A Reality TV Taxonomy

AmericanIdol.jpgIn an essay on films that concentrate on memory, Davin Heckman offers this taxonomy of reality TV:

[C]ontemporary reality television shows can be broken down into eight general themes: sociocultural, makeover, survival, professional, romance, fame, reform, and practical joke shows.

Though Heckman concedes that “none of the shows operate exclusively in any single category,” their sheer number confirms his thesis that “reality television has metastasized in recent years.” Certain economic imperatives fueled the genre’s growth–especially the lack of actors or script-writers to pay in what Writers Guild President Daniel Petrie, Jr. calls “a 21st-century telecommunications industry sweatshop.” Beyond the supply side, the demand side is also leading to pressures for a more fragmentary and immediately comprehensible entertainment experience. Virtually all the reality TV I’ve seen has been watched en passant. But the snippets make perfect sense standing alone, or briefly introduced on a show like Talk Soup or Best Week Ever. Like the cell phone novel in Japan, the disjointed parade of stereotyped scenes can be taken (or left) in whatever chunks are most convenient.

Heckman connects reality TV “stars'” fluid personas to movies of memory, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or A Scanner Darkly. He says that the “common thread running through these films is the idea that a self that can be encoded, erased, and re-written.” Adam Kolber has thoughtfully addressed these issues in his work on “freedom of memory;” Heckman suggests that our new entertainments reveal a darker side to that freedom:

Western Literature can be summarized in this way: What is a story? An account of change. What is a good story? An account of change that all people can relate to. The assumption is that in order to be sufficiently engaging, change must center on “the human.” . . . .

The twist presented in these stories is not a discovery that pertains to some other; instead,it comes in the realization of who the protagonist has been all along. Where things get interesting is in the protagonists’ utter mystery/uncertainty and befuddlement as to who they might be. Rather than wondering what is concealed beneath the surface, the characters themselves are pieced together from external cues . . . [They] confirm[] the assumptions of posthumanism, which suggest that the “person” is not simply the expression of an eternal, immutable state, but rather, is the point where discursive threads converge.

This is some pretty heady stuff, but it has a direct bearing on the “Makropolous debate” over immortality that Bernard Williams started a few decades ago. Williams has argued that one would only opt for immortality on two conditions: “that it should clearly be me who lives forever . . . [and] that the state in which I survive should be one which, to me looking forward, will be adequately related, in the life it presents, to those aims which I now have in wanting to survive at all.” The second condition suggests that the technological “immortality project” looks a lot more appealing if one accepts the version of the self now prevalent in reality TV: endlessly revisable, mutable, adjustable. Though some would dismiss it as a disposable artifact of pop culture, reality TV influences not merely the self’s presentation but also its very sources.

PS: This is a fascinating insight on “Big Brother” from David Banash:

Set within the confines of a small house, Big Brother pitted ten houseguests against one another under total surveillance that included twenty-four hour web-cam feeds. While the program sold itself as a glimpse of everyday life, the house is particularly odd in that it lacks almost every kind of device its core audience takes for granted: no phones, televisions, computers, or radios. In essence, what most Americans spend most of their time doing (consuming media) is almost the only thing that Big Brother really forbids.

Thus, the authentic moments of emotion which the show sells as its real attraction are, in fact, generated through the most heavy-handed and apparent simulations. The same could be said for similar programs such as Survivor, The Mole, and Temptation Island. The very heavy-handedness of the narratives, their utter dissociation from everyday life, moves them further and further away from the kind of realism with which the documentary has traditionally been associated, and yet the promise is still always the real itself.

The closer television tries to get to “the real” here, the further it falls short. Much like the immortality project’s hypostatization of the self ultimately threatens to dissolve or deny it.

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Image Credit: NotionsCapital.com, Mike Licht.

Photo Credit: nathangibbs.

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