Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Putting the reality in reality television

Those of you who know me well are deeply aware of my love of reality television. I have watched the gamut from Joe Millionaire, Mr. Personality, and Temptation Island (you know you watched them too; don't deny it) to The Real World (in all its iterations), Survivor, and The Amazing Race. Admittedly, some reality television is tawdry and shallow and descends to the lowest common denominator of the human intellect. Even more, so much of the "reality" of the reality show has been drained by participants looking for their latest breaks and producers hoping to film some sort of "hyper-reality," meaning that too many reality shows try to orchestrate too explicitly drama, conflict, and hilarity.

A case in point is MTV's The Real World, the granddaddy of all reality television. In the show's inception, a spectrum of individuals was placed into a house. And while each cast member was supposed to fulfill a particular type (the naive Southern virgin, the angry black man, the rocker), there was a deeper sense of reality. Some were just leaving home for the first time, other were knee-deep in school or career. Particularly exemplary was the third season of the show when Pedro Zamora's battle with HIV/AIDS humanized the illness and homosexuality for a whole generation of young people.

Before homosexuality was a way to draw in viewers through controversy (e.g. Ellen's famous lesbian kiss) and a stereotypical comic prop (e.g. Will and Grace), Pedro lived and later died as a homosexual man in America. Soon after Pedro's passing, President Clinton summed it up well when he argued that all Americans now knew someone who had died from AIDS. It is in this way that reality television can be most potent, that is, when it lays bares humanity in all its beauty and grotesqueness, its joys and pains, its gains and losses.

Unfortunately, recent iterations of the previously cutting-edge The Real World have opted for the tawdry and vapid lives of people far too young and far too drunk. They provide an endless supply of alcohol and never-changing cast of externally beautiful people with very little to say. Even more disturbing to me is the rampant promiscuity the show captures and promotes. Has The Real World so quickly forgotten the legacy of Pedro Zamora?

Or perhaps I am growing too old to understand "kids today." Nevertheless, I'll keep watching . . .