Television

WE LIKE TO WATCH

Brian D. Johnson January 29 2001
Television

WE LIKE TO WATCH

Brian D. Johnson January 29 2001

WE LIKE TO WATCH

Television

Essay

Brian D. Johnson

Here’s a new game show that can be played at home. Call it Survivor: The Outback of Television. Armed with only a clicker, each TV viewer is marooned in a wasteland of shows about adulterous couples, horny singles, conspiring castaways, iron chefs, unknown pop stars, brides for sale, wanna-be millionaires, paranoid tourists, diva loft-dwellers and performing cops. The challenge: to find any evidence of the real world as we know it. The reward: temporary immunity from the sinking feeling that what passes for reality on television is overproduced, under-scripted fiction with amateur actors.

By now, we all know that “Reality TV” is a misnomer. Even setting aside the old Cartesian issue—whether the real world is really real, or just a dream within a dream—there is more uncontrived truth in a single episode of The Simpsons than in an entire season of Survivor. But whatever you call it, the genuine fakery of Reality TV is invading the small screen with the

tenacity of a computer virus, and it’s more than a passing fad. It’s the New Pornography, a mainstream peep show in which everyone gets to be an exhibitionist or a voyeur. Every drama becomes a sporting event, every character a contestant. It is entirely appropriate that last spring’s Gladiator became America’s movie of the year: it wasn’t really about ancient Rome, but about the future of entertainment in the new millennium.

Since Survivor, which drew more than 51 million viewers to its finale last August, TV executives have been frantically trying to clone its success. Fox has launched Temptation Island, a cheesy knock-off in which four unmarried couples are separated at a Caribbean resort while glorified prostitutes test their fidelity. With low-rent production values, and players who look like they got lost on the way to an adult video shoot, Temptation Island makes Survivor look like Shakespeare. The Mole (ABC/CTV) is more sophisticated. It’s a mystery game with 10 players who travel the world, trying to fatten a jack-

pot by completing challenges as a team. They’re also trying to guess the identity of an undercover saboteur in their ranks. Each week there’s a quiz, and the player who knows the least about the Mole is “executed” by the show’s organizers, until there is one winner left to claim the jackpot. The challenges are often hokey—imagine Americans running around a French village trying to figure out which of two Cartier watches is fake. But the players are intriguing, and The Mo le works as pure fantasy, a live-action video game.

Meanwhile, Jeff Probst, the world’s favourite camp counsellor, returns to host the second season of the CBS hit that started it all. Survivor: The Australian Outback premieres after the Super Bowl on Jan. 28 with a new crew of instant celebrities. And according to Probst, interviewed by phone from Los Angeles, the show is more lavish and the players more wily. “They would have squashed Richard,” he said, referring to last year’s winner. “They’d seen the first season and they came with a strategy.”

NBC, desperate to get in the game, developed a docu-soap called Chains of Love—featuring four men or women shackled to a member of the opposite sex until a “relationship” formed. But NBC executives dropped the show after seeing it, deciding it was just too lurid. That, of course, is the paradox of prime-time voyeurism.

No matter what the premise, most of the new reality game shows rely on titillation, the promise of glimpsing strangers thrown into forced intimacy. But broadcasters are prudish about showing sex and nudity. So they have to lure us with the idea of sex and nudity. Probst won’t reveal if any of the players have sex in the new Survivor. But he says: “It gets pretty cold at night, and body-to-body contact is one way to stay warm.” Maybe Canada should open a Survivor franchise on Baffin Island.

Canada, of course, has come up with its own reality shows. History Television’s Pioneer Quest offers a spartan antidote to Survivors exoticism as two couples vying for $100,000 hew a life out of the Manitoba wilds using 19th-century tools. With tides like “Prairie Purgatory,” episodes track an all-too-real struggle to survive as players endure mud and mosquitoes on a swampy homestead. Watching wholesome couples build shelves and cope with rotting crops calls for a peculiar kind of voyeurism.

Compared with the American shows, Pioneer Quest is an earnest adventure in stoicism—verging on an unwitting parody of Canada’s documentary tradition. It feels good for you. But most Reality TV is designed to make us feel guilty about watching it. Like porn, it sells the illusion that we’re glimpsing

a side of people we’re not supposed to see. And a certain sense of shameful addiction is part of the attraction.

It was MTV that pioneered the reality format with the human wallpaper of The Real World', a docu-soap now in its ninth season. And Canada’s Life Network has cloned the concept with U8TV: The Lofters, in which eight young, good-looking strangers share a loft for a year under constant camera scrutiny while grooming themselves for imminent celebrity (page 58). On Feb. 4, Global TV launches Popstars, a 13episode series chronicling the selection of what it promises will be “a hit female pop group.” Its five members, aged 18 to 25, have been picked from thousands of young women who auditioned across the country. The show’s Australian prototype launched a chart-topping band named Bardot. But how the Canadian producers can be so sure of manufacturing a hit band suggests incredible presumption—or a sad predictability in the music industry.

Programs like Lofters, Popstars— and Survivor—are creating a new class of celebrity culture, a service industry of brave souls willing to risk humiliation for a crack-pipe hit of disposable fame. The young hotties auditioning to join Lofters are like the Mouseketeers of the new media. But their celebrity niche is confined to a cable channel and a Web site. Basically, by winning spots on the U8TV team, they have talked their way into entry-level media jobs, as self-conscious veejays trying to stand out from the fray. And for the viewer, it can be a painful learning curve.

An entertaining docu-soap requires compelling characters and ingenious artifice. Survivor, like any good drama, relies on clever casting, juicy scenarios, visual flair, teased suspense, a lush sound track—and editing that fosters a retroactive sense of poetic justice. The show may have spearheaded a new trend, but its hokey slickness is really a throwback to traditional television. In this post-Letterman age of self-reflexive irony, we never see a camera crew. The show never deconstructs its own contrivance, not even the KonTiki kitsch of the tribal councils. Probst admits: “My tongue is firmly planted in my cheek when I say, Tire represents life.’ But that doesn’t mean I don’t say it.” God forbid he step out of character. Probst agrees “Reality TV” is misleading. He calls it “dramality—part reality, part drama.” But it’s more like Morality TV, a mongrel genre that lets us pass judgment while indulging in some safe, Disneyfied voyeurism. Television has always created its own reality. Now it has made a spectator sport in its own image, a contest for fame and fortune in which all the world’s a game. El