Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The reality virus

I suppose you could make the argument that "reality television" has always been around, given that sporting events, game shows, and cooking shows—and news and documentaries—are, for all intents and purposes, effectively based in reality. But the moniker "reality TV" really only gained traction with the premiere of Survivor ten years ago. I remember being told the premise of Survivor, and being vaguely horrified; now, I look back on it as the time reality TV had integrity. Twenty seasons later, the grande dame of the reality TV is still going strong even as the television dial becomes increasingly clogged with imitations, variations, and whole new species of the reality genre.

And yes, for the record, I do know Survivor wasn't the "first" reality TV show, having been preceded by such MTV offerings as The Real World, and presumably Mark Burnett's brainchild was at least partially inspired by the original European versions of Big Brother. But it is largely responsible for establishing a recognizable genre: an elimination contest featuring "ordinary" people, which has spread virus-like into a televisual juggernaut including American Idol, Project Runway, Top Chef, America's Next Top Model, The Amazing Race, So You Think You Can Dance, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and at least a dozen others I can't call to mind right now.

My virus analogy isn't merely colour commentary, either: one of the most interesting elements of reality TV's ascendancy is the way in which its narrative conventions have infected television practices more broadly. One reason for the spread of reality TV is simple economics; it is, after all, much cheaper to employ a bunch of volunteers all fighting towards a single million-dollar payday than to produce a sitcom like Friends, whose actors were all claiming million-dollar paydays per episode by the end. On the other hand, the Survivor-style series introduces a key motif that is part documentarian and part religious: the confessional. Cut into "dramatic" sequences between the show's players, the talking-head moments function as the revelations of truth ... or to put it more specifically, they function as simulacra of truth, employing our cultural and historical investment in the confession's innate truth-value.

To see the ripple effects of this, we need look no further than what The Office hath wrought. In the original British series, which ran for a grand total of fourteen episodes, the conceit was that a documentary crew was following the office lives of a bunch of ordinary working stiffs at a paper company. The camera was present, and obtrusive; at the end of season two (episode twelve), the "documentary" ended with obnoxious manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) being fired. The two-part coda to the series was a "reunion," in which we see that Brent has attained a sort of limited celebrity from the airing of the documentary.

The point here is that the original British series kept within the basic conceit of the documentary; because of the short format of British television, it could do so. The translation of The Office into an American series makes believably maintaining the conceit difficult, if not impossible. It is now in its sixth season and comprises one hundred and sixteen episodes as of this week, which strains the credibility of its status as documentary. In terms of casual viewing, this is not a glaring problem: for the most part, the original conceit fades into invisibility and viewers do not need to struggle to suspend their disbelief. It is worth noting however that the camera is occasionally intrusive, and the show sometimes references its documentary framework. These moments are few and far between, but one in particular serves to illustrate some of the issues involved.

At the end of season three, the longstanding unrequited love between the characters Jim and Pam would seem to have been resolved; at the start of season four, the characters play coy, pretending that they are not romantically involved (while the rest of the office, of course, speculates madly). The camera follows Pam as she drives away from work at the end of the day, and watches as she picks up Jim a block or so away, capturing on film their kiss as he gets in. Pam and Jim are then presented with the footage on a television in the office conference room, eliciting their admission that they are, in fact, now together.

Beyond inspiring squeals of delight among fans, this moment effects a rupture of The Office's tacit realism, for in drawing attention to the presence of the film crew, it raises the question of audience: for whom is the documentary, which presumably is a reality television series, being produced? Who is watching what the film crew films? And why has this visibility not substantively impacted the lives of the characters? The original series' depiction of David Brent's pathetic celebrity half-life dramatizes the real-world effects of having been on television—in his case, he attempts to cling to his brief window of fame as it fades from people's memory, but the American Office there is no suggestion that anyone is watching. The series adapts the original documentary framework and employs it at times as plot device or narrative tool, but also actively ignores or glosses the camera's presence. The point here is not so much to critique The Office for this inconsistency as to observe that this particular narrative model is becoming increasingly prevalent. Two new comedy series, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, are structurally modeled on The Office, with the difference that the faux-documentary frame is exclusively structural and not narrative—that is to say, the camera is not itself part of the story. The characters "interview" both diegetically and extradiegetically, but the camera is essentially static and not intrusive.

