Tuesday questions, Bravo edition

Several nights ago, the Better Half and I were watching television.  Because we (like, I suspect, many people now) mostly watch stuff from the DVR, which we sit down to view at irregular times, we tend to catch a lot of snippets at the beginning or end of whatever happens to be on as we scroll through our cue making a selection.

frankelThus it was that we happened upon ten minutes of one of those “Real Housewives” shows.  I believe, though I may be mistaken, that it was the “O.C.” variety.  I do not recall any of the cast’s names (and if I did I would resort to powerful neuroleptics to expunge those unwelcome bits of data from my brain).  Having never seen any of these popular shows, we decided to keep it on until it ended to discover what all the fuss was about.

What transpired during our viewing was a group of full-grown women sitting around a table smiling tightly at one another while having a terse discussion about who was which one’s “BFF,” admixed with segments during which the various participants addressed the camera directly to offer analysis of said discussion.  For ten minutes.

Now, that right there is ample cause for consternation.  That a group of women who, despite whatever cosmetic strategies they employ, are clearly at least as old as I am would sit around sniping at each other about something so blatantly, unmistakably puerile is flabbergasting, to say nothing about it being the content of a hit television show.  (I’m assuming that the program rarely strays into weightier material, but someone please correct me if I’m wrong.)  But that’s not what I found truly confounding.

No, what I found truly confounding was how transparently fake the whole thing was.  Every moment seemed scripted and coached and massaged, down to the last sideways glance.  Not only were affluent women of a certain age behaving like idiot seventh-graders, they were doing so in a manner that was flagrantly manufactured.  I’ve seen middle school plays about grammar that were less contrived.

And now I will beg your indulgence with a digression…

Recently, the Better Half and I met a person of some renown.  He and his boyfriend happened to be out for a walk in our area and passed our family as we went for a stroll of our own, and they struck up a conversation.  Turns out this gentleman is a chef with a successful, very well-reviewed restaurant in an Important City.  He has a few cookbooks and has appeared with Big Stars on their food-related television shows.

As it happens, this new friend of ours also appeared on a season of a popular food-related reality show, in which esteemed chefs competed against each other.  (I’ve never seen it, but I’d certainly heard of it.)  One of the things he discussed over dinner (to which he had graciously invited us) was how the producers tried to manipulate things behind the scenes to make for more drama.

Though (as I make no effort to hide) I am a big fan of “Project Runway” (and I’m stoked that it’s gotten really good again this season), I have no doubt that it is edited in such a way as to make it more compelling, and I have no illusions that it isn’t manipulated to up the interpersonal element.  And I’ll even admit that every season part of the pleasure I get is from hating at least one designer.  (I’m only human, people.)

But…

On both “Project Runway” and my new friend’s show, the competitors actually have to do something each week.  And while I get some frisson from rooting against the obnoxious cast members, what I really like is seeing the finished garments going down the runway.  Indeed, part of what has made this season enjoyable is that they finally have a good group of talented people again, after far too many recent offerings with lackluster designers at best.  The interpersonal conflicts add some spice, but the program really succeeds when the fashion design is its focus.

I included my little digression because I wanted to make it clear that I understand, even on reality programs I like, that part of what I’m seeing is artificial, and that I also understand the allure of watching people behaving not entirely nicely.  While indulging in the latter may not be salubrious, at least I can comprehend why people would do so.

What I sincerely cannot understand is the appeal of watching a program that features nothing but horrible people being as brazenly horrible as possible and which is obviously fake.  I cannot wrap my head around that!  What possible entertainment results from watching people (who probably really are awful, I’ll grant you that) deliver performances of ersatz awfulness?  Not only is it stupid and probably bad for the soul in large doses, but it’s boring!

So I have two parts to this week’s Question:

1) Can someone please explain to me why this show and its unholy spawn are hits?  Is there some magic I’m missing?  Does the poisonous candy-coated veneer occasionally chip off to reveal something sympathetic (or even just genuinely human) underneath?

2)  What phenomenon in American popular culture do you not understand?  I don’t mean dislike or find distasteful or ugly.  I mean confusing.  What do people consume or seem to enjoy that you cannot fathom?  What makes you feel like an extraterrestrial in your own country?

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147 thoughts on “Tuesday questions, Bravo edition

  1. I don’t understand Real Housewives of any flavor. Can’t help you there, nor (happily) do I have any idea who this woman is you’re talking about.

    I would, however, suggest that you and the husband consider tuning into a sci-fi show called Face Off. It’s like Project Runway for make up. It’s got the same skill based core as PR, though I’ll admit that the host can’t hold a candle to Tim Gunn. I think you’d enjoy it.

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    • The Hanleys watch Face Off as well as a family. The work of these artists is quite impressive even though I can still usually find someone annoying to cheer against. I find though that Face Off has very little drama between the contestants and if there is, we aren’t party to it and I find it refreshing.

      I also have never watched Real Housewives as advertisements were enough to convince me I would most likely be wasting my time. Based on the opinions of several gentlemen here with whose writing and opinions I find myself in regular agreement, I feel I have chosen wisely.

      In addition to Housewives I don’t understand the appeal Honey Boo Boo, Dance Moms, Toddlers in Tiaras, Jersey Shore, or the Kardashians. Maybe because these aren’t people who in real life I would be interested in knowing or sharing my time with that I don’t understand how they are entertaining.

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    • Russell wrote: “On both “Project Runway” and my new friend’s show, the competitors actually have to do something each week.”

      Exactly. And for the most part, it really is the more competent people who win.

      I’ll second Face Off, which my kids introduced me to last week. It’s not just makeup, but costuming. And not just clothing costuming, but making elaborate sci-fi/horror/fantasy type costumes, including molded prosthetics and such, in a tight time frame. I’m not even a real sci-fi/horror/fantasy fan, and I find myself loving what some of these folks are able to accomplish.

      My kids also love American Ninja Warrior. One of the things I like about the show is that they don’t manufacture drama much. They do highlight participants backstories, especially how they “FAILED on the spider jump on stage two last year, so this is a BIG TEST for them.” But they don’t egg them on to critique each other, and for the most part everyone seems to be rooting for everyone else, and the announcers never say anything really negative, even about some participants who arguably deserve it. It’s ridiculously upbeat (which can quickly grow tiresome, but in this case makes for a nice change of pace from most of what we see, hear and say), and the participants really are impressive athletes to watch.

