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Reality TV 'R Us

Book explores why we make it, not why we watch it



My best friend David is convinced his reality TV show is only five years from mainstream acceptability. He calls it "Up the Butt" and -- bear with me on this -- it asks desperately insolvent Americans how much cash it will take for them to insert various household objects ... well, you get the idea.

Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen's joint venture Shooting People explores the origins of how we ended up in an entertainment culture where "Up the Butt" seems less fatuous than commercially viable.

Their short book is written in a quasi-academic style, which is a shame as it dulls down some otherwise interesting ideas. The authors have a tendency to quote several theorists before diving into their own analysis, and to deploy dissertation-style sentences like: "In the following chapter, we will argue that" -- as if the suspense of turning their pages is too much for us to bear.

The authors also squander too much time showing how the social idealism of early documentarians like British pioneer John Grierson have descended into reality TV's carnival of narcissism and humiliation. Lefty intellectuals love this gig: Reveal the political roots of a cultural phenomenon and then kick and scream about how it has been forsaken to the demands of the transnational marketplace. As if anyone on the planet goes to bed in a tizzy about The Bachelor's repudiation of "cinma vrit" principles.

All nitpicking aside, Brenton and Cohen have some useful ideas. Chief among them is their argument that the chief progenitor of reality TV was the abandonment of ideology that took place after the fall of Marxism. The personal politics of '70s-era feminism and the "personal liberation" of the self-help industry, they contend, carved a space for the ascendancy of the confessional narrative. As they write:

The first person thus raised to the status of sole truth, sole value, and sole source of narrative makes few allusions to things beyond its boundaries. ... This dandruff of selfhood, elevated to the status of a worthy subject, rushes in to fill the space vacated by overarching narratives that once extended the range of their followers' vision. ... There is no aspect of personal experiences too small to fix a camera on -- trivia, indeed, is the new rock'n'roll.

The authors' most interesting contention is the controlling power of contrived, "situationist" environments. A direct parallel is drawn between reality TV and social psychologist Philip Zimbardo's 1971 experiment where he placed 24 college graduates in a California prison for two weeks. Though fully aware of the experiment and free to leave at any time, the subjects so thoroughly assumed their roles as prisoners and guards that several "prisoners" had complete psychological meltdowns after the crushing of their revolt.

Brenton and Cohen contend that this same phenomenon is what keeps reality TV participants in line with the sadistic and often dangerous rules mandated by their producers. With the aid of psychologist consultants -- whose professional ethics, the authors suggest, are extremely compromised -- the shows receive the imprimatur of psychological legitimacy.

Absent from Shooting People is any examination of why audiences -- and not just Americans -- are so willing to eat this stuff up. Is it merely the car wreck phenomenon, that we can't avert our gaze from a gruesome spectacle? Or is it beyond that. Shows that are less "reality TV" than game show like Fear Factor are rooted in nothing more than the spectacle of public humiliation. In higher art circles, witness the humiliation smorgasbords of film directors Neil LaBute and Todd Solondz. What is it about the way we live now that gets so many of us off on the suffering of others?

I sure as hell don't know, but neither does Brenton or Cohen. In the meantime, my friend David has another show lined up after his opus gets stale. It's called "Celebrity Up the Butt."

-- John Dicker

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