The conclusion of 'Program Notes'
by Mark D. Johnson
May 16, 2003
I’ll start by making my closing arguments on “Reality TV,” which everyone knows is the loudest current presence on the TV landscape. I’ve been accused of being both too harsh on the genre and too accepting, and at the root of these accusations is a viewpoint shared by many that all Reality TV can be lumped together, that these shows, by their unscripted nature, are either all good or all bad. I’ve come across many people who proudly profess their distaste for Reality TV, and more often than not I come away with the distinct impression that they look down on those who enjoy unscripted shows. I have tried and failed to understand this view.
Like other genres, there is a wide range of quality. Unfortunately, the seedier Reality shows get a lot of attention for their outrageousness (“Joe Millionaire,” “Married by America”), while several worthy offerings go largely unnoticed (“The Amazing Race,” “The Michael Essany Show”). There is good and bad in every style of TV entertainment: comedy, drama, newsmagazine, talk show, and so on. Why would Reality shows be considered differently?
Some people, of course, simply prefer fictional storytelling. I can appreciate that. It should be noted, however, that story and character are at the heart of both fictional and reality television. When these two elements are strong, the show is generally strong. Woody Allen once said that sporting events are often what the theatre should be. In a close basketball game, for instance, with two minutes on the clock, it’s impossible to know how it will end. You look at the players involved, the history of the game, the coaching decisions, and the ending is wonderfully unpredictable. The best of the unscripted shows offer an unpredictability that most fictional shows do not match. And with Reality TV, we get real human interaction. Sure, some things might be staged, but there is no script, and no second takes. You might be dubious about a cast member’s hunger for money or fame, but we’re seeing real non-celebrity people on TV in ways we’ve rarely seen before this craze began. Their behavior is sometimes reprehensible, and should not be seen by young viewers. Occasionally, their behavior is admirable. More often than not, the show content is trivial. Regardless of Reality’s hits and misses, the genre, more than any other, provides a window on the thoughts and actions of our fellow members of society. Seek out the good shows, give them a chance, and allow yourself to be entertained. Don’t be surprised if you find that there is more to Reality than mindless drivel.
A good place for the skeptic to start is with the fourth installment of “The Amazing Race,” which begins a summer run with a 90-minute special on May 29 at 8/7c on CBS. Watch for at least four weeks and see if you still think all Reality TV is trash. You can safely avoid the vast majority of the twenty new Reality shows that will debut this summer. Many are clearly low-brow, and the networks are pushing the trend beyond overkill. That is the Hollywood way.
Unscripted television, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is a valid entertainment format. Assess shows based on their individual merit, not on the reputation of their genre. Reserve judgment on what you haven’t watched. I rest my case.
Of all that television had to offer this year, the show I looked forward to the most each week was “24,” which ends its second thrilling season next week. It has its flaws, but it’s a bold show like no other. Now performing solidly in the ratings after soft numbers last year, the show has been renewed for a third “day.” If Fox had only shown similar patience with “Firefly” and “Andy Richter Controls the Universe”… *sigh*
The television drama seems to be thriving quite well despite the inevitable preponderance of lawyers, cops, and doctors. Comedy, however, is in a serious rut. There wasn’t a single breakout comedy success this season, and original ideas are scarce. The top-rated (and often over-rated) comedies, "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" will leave the airwaves after next season. That will leave the sitcom in a worse state yet unless something new manages to catch our attention. At least we'll still have "The Simpsons."
Is television a “vast wasteland”? I don’t think so. There are too many educational and informative programs on the air to ignore. TV is more like a vast stimulating city, with good neighborhoods and bad, of dazzling lights and dark alleys, of upscale dining and three card monty. I’ve always been fascinated with large cities, where elegance and decadence forever coexist and compete. And this virtual one is no exception.
Thank you for reading my column. Feel free to contact me any time with your thoughts on TV at email@example.com. I will continue to write on a variety of subjects for The Partial Observer, and expect to comment now and then on television. For now, it’s time for one long non-commercial break.
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