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    • I have to agree with North.

      I haven’t seen an episode of Real Housewives, nor do I plan to. From your description, I can’t understand the attraction of watching grown women act like petty 5th graders about being ‘besties’.

      I’d rather gouge my eyes out with a melon baller.

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  2. I don’t understand fandom, celebrity fanaticism, the undue regard we have for singers and actors etc. It’s a mystery to me that we hold these members of our society in such high regard. In a rational world these folks would earn modest livings providing entertainment and would otherwise be one of the masses. And, speaking of reality TV, it seems to me that the effect of American Idol should have been to reveal singing talent as not so rare as to command the money and fame it is so closely associated with.

    I don’t get it.

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  3. The Wife watches this series -in all of its flavors- religiously, which means that I am forced to sit through them on a semi-regular basis (though usually I am putting the Five Year Old to bed for the first half of these shows, which mitigates the damage somewhat). I like to think that this should make me an expert on the topic.

    It does not. Seriously, I have absolutely no clue why these shows are popular. The Wife insists that it’s just mindless entertainment, good for zoning out and de-stressing, but this makes no sense to me whatsoever, as whenever these shows are on, the incessant cacophony of overprivileged women (and in some cases, especially on the OC and NJ editions, men) attempting to talk and yell over each other actively increases my blood pressure several dozen points, even when I am doing my damnedest to ignore the television.

    All of which means that my answer to the second question is the same as your implied answer – the popularity of the Housewives series befuddles me more than anything else on the planet.

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      • Heh… my girlfriend frequently comments on my disdain, which she sees as snobbery, and how rude it is. I just can’t help it, though. I think the New Jersey housewives — which is to say the television characters they play — are some of the most dispicable people I’ve ever seen on television, and my reaction is so visceral and so strong that I can’t hide it.

        Oh, and the “Dance Moms” may be even worse, if that’s possible.

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      • My wife doesn’t think I am being snobby, per se – she gets why I don’t like it, but she still does. And even if I just try to read in the same room, she can feel the disapproval coming off me.

        Occasionally, she will catch me watching some terrible movie and try to make a case that it’s no better than Real Housewives.

        But even the worst SyFy SharkCrocCyclonado at least had SOME creative thought, no matter how stupid or misguided, put into it somewhere along the way. And no real people were eaten.

        I can KIND of see Paglia’s argument (that they function as a replacement for the daytime soaps, as well as “documentaries” on a kind of unbridled, uncensored sort of female competition that does exist in some groups), but to me they are more distasteful than the worst soap for a couple of reasons:

        1.) To the extent they ARE real, I am watching real people be horrible to each other, for entertainment
        2.) To the extent they are staged/scripted, people are being ENCOURAGED to be horrible to each other, for entertainment

        Yeah…I don’t get it.

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      • :

        I think the New Jersey housewives — which is to say the television characters they play — are some of the most dispicable people I’ve ever seen on television, and my reaction is so visceral and so strong that I can’t hide it.

        I could not agree more, yet when the two sons of the one with the red hair did an appearance for their bottled water line (seriously, they have a fishing line of bottled waters!) at the local grocery store a few months ago, the people were lined up for hours to do a meet and greet with them, which included the obligatory purchase of the bottled water.

        Quite literally, people lined up for hours to buy overpriced water from the sons of a reality TV celebrity who is famous for no reason other than being unpleasant on reality TV.

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      • Glyph and Mike,

        Camila Pagila seems to have understood trolling before there was an internet.

        Katie Rophie seems to get the same level of disdain.

        I would like to do a serious in-depth study into click-bait articles and whether humans need the kind of rage that they seem to produce.

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  4. What I sincerely cannot understand is the appeal of watching a program that features nothing but horrible people being as brazenly horrible as possible and which is obviously fake.

    I don’t get it either. My girlfriend loves this stuff (along with Project Runway, the various cooking competition shows, and real estate shows, rehab shows, and… ugh, Kardashians), and I’ve frequently blurted out while watching them with her, “These are horrible people with no redeeming qualities whatsoever! Why are we watching them?” I have, over the last couple years, learned to accept that I will never fully understand it. However, what little I do understand of it I understand from watching how she watches it. She watches it socially, with she and her friends producing a streaming, MST3K-like commentary on Twitter throughout the show. Everyone seems to be watching it on two levels: 1) taking it way too seriously (I catch her occasionally making inferences about the Kardashians’ real lives that I find wholly unwarranted given the obviously contrived nature of the show) and 2) not taking it seriously at all, and essentially treating it as a scripted TV drama/comedy, and commenting on the characters as they play their roles, and that these two perspectives sometimes contradict each other seems to be of no concern.

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  5. 1. I don’t watch these shows either. To hazard a guess, I think it is largely to watch very rich people do very decadent things and be acidic and backstab each other. Two people I went to law school with were devotees of the Real Housewives series and most of the conversations seemed to be very energetic recaps of the most outlandish, bitchy thing to happen on that particular episode.

    2. I am probably the wrong person to ask about this because my culture and entertainment choices are largely outside of the conversation with a few exceptions. I will go see major movies, I like Doctor Who and Deep Space Nine and some music that almost everybody loves like the Beatles. Other than that my concessions to popular culture tend to be at the Public Radio and New York Times Book Review level. Read: They are not mass culture at all.

    This was my facebook update from last night:

    “I see a lot of ads for TV shows. These TV shows air on cable networks that I didn’t even know existed. If anyone would like to discuss Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times or The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715, I will be in the faculty lounge.”

    I share your bafflement at the Real Housewives. I also have feelings that large chunks of adults seem to be stuck in what I call the kinder-kultur problem. A lot of people simply do not seem to want to engage in any culture or entertainment beyond stuff that gave them warm fuzzies between 7-12 or similar ilk. We have a society that believes in embracing the inner-child at the complete exclusion of the pleasures of being an adult, complexity, difficulty, and nuance. A lot of people tell me “No one is going to think you are less intelligent for liking a silly movie”, part of me is tempted to say I will try for a silly movie if you try and appreciate a difficult and serious work like the books above. I don’t imagine I will get many takers.