All of this is undoubtedly me over-analyzing, and I certainly don't mean to suggest that these shows are somehow deficient for not being faithful to the documentary conceit (indeed, I love The Office, and both Parks and Recreation and Modern Family are very smart, very well-written shows). What is worth noting however is the interesting trajectory from the original Office as self-consciously documentarian to the essentially unacknowledged use of the documentary structure in the more recent series. I would argue that what this demonstrates is the traction that the confessional nature of reality TV has.

Why does any of this matter? Well, speaking as an English professor, I find this fascinating because it is, in part, a spectacular vindication of an argument made by Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality. He observes the power of the confession as a means to convey truth-value and the concomitant power it thus wields:

... the confession became one of the West's most highly valued techniques for producing truth. We have since become a singularly confessing society. The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses one's crimes, one's sins, one's thoughts and desires, one's illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell.

In the past century, Foucault notes, the confessional has left the sphere of religion and taken central importance in secular life. From the boom in therapy and pop psychology that began in the postwar years, to the public displays of expiation we expect from public figures when they are caught transgressing, to the on-the-couch admissions that are a staple of talk shows: that reality TV has taken both network and cable television like wildfire really should not be a surprise.

There is a sense in which it all feels belated, by which I mean it functions as a sort of aftershock or echo to a half-century whose investment in confessional culture often was, at its most egregious (think, for example, of Joseph McCarthy, HUAC, and the red-hunts of the early 50s), trading in significant and society-changing issues of privacy and personal freedom. The talking-heads on Survivor or Big Brother (or their parodies on The Office) are reflective of a cultural moment when, to quote James Wolcott, the "effects of Reality TV have reached street level and invaded the behavioral bloodstream, goading attention junkies to act as if we're all extras in their vanity production." Or, to come at it another way, does the promiscuous dissemination of "confessional" television ironically signal a moment when the confession's authenticity has been negated?

I do not, at this point, have a conclusion. As usual, this is me thinking out loud. But thoughts and suggestions are solicited.


Shaun Coady said...

There is quite a lot of merit to your ideas involving the role of the confessional and its portal into the individual for the viewers of this genre of interwoven melodrama. I usually resist any form of reality TV as a rule (I believe that survivor should be last individual standing after a year of seclusion on a remote isle with cannibals) however, there are several shows that my fiance watches that use the confession in order to create not only atmosphere, but re-enforcement of that atmosphere, namely Ghost hunters, Man Tracker, and Operation Repo, and let us not forget Josh Gates in Destination Truth. The confessionals combined with the narration of the individuals during the filming gives you not only the reality TV and documentary stylings, but attempt to add a third dimension of human empathy, you root for these people, you listen to hear the ghostly footsteps, you yell when they leave traces behind for the tracker to pick up. It almost seems like these new reality shows integrate themselves into our lives in real time, as if we are transposing ourselves into their shoes, and that is truly where the virus lives, that is how it feeds on us, when we invest ourselves into these shows.

And in these new shows, the confessional is paramount to the shows survival, they want us to know the dirty laundry, the sad histories, root for the hopeful underdogs, and boo the villainous saboteurs.

And now there is Baggage, a new dating game show that takes the confessional to a whole new level of mortification. The central character has three men or ladies to choose from to go on a date with, however, instead of the asking questions or actually going on a date, the three individuals have three secrets to reveal, each more horrid or bizarre than the last. They then explain their "baggage" and defend themselves in order to win a date and oust the other two contestants. The use of the confessional is not just one in a room with a camera; it is them on a stage, with the other contestants, the host (Jerry Springer no less) and the one whom makes the decision, oh, and a live studio audience on top of the viewers. The truth is revealed about them all, and after hearing the horror stories of the three, he/she chooses one to go on a date with. But wait! There's more! He/she must reveal a huge secret as well, and the tables are reversed and the one that was chosen gets to make the final decision of whether or not they can handle the others baggage.

If this is indeed a virus, it is fast, incurable, and could end up turning us all into slaves of reality TV, drooling over who gets kicked off, staring at them while they do the secret confessionals, in simple terms, become zombies.

Question Mark said...

Presumably you saw the recent Onion article titled 'Office documentary crew finally gets all of the footage they need'