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.
Thus 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.)
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?