    Yes I realize that calling this the kinder-kultur problem makes me sound like an unrepentant urban, snobby elitist.

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    • Yes, using terms like “kinder-kultur” to characterize people’s preferences is probably going to lead at least some people to call you a snob, or at least to say the use of such terms to characterize others’ preferences is snobbish, regardless of whether you are or aren’t a snob. The last sentence of your comment demonstrates that you realize this, although it also suggests a lack of understanding of how someone might be taken aback by such a characterization.

      That doesn’t necessarily mean the statement is snobbish, and reality shows of most stripes (except, for me, cooking shows) are things that I don’t watch and don’t understand the appeal of. And who knows? Maybe there is indeed an overemphasis on embracing one’s inner child, although a lot of us, me included, enjoyed that period of extended adolescence known as the “undergraduate college experience” and “living with my parents after college.” Those weren’t necessarily easy times, but I imagine that a large number of people did not have as much time for self-exploration as I did, and that these same people probably had to grow up and assume the adult-flavored and nuanced responsibilities much more quickly.

      But at the same time, you might be surprised at the number of people who like silly movies and tv shows and at the same time really are willing and eager to engage in books like the ones you mention or other books that probably meet your standards of nuance and seriousness. I, for one, enjoyed “Dumb and Dumber” and “Caddyshack” tremendously, and yet my list of favorite books includes “Dubliners,” “Journey to the East,” “Princesse de Cleves,” “Steppenwolf,” and “Sun Also Rises.” And although I haven’t read “Fear Itself,” I’ve read a heckuva lot (and written a little…a chapter in my dissertation) about the New Deal.

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      • NewDealer,

        Now that I’m back from the laundromat and have had a chance to think about my comment, I should probably acknowledge that it was a bit harsh and, worse, a bit dishonest.

        Truth be told, if I saw “Dumb and Dumber” or “Caddyshack” for the first time today, I would likely be turned off by the slapstick and bathroom humor, and (I hope) I would be offended by the sexist humor. (At the same time, I’m a fan of “Family Guy,” so perhaps I’m not as far along as all that, but I am disturbed by the sexist and racist humor in that show, although apparently not enough to abandon it altogether.)*

        My main point, however, is that it is perhaps too easy to assume that our tastes are superior to others’, and a bit too easy to develop psychological explanations for “why people enjoy this crap.” (Not only is it easy, it’s widespread. As you point out often, some people who identify as conservatives tend to make quick judgments about allegedly “elitist” artists and writers without knowing them, without, sometimes, even viewing or reading their work, and without engaging the intellectual traditions these artists and writers are addressing.)

        *Perhaps on a different thread, or maybe at my own blog so I don’t beat a dead caballus, I might argue that films like “Dumb and Dumber” and “Caddyshack,” while not great works of art by almost any measure, do offer subtleties and nuances and meaningful commentaries of their own if one takes the time to appreciate them.

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      • Pierre,

        Good points and the kinder-kultur comment is probably largely a defensive mechanism more than anything else. I’ve received way too many comments about “Why would you read a book like that?” or “Why would you see a movie like that?”
        The highlight of this is wanting to see Godard’s Perriot Le Fou when others wanted to see Knocked Up. I find it hardish to hard to get people to go see such films. Or people saying museums would be a better place if filled with cat memes instead of Matisse.

        It just seems like when I look at facebook and other places everyone is posting memes of childhood. Listicle’s about the Nintendo Entertainment System or old Nickleodeon shows. Horror movie night at Alamo. Pictures of Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael (the artists) with their respective ninja turtle eye masks. The internet seems filled with the easy comforts of childhood over everything else.

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      • I remember when I was younger, particularly in my early 20s, I got a lot of comments about what I read or the jazz I listened to (I dated a woman once who called it “grandpa music”; we didn’t date long), mostly about how weird it was, but after about 27, no one seemed to think it odd that I was reading Zeno’s Conscience rather than Clear and Present Danger. Maybe my social circle had by that time become more fully populated by people who would also be more likely to read Svevo than Clancy, or maybe my social circle had just grown up, but I can’t imagine anyone over 30 looking askance at me for anything I’d read or write now. They may not want to talk about it, because it’s not their thing, but that doesn’t bother me at all. At most I see it as an opportunity of evangelism of a sort.

        Looking down on the people who made comments about my preferences — which I have to admit is what you seem to me to be doing — is the wrong way to go about it, though. It probably doesn’t do anything more than reinforce their impressions.

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      • NewDealer,
        “people saying museums would be a better place if filled with cat memes instead of Matisse. ”

        Man, you’re more of an asshole than Cory Arcangel.
        And that’s saying something, pal.

        I TRY not to insult curators
        without at least attending the exhibition first.

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    • “A lot of people tell me “No one is going to think you are less intelligent for liking a silly movie”, part of me is tempted to say I will try for a silly movie if you try and appreciate a difficult and serious work like the books above. I don’t imagine I will get many takers.”

      I don’t see why folks wouldn’t take you up on it. So, here, I’ll start, if you’re up for it. I’ve got a review (“best video game”) in the queue. Then you write one (It might take me a while to find media that isn’t freely available online, just fair warning–but I will read/watch it). We can trade back and forth. I’m not going to promise that all of mine are going to be silly movies (or games), but my tastes tend to be pretty wide-ranging.

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  6. I agree with ND. Shows like the Real Housewives of wherever are popular because they are basically televised gossip of rich people. It’s a live action tabloid or a debased version of society pages.

    Like ND, I’m also confused by how much blogging gets done on shows like Mad Men, which I hate, etc. Why are so many adults reading YA lit like the Hunger Games or Twilight.

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    • But it’s not even televised gossip about real events! It’s like trying to write a treatise on the architectural history of a McMansion! There’s no depth, no possibility of trying to figure out the motivations of the people involved even if the discussion is mired in malice or schadenfreude, because the entire enterprise is fake fakery of the fakest kind!

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    • Why are so many adults reading YA lit like the Hunger Games or Twilight.

