It began innocently enough, watching the first or second season of Big Brother on a tiny television from the 80s that was three times as deep as the screen was large, positioned on a plank of wood in a small wood cabin, my home for part of the summer. When I was an actual kid, pre-reality TV, this TV served to stifle my imagination, which was always convinced there was something outside waiting for me to fall asleep before it came in and killed me. The choices then were Dateline NBC-type programs about murders, specials on the Great Depression, or the local news. The birth of Big Brother when I was a teenager made it seem less likely that there was a person outside waiting to kill me. Here were some real people in their fake house thousands of miles away who hated each other: surely they would protect me.
The British version of Big Brother, the first reality show I saw, not counting The Real World, had nothing much to do with competition in the beginning. At least, the prize money seemed a carrot dangling too far away for any of the contestants to pay much attention to it. Big Brother UK was just people sitting around for a few months, similar to The Real World. There weren’t alliances. The goal was still to be the last one standing, but contestants were voted off by the audience, not by each other. They were more interested in sleeping with each other and getting sunburned while lying by their tiny pool surrounded by an astroturf lawn than analyzing each other’s propensity for backstabbing. It was pleasant, mildly entertaining, European. Lots of nudity. Lots of conversations. Ample drinking. There were seemingly no actual cameramen, just cyclops-like cameras, which might have made the “contestants” more willing to just be boring and normal, which was enough for me.
Of course, it’s possible to get not just a dose but a balanced and generously-portioned meal of reality television any day of the week now: MTV’s Rivals II, which begins next Wednesday, will provide my summer a welcome dose of backstabbing. Bravo’s Million Dollar Decorators, which wrapped up its second season this winter but which I just remembered existed and started watching last night, drops me into a lavish Los Angeles existence and makes me feel like I have good taste and make millions from it — without my having to put in the actual work required to have good taste and make millions from it.
Then there are surprisingly mundane shows like the Discovery Channel’s Dual Survival, in which two men travel the globe and try to survive off the land in a variety of conditions, and often bicker like the Odd Couple while doing so. Apparently surviving in a jungle in South America is approximately as tedious as sharing a New York apartment. Then there’s MSNBC’s Lockup, about prison inmates. And there is the increasingly specious Bachelor/ette franchise on ABC, the tireless Chris Harrison being possibly the only thing I like about this show anymore. And so many more, but these are a few of the programs in which I’ve invested my time over the past few years.
It’s hard for me to believe that in another era, people may have read books to relax. Now, to relax, I need — or at least I tell myself I need — to watch the least mentally challenging, least difficult, least guilt-inducing, least unpleasant, least gritty, least substantive television program currently available (which is why I gave up on Lockup after two episodes). I think the types of reality shows a person watches says a lot about them. Unfortunately, here is what my choices say about me:
- I like looking at pretty people of all ages and persuasions (Million Dollar Decorators, America’s Next Top Model).
- I like pretty houses.
- I like to vicariously live through rich and/or pretty people.
- I like when people fall in love or get in pointless arguments, or both.
- I like to think that heroic, adventure-themed shows set in nature interest me, but they do not.
- I like to think that important and meaningful reality shows interest me, but they do not.
- The number of times I exclaim out loud how “stupid” an episode of a show is is directly proportional to the amount of time/years I will end up watching the show (The Bachelor).
- I do not like when people hit each other but I still seem to gravitate to shows in which there is a high probability of physical abuse at some point occurring (The Real World, ANTM).
- I am quick to judge or be bored by fictional TV programs, yet will usually accept whatever does or does not happen on my favorite reality shows as good or interesting because how can you pass judgment on what is “true”?
I would like to change. I would like to have not watched nearly every episode of Dr. 90210 that ever aired. But the past is past.
I wonder why it is so easy to immerse myself in a reality show and so difficult to immerse myself in a fictional show that I have heard from many people is good. Is excellent. Is the best show ever. Do I secretly long to be in a coma? The truth is that any fictional show that I do end up invested in (Homeland, Mad Men) I become too invested in, to the point that I go through actual withdrawal when it inevitably ends. Good writing is powerful, sometimes intoxicating. Reality shows don’t have the same effect. I was vaguely sad when the Portland season of The Real World ended a few weeks ago, but the light, inconsequential premise of most reality shows inoculates us against caring about any of them too much.
To set myself on the path of, say, Breaking Bad for a couple of months would be going deep. Reading a Norman Mailer book would be going deep. I don’t want to go deep, it seems. Is it because the digital era encourages us to float on the surface of things, or is it because I “go deep” in my life and would prefer not to in my free time?
“Going deep” doesn’t quite get at the heart of it. If a mind is basically always thinking, as mine is, cycling through the same thoughts, or different thoughts, but largely pointless and often unproductive thoughts, meaningful art like good books or good TV shows only encourages more such thinking. Million Dollar Decorators does not encourage thinking of any kind. Watching reality TV is probably the only time, with the exception of sleep, at which my mind is not in hamster-wheel overdrive. Reality TV is the lesser of several evils. I could pop a pill or two, Taipei-style. I could drink a glass, or several, of wine. But I don’t. I watch Swamp People, and then I turn out the light, and I’m asleep within five minutes.