An afternoon of Saturday channel surfing has left TS feeling a little nauseated and depressed. No, the tub of Phish Food and ensuing blood sugar slump didn’t help. But sitting through a stodgy carte of reality t.v. and image-obsessed programming doesn’t induce feelings of serenity and empathy, by a long-shot.
Ten years ago, the beast that was Big Brother emerged. Like a small-time sex shop that opens in a nice neighbourhood selling titillating naughty mags from under a grimy counter, exciting grandads and schoolboys alike, Big Brother was frowned upon, tutted about and generally thought to be a mark of the inevitable decline of societal values. Now, in comparison to the slew of new shows on offer, B.B. seems kitsch, harmless and strangely dated; its one-time racy promises faded and apologetic in comparison to the garishness of its successors. Next to the neon facade of the Ann Summer Superstore with Rampant Rabbits in the window and SEX-KINO! upstairs, stepping inside ‘Sweet Sensations’ seems as chaste as a visit to your aunts. Yes, the machine that gave us Big Brother has mutated and transfigured at a pace to match our growing appetite for ‘Reality’. The ‘Producers of Television’ have strategically boiled down the experience of watching strangers bicker over grocery shopping budgets to its most primal element – potent voyeurism – where we can judge and critique and rate and compare another human.
It is this indefatigable urge to objectify, mortify, slanderize, criticize, correct and – following ancient dramatic form – eventually redeem an individual, that gives us shows like The Biggest Loser, Fat Families, You Are What You Eat, What Not to Wear, America’s Next Top Model, Wife Swap, Britains Worst…, Booze Nation, Stone Cold Sober … and in general any expert-help, pseudo-docu-style or competitive intensive makeover format programme (and thats without even beginning to look at reality talent show which have their own parodic rules and regulations). Reality t.v. makes us think it is okay to spew casual dislike for someone we’ve never met based on what we see ‘on the diary cam’. It encourages us to categorise people for choices they make, or things that are out of their conttol, about the way they look. It markets the Everyman as a commodity to be rated, placed on a sliding scale of acceptability and improved through the channels of expert help.
Reality television is the logical conclusion for entertainment in the culture of the self, in the age of the individual, during a period of stark uncertainty reeling from the failure of rampant consumerism and ingrained free market roguery. It is the televisual equivalent of the infantile ‘It wasn’t my fault; someone else made me do it’; because reality t.v. can always show us someone more unattractive, more frugal/feckless (it appears these days that it is important to spend out but not on things that only stupid/lower class/perverse people ‘with more many than sense’ would buy), less malleable and more morally despicable than ourselves.
Marshall McLuhan warned us in the 1950s that television was ‘an alien culture or anti-culture’. While his nuclear-apocalyptic paranoia and distrust for modernity wasn’t far off the mark, sadly television is no longer alien or an anti-culture. It is our culture. It is what we produce and consume. It is signified within itself, removed from the sign; but only within the context that it is a reproduction of how we interact on a real-life level with one another.
The avatars of the virtual screen will continue to perpetuate the extremes of human behaviour for our ingestion, until they lose their reference point in real life. And maybe liveness, theatre performance, art, music, conversation can offer the counter-point.
Is there life left in an old cliche? Is theatre an end in and of itself? Or can live art pause channel hop culture and explode how we see ourselves…?