      Well, I read them because my kids were reading them, and I both want to keep an eye on what they’re reading/watching/listening to and want to be able to talk with them meaningfully about common interests.

      I could only stomach one Twilight book (ghastly writing, ghastly characterizations, ghastly lessons for teenage girls), and fortunately my daughters now laugh at them, too.

      But Hunger Games is intelligent and well-worth reading. What does a person do when put into a situation where it is kill (people you don’t want to kill) or be killed (and then unable to take care of the family that desperately needs you). Who holds power and how did they get it? Are enemies of an oppressive regime necessarily the good guys? One of the most intriguing subplots is how they leaders of the rebellion want to use Katniss purely in symbolic ways, while she wants to actually fight–both she and the leaders want to use her in the most effective way, but have disagreements about what that is. Are they just using her? Or are they putting her in position to have the most effect she can have? And it’s not resolved; it’s left hanging for the reader to puzzle out. It’s not a work I’ll re-read multiple times (2 or 3 max, which for me is a very low number of re-readings of a book I like), but it’s not remotely in the realm of Twilight.

      And knowing these things our kids know opens up avenues for intelligent conversations. My daughters and I went to see the new Percy Jackson movie recently (they’ve read all the books, I’ve read most of them), and my daughter was puzzled that the name Thalia was pronounced Talia, which led to a conversation about the pronunciation and meaning of the word Thal (valley, in German), and Neanderthals (and the correct pronunciation of that word).

      But at rock bottom, I think the problem in your argument is not elitism itself, but an imposition of your standards on others. I think learning and being aware of the world is overrated by some of us learned and aware people. In the end, we all die and rot. People should enjoy life while they’re living it, and different people have different enjoyments. You don’t drink bourbon and smoke cigars (I assume); I say you’re missing out on one of an adult man’s greatest aesthetic pleasures. Or perhaps you’re not. Bourbon and cigars just may not be your thing, and that’s OK–I don’t actually judge you on that.

      And keep in mind that there is great variety of intellectual capability among adults. Many may truly not be able to comprehend the writings you recommended above. The Hunger Games may be the most intellectual writing they’re capable of really grasping. For some, poor souls, Twilight may be. But what’s gained by disdaining them? Is it “adult” to fret about others’ differences and shortcomings? Live and let live, as long as the others also live and let live, and give them your best wishes that they’re happy in life.

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      • That’s OK. As I said, it’s ok if you’re not a bourbon and cigars guy, or even if you are but aren’t a Hunger Games guy. The idea of something that appeals to all people–even that appeals to all intelligent and cultured people–is fundamentally ridiculous.

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      • Aitch,

        I strongly agree with your last two paragraphs, although I confess that the smell/taste of bourbon makes me gag, and the smell of cigars really….bothers me. But my fondness for Doritos and Popeye’s chicken probably has a similar effect on other people.

        I think you’re right not to frame the argument as one of elitism but as one of differing values. My only quibble is that I think it might plausibly be possible to rank values based on some widely shared aesthetic standard, so widely shared that it can be demonstrated that people who don’t necessarily live up to it can be shown that deep down they actually agree with its presuppositions.

        Doing so is beyond my pay grade. But I imagine the counterargument to what you say might resort to such argumentation. One of my problems with attempts to advance that type of argument is that they seem to demonstrate a lack of introspection. That which is argued for usually ends up aligning quite neatly with the preferences of the one advancing the argument, so that the one making the argument is his/her own exemplar in most particulars to that which is to be aspired to.

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  7. I dont’ watch these shows, but I have seen snippets while trolling through the channels. Frankly, I didn’t find any of the women that attractive at all, so I’d have no reason to watch. Shesh, a rerrun of Futurama has more entertainment that a bunch of women totem poling their bff status.

    dear god, i’ve used “bff” in a sentence. Kill me.

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  8. Oh, for a show about Fashion as it truly is, the seamstresses picking out hemlines, the mobsters hard at work in the Garment District, earning a filthy dollar. The buyers at the shows, the clever tailors in Hong Kong whipping up knockoffs before the model is even backstage.

    Hot Kootoor — the unspeakably horrible people who buy it, the depraved people who design it, the sweatshops that make it. It’s so fascinatin’.

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    • Granted BlaiseP; Project Runway isn’t about the business of Fashion really so much as it is about design. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also highly subjective design; the regular and guest judges aren’t truly arbiters of all of fashion which is itself a nebulous thing.

      All that said, however, there is a genuine level of skill involved. The time frames are tight and some of the challenges (especially unconventional materials) can be daunting. Quite often one of the designers produce something that even I, utterly indifferent to clothes in general as I am, can sit up and say “gosh that’s beautiful and impressive”! A couple seasons back a designer had to make a dress out of items they purchased at a hardware store. They ended up sending this dress made out of garbage bags down the runway but I swear to Gos(ess?) they had somehow transmuted that plastic into this braided beautiful thing that looked like glossy leather. It was spectacular and was recognized and duly rewarded by the judges. Beneath the airy gassy pretentiousness of fashion and trend there’s some amazing ability on display there and I’d submit that it’s that skill that draws the viewers.

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      • there is a genuine level of skill involved. … Beneath the airy gassy pretentiousness of fashion and trend there’s some amazing ability on display there and I’d submit that it’s that skill that draws the viewers.

        Yes. I pay no attention to fashion, but I do have an odd side interest in good design and in craftsmanship. Project Runway is boring when those are not on display, and fascinating when it is.

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      • C’mon Doc, didn’t she do some good stuff previously? IIRC that was eventually the season’s winner (my husband was quite indignant about her winning). Elimination isn’t 100% single challenge merit based.. I think previous performance gets a bit more consideration there and I think that’s a good idea. You don’t want to heave a really capable designer because one idea blew up in their face if they’ve otherwise been brilliant.

        Though now we have the Tim Gunn rescue which, this season, has struck me as a bit contrived but with good potential. I love, love, love the new judging format.

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    • Yeah I am going to say that fashion does have a real talent in design, skill, aesthetics, drawing, craftsmanship.

      This anti-high culture of any kind attitude you have is rather unbecoming. It is just as bad as any far-rightist going into a Jeremiad about those Sodom and Gammorahs of San Francisco and New York. It does not mark you as a man of the people or salt of the earth, it marks you as a boor. Would you have everyone dress in New Balance sneakers and cargo shorts? How bloody dull and depressing that would be.

