It’s hard to say when reality television officially transformed from merely a fad to a staple element of American television. Maybe it was when MTV launched its first Real World. Perhaps it came later with the success of Survivor and the many spin-offs that soon followed. American Idol certainly changed not only the television landscape but also the music industry but then again isn’t Idol nothing more than a flashier version of the Americana classic, American Bandstand.
There was a time when I believed that the surge of “reality” programming that was sweeping all networks (I mean, even Animal Planet has a reality show starring a family of Meerkats), was nothing more than a craze that would eventually die down. Instead it’s become very hard to ignore. Much to my dismay I have officially become addicted a to a reality show and while it pains me to say it, I’m rather enjoying it.
I don’t know how it happened but I’m officially hooked on the gastronomic gala that is Top Chef. I’m not sure what drew me to this show. Perhaps it’s the fact that this season was filmed here in Chicago a features some local culinary personalities. Maybe I was desperately searching for something, anything to fill the void left by the recent culmination of HBOs The Wire, one of few shows that I actually watched religiously. Whatever it may be, I’m officially hooked and the side of me that once bashed all things reality is taking a break.
Okay, to be fair I still think the majority of reality TV is trash. Call me a hypocrite but despite my newfound pleasure in Top Chef there’s no denying some of concentrated crap that somehow makes it onto the air. I’ll never understand the allure of watching a has-been rap personality try to find love via a crew of crazy, fame seeking common whores (Flavor of Love), or a show based solely around the concept of Donald Trump saying, “You’re fired” (The Apprentice).
I believe Bravo’s Top Chef is one of many niche reality shows out there and by that I mean it has a target audience. While the show is accessible to anyone clearly it is aimed at foodies, people in the industry and those who just like watching food cooked on TV (why else does the Food Network work so well?). Sure it’s over the top at times and it plays up the bickering and overly dramatic level of competition between total strangers but at its core isn’t it also a window into the lives of aspiring chefs crafting their art.
Perhaps this explanation is nothing more than my justification for getting sucked into a reality show. Still I can’t help but think that whereas a show like The Real World or pretty much damn near everything on MTV or VH1 focuses on everything but real life people and situations, a show like Top Chef features people competing with an actual creative craft. If you look past the fighting and yelling between contestants or the cold and unremorseful lineup of judges the show is actually an interesting look into what goes into modern cuisine.
This past episode of Top Cheffeatured an eruption of bottled-up discontent from a couple of contestants following a cooking challenge. People were yelling, feelings were hurt, spatulas were flying, okay maybe not the spatulas. The sad part was as much as I hated watching the bs bickering I couldn’t look away.
It seems like this is the biggest draw for reality TV. We as viewer enjoy watching people get mentally and physically abused. The sick side of us enjoys watching people get into fights (the Spike TV network may very well be based on this fascination–now the official home of shows beginning with the phrase, World’s Deadliest________). We enjoy the in-your face showdowns between strangers. It’s why The Jerry Springer Show remains one of the most watched shows or why viewers can’t help but root for the raging cutthroat bitch on a show like The Apprentice. In the past people would blame violence on television and movies for hurting the national psyche but what about our obsession with watching people bicker and humiliate each other on national TV? In any other setting someone like Simon Cowell from American Idol would be nothing more than an asshole or wanker on his native soil but behind the judge’s table he’s a star.
Above all though the biggest problem with “reality television” is it focuses on anything but reality. A show like Big & Rob, which my roommate was watching not too long ago, focuses on the life of a celebrity who is living in anything but reality (millionaire skateboarder blowing through his money in a West coast mansion). Shouldn’t true reality television be rooted in reality?
Lately I’ve been drawn to The Travel or Discovery Channels, which both feature an eclectic lineup of programs that serve as windows into the rest of the world via the food, culture, sights, sounds, you name it. PBS had a reality show based on history highlighting how people lived on the American frontier. Alas these are niche programs whereas the majority of people would rather watch a bounty hunter named Dog tackle and taser a bunch of Hawaiian petty criminals. The Real World once had a show set in Las Vegas quite possibly the most surreal city in America. Even the major news media houses have become havens for pundit manipulation and hidden political agendas, giving the public a heavy dose of distorted reality.
Maybe true reality is just too boring or too depressing to soak in. Reality is working a 9-5 job. Reality is deciding between the many yogurts with fruit on the bottom at the grocery store. Reality is watching my cat figure out the best way to kill and dismember a roll of toilet paper. Reality is watching the disaster in the Middle East continue to unfold. Reality is deciding who will next lead this country. Reality is, oh hold that thought, the Top Chef judges are about to unleash all hell on a guy who cooked an extravagant but soggy corn dog!