The Banality of Reality TV
Posted on January 5, 2016
This essay was published in Thought Catalog.
Why don’t we have a Truman Show? A reality television show, like the movie where Jim Carrey’s life is broadcasted to the world? Probably because it’d be deadly boring. We’d turn on the TV and see Our Man brushing his teeth. Paying bills. Flipping through magazines. Sleeping. In the movie, viewers treat The Truman Show like a screensaver: Inert, a program to watch while cooking, cleaning, even sleeping. Truman’s life only becomes dramatic when he realizes it’s fake and wants out.
Anyone creating a biographical drama or documentary about a prominent figure knows their story must center on the most interesting sliver of a subject’s life. Selection is king. The creators of the film Hannah Arendt, for example, built a story around Arendt’s reporting on the Adolf Eichmann war-crimes trial for The New Yorker, an assignment that later became her most famous work, The Banality of Evil.
Storytellers select, because a full human life, even high-profile lives, are mostly boring. Would we really want to see Einstein punching-in and punching-out at the patent office? Course not. We want to see him scribble E=mc2 on a whiteboard, or dash off a letter to the president, warning about the dangers of the atomic age. Watch: this is where Albert learns that a light beam can bend. Hannah Arendt laid down to think every afternoon. The creators of Hannah Arendt chose to depict the political theorist’s habit, and, no surprise, thinking isn’t cinematic.
Makers of Reality TV shows battle the same devil. Their footage is mostly comprised of boring bits. The cooking, the grooming, the hot tub lounging (provided, it’s just lounging). Why do you think there isn’t a television in the house? Because contestants would watch it. Same with the no cell phone policy. Who wants to watch people text or browse Facebook? Not entertaining. Editors exist, because we need curators. Selectors. We need professionals to trim the fat. To give us the “good stuff,” that 1% that dazzles us, holds our eyeballs. And conflict is king. The offensive remark, the disingenuous apology, the pushing and shoving.
Mostly it’s the subtext we crave. The selectors juxtapose a contestant’s remarks with contradictory actions, creating a rich subtext. She said she hates her, but now she’s acting pleasant. He said he has a girlfriend, but now he’s playing single. Duplicity is interesting. Infidelity is interesting. Bold-faced lies are very interesting. Says Megan Parris from Season 13 of The Bachelor, “Editing is what makes the show.”
This isn’t groundbreaking stuff. We know reality TV isn’t “reality.” It’s a construct. Like a supermodel on the cover of Vogue. Face polished, cellulite trimmed. No space between the hips? Our guy in creative can take care of that. But reality show contestants aren’t characters on a screenplay. They have heartbeats and blood pressures. As well as feelings and reputations, both of which are often damaged by these selections. Women who don’t receive a rose on The Bachelor ride empty limos to airports, blotting mascara from their eyes. They torment themselves for 10 million viewers. Will I ever find love? Am I even worth love? Such questions stick. Haunt. Self-esteem issues. Abandonment issues. Then the public shaming. “Villains” are pulverized in the media. The worst are called to the hot seat on “The Women/Men Tell All,” and a room full of pretty girls glare at the misbehaved, misspoken, mis… whatever.
This guy acted up, you say. He was offensive. He was hateful, stupid, a juvenile drunk. We know this because we saw this. But what did we see? Didn’t we agree that the show, which so firmly glued your eyes to the screen, wasn’t reality? That the storylines and characters are composed, not reported? That the entire show is based on deceit? And yet, our feelings of disgust persist. Our hate is as real as real gets.
Because we’ve done some selections of our own. We forgot that editors omitted an apology. Cut a contestant’s remorse or regret or shame. How differently would we perceive Hamlet if he hadn’t mused out loud for the audience? He did some killing, but hey, at least he feels bad about it. Shakespeare knew that hearing remorse evokes empathy. We might not like Hamlet, but his guilt is like our guilt. He’s a human being, complex and flawed, just like me. If we witness bad behavior and don’t see and hear – and thus feel – remorse, we experience disgust.
