Although I like to think of myself as a person who does not watch reality shows, this is not an entirely a true statement. When my daughter passed over the threshhold into her teen years, I knew she was going to watch certain programs on TV whether or not I approved of them so, for as long as she would allow me, I watched those shows with her; my underlying philosophy was that by watching with her I could at least gently put in my own two cents about things that I thought were in poor taste or otherwise found unacceptable. This is how I came to watch a couple of seasons of MTV's The Real World; I have to confess that I was completely mesmerized because nobody I knew behaved the way those people did, at least not when they were around me. Eventually, my daughter stopped watching television with me, but not before I also got a couple of seasons of The Osbournes under my belt and that show pretty much rendered me speechless. Even as a teen, I was listening mostly to classical music so I didn't know much about who Ozzie was or why a reality show revolving around him and his family would be so peculiarly fascinating to me. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction, but middle aged Ozzie and his wife did seem to me to be pretty harmless, even if I could almost never understand a single word that Ozzie was saying.
So now here's my confession - I cannot quite explain what it was in a short coming attraction clip that made me start tuning in on a regular basis to the most recent season of Toddlers and Tiaras (gasps of shock and horror) on The Learning Channel. This show takes its viewers into the bizarre but apparently thriving world of childhood beautry pageants, each week focusing on the quests of three different mothers to have their little girl crowned as the "ultimate grand supreme." This is a world where people, many of whom appear to be of relatively modest means, spend thousands of dollars on costumes, hair stylists, fake tans, smile enhancers called "flippers", pageant coaches and entry fees, not to mention the cost of hotel rooms and other travel expenses associated with attending a series of pageants. It is also a world in which little girls as young as two or three are encouraged to present themselves to the audience in ways that are overtly sexual. These kids are being given the message that, not only is it okay for other people to judge them by how they look, but that they are also somehow better than other children because of their appearance and very loosely defined talents. Yes, it is really revolting, but in spite of myself, I kept coming back for more which got me thinking about why so many people tune in each week to so many different reality shows.
1. It's easy to feel superior to just about every grownup featured on Toddlers and Tiaras; it's a sad commentary, but I think this is a major reason why people tune in to any of the shows that feature stupid or outrageous behavior. It is a cheap and easy way for the viewers of these shows to validate their own belief systems without really having to spend much time examining their own belief systems. It's hard not to reflexively feel that you are better than the people you are watching.
2. Reality shows that focus on a specific geographic locale (many of the people featured on Toddlers and Tiaras were from the midwest or south) give the viewer at least a little of the sense that they are watching a National Geographic special. When done properly, these shows allow the viewer to feel like amateur anthropologists observing the strange behaviors of an alien culture. And watching what goes on at these childhood beauty pageants is less disturbing than watching documentaries about infanticide or female circumcision.
3. Watching a reality show is an activity that requires very little brain function. There was almost no variation in terms of the sequence of events and the way people behaved from episode to episode: mothers forcing little girls to sit or stand still so that they could be coiffed, spray tanned and otherwise made up like showgirls, with one or more of the children crying or throwing a full blown tantrum at some point in the process; camera shots panning the shelves of crowns and prize ribbons on display in a 5 year old's bedroom; commentary from glib pageant promoters. The money shot of each episode is that moment when one of the mothers looks straight into the camera and says something so awful that one can only marvel at her complete lack of self awareness, parenting skills and common sense. On more than one occasion, I felt like picking up the phone and calling social services.
So what am I getting at and what is this rant doing on a blog about crime fiction?
In addition to knowing how to decode words and language, reading a work of fiction requires of the reader that he or she be able to follow a sequence of events that constitutes a narrative, have at least some understanding of human nature, and enough innate curiosity to want to read the book through to its conclusion in order to find out how the story ends. These same skills are also required of anyone watching a well written dramatic television series, especially a show that is spread out over several seasons like HBO's The Wire. However, the attraction of reality shows appears to be that viewers can tune in and know exactly what they are going to get before the opening credits have finished rolling - there's never a surprise because these shows are edited to maximize bad behavior and stupidity. There is no story line, it's just a bunch of stuff happening and absolutely no intellectual input is required on the part of the viewer to be able to follow it.
The last time I checked, TLC (The Learning Channel) was home, not only to Toddlers and Tiaras, but also to such programs as 19 Kids and Counting, Freaky Eaters, My Strange Addiction, What Not to Wear, Say Yes to the Dress (in both regular and plus sizes), and I Didn't Know I was Pregnant.
I think it's time for The Learning Channel to change its name to something else- any suggestions?
Although the large number of reality shows on television are cause for concern about the general dumbing down of America, this trend is counterbalanced by the large number of well written and challenging dramas that are also available on the tube, especially on some of the cable channels.
Television is simultaneously better and worse than it was a generation ago.