Confessions Of A Remote Hog: Put A Fork In It

Put a fork in it.

It’s over, it’s done. Reality TV is dead. Good-bye, it was fun why it lasted.

Well, at least according to some people. Flipping through my Mega-sized Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer, I actually found an article/column wasn’t about the Philadelphia Eagles that peaked my interest. Jonathan Storm, TV Critic extrordiniare, has declared that reality TV is on it’s way out and serialized drama’s are coming on strong to replace them. The column has a bit of restrained devilish glee to it, sort of like a devious Survivor contestant watching the good guy make his way to the loser lounge. Reality TV is dying, Oh, Happy Day! Take a note of this little snippet when discussing the declining ratings of reality shows…

“More dire (or joyful, if you’re a TV writer or drama lover) is the erosion in established reality hits.” (“TV’s Dramatic Turn, Jonathan Storm, Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct.17, 2004)

Now, I have never understood the critical backlash of reality. Yeah, I’ll admit, a large amount of it is utter garbage, unoriginal and unwatchable, but that goes for a lot of scripted programming as well in my book. I always thought that critics who have an aversion to a particular genre should just avoid making critical assessments of things that fit into that category. I see critics like judges, if they have a obvious bias that would not allow them to make a critical assessment, then they should respectfully recuse themselves. If they hate Ben Afflect so much that it makes them physically ill, don’t review his movies. If they thing that slapstick comedies are horrid in any form, don’t review them.

Case in point, years ago I read a review for A Very Brady movie. The critic opened up with his admission that he’d never seen an episode of the Brady Bunch. What the hell? How does that help me? Like most of the movie going public who would be interested in that movie, I want to know how well it holds up to the spirit of The Brady Bunch series. I want to know if the inside jokes work and if we see the Brady’s acting in a Bradyesque manner. A reviewer who has never seen the show wouldn’t know that. Critical reviews are a tool for the viewing public to use and a review like this is as useful as a paper hammer.

Now, I don’t want to attack Mr. Storm. In my opinion he is one of the better TV critics out there. His reviews are typically well written and well thought out. He does a good job at looking at television as a whole and not in a vacuum. While he doesn’t seem to be a big fan of reality TV, he has had nice things to say about my favorite Reality show, which tends to get a lot of respect from critics, The Amazing Race. I don’t want to pick on the guy, but this article just raised my ire.

There are many reason that reality TV is picked on by established critics, in my opinion. Firstly I think that unlike fictionalized series they are judged by the worst of the genre as opposed to the best. When critics talk about reality shows the talk about stuff like Haircuts Gone Wrong, Who Wants to Marry My Wife and Transgendered Island (OK, I made those up, but you all know what I’m talking about.). When they discuss the merits of fictionalized TV they mention The Sopranos, Arrested Development, and 24. When people look at reality TV they tend to view the better shows as the exceptions to the rules. They look at these shows as the cream that rises to the top of spoiled milk. Or they find some fundamental difference. The Amazing Race is really a competition more in line with a sporting event. The Apprentice is really a tutorial on business practices. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is really a docu-dramatic fix it up show. Survivor, well, that’s the original granddaddy of the reality competition and everything else is just a cheap copy.

Secondly, reality shows are just cheap, alternative programming that basically come down to easy rating stunts. This argument has a bit more validity to it than the first in my opinion. Yet, I think the problem here is not in the production of the individual shows but in the mindsets of television executives. From my perspective, television executives often just like to take the easy way out. I am always flabbergasted when I see a new show, which seems to have some promise given time, unceremoniously axed after one or two weeks, only to be replaced by some cheap ratings grabber. Fox was especially bad with this for a few years ago when the would premiere an interesting new show on Friday nights, then cancel it and run a season full of World Funniest Police Disasters or Midget vs. Elephant pulling contests.

Thirdly, I think the reality genre is judged by what could be on in it’s place. It is frustrating to people when their favorite shows are disappearing and in their stead is the fourth reality show about the person lives of boxers. This goes hand in hand with point number two. Television execs lack vision, plain and simple.

Yet all these things get tied together by one last belief, that fictionalized series, with scripts and professional actors are just better entertainment. I think this is the fundamental issue when it comes down to the debate over reality TV. I think this is such a hard issue to judge. Entertainment is such a personal issue. That is why a critic’s job is so tough. He can tell you why a show entertains him, why certain technical aspects are better, or more original, but in the end he cannot really account for personal choice.

That is what made this article so interesting. Storm seems to believe that the reason reality shows did so well is that they filled the void of serialized dramas on TV. With the rise of one and done episodic shows on TV, like Law and Order and CSI, people were craving the ongoing dramatic elements of shows with continual story lines. As proof of this, and of the decline of the need for reality shows, Storm points to the ratings bonanza of new serialized dramas like Lost, Deperate Housewives, Veronica Mars and Kevin Hill. These shows have done well in the ratings for their network.

Yet, I think there are other issues involved in why these shows have done so well. First, because these shows, especially Lost and Desperate Housewives are unlike most of what is on TV to begin with. Let’s face it, most of our fictionalized shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC are about cops, lawyers and doctors. Move to the younger networks, you have a more eclectic group, but for the most part they are about cute young people acting cute and young. Secondly, the networks shift to year round programming and the delay of the Fall season due to the World Series is leaving viewers looking for something, anything to watch. Right now, Alias and 24, two of the more popular serialized dramas are on hold until January, and viewers are looking for something to fill that void. Thirdly, and this is just my opinion, these shows are just better than most of the new dramas offered by the networks.

Is reality TV dying? Well, according to some people, critics, television experts, hooty tooty professor types who analyze the Television trends, yep. They talk about how trends in television go in a ten year cycle. That something big will shoot off like a fire cracker, maintain it’s potency for a bit then slowly begin to fizzle out. They compare this reality trend to the Westerns of the 60’s or the Prime-time Soaps of the 80’s. I think this may be a fair comparison on some levels. Yet, I don’t that reality is going to die out all together. Slowly but surely producers of television shows will adapt to the new age of television. They will find ways to producer cheaper, entertaining shows. They will find a new angle that other producers will try to emulate or just plain steal. Eventually the Television will balance out with a decent mix of reality, news, comedy and drama and there will come another trend for TV purist to complain about. As long as its not goofy Japanese gameshows, I’ll try not to complain too much.

News and Notes:

If you didn’t get a chance to see the very entertaining USA TV movie Thoughtcrimes you will have two more chances to do it. USA will be airing it again October 28 from 11:30 PM until 1:30 AM, and October 29 from 8AM-10PM. This movie was a failed pilot turned into a movie about a teenaged girl whose telepathy is misjudged as schizophrenia and is placed in a mental institute. Eventually she is discovered by a doctor and her abilities are focussed and put to use by the NSA. This movie showed a potential for a good series, yet USA decided to go with another show Touching Evil. From the looks of it, I think they made a mistake.

In more USA news, the hit summer series The 4400 will be back again next summer with 13 new episisodes.

Finally, it’s been decided. The Amazing Race has a confirmed timespot and premiere date. Nov. 16 is the date of the 2 hour season premiere from 9-11 PM.