We also forgot that if someone stocked your cabinets with booze and shacked you up in a spiffy mansion without televisions and phones while you were jobless, isolated from the world and vying for one man or woman’s heart, you might start trouble, too. You might gossip, overreact, pick a fight. Now watch as the man who gives you butterflies kisses your new best friend. Watch your temper unsteady itself. Watch yourself become catty, downright mean. Watch as the walls surrounding your unconquerable soul come tumbling down.
Say you’re careful, tight-lipped, not giving up anything juicy. Beware of the provocative questions during confessionals. Producer: “Did you know he had a girlfriend?” Beware of the staff’s meddling. Cameraman: “Maybe you should confront him?” Says Parris, “They basically will call you names, berate you, and curse at you until they get you to say what they want you to say.”
Even if you played nice with others, watched your words (and alcohol intake), you’d probably slip up. And once is enough. Say you’re perfect? They can work with that, too. Says Parris, “You’ll hear someone make one comment and then they’ll show a clip of somebody’s face to make it look like that is their facial reaction to that statement, but really, somebody made that face the day before to something else. It’s just piecing things together to make a story.”
For some reason, this isn’t fraud. All media professionals are bound by codes of conduct. Why not editors and producers of reality TV? It’s been over a decade of this strange art form, and it’s still the Wild West with regard to professional ethics. Journalists can’t dice up b-roll. Memoirists can’t invent people or events. The public crucified the science writer Jonah Lehar for lifting passages and fudging Bob Dylan quotes. We eviscerated writer James Frey for fabricating parts of his life on the page. Both are outcasts now, personas non grata. But when Mr. A-hole (Juan Pablo?) sits in that hot seat on The Women Tell All, watch that white-hot disgust bubble up in the pretty girls’ faces. They hate players, not the game. Not the selectors, but the contestants.
In the BuzzFeed article, Career Confidential: A Reality TV Editor Reveals The Most And Least Fake Show, an anonymous video editor says that when he first arrived in California looking for a job, employers didn’t care where he went to school. “It’s just like ‘can you do this?’ and ‘can you do this by tomorrow?’”
This sounds awfully familiar.
During Hannah Arendt’s reporting on Adolf Eichmann’s trial, she made a profound observation: Eichmann wasn’t a monster, a crazed psychopath, as one might expect from a man responsible for such unspeakable crimes. Arendt even suggested Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic. He was disturbingly “normal.” A bureaucrat. “A nobody,” her character says in the film. A nobody following orders. During the trial, Eichmann didn’t take responsibility for his actions, because, writes Arendt, “He did his duty… he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.”
The anonymous video editor was following orders as well, motivated to do his job or else he wouldn’t have a job. This is not to equate the makers of reality TV shows with Nazis, but to suggest perhaps there’s a similar dynamic at play. A banality to editing? Selecting without thinking. Selecting without remembering the blood pressures and heartbeats, the feelings and reputations, the limo rides.
And what about a banality to viewing? Watching without thinking. When Mr. A-hole sits in the hot seat, we turn up our noses, but we do so in an unthinking state, forgetting that this is a real person in unrealistic circumstances portrayed in unreal ways. Perhaps this is why the bloopers at the end of Bachelor episodes are so redeeming. They snap us out of our thoughtlessness. We see real people in real situations – imperfect, silly, unfiltered. Sure they contradicted themselves, lied, cheated, acted nasty, but so have we. We empathize, because they’re human. Like us.
A Truman Show doesn’t exist because it would be boring. It doesn’t exist, because it wouldn’t be right. It’d be too far. We wouldn’t pity Truman, we’d pity ourselves. For delighting in such profound meddling. But if we do one day create such a show, we’ll hope Our Man wakes up. We’ll root for the day when he discovers reality. Pray he escapes. Creates a new life and never looks back. We’ll wish this for Our Man, because we wish this for ourselves.