I am one who has never gotten the popularity of Reality TV. It has never seemed real to me...at all. People are fascinated with it. I have never gotten that. Until this week.
Lets go over 3 or the most popular network Reality shows.
The Bachelor. Twenty five seemingly very attractive girls, who should have no problem getting a decent guy, all fighting over one guy at the same time, living together and in most cases, having romantic contact with him. In other words, an updated version of "The Dating Game."
Survivor. A bunch of people, gathered on an exotic island, working together and working against each other at the same time, pretending they are trying to survive something, when in fact they are competing, not surviving. Because there is not really anything at stake. They won't go hungry. They won't be attacked by hungry animals or natives. They won't die. They won't be cannibalized. At worst, they will be sent home and become internet stars because they were on a Reality TV show. In other words, an updated version of many 70's games shows.
Dancing With the Stars. Except that most of the people watching have never heard of any of them. Because they were never stars in the first place. Because real stars could not be bothered with a show like that. And many of them can't dance.
In other words, I can't remember any show like this. Possibly "The Gong Show", but that is a stretch.
But so many love those shows. And they are not brain dead people who aren't smart enough to watch more intellectually stimulating and mind challenging dramatic shows if they wanted to. They just simply don't want to watch those. They get something from Reality TV that they are missing. What is that?
I think, in many ways, they are searching for reality in their lives, something that they find lacking since the proliferation of the internet, emails, texting and sites like You Tube and others. Reality in real everyday life just doesn't seem real anymore. It is reality, but it is virtual reality. They are looking for "reality" reality.
In many families, people come home, and most of that time is spent online, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Netflix. If they communicate, it is done by social media, with each other in many cases. We have all done that.
And more to the point, people are so busy these days, and so connected by the technologies that we have founded and employed, they just want to watch something they don't have to think or be fully invested in. We have gotten very used to being connected and disconnected at the same time.
With the way the internet has become so dominant and played out, is it any wonder that Reality TV has taken the foothold it has in our culture? I think it is logical to think that it was inevitable.
Which brings me to the events of last week. Yes, the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday was shocking. But that in of itself could have stayed within the virtual reality most of us live with these days. It could have easily faded off into the sunset and just be a news item on our favorite websites or TV news shows had it not been what happened next.
The chase. Everyone was glued to the chase. And, as with all chases, there must be a conclusion and resolution. That is where Reality TV leaves us lacking. In real life, chases don't end the way we want them to. In fact, they don't end how we expect them to. Reality means that they can go either way. That is the true attraction of reality. The unknown.
The Boston Marathon bombers got away. In all the confusion and fear of the moment they escaped and basically, for a day or two, were free. If they had formulated a viable escape plan, they could have been long gone by the time anyone figured out who they were.
Sure, they would have been caught eventually. Maybe a few weeks or months later, or like Bin Laden, years later. But by then, the moment would have passed. It wouldn't be the big story that it became because the chase was initiated within 48 hours.
What was the standoff on Friday about? To most, it was more Reality TV, except this time it was the ultimate Reality TV. It wasn't scripted. It wasn't produced. It wasn't guided. There were no clever minds behind it, gathering the contestants in a certain manner to make sure the conflicts and dramas were sure to collide in the way they wanted them to.
No, this was real life. Real drama. If you could say that there is truly such a thing as Reality TV, this really was it.
It was the World Series of Reality TV. That could have also happened in Sandy Hook, but that gunman shot himself and took all the drama out of it by the time the news coverage started. All that was left in that event was the Monday morning quarterback debate over what happened and who was to blame for it. And what we might do about it. Interesting, but not gripping in the way a hunt for a bunch of rogue terrorists loose on the streets of Boston could be. Much like The Fugitive, the possibility of being caught while still being free and on the run is something people gravitate towards.
We long for that real drama. With the internet and Reality TV, everything seems so fake. It doesn't seem real. It isn't in front of us. It is basically soap opera with supposedly real people. Real people, still playing parts. Still reading scripts. Still going to locations and acting out the scenes the producers and directors want them to act out. Still, only interacting in the way the show runners tell them to interact. Survivors do "Tribal challenges". The Bachelor and his "harem" go on scheduled dates on scheduled days. And they are eliminated on scheduled days in scheduled ways. In many ways, they are actors playing the parts they have been hired to play. Only, they aren't professional actors. They are "somewhat" real people. Real women don't date a guy at the same time 24 other women do. Real people don't stay on an island stranded, when they can get off. Professional dancers don't dance with pretend stars who can't dance.
But really, to us, they are not real people. They are real people actors. But they are horrible actors. Just horrible enough to make it seem real.
But in the end, on Survivor, they are not really trying to survive anything. Their lives aren't at stake. Real people are not going to die.
Most of the time, Reality TV is just real enough. It used to be we encountered the bad accidents on the highway when we knew that someone likely got seriously hurt or died. That is rare these days. Now, for the most part, we have to be satisfied with viewing it on You Tube or seeing it on the news, and it is edited to some extent. Reality TV aims to give us a bit more.
It is escapism without all the gory visuals we used to get. It is basically Hollywood drama, presented in a way that Hollywood drama was always presented. Neatly tied in a bow and presented as a 44 minute package, cleverly divided up so that sponsors can sell us cars, cereal, sex and heart aiding drugs and all sorts of stuff. And when that hour is up, reality is over. Back to virtual reality. No real rush. Just one quick, fake, adrenaline rush.
But when an event like the Boston Marathon bombings, or the 9/11 terror, or the O.J. chase is presented, then we get the real rush. Just enough rush. Because we don't want that everyday. It can become too much. I am sure by Saturday, most who were hanging on the Boston drama were spent. They'd had enough. They were once again ready for Survivor, or The Bachelor, or Dancing With The Stars. Or, if they wanted a bit of mind tease and stimulation, they might even take in CSI or NCIS. Possibly, The Mentalist. Because we have gotten used to getting our fix from pretend reality. Which is exactly what Reality TV is. It is pretend. Just like the soap operas that used to placate us before Reality TV took hold.
In my view, one of the main reasons that The Walking Dead has become so popular is that it isn't predictable. And it seems very real. Real people fighting for their lives in a new apocalyptic world where every second can be live or die. And many die, even the ones who used to seem untouchable-the stars of the show. Just as in real life, nobody is safe. It doesn't matter who or what you were before, or how big a star you are on the show, they can kill you off. Viewers long for that. They want it to reflect, in some way, real life.
In Boston, on Friday, there was no certainty. Would they be caught? Would they be shot? How would the standoff end? Would Suspect #2 live, or be killed? Where were they? Would others die?
It was true reality. Real life. It couldn't be scripted. That was the buzz. That is why people watched. They wanted their reality the old fashioned way. Real. Not guided. Not scripted. Not produced. But then they had enough of it. Now they want to go back to what they are used to: Reality that has a logical beginning and ending, with just enough scripted drama in the middle to make it worth your while.
Then they can cap off their night surfing the internet in the virtual world. The one that doesn't seem real anymore at all, unless you are reading about 3 people who lost real lives, countless others who lost real limbs and more than 1 million who lost their real freedom on a Friday in greater Boston. That part was all too real.
Really, it was.