Reality Shows Bite

June 25, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Perhaps the most compelling reason to start a DVD collection is that, without one, the TV serves no real purpose. Gone are the days when TV consoles were made to look like living room furniture. Now, they sit in a corner with their big, flat screen glaring balefully at all who use them as a mirror. Through a glass, and darkly…

I have three TVs in my house. All are flat-screen LCDs. The one in the bedroom is 32". I have recently been using it to watch old episodes of Babylon 5 on DVD. Occasionally, I'll pause the episode to switch to a Phillies game. Once I have confirmed that the Phillies are losing, I go back to B5. My second TV has a 42" screen and is located in the family room. I also use that one for watching baseball games. My wife uses it for watching tennis and figure skating. I have three cable channels memorized: 31 (Discovery), 44 (MSNBC), and 200 (Comcast Sportsnet HD). My third TV is a 52" model in the basement. This one is hooked up to my PS3 but not to cable. I use it exclusively for watching DVDs (and occasionally playing video games).

People have always complained that there's "nothing on TV," but it's not the exaggeration it once was. TV has become so bad it's almost unwatchable. Scripted shows are being overrun by so-called "reality" shows, which have about as much connection to reality as President Bush has to shrubbery. There are still a few programs out there that I like. I'll watch House if I remember that it's on. I make it a point to see the few new episodes of Battlestar Galactica that show up from time to time. Pushing Daisies was enjoyable, but it's been off the air for six months. Doctor Who has scripts of variable quality, but is better enjoyed on DVD because of the pruning shears applied to it by the Sci-Fi channel. In short, nearly every decent program on TV is sabotaged in one way or another. It's as if there's a concerted effort to remove anything with a scintilla of intelligence from the airwaves.

And what's springing up in their place? One of two things: contest shows and fake a-day-in-the-life diaries. When I first heard the title of the series Farmer Wants a Wife, I was sure it was a parody. Surely, this couldn't be a real TV show? That's about as likely as a network giving Lindsay Lohan's mother a show in which she can pimp out her younger daughter. Or a program all about contestants surviving Japanese game shows. As if they have anything on us when it comes to crappy TV entertainment…

After a little bit of thought, I figured out what the circumstances would have to be for me to watch one of these shows: physical incapacitation - lying on the sofa, unable to concentrate on the television, yet wanting the comfort of voices in the room. That, I conclude, must be the general mindset of anyone who regularly watches this putrefaction. Of course, part of the problem is that we have become programmed to accept garbage as acceptable entertainment. Consider the ever-popular American idol - a program about mostly marginal talents (yeah, there are some good singers but not a lot) singing bad songs to attain their 15 minutes of fame. It's insanely popular and some of the highest rated episodes are the ones in which the worst performers are showcased.

Movies are part of the problem, too. Studios are no longer pretending they're making films for intelligent audiences. The indie industry is withering, in large part because most of what they're producing seems warmed-up and recycled. Foreign films and American indies pass through art houses so fast that if you blink, you'll miss 'em. And if you're waiting for them to show up in a 24-plex, don't bother. 12 of those screens are devoted to Blockbuster A and the other 12 to Blockbuster B. That way, you can walk into the 24-plex any time of the day and there will always be a screening of A or B ready to start.

People see a lot of crappy movies because they like the movie-going experience and care more about that than what they're seeing. (Yes, there are people who enjoy going to theaters, even with all the associated problems.) So, like Pavlov's dogs, they become trained not to care about what they're being subjected to. Bad movies become "okay." TV is the same way. We watch because it's there in our house and it's easy to turn on. Fortunately, I've got a copy of Casablanca lying around. And Star Wars. And The Godfather. This gives me some comfort. There may not be anything like that playing in theaters these days or showing on TV, but one of the benefits of technology is that I can program my own entertainment and I don't have to be a slave to what the movie studios and TV networks want to numb my mind with. Now, it's time to watch one of those classics - just as soon as I find out who gets eliminated tonight…