Here’s a handy axiom: Reality shows are to television what stand-up comedy is to humor. Which is to say, the lowest of the low.
Until recently, I’d pretty much managed to steer clear of the entire genre. But Yancey is an enormous American Idol and America’s Next Top Model fan, and for my unnamed TV mag gig, I find myself writing about the genre all the time.
Officially I still hate all reality shows, and, truly, I do hate most of them. I never dug the Real Worlds or the myriad Bachelor mutations or any of big kahuna burger Mark Burnett’s pieces of nastiness. But my reasons are hardly lofty: I watch TV for escape, and ordinary people scrambling all over themselves hardly proffers much of a respite from mundanity. Plus, since the advent of reality programming, at least four pages of every issue of Us Weekly have been squandered on people who aren’t even nice to look at. Deeply ideological, profoundly well-developed objections, clearly.
So let me lay out my Bingo cards. Once, ostensibly for an article, I watched in one sitting the entire first season of Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. I got a little hooked. Another axiom: reality show viewing is to human folly what rubbernecking is to car accidents. And another benchmark in my spiritual growth: self-esteem elevation through an observed superiority to youngsters so much more moneyed and famous and primped than myself.
I pitied Nick, subject to Jessica’s whining and wining while he determinedly went about everday tasks like moving his furniture himself, doing laundry, taming renegade bees. I snickered at Jessica, shuffling with the gait of a far fatter woman in those shitty Juicy sweats and platform flipflops that they never stop wearing in LA. I relished the couple’s palpable if unacknowledged discontent in the face of all received culture had told them they’d need and want (a DIY Ken doll boasting an earring and a paternalistic air; an apparently dim, blond big-breasted Barbie doll; photos of both of them sucking up to the Bushes). For days I hissed her patented “Gawwwwd” into my sister’s ear to both of our great amusement.
Strictly for clinical reasons, I then moved on to the entire first season of Ashlee Simpson in an MTV marathon — in order to synthesize the pathology of the whole family, naturally. Oh, the joyous
torching of the muse recording of her first album, the great dyeing of the witchy witch tresses, the stamping of the foot at Big Daddy — he who’s bragged about his daughter’s (now plastic) D cup and long-maintained virginity to all across the land. And the revelation that Ashlee’s throat resembles to a remarkable degree a misogynist’s worse nightmare of a pussy. Bingo!
But there exists yet another axiom: reality shows are to the US what gladiators were to Rome. It’s an obvious one, but painfully, abundantly apt. This week, Najai Turpin, an eliminated participant on the soon-to-premiere boxing reality show The Contender, committed suicide. Producers Sly Stallone and Mark Burnett have denied hotly any links between Turpin’s suicide and his participation and elimination from the show, but commemorations to Turpin have already appeared on The Contender’s site and the producers have established that Turpin’s, er, story arc will be included in the limited series. Translation: No culpability accepted, but we’ll gladly incorporate this wasted human life into our show. Now that’s good television.
I genuinely feel both sick and ashamed about Turpin’s death and how it has been seized upon. His demise is such a logical extension of the reality show format — personal humiliation on a grand scale, high drama screeching at (literally) life-and-death levels, rubbernecking at its most unforgivable — that we are all to blame. Boxing is a self-negating, bloodthirsty debacle that eclipses even how football caters to the human animal’s most sadistic and masochistic impulses. Exposing the personal protracted humiliations intrinsic to the sport in a reality format practically ensures a fatality or nearly fatal accident of some sort. So matter-of-factly airing Turpin’s suicide as part of the show’s storyline smacks of the same opportunistic “objectivity” mainstream journalists increasingly cower behind.
A man has died, perhaps not directly as a result of the TV show he was eliminated from, but certainly in a way that will be offered for public consumption. Most will reexperience it idly from the comfort of the same couches where we pass judgement on thousands of others’ lives, too. Can you imagine how his friends and family will feel when Turpin’s death airs as a footnote to a crap televised competition? The humane response would be to donate the show’s profits to them, but that’s a bit much to expect from a country as aggressively capitalistic as our own. Short of that, perhaps we should all reevaluate what it is that we’ve really been watching. The truest sign of an empire’s decline may be its members’ inurement to the humanity of others. So here we are. Gladiators and their listless, glassy-eyed public, reporting for death.