TV Article

Tales Spin

How reality TV gives the people what they REALLY want -- Fed up with scripted shows with half-baked, boring plots strung between sex and violence, our columnist cheers the get-right-to-it attitude of the derided genre

Image credit: Reality TV Illustration by Eric Palma

How reality TV gives the people what they REALLY want

Stories are for children, lawyers, and indie-film producers. The rest of us don't have time. I can't even sit through my friends' anecdotes without wanting to fast-forward to the part where they either have sex, embarrass themselves, or mention me. Yet some people are convinced that reality television will wane because people crave narrative, that we have some innate need to riddle out which of the ''Just Shoot Me'' characters shouldn't be shot. This argument is usually made by writers. But even scientists maintain that our physical need to dream is proof that we would die without stories. I don't know what kind of complex Pynchonian dreams other people are having, but mine consist of sub-Cinemax-level adventures in anonymous sex. Anonymous sex that involves women I saw in late-night Cinemax movies. It's like some onanistic version of the circle of life.

Reality television doesn't threaten good writing, it replaces bad writing. You don't need a script for a Vin Diesel movie when all you really want is to see stuff blown up. Boomers may complain that reality television is mindless, but buying into ''Crossing Jordan'' dialogue is a far worse intellectual affront. Thanks to the visionaries at ''Are You Hot?'' no child will ever again have to suffer through the plot of a ''Baywatch'' episode to see mostly naked bimbos.

Our psyches don't crave the heroic scope of ''Beowulf'' and ''Gilgamesh,'' but the blood, harlots, and humiliation. And we're about to get even more of that thanks to Reality Central, a new cable network being funded, in part, with the winnings of former reality contestants who will also host some of the shows, thus proving that they are less interested in money than in being on TV. They hope to air gossip about reality shows, where-are-they-now interviews with ex-stars of reality shows, and brand-new reality shows. I hope it features a script-free version of ''The Love Boat'' where the vacationers include Puck (the new Don Adams) and Darva Conger (the new Charo) and the ship is run by the original, embittered ''Love Boat'' crew.

Even George Lucas, who is always referencing Joseph Campbell on how each society creates the same heroic epic, seems to have given up on storytelling in favor of just boring the audience between special effects. And music videos, which once tried to weave complex story lines involving men crashing their shoulders into walls, trying to escape comic books in order to have coffee with hot women, have taken the much smarter road of just showing the hot women. Pornography did away with plot long ago. And where porn goes, the nation follows. Two words: Brazilian wax.

Like Einstein before me, I shall prove my theory that people don't want stories with a simple experiment: You can stay up hours past exhaustion flipping channels, but 30 minutes of reading a book will put you to sleep midday, even with two Jolts in your system. Plus, while no one in journalism tells better stories than the folks at Sports Illustrated, nothing they do will ever sell as well as their Swimsuit Issue. I'm not sure how this proves my point, but I'm hoping it makes SI columnist Rick Reilly feel bad. He makes a lot more money than I do.

The catharsis of storytelling is too powerful to waste on action movies and teen comedies, and it's generally gunking up the insta-entertainment pipes. When I asked a studio executive recently who he had gotten to write one of the big teen summer movies, he said, ''Some guy with a pen.'' Stories should be saved for great novels, scripts, and satire. The era of stringing together plot points as an excuse for jokes, explosions, sex, singing, dancing, or eating horse rectum has happily ended with the advent of reality programming. Now all we have to do is convince the network execs that our society has progressed past the need for a host.

Originally posted May 09, 2003 Published in issue #710 May 16, 2003 Order article reprints
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