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      • Oh, fashion does have talent and plenty of it. My daughter has a degree in fashion design. Won a big award from Buick for one of her designs for the Lucerne.

        These are largely her opinions of the fashion industry: it’s a crooked, troubled business, with a strong stench of organised crime and sweatshop labour. It’s a huge industry, one people should know more about. Nothing like the shows, though I suppose some of the design/build stuff is interesting. She didn’t like the shows. She’s a faithful reader of W.

        I miss her fashion sense. I don’t go in for New Balance sneakers and cargo shorts, either. More people should use tailors and wear clothes that fit. Fashion is art, whatever else it is, an expression of personal taste. Guess my main complaint about television is how it passes over the genuine drama of Fashion Week. That’s a show worth seeing, if only someone would make it.

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      • “real talent in design, skill, aesthetics, drawing, craftsmanship.”
        I’ll accept that when you can find me a pair of shoes that will fit my husband’s feet (I do realize I could get custom shoes created. This is rather beside the point).
        Talent is not taking a size 8 shoe and growing it in all directions to make a larger one.

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      • Kim,

        I don’t think a size 8 US is the standard size. Might be close to it. Most guys I know are between 9-11. I am 8 or 8.5 US and this seems to be slightly below average in terms of show size. But these:

        http://www.paulsmith.co.uk/us-en/shop/mens/shoes/mens-petrol-blue-suede-consul-shoes.html

        Are about 6 billion times more interesting than a pair of chucks or new balances.

        And that was largely my point.

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  9. It’s easy. Celebrity is a product made by the media and entertainment industries to sell to the sorts of people who like to consume celebrity.

    Like all industries, the celebrity industry has become much more efficient over time and can produce roughly the same product with much less inputs. It used to take a certain amount of raw materials (natural beauty, talent, charisma, poise) and a certain amount of added value (big budget movies, hit records, spreads in glossy magazines) to produce celebrity, but over time the industry found a way to produce it with random meglomaniacs of questionable mental health on low-budget reality shows and crappy pop records. That’s how you get from Elizabeth Taylor and The Beatles to Betheny Frankel and Ke$ha.

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      • But isn’t the whole appeal of this television genre its supposed “realness”? Everyone knows the towering automatons smashing a skyline to smithereens aren’t real and aren’t meant to be. But the harpies that populate these programs are supposedly real people acting in real ways. And their transparent fakeness seems to me to defeat everything about the premise for their fame and our fascination with them.

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      • One day, when I have kids and the time comes to talk to them about sex and dating, one of the things that I plan to tell them is this: when a man says to you “I’m not that kind of guy,” he is most definitely that kind of guy and when a girl tells you “I don’t usually do this,” she most definitely usually does.

        That should fairly well explain “reality TV.”

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      • Anecdote: Several years ago I was at an uncle’s house, a place with an open floor plan so that the kitchen and the living room were essentially one room. Six middle-aged guys in the living room watching football; six middle-aged gals in the kitchen. Me sipping a beer at the counter exactly between the two groups. The men were talking football; the ladies were talking soap operas. It dawned on me that the conversations were almost identical (in content if not in volume and tone). “How could he do that?” “What were they thinking?” “Oh, that’s a bad move.” So, I came to the conclusion that sports is largely soap opera, and soap opera is really sort of a sporting event. Vicariously enjoying the interplay of a small group of people governed by strict rules that still allow for some relatively unpredictable actions.

        I think, perhaps, that like sports, today’s soap operas (largely reality shows at this point) have become very harsh in tone. The growling, grimacing, roaring athletes thundering angrily even when they have successfully completed a play. The “real wives” (or whomever) sniping, snarling, and backbiting. Add in an overview of lots of current popular music and I think there is a real tendency toward the harshly negative being found entertaining to today’s audience.

        I don’t know why the public’s taste seems to have coarsened (I don’t put myself above that — some of my favorite entertainments are really harsh in tone). Perhaps our lives are so comfortable that we have a need to get gritty, develop our street cred, or something.

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    • It’s easy. Celebrity is a product made by the media and entertainment industries to sell to the sorts of people who like to consume celebrity.

      But it’s not that easy. A lot of industries produce a lot of crap that few people consume, yet the entertainment industry produces crap that is consumed at stratospherically high levels…our reverence, sycophancy, idolization, and romanticizing of Celebrity is a unique kind of human defect or evolutionary remnant of sexual selection gone haywire.

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      • Sort of. In many ways, human beings are status maximizers. This makes sense as your success in life is generally a function of where you fit into the social hierarchy.

        Here’s the other thing. Celebrity is one of those things that is directly consumed and is an input used in selling other things. Bethenny Frankel gains some notoriety on a reality show and then uses that notoriety to sell lots of bottles of her Skinnygirl margarita. What’s a Skinnygirl margarita? It’s a $13 bottle of a few shots of well tequila mixed with agave nectar and artificial lime flavoring. Why would anyone pay $13 for roughly $5 (retail) worth of product? Because the people who buy that sort of thing like to consume celebrity and they like to consume brand identity.

        Likewise, magazines like to write articles about Bethenny Frankel and her Skinnygirl margarita because people who consume celebrity and brand identity will buy those magazines and the Skinnygirl company will buy ad space in that magazine and the writers and editors will get invited to Skinnygirl sponsored events where they can take photos with Bethenny Frankel to post on Facebook and impress their frenemies with their “fabulous” lifestyles.

        People like Bethenny Frankel help sustain an entire ecosystem. That’s why they are famous.

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      • I’m always tempted to have that sort of reaction, but then I remember that it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a shame that the experience of turning on MTV and seeing a documentary about the making of the Sgt. Pepper album or Led Zeppelin’s legendary live shows has been displaced by shows about what’s in 2Chainz’ fridge. Likewise, it’s a shame that the days of turning on late night TV and seeing Dick Cavett have a meaningful conversation with Norman Mailer of Muhammed Ali have been replaced with Jimmy Kimmel talking to the latest person thrown off The Bachelor (Thankfully, Charlie Rose is still out there).

