TV nation

A new book about reality TV describes why we make it but not why we watch it.

My best friend, David, is convinced his idea for a reality-TV show is only five years from mainstream palatability. It’s called Up the Butt, and—bear with me on this—it posits the following question to desperately insolvent Americans: How much cash will it take for you to insert various household items up your … well, you get the idea.

Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen’s joint venture Shooting People: Adventures in Reality TV explores the origins of how we ended up in a global entertainment culture where Up the Butt seems less like fatuous nonsense than a potential cash cow. Their short book is written in a quasi-academic style, which is a shame because it douses some otherwise interesting ideas. The authors have a tendency to quote several theorists before delving into their own analysis and to deploy dissertation-style phrases, like “In the following chapter, we will argue that …” as though the suspense of turning their pages was just too much for any right-thinking person to bear.

But nitpicking aside, Brenton and Cohen do have a few useful ideas. Chief among them is their argument that the progenitor of reality TV was the abandonment of ideology on the left that took place after the fall of Marxism. The personal politics of 1970s-era feminism and the “personal liberation” of the self-help industry, they contend, carved a space for the ascendancy of the confessional narrative.

They write, “The first person thus raised to the status of sole truth, sole value and sole source of narrative makes few allusions to things beyond its boundaries. … There is no aspect of personal experiences too small to fix a camera on—trivia, indeed, is the new rock ’n’ roll.”

The thrust behind the new rock ’n’ roll is the controlling power of contrived, “situationist” environments. The authors draw a direct parallel between reality TV and social psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 experiment in which he placed 24 college graduates in a California prison for two weeks. Though fully aware of the experiment and free to leave at any time, the subjects so thoroughly assumed their roles as prisoners and guards that several “prisoners” had complete psychological meltdowns after the crushing of their revolt.Brenton and Cohen contend that this same phenomenon is what keeps participants of Survivor in line with the sadistic and often dangerous rules mandated by their producers. Well, that and the money. With the aid of psychologist consultants—whose ethics, the authors suggest, are extremely compromised—the shows receive the imprimatur of psychological legitimacy.

Though Shooting People makes some interesting arguments, it dodges what might be the supreme question this budding genre implicitly poses: Why do audiences (and not just Americans) lap this stuff up? Is it the car-wreck phenomenon, that we can’t avert our eyes from a gruesome spectacle? Or is it something more?

What is it about the way we live now that so many of us get off on the suffering of others? It’s not as if our economy and geopolitical conflagrations do not provide enough suffering. Maybe it’s that the pain of non-Westerners is a tad too real. It’s safe to dish our contempt for the vacuously arrogant 22-year-olds with the luscious midriffs because we know their problems are mild—these people are safe to laugh at.

Until that question is sorted out, my friend David has another show lined up after his opus grows stale. It’s called Celebrity Up the Butt.