In which Noah Brand requests, without any actual hope, that everyone please shut up about how stupid reality TV is.
Let us suppose that it is 1842, and you’re a resident of New York. You pride yourself on being smart, forward-thinking, modern in your views. You’d probably read the Good Men Project except that it won’t exist for another 168 years. Instead, in perusing your morning paper, you keep seeing advertisements for the preserved body of a mermaid being exhibited at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. Of course, Mr. Barnum is a well-known purveyor of humbug and hokum, so you’re hardly one to take these claims at face value. Indeed, some commentators are saying that the so-called mermaid is a transparent forgery. You decide to see it for yourself and make up your own mind, because you’re smart and fair-minded, so you go down to the museum. You pay your twenty-five cents admission. You file past all the other remarkable exhibits, some of which are of dubious provenance. You stand in line to see the mermaid underneath its great glass bell. And you smirk. It’s clearly a forgery, the front of a monkey stitched to the back of a fish, lightly enhanced with a few cosmetic touches. Good enough to fool most of the suckers filing through this museum, you think, but you’re a little smarter than that. You feel genuinely satisfied as you leave the museum, knowing that you’re a bit too canny for P.T. Barnum to get one over on you.
Okay, who here can point at the sentence in that paragraph where P.T. Barnum got one over on you?
If you pointed at “You pay your twenty-five cents admission”, you’re correct. Sure, you weren’t paying the quarter of credulity. You were paying the quarter of skepticism, of superiority, of ironic detachment. And what P.T. Barnum knew is that ironic money spends just as good as the regular kind.
This business model has never been entirely abandoned, and is presently enjoying a resurgence. In the late 1960s, there was a massive pop-culture and marketing bonanza created when a groundbreaking TV show finally managed to capture that most elusive audience: people too cool to watch TV. No, I’m not talking about Star Trek, I’m talking about Batman. Yes, that Batman. People tuned in every week to be in on the joke that this show was unwatchably cheesy. But were they in on the joke, or were they part of it?
In our era, this works out quite well for reality TV, the format cheap enough to foster experimentation. The earliest shows, such as The Real World and Big Brother, quickly discovered that when they put utterly contemptible and awful people on the air, ratings went up. People love watching folks they can feel superior to, so long as they can also feel superior to the rest of the audience. This rapidly became the business model for much reality TV, and the money just rolled in. However, there’s always a need for a bottom rung, a lowest common denominator, a showcase of humanity so horrific that everyone, absolutely everyone, can get that sweet, sweet hit of superiority.
For the last couple years, that show has been Jersey Shore, and it has made tons of money off people saying “Goodness, can you believe the awful people they put on the air?” and “I just watch it to laugh at them” and “Just imagine what kind of person seriously watches this show.” There’s also good money in licensing the images and merchandise of people designed to be hated. Well, times change, Justin Bieber gives way to One Direction, and we need a new low to tell ourselves other people have sunk to.
Enter the fine folks at The Learning Channel, whose previous show Toddlers and Tiaras got them a lot of attention and viewers for the awful examples of humanity who somehow got their own TV show. The standout stars of that program, however, were its most easily-mocked participants, a hyperactive child and her obese mother, both with thick and therefore hilarious Southern accents. More importantly, both were capable of performing the key duty of a reality TV character: to fit into the role assigned you by the show’s writers and producers and do the most humiliating and undignified things, all while convincingly pretending that it has just occurred to you to do these things and that you are somehow unaware of the large crew of people following you around and paying you. It’s harder than it sounds.
The Learning Channel is now offering us these two characters and their family in their own spin-off show, a show that brings us all the ugly stereotypes and cultural insight of The Beverly Hillbillies, but claims to be “reality”. And sure enough, all I hear, all I see on my Facebook feed, all anyone wants to talk about is how awful this show is and how contemptible and easily looked-down-on its characters are. As though they are the first people to discover this. As though they are the cultural Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition. As though they are doing something other than performing their own scripted role with a convincing appearance of spontaneity. Last year, they were expressing all the same outrage about Jersey Shore, and when Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo is cancelled, they’ll be up in arms about Shouty Ethnic People or Puppy Buggerers or Those Wacky Mentally Ill Homeless or whatever outrage-fodder someone is right now being paid to dream up.
The internet term “troll” comes from back in Usenet days, when some of those bold early adopters decided to be assholes and invented a game called “trolling for newbies”, which consisted of interrupting an existing conversation with something deliberately outrage-provoking, like trolling a fishing line from a boat, and seeing who was new enough to not recognize the game and thus snap at the bait. Even in its earliest form, before “troll” had migrated from verb to noun, the rule for trolls was already built right in: don’t feed them.
So please. Don’t get excited about how stupid the latest thing designed to be stupid is. Don’t think it makes you special to feel superior to people carefully performing inferiority. And if you absolutely must, if you cannot get your dopamine hit any other way than moral schadenfreude, at least do the rest of us a favor and keep it to yourself. I for one am really tired of being asked to participate in a con that was old and tired before the Civil War.
Image—P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, public domain