        At the same time, the ability to showcase the dominant figures in the culture at that time necessitated having a dominant culture and a series of gatekeepers who enforced it. So yeah, the riff raff gets in, but at the same time there’s a whole host of new experiences to which you can expose yourself if you make the effort and some of them are actually worth the effort.

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      • Thank to both of you.

        This is actually something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Mostly in relation to politics, but more and more when it comes to other aspects of the culture. We’re moving towards an all-troll economy. That is, it’s getting to the point where producing something of quality is a sucker’s bet and you’re much better off just stirring sh*t for a living.

        When you aim for quality, you can fail and then you have something that nobody wants. Trolling, however, always works because the worse it is, the more people will flock to it, if only to mock it or vilify it. And once one side is against you, the people who hate those people will show up just to defend you. It’s a really terrible, but completely viable equilibrium. And I fear it is the future.

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      • jr, is it necessaerily wrong having a dominant or mass culture and a series of gate keepers? I understand that the previous dominant/mass culture of the past made a lot of people feel mariginalized. At the same time, there are certain benefits to a dominant/mass culture that we no longer have. Having a mass culture allows or a greater feeling of cultural unity in a given society. It creates a common frame of reference for a lot of things and makes discourse easier.

        Likewise, gatekeepers ensured that people would have at least some exposure to really worthwhile things because they thought that these are things that people should know or were under the belief that exposing people was some sort of public duty. Would any channel produce Harvest of Shame these days?

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      • I think your point about an all-troll economy is one reason why its at least a somewhat good idea to have a dominant/mass culture and gatekeepers even if it isn’t exactly populist. There are still gems out there but the problem is that fewer and fewer people are seeking them out. Most people are just content with troll-entertainment or whatever is in their cultural niche. Fewer people want to explore. The gatekeepers made sure that people got some exposure to the gems. There might have been an element of taking your medicine with it but it got done.

        A lot of the entertainment of the past was pure tripe and schmaltz. At the same time, a lot of the average to bad movies of the past had a sort of charm to them that current bad movies lack. Sometimes, I feel hopelessly antiquarian.

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      • I have somewhat little problem with gatekeepers in theory. There is no one or no group I would trust to the job, however. People like to imagine that they, or people like them, are the gatekeepers. And maybe they would be, but while not all art is created equal, there is a degree of subjectivity that would lead to a lot of us getting bored and irate.

        So, in the end, let folks have their Real Housewives while they role their eyes, because that allows me to have my own guilty pleasures.

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      • I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about what is right or wrong. It’s not that I don’t have definite opinions or that I don’t have very definite aesthetic tastes. Rather, I find it more productive to separate that from the purely descriptive questions of how the present state came into being.

        Given the strict choice between then and now, I choose now. There’s just more choice, plus I have the option of picking from the past. However, I also have the hope of evolving towards something better than now. The key to something better is to have objective standards of quality and of taste, but to have those standards enforced by people’s own evolved aesthetic tastes rather than some arbitrary group of taste-makers.

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  10. How well-watched are they, really?

    I thought reality television was more of a profitable business model than a ratings booster. That is to say, far fewer people watch reality television than just about any other type of programming, but it is heavily programmed because it is so damn cheap to make.

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      • Niche marketing.

        It’s not really new, in the big picture, but newish to television. There’s a fairly simple formula based on production cost. The higher the cost, the more of an audience you need to cover it, and so you need to do something that appeals (enough) to lots of people (or at least doesn’t drive them away). This is why most newspapers are, or at least traditionally were, so predictably mainstream–with a mix of liberals and conservatives and other whatnots, you needed lots of each kind to have an audience large enough to cover costs. Same with the old network news. (This actually helped support the traditional news/editorial separation, by the way.)

        But then came cable, where overall costs were lower, so instead of gathering a large but not particularly devoted audience, you could do well by reaching a smaller but more devoted audience. And then, of course, came blogs, where cost is nearly nil, the compensation for many bloggers is just adoration/approval/agreement, and all you need is a bare handful of fanatically devoted readers.

        Which ties in with Tod’s point precisely. Reality TV is less expensive to produce, so you just target it to a small demographic, and if that small demographic has a relatively high disposable income, that’s really ideal.

        The old focus on ratings made sense when each network had roughly the same cost structure, and so the make or break point was based primarily on audience size. But now, at least for the cable networks, if not the big 3, ratings aren’t really relevant, except to the extent they dictate whether you get picked up by a cable carrier and where you’re placed on their “dial.”

        It’s much the same as with the auto industry. For years in the U.S. the big 3 dominated (well, the big 4 until AMC’s demise), their cost structures were similar (in part because the UAW used each contract with one automaker as a basis for their next contract talks with another automaker, in part because with only 3/4 producers they were at least mildly cartelish and didn’t compete as fiercely as they would have to in a more competitive market), and so the focus was on total sales.

        This became really silly at the point GM actually lost money on each car it sold, so that greater sales actually meant greater losses, and yet up until the GM bankruptcy the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News faithfully ran articles highlighting each of the Big 3’s market share, and moaned pathetically when Toyota eclipsed GM as the largest automaker in the world. They were so stuck in the old mindset that they couldn’t grasp that market share didn’t matter diddly compared to actual profits (what share of the purse market does Louis Vitton actually have? I bet it’s pretty small, but they don’t care).

        Of course for automakers, the cost structure of production is so high–because it’s such a capital intensive business–that economies of scale dominate, and it’s hard to successfully do real niche marketing except for a few specialty items like the Corvette. Amazingly, after all these years of worrying about gas prices, the biggest profit centers for automakers remain the pickup trucks beloved by the masses.

        But for television, the cost structure of production, for certain types of shows, has effectively plummeted, so niche marketing can be very profitable.

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      • James,

        Pretty much. Girls is not watched by that many people. Neither is Mad Men. Both hit around a million or so viewers a week IIRC. But their audience is perceived to have money to spare or will have money to spare. Hence things like the Mad Men fashion tie-ins for Banana Republic.

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      • Mad Men and other basic cable series are a special case. Their job isn’t to make money on their own, it’s to get enough people to tell their local cable providers “We insist you carry (in this case) AMC!” to keep earning access fees.

