our violent natures in tact. With reality television, we’ve only lost our empathy.
Imagine what bit of humanity we lose next season.