The Reluctant Townie | There's no reality like television reality

The Reluctant Townie | There's no reality like television reality

The 22nd season of "The Bachelor" concluded this week with a cruel, unedited half-hour split-screen of Bachelor Arie dumping his fiancee, Becca, (after a fairy-tale proposal in a vibrant meadow of flowers) to take a mulligan and declare his love for the runner-up, some blonde THOT whose name America has already collectively forgotten.

It was a low point for a series that has also featured a Bachelor defecating himself in a drunken stupor, and another suitor slut-shaming a contestant for having an on-camera tryst with him in the ocean.

The finale spawned a number of online think pieces in the days that followed that questioned the appropriateness of airing the footage, as if that were ever at any point a consideration when packaging and selling the a five-hour(!), two-night television event.

The think pieces were a decade late and several million viewers short. Our minds were poisoned long ago.

At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, reality television is what's wrong with this country.

(Pause for the clutching of pearls.)

OK, so reality television isn't the only thing wrong with this country (by a long shot), but it has played a central role in the precipitous decline of American attention spans, social expectations and, for lack of a better term, our moral fabric.

As long as there has been film, there have been documentaries. But in the days of yore, when you had to walk uphill both ways to school in shoes you whittled yourself, documentaries were boring torture sessions that your teachers subjected you to in hopes of educating you about something you couldn't be made to care less about.

Documentaries were, in function and form, a type of media ignored by its intended audience — a background soundtrack for adolescents to build paper footballs or graffiti their textbooks with strategically drawn pirate mustaches. (My apologies to Ken Burns!)

In the 1990s, MTV took the dry documentary format that had been ignored so well by our country for over half a century, and repurposed it as entertainment. They created a docudrama called "The Real World" (Google it, Gen Z), a show that followed a group of twentysomethings who lived together, worked together, drank together and, most importantly, slept together in dramatic combinations.

The docudrama soon became known as "reality television" — a clever descriptor with a fundamental misrepresentation built into its very name. As a point of fact, reality television has little interest in depicting objective reality, which is largely uneventful and lacks the regular dramatic conflict needed to sustain an engaging plot line. Conflicts must therefore be manufactured for reality television, which voids its entire premise.

Reality television went mainstream at the turn of the millennium with CBS' still-running "Survivor." The overwhelming success of that program paved the way for other long-standing juggernauts of the genre: "Big Brother," "The Bachelor" and the unstoppable zombie known as "American Idol." (It is interesting to note that most of our original reality-TV programs were imported from the U.K. — just as we've imported our recent surge in nationalism from England's Brexit.)

From a programming standpoint, reality television makes sense to production studios, as it is always cheaper to pay a small crew to film real people going about their daily routines than to hire a cast and crew to painstakingly shoot a scripted series. In the early days of television, broadcasters filled holes in their schedules with cheap programming via game shows, but as that format grew stale, reality television emerged to fill the vacuum.

The original wave of reality TV retained some of that game show DNA — contestants on "Survivor" and "American Idol" competed against each other to win a prize — but eventually, reality-TV producers dropped that pretense, which likely burdened their format with too many restrictions.

Soon reality programming metastasized to basic cable in the form of "Real Housewives" and "Duck Dynasty" and "Jersey Shore," and after that, its influence became ubiquitous. There is likely not a channel on your cable box that doesn't currently offer some type of original reality programming.

While reality television still has a strong grip on broadcast and cable networks (despite reaching peak reality TV around the time Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino became a household name), the disease has mutated and exited the television bloodstream.

The future of reality television is on Youtube and its brethren, where anybody with a camera phone can "create content" by filming themselves and broadcasting it into the ether. This is where your Logan Pauls of the world (Google it, Baby Boomers) have millions of subscribers and hundreds of millions of views. There are no gatekeepers or content overseers in this brave new world of meaningless faux reality. There is also no barrier to entry (save the cost of your phone, and the abstract price of branding your name with a big Scarlet Letter in Google searches forevermore).

Reality television holds no societal value beyond escapism, and even then, to where are you escaping? Scripted television, while of widely-varying quality, at least offers some sort of modeling behavior. The basic concept of any dramatic work is that a character begins flawed in some way, and through the course of the story is made to confront and overcome those flaws to develop as a person.

There is no such character development in reality television. There is only conflict for the sake of conflict — noise for the sake of noise. Aberrant behavior is rewarded with screen time. Grown adults who act like children will always hold a lizard-brain appeal, but they offer nothing of value to our culture and serve as detrimental role models to both the children and the adults who consume their behavior on a regular basis. You cannot expect to drink soda for breakfast, lunch and dinner and still ace your physical.

Now our country has a leader who comes to us from reality television, who crafted the image that got him elected with the help of super producer Mark Burnett, who understands the format and thrives within its confines of needless conflict and attention-seeking misbehavior. No wonder we seem to be having such a hard time discerning what's real from what's fake. When we've been conditioned to accept fiction as reality, it becomes easy to lose track of what reality was to begin with.

Maybe this is the future we deserve. But I cannot help but hold out hope that this show will soon be cancelled.

Ryan Jackson is just as susceptible to Bravo TV as the rest of you, which is why he hasn't had cable in over a decade, and he can be reached at

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