        Though since the only three active series I keep up with are Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, I must admit that I think AMC’s doing one heckuva job.

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  11. What I really don’t understand is how so much pop culture seems to be an affront to dignity. Reality TV, talk shows, game shows, sitcoms, and most of the rest seems to be based on people making spectacles and fools of themselves.

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  12. What phenomenon in American popular culture do you not understand?

    1. TV. I get it as movie, as story. As news and documentary. But as a way of creating endless conflict and competition? Nope.

    2. Make up. Perhaps it’s because I’m allergic to stuff used as a base, but. . . I don’t get make up.

    3. Most of the food-like stuff sold in the grocery store.

    4. The attraction of competition over collaboration and cooperation. It’s like people are always at war.

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  13. From description as well as comments above, I think it is likely that the show is popular because it allows the viewer to feel smugly superior to the people on the show while indulging in the exact same things as those people. Viewer are reassured that they are good because they are not as bad as who they are watching. And if that’s the goal of the show, then the more extreme the caricaturization of the characters, the better for the regular audience. But when someone comes in the middle and watches part of one episode, of course they are going to wonder what sort of alien species produced it and for what purpose.

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  14. What phenomenon in American popular culture do you not understand?

    Does the way Americans seem extremely obsessed with sports count? Because, for that one month I was in Tucson, I saw whole groups of people going to the college basketball game. In Singapore, not many people actually give a shit so that weirded me out.

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  15. Here is what I gathering from this conversation.

    1. A lot of men really do not understand the appeal of the Real Housewives shows.

    2. A lot of the same men seem to write about how their girlfriends or wives are devoted to the shows.
    Seemingly all of them.

    3. I’m not sure what to make of the gender disparity here but it puzzles me. This is not to imply that all women love these shows but I know a lot of smart and accomplished women who seemingly do. A friend of mine from grad school, a playwright was absolutely ticked pink yesterday because she was quoted in.

    4. Based on anecdotal information, women will rebel against the Real Housewives franchise when they feel their group is being portrayed in a bad light. The latest version “Princesses Long Island” or some such was largely if not almost exclusively filmed in my hometown. The women I went to high school with are in an absolute rage against the show because they think it makes all women from my hometown look like shallow Jewish American Princesses who only care about marrying a rich guy and are spoiled instead of hard-working and accomplished. There is probably also a Shande for the goyim aspect.

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    • There have been plenty of shows about men like this, dudes who build choppers in Orange County, etc., going all the way back to the The Flintstones and the Jackie Gleason Show.

      It’s just that reality TV has finally given women the chance to jump off their pedestal and take the plunge into trash culture without fear of a besmirched reputation ruining their lives forever. The dark side of feminism.

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      • Eh, what do the Real Housewives actually accomplish? The guys on Orange County Chopper, for all their brawling and family drama, actually make beautiful motorcycles. The guys on Fast and Loud, for all their overly doodish behavior, restore old cars beautifully. Calling this “trash culture” is quite a disservice.

        On Project Runway women (and men, mostly, but not all, gay, and almost none, if any, matching the doodish stereotype) make (or try to make) beautiful and well crafted garments.

        There is constructive activity in these shows, by both men and women, but the Real Housewives construct…what?

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      • Zic,

        I’m going to concur with James. There are plenty of reality TV shows about craft and skill like Top Chef, Project Runway, the ones James mentioned for Choppers and Cars.

        Then there are shows like Big Brother and the Real Housewives series that simply seem to show people being horrible but in very nice settings. Men can be equally appalling on shows like Jersey Shore. I would be appalled at a reality TV show that painted Jewish men in a loutish and negative light or tried to play up the worst stereotypes.

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      • James and ND, the fact that the women on Real House wives don’t produce anything is a point. Think of it this way. In a lot of comedy, men get to be buffoons with no redeeming qualities that get the girls and the sex any way. Even if they don’t get the girl, they still get to act like a bunck of donkeys. Women never really got a chance to demean themselves in entertainment before. Even Lucille Ball had to carry herself with a level of elegance that Jerry Lewis never did.

        The Real Housewives represents a chance for women to watch women being just as buffoonish as any male comedian. Its feminism as a right to make an ass of yourself in public.

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      • Zic,

        First, IMO constructing that narrative is different then constructing either a motorcycle or a dress (or, of course, knitted sweaters). Second, I doubt those women are constructing that narrative–someone else is and they’re just playing their assigned roles. It’s an inverse Stepford Wives.

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      • I don’t find much of value in it, so I mostly agree with your perspective; but I’m the kind of person who’d rather actually make something instead of sitting around watching TV to relax. (After a few years without cable, I find most of what people what stress inducing, not relaxing, to tell you the truth.)
        and I had this conversation a few days ago, and I’m sure we both thought of it in this sequence of comments; it’s the unintended grand achievement of feminism: women embracing the most worthless qualities of men; while the worthwhile qualities of womanhood are, inversely, slow to be adopted by men.

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      • I’m not ignoring it, I just don’t think it matters beyond the group of women feeling slighted. And even there, there is a good chance they’ll continue to watch to continue feeling slighted; to pick up on every bit of insult to feed their fury.

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  16. I’m guessing that it is, in some sense, an ongoing morality play.

    You, sitting at home! You may be experiencing Envy of The Lifestyles of Those People… well, here’s is a look behind the closed doors!!!

    “Ugh.”

    Tah-dah! You no longer envy the Upper Classes who are in the process of getting what they deserve.

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  17. In Casa Likko, cooking competition shows (likely including the one that the Saunders’ new friend appeared on) are big hits. We, at least, suffer from no illusions that most of the conflict and drama are hyped up by producers behind the scenes. There needs to be conflict to drive a narrative, and while I strongly suspect that the competitors really like and respect one another (they often hug and tend to be graceful, congratulatory losers) the producers’ formula needs some rivalry and smack talk, as this is thought to keep the audience engaged.

