The unreality of reality television

Sacramento writer auditions for new NBC show called Lost

Would-be <i>Lost</i> cast members with their audition photos.

Would-be Lost cast members with their audition photos.

Photo By Ching Lee

What is the most outrageous thing I would do for a million dollars? This is what NBC wanted to know on my application for the casting of a new reality TV show called Lost. Well, I don’t know if there is anything outrageous I would do for a million dollars, I wrote. But there are things I would do for no money at all.

I’m sure that’s not what they wanted to hear. Those who end up on these shows need to be willing to do just about anything for fame and fortune. At least that’s the impression I got at my recent audition.

Ani DiFranco sings, “Art may imitate life, but life imitates TV.” These days, TV is imitating life imitating TV pretending to be reality TV. The term “reality TV” is probably an oxymoron, but it’s also an easy road to fame these days. Now real people can be stars. But just how real are they?

Casting call
“NBC Casting” announced the large sign outside San Francisco’s Planet Hollywood restaurant (film version of Hard Rock Café). A long, red carpet led the fame seekers to a table with a couple of women shuffling papers. Well, they weren’t really women. They were chicks—two table ornaments obviously on loan from a Melrose Place backdrop.

Today they actually had a few lines to say. One of them looked me in the eye and recited instructions on how to fill out the application. I tried to read deep past her eyes, but she had a synthetic perfection to her. It made me uneasy and set me to wondering, “Is this one real?”

An open audition can be quite the spectacle. It’s an adventure to go see “real people” in captivity—sort of like in a petting zoo, except the creatures here are much more willing to perform, and they actually want you to pet them.

Many waited for hours to be called. The stars-to-be had plenty of time to sit around Planet Hollywood, have a few drinks, snack on some chicken wings and down a few more drinks. There’s nothing like a few drinks to loosen you up so you could do whatever it takes to get on TV. And there’s nothing like supporting consumerism while you’re waiting around to be discovered.

The premise of Lost is simple: The stars-to-be are paired up in several groups and given a small amount of cash and some essentials. They get dropped off in some undisclosed location and must find their way back before the others. But just how lost can you get with a camera crew following you around? I tried to shake off such skepticism as I waited.

Finally I was called in along with a group of 10 people. Two game-show-model-looking chicks collected our applications and led us away. At first it felt like a Willie Wonka moment, but once inside, it felt more like a big stakes poker game. We were seated at a large table, ready to play. It didn’t take long to guess the kinds of cards people were holding.

We briefly introduced ourselves. Well, most of us were brief, except for one contestant who rambled on about her trip to China. On and on it went, as the fake smiles evaporated from the faces at the table, offering brief glimpses of everyone’s nervous anticipation.

When it was finally their turn, two girls immediately sprang up and danced in front of everyone. They were grinding their gear, strutting their stuff and hustling us to cheer them on. I felt paralyzed by fear that they might start lap dancing.

The only male in the group called himself a songwriter/performer, so naturally, when it was his turn, he felt obliged to rock the house. He started rapping, and the group started clapping and hollering. In the end, he regretted not having the two girls dance to his song. Alpha-male singers are always surrounded by grinding girls, at least in the videos.

The woman sitting next to him was also an aspiring singer. She couldn’t decide what to sing, so people in the group started yelling obscenities like “Whitney Houston” and, much to everyone’s delight, she belted out the chorus to “The Greatest Love of All.”

I never thought I would live to see life as a musical where people instantaneously burst into song and leap into dance, but here they were doing it for reality TV. But don’t blame the musicals; blame MTV. Weren’t they the ones who first brought us Real World? Didn’t they package life as a three-and-a-half minute musical snippet? If only real life could be that short, I thought at the table.

Dingoes and that bomber guy
When all the performers were done performing, the facilitator led us into a discussion about the dingoes in Australia eating and attacking babies. The group was at first stunned by the abrupt shift to dialogue, but before long, everyone was talking at once.

It didn’t matter what we were saying or whether we knew what a dingo was. It was about getting a few words in, listening for that one split second of silence when someone else was rendered speechless, and you could break in, take over the conversation—babbling, just babbling, so no one else could speak, so the spotlight was yours.

Then we moved on to Timothy McVeigh. In TV land, there’s nothing like bringing in death, vengeance and explosions to liven things up. After a while, even I felt the urge to spurt my own liberal nonsense and contribute to the muddled discussion. Then the rapper guy raised his hand and said, “Wait, we’re talking about the Oklahoma City bomber guy, right?”

Aspiring famous people aren’t exactly the brightest people in the world, so in that respect, they are real. When artists talk about compromising their integrity for the lowest common denominator, they are actually talking about these people, the true soul of television wasteland.

The majority of them will not become stars, nor will they receive their 15 minutes of fame on reality TV; but they will have served their purpose. Their vanity and willingness to do the outrageous makes it easy for those who want to exploit them. After all, nothing is sacred on television, least of all reality.