I went to a party last week in Santa Rosa. First warm summer night, great music, lots to eat and drink. As the evening began to wind down I found myself happily ensconced in a deck chair by the pool with people I had never met before. One minute we were having an innocent chat about BP’s CEO, wondering aloud how he could sleep at night when talk seamlessly morphed into a conversation focused on things in our personal lives that we were ashamed to admit we did. Anonymity and alcohol easily carried us to a casually intimate place that somehow felt comfortable, like a collective sigh. It was dark and the band had taken a break and there was a lovely waterfall sound emanating from the stone walls that surrounded us. Not far from where we were sitting a dwindling group was still playing bocce, so every now and then the solid thrack of one ball hitting another ricocheted in the air.
One fellow said he cheated on his taxes. Sometimes. Not big things, mind you, little things the government had no right sticking their nose into. A woman, mid-thirties and more drunk than the rest of us, giggled and said she fantasized about cheating on her live-in boyfriend. She loved him but sometimes she felt time whizzing by, while she watched, standing perfectly still. A heavy set woman sitting at the far end said she went through a phase where she would steal magazines from Whole Foods, and justified it to herself because they were such a big company. Cheating seemed to be the theme of our confessions, but when the conversation came around I heard myself admitting that sometimes when I couldn’t sleep I crept up to my office and watched The Housewives Series on Bravo for hours. Didn’t matter which city ~ New York, Orange County, New Jersey ~ the women were all interchangeable and uniformly dreadful, a fact which they happily compounded by allowing their obtuse lives to be played out on national TV.
A silence enveloped the group. Finally the tipsy girl piped up and said I know what you mean. I can watch a whole season of The Tori Spelling Show in one sitting. The tax evader asked if DIY shows counted. No way all three women shouted. At least you can learn something from them, the girl said. The woman at the end sighed. We all watch crap TV, she said, it's just harmless fun, what’s so bad about that?
I had no idea, but for me, I didn’t think it was just about fun. And I wasn’t quite sure about the harmless part either.
I am not a snob when it comes to TV, or film for that matter ~ if it moves I will pretty much watch it, or at least give it a chance. I’m as stumped by the guy who can ‘only’ listen to classical music as by the guy who brags he’s never listened to it before. Of course it’s true that quantifiable genius separates Ibsen’s A Doll’s House from Russ Meyer’s Valley in the Dolls, but they basically have the same plot and come to the same conclusions about the human (female) condition. And truth be told a hell of a lot more people watched and read and wept over Jacqueline Suzanne’s overwrought story of female subjugation then ever sat through an Ibsen play. Great themes and their denouements come in a variety of disguises; it's up to us to decide which ones we will rely upon to get us through the night.
So my nocturnal relationship with the surgically enhanced ladies of Reality TV was not repugnant because I looked down on the form it was coming to me in. And while one would be hard-pressed to find uglier examples of women in the 21st century, there’s also not much change left in spending time with characters simply because you feel superior to them. For a while I ran with the assumption that the Housewives Series was a cautionary moral tale ~ with apologies to Goya ~ a 21st Century Los Caprichos about how tragically our venal desire to acquire things has lead us astray. For the past fifty years we have been force fed an American standard which exalts an unbridled obsession with wealth. The girls had simply taken a step further and ordered their Kool-aid to go. But that still did not explain why I was watching it. If bling with a dubious moral attached was all I needed, I’ll take my Jay-Z straight up, thank you very much.
Television is the most democratic and popular medium ever created, even now as it is being subsumed by youtubitis. But from its beginnings the programs which held sway over the airwaves, while they used a variety of voices to keep us entertained, always aimed at a common dominator. (read: lowest). Classic TV programs like The Honeymooners, All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Seinfeld, Friends, all tackled big issues ~ marriage, dysfunction in the family, racism, friendship as a sustaining force ~ but played them out in a common vernacular that consistently and perhaps naturally veered toward the stupid. Name any great sitcom in the last thirty years and on some level stupid reigns supreme.
Still, the paucity of good programs I found in 1996 when I returned from a decade living in the UK shocked me. It seemed to parallel what had happened to food in America while I was gone: the plates had grown bigger while the nutritious value had exponentially diminished. My family went from four stations (two government sponsored!) to over 400, but with the exception of sports, choice felt remarkably more limited. There are still great scripted programs like The Soprano’s on TV ~ the Nurse Jackies, the Mad Men, the Friday Night Lights ~ but they grow ever more infrequent. Reality TV, meanwhile, continues to gobble up more and more air time. Dead cheap to produce, with no writers to pay, no sets to frame reference, no studio time to keep the industry alive, Reality TV proliferates because we are allowing a cost driven marketplace to buckle under massive competition from the internet. The irony is, because all you need to produce a ‘reality program’ is a cameraman, people who will do anything to have their five minutes of fame, and an editor with an eye toward cutting for commercial breaks, with reality programming the television industry has set in motion its own demise.
Some competitive programs like So You Think You Can Dance elevate struggling cultural forms by exposing them to huge new audiences. But generally Reality TV grows in stupidity instead of getting better. Take cooking shows ~ have you wondered why the initial progenitors like Mario Batali, chefs who really know how to cook and talk about food, have been forced out and replaced with ‘user friendly’ schlocky cooks like Paula Deen? Even Gordon Ramsey, an extraordinary talent who shaped one of the best food programs ever (The F Word) made while he was still in the UK, instantly dumbed down his act when he hit our shores, producing unwatchable crap like Hell’s Kitchen.
Then there is the Housewives Series, my bête noire of the moment. Like Survivor, and MTV’s Real World (the progenitor of reality shows) it would seem to focus on social interactions in their crudest forms ~ basically how we manipulate one another ~ which admittedly has some practical application in the workplace and relationships. But there are no resolutions, no winners, no achievements, just an endless stream of greedy people with narrow worldviews living meaningless lives. At what point does ignorance become culpable? Something happens when you spend time with people whose only notable ‘talent’ is that they have managed to invade the privacy of your home, bringing all the meaningless stupidity of their lives with them. I fear you don’t just watch stupid, you become stupid.
There will be no innocent bystanders in the war currently being waged on TV and the internet for a collective attention span that is shrinking in content, even as it gains in numbers. What we switch on when we drop our tired vulnerable bodies down on the couch and focus our eyes for a few hours each night ~ even when we do it for harmless fun ~ will ultimately make as profound a difference to the quality of our lives, and the culture we have to draw from, as what we put into our bodies when we eat.
It is our right and our mandate to demand more from the people making money off us. In the words of Thoreau “The world before me is of too much consequence to be merely observed.” There’s cheating on a spouse, cheating the government, cheating big business ~ none of them good to be sure ~ but all of them preferable, to my mind, to cheating on yourself, because that’s where identity and honesty starts in each and every one of us. Which is why, at the end of the day, my ‘confession’ in the dark actually was the worse one of all.