In what’s developing to be quite a slump year for film (with some of the lowest box office returns ever seen in the last five years), the small screen, on the other hand, has witnessed a revolution in quality. Thanks to two little ABC shows, Desperate Housewives and Lost, people have started watching scripted shows again, almost as often as they tune into American Idol. It’s like what they say Ms. Rowling did for books (and, well, big-budget movies and merchandise for that matter): ABC has convinced people to return to the art of scripted programming. Good drama may be reality TV, but great drama can only be penned.
With a year that somehow contained both the best seasons of the Amazing Race and Survivor (with Borneo and Amazon as the only real competition), shows like Lost and Desperate have still proved more able to glue their viewers to the screen.
Sure an inordinate degree of attention has been paid to writing characters more memorable than the well-cast stocks of the real world seen week after week on Survivor, but the answer is an audience desire for hyper-reality. We’ve grown desensitized to the so-called “unpredictability” of unscripted TV. Placing real people in unreal situations only works if the situation seems fantastic to its participants. The structure of Survivor and its brethren, that is, the immunity challenges and tribal councils, voting off your comrades to win the million-dollar prize isn’t foreign to anyone anymore. It’s become an artificial paradigm of our world saturated in pop-culture.
Lost, Desperate Housewives, 24 and the miniseries Revelations are all set in worlds either better and more exaggerated than reality (the soap operatic insanity of Wisteria Lane and the tropical island of Polar Bears in Lost) or visions of the real world embracing the supernatural potential of “what-if” scenarios (the modern manifestation of Biblical Armageddon in Revelations or fears of nuclear terrorism in 24). Audiences have grown tired with the real world and want to escape to the fantastic. Populated by fully believable personalities and all with striking flaws to which we can identify, these shows convince us that these worlds, however seemingly bizarre and unreal, COULD be possible. This gives the shows their heightened immediacy; we tune in because we HAVE to know what happens next. The stakes are exceptionally high, the plots more serially ongoing than any hour-long TV before it. Sometimes I don’t mind cancelling social engagements for my new addictions, something I haven’t experienced since the heyday of reality TV, when tribal vote-offs were fresh and I’d kill my best friend if he told me who got the boot before I got to witness it myself. Now the cooler talk is all about Mrs. Vandecamp’s impossibly gay AND malicious son or her homicidal pharmacist.
The other big problem with reality TV is that we now know the range of what to expect. ‘Characters’ can only react in a variety of pre-determined ways that remain ‘safe’ by television ethical standards (and believe me, THEY DO exist). There is no way characters will or can be more than competitively violent towards one another, let alone driven to kill. Producers can’t legally cast characters with neurotic tendencies that predispose them to homicide, or even condone reality-TV abuse, so not only does our bloodlust remain un-satiated, the twists simply can’t reach the jaw-dropping shock of killing off Boone on Lost.
Scripted television is the hands-down victor of the battle with reality television this TV season.
When popular sitcoms were deservedly banished last year with the suicides of Frasier and Friends, audiences and Entertainment Weekly columnists feared the days of scripted TV may be over. But with Lost and Desperate Housewives, TV began a new era of serial television with truly enduring, highly cinematic stories and characters fit for A-list films filling out the dramatic rosters. This turnaround gives scripted TV the obvious edge, even in a season of exceptional reality seasons (even American Idol is about to crown its most appealing contestant in Bo Bice after a scrumptious scandal). But then there was the bland boxing fiasco Contender, forcing reality TV to throw in the towel and concede the technical KO.