    This partly from having been informed by friends who had the good fortune to be on an interior design show with Big Name Designer coming in to redo their living room in their Fashionably Obscure Los Angeles Canyon home. They described to us that the process took longer than it seems on the show and that they were urged by the producers to squabble with one another over Contrived Obstacles about which they really were indifferent. It made for better TV, but they assured us that when we watched the show, the dispute between He and She was really just a matter of preference, and while He wound up getting his preference, She was really good with it all along. But the producers needed to inject the drama of She not getting what She wanted out of Big Name Designer until She saw the end product and fell in love with it. They were not at all above coaching and guiding so as to magnify a small difference in preference into the conflict needed to check off the “drama” box on the pre-determined narrative formula.

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    • Just on the topic of the competitors on my friend’s show respecting each other:

      When our new friend asked us to dinner, it was at a local restaurant where the chef had also been a competitor on the show, albeit a different season. Let me tell you, if you ever want to get ridiculously lavish treatment, go to a restaurant with a respected chef. We ate… well. At the end of the meal, the man whose restaurant it was came and sat at our table and chatted with us for some time, and he and our friend spent a lot of time talking about what it was like on the show, the manufactured drama, where the restaurant industry was headed, etc.

      Even though they hadn’t competed against each other, I am sure the level of mutual respect would have been there if they had.

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  18. Russell,

    I think you have to follow the full arc.

    I still watch MTV’s “The Real World”. I won’t lie: RW now is not the RW I grew up with. Those first few episodes were real as shit… they brought racial issues, gender issues, homsexuality, and AIDS (!!!) into our living room. Slowly but surely, it became less and less real. Miami was probably the first tipping point, with Las Vegas being the big jump over the cliff. There are still some “real” moments… the sheltered Mormon girl used “colored people” in New Orleans and the transwoman coming out to her roommates in Brooklyn were powerful moments. But the show couldn’t capture the magic of those first few seasons. It’s not as fake as the housewives, but still much faker than it’s ever been. But the housewives weren’t as fake then as they are now. Like the RW, the housewives have slowly gotten worser and worser over time. As such, people who watched from the beginning might not have noticed the subtle shifts towards the more manufactured product you see before you. Plus, much like myself with “Lost”, who grew to hate the show about 3/4 of the way, they are attached to the characters and want to see what happens now.

    If I had never watched RW and tuned in to a new episode, I probably wouldn’t make the commercial break. Well, I might, because I weirdly like stupid sociological experiments, even manufactured ones, but I wouldn’t feel the connection I do now had I not watched its full evolution.

    Zazzy watches several of the RH shows. I can’t stand any of them, save for Jersey… in part because it is my homestate and I see some cultural similarities between their families and my own and in part because it feels the “realest”. When the husbands are slamming each other into doors, you can tell that ish is pretty real.

    So, I think part of it might be that these shows slowly become caricatures of themselves over time, but gradually so. I bet you still watch the Simpsons, or at least did long past its expiration date, despite the fact that the show degenerated so much. Similarly, people who were in from Day 1 just have a different relationship with it.

    All that said, when I do watch the RH with Zazzy, I am left shaking my head. Especially at the new cast members. I struggle to imagine anyone watching these shows and thinking, “I need to be on that.” I get that some of it are trying to spring board to fame… but… ugh…

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    • I should also say that in general on these shows, once you have people on them who spend a good portion of time watching them, they tend to act in a way based on what they think they’re supposed to do.

      Puck was just Puck. That was how that dude was. But now people are trying to be the next Puck. It’s lame.

      Same thing on the competition shows. The early seasons were relatively tame. Maybe a bad apple who stirred the part here and there. Then people wanted to emulate those bad apples and you got a whole season of bad apples. Bleh.

      If you really want to see some realness, watch “Top Chef: Masters”. There is very little silliness. The chefs are simply too big of names to spend time being fake. Any drama that does arise comes from the big personalities that tend to dominate in the kitchen. But you also see a high degree of respect and camaraderie among folks at the peak of their profession.

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    • I definitely watched “The Simpsons” after it had begun to decline, but cannot watch it now. As it happened, the Better Half and I tuned into the very end of the most recent episode as we waited for “Bob’s Burgers” to come on, and it was sad and depressing to see how lousy the show that I still believe to have been the best ever has become.

      And “Top Chef: Masters” may or may not be the show to which I refer in the OP.

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  19. The best thing about the fact that I have no interest whatsoever in this post’s topic (other than the blessed fact that I have no interest whatsoever in this piece’s topic ) is that I could stop paying attention to its substance and lose myself in The Good Doctor’s prose. Doc, you should, quite seriously, consider submitting this sort of piece to the New Yorker. They’re that good.

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  20. What phenomenon in American popular culture do you not understand?

    I have apparently reached that age; I no longer understand much of current popular culture. Television in particular. I watch the local pro football and basketball teams, and occasionally my undergraduate school’s football games. Increasingly, I watch them in a smallish window in the corner of the computer monitor, while I dabble with something else simultaneously. Very rarely, something I read will draw my attention to a show — often its impending demise — and I will blow through a season or two of it on DVD from Netflix. Also usually in that smallish window in the corner. There are too many things I should read that I’m afraid I’m not going to get to; there are too many things I should write that I’m afraid I’m not going to get to; there is the ever-growing collection of little personal software projects — I seem to collect them like stray puppies — that I’m afraid are never going to get finished. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time to spend on television.

    And as if things weren’t bad enough, my daughter presented us with a lovely granddaughter three weeks ago.

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    • I don’t buy that. Blaming things on the alleged Idiocracy phenomenon just strikes me as saying ‘blame the poor.’ I know lots of highly intelligent people with advanced degrees and “important” jobs and they can be every bit as trite as the rest of the socioeconomic spectrum. In fact, it’s the cognitive elite that seem to spend the most time sharing idiotic gifs on Facebook, making ironic comments about pop culture, and treating politics as sport.

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      • Actually, j r, I was using Idiocracy, as a portrayal of the popular culture race to the bottom. I think the commenters above have presented enough evidence that slackjawed TV viewing is not restricted to the 47%. I can surely attest to my wife’s addiction to those moronic home makeover shows on HGTV.

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      • j r,

        Right. The opening scenes of Idiocracy are quite disturbing if you think about them in a certain manner. Mike Judge was basically saying “Liberal NPR listeners! Start breeding now and breed like bunnies!” It could be an argument for eugenics (though not of a race-based sort).

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