Published Feb 01, 2000Television critics gripe a lot about reality TV that it's crass, demeaning, just plain dumb and not really real. But reality TV is the most misleading term you could use to describe Survivor and its ilk, aside from the fact that they star non-actors (many of whom are nonetheless aspiring entertainers, looking for their big break). Fantasy TV is more like it.
It certainly isn't realism, and would likely be a ratings disaster if was. My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks were both widely praised for their honest and smart depictions of high school life. Both gone. Meanwhile, the airwaves remain choked with Dawson's Creek, Beverley Hills 90210 and their glossy spin-offs.
The massive success of Who Wants to be a Millionaire largely started the deluge of fantasy TV. It's a fantasy calibrated to the desires, habits and aptitudes of a disposable consumer culture: winning a fortune through a grasp of TV trivia or nursery rhymes. In an age of declining literacy, cultural and otherwise, it's reassuring that pointless trivia amounts to meaningful knowledge.
So-called reality TV shows are popular precisely because they're real life fantasies. Survivor may be a somewhat grown-up Lord of the Flies turned into a prime time soap, but its structure of team competitions more closely resembles a corporate retreat. Granted, they eat rodents instead of playing paintball, but it's a fantasy of office politics. Most people can relate to feeling trapped in a work environment of shifting alliances and annoying, whiny and otherwise obnoxious co-workers. Hence, being "voted off the island" becoming an all-purpose catch-phrase for exiling personas non grata from your peer group, and why water-cooler conversations revolve around living fantasies of workplace empowerment vicariously through that bitch Kimmi getting what's coming to her. Now if only you could do something about jerk in human resources.
Reality TV really went spinning wildly into fantasy with Temptation Island. Fidelity might seem a dreary entertainment premise, but Temptation Island turned fidelity in an extreme sport tarted up with harem fantasies is there a more obvious fantasy than having a bevy of buff, beautiful people doing their best to seduce you? Imagine a conversation between the show's producers and a prospective participant: "You're sending me to a tropical paradise where sun-kissed hard bodies will be coming on to me non-stop? Uh, what's the catch? Oh, yeah, the possibility that my partner or I will crack and destroy our relationship before an audience of millions. That would be bad. So tell me more about these superfoxes trying to seduce me."
The biggest fantasy may be the notion that a morally upright outcome can be drawn from such a sleazy, titillating premise this isn't exactly The Last Temptation of Christ. You don't have to be a die-hard cynic to find your credulity strained by saccharine scenes of tearful couples thanking the show because they needed a dalliance to renew their commitment to each other.
At least Blind Date doesn't claim to be anything but sleazy titillation. True, a lot of the dates turn out to be disasters with worse chemistry than an under-funded high school. But its selling point is more like a Maxim reader's fantasy: shallow, unreconstructed frat boys set up with over-sexed party girls who like topless make-out sessions in a hot tub with someone they met two hours ago.
Finally, a fantasy that a lot of Exclaim! readers can relate to, even if they're appalled at the way it plays out. Popstars is based on the abiding fantasy of being in a band, albeit a prefab group with an auditioning process that fulfils a few teenaged girls' dream of being the next Spice Girls, while humiliating dozens of others at a point in their lives when their self-esteem is already frail. A realistic show might be one about eating disorders developed by contestants who didn't make the cut.
Even the reality of the show is a living out of the fantasy. The girls are given songs to record, they make a video, and they play carefully orchestrated shows. Any notion that it's more about the dream of playing music than the fantasy of being a glamorous pop star is dispelled in the way the girls, especially in the American version, are chosen: not so much for their singing ability or creative talents as for their looks and how well they fill out trendy clothes. But putting it that way, it might just reflect reality after all.