The Best New Reality Show

Just Kidding, It’s the Worst

I have specific memories from my early teenage years of the outset of Reality Television. Survivor, the experimental behemoth now entering its 34th season, was circa 2003 still a popular weeknight novelty. Along with Big Brother, Fear Factor, and The Amazing Race, Reality TV as a genre hadn’t yet been totally exposed for the revamped soap opera it was, and the genre of reality TV had at least some credibility, not yet marred by the likes of the Kardashians. At least that’s how I remember it, I was a teenager and it’s possible I just didn’t recognize trashy television yet. When the writers’ strike around 2007 postponed the dramatic thriller 24 for an additional 18 months and allowed shows that relied very little on writers to flourish on the major networks, not to mention myriad cable channels, I had just about had enough of television. Netflix was around the corner, little did I know, and years spent as an undergraduate meant my evenings were being spent in places other than in front of the television, so I drifted away.

Since then other shows have appeared and achieved similar success, Dancing with the Stars, The Biggest Loser, and America’s Next Top Model all come to mind along with Project Runway, Top Chef, The Bachelor and Bachelorette, Iron Chef America, all follow in the footsteps of Survivor — not quite game shows, not quite scripted dramas — occupying an uncanny valley of mimicking competitive human culture that is somehow addicting. I’ve seen at least one episode of each of those shows, maybe even followed an entire season here or there, but there is one show I’ve never seen until it’s lead character took over the spotlight of my new media diet. I’m of course referring to The Apprentice. Like I said I’ve never watched so much as a clip of the show as far as I can remember, and I sincerely had no idea what the point of it was, but based on the news lately I can take a guess.

My presumption is that sycophants fawn over a simpleton with a god complex, trying desperately to do whatever despicable thing would give the impression of undying loyalty, the show’s secondary currency. Undirected, preferably dramatic and eye-catching confrontation is the other victory condition for contestants. The host feasts on chaos, has no tolerance for anything well-reasoned, and is compelled merely by whim. In order to win the game, I suspect, you must sell your soul.

Maybe I haven’t described the show well at all, but these guesses come in part from what I’ve seen in contemporary reality TV series, and in part from what we are now seeing play out in our highest levels of government. I know less about running a country than I do about The Bachelor, which is nothing, but based on what I’m seeing and hearing each day, the newest reality sensation The White House, isn’t agreeing with Americans. To say we didn’t see it coming would be insanity, of course we did. Campaigns, after all, are sold by the major networks exactly the way the Season Finale of Survivor is sold, and who can blame them? Their business is selling advertisements and we will tune in. Most presidential hopefuls have to reach to fit the mold the networks create for them, and the quickly spring back when it’s over. Our current “CEO of America” neither had to stretch, nor sprung back and we now see the pitfalls of this setup playing out in front of us, to our collective dismay.

The difference of course is that, while the government can certainly be entertaining to follow, it does in fact largely dictate the condition of life in our country and around the globe. It might be interesting in the vacuum of a world created for television to have a villain turn back the clock on mandatory sentencing, cause a protest at a commencement ceremony where they shouldn’t have been speaking anyway, or literally have no idea what their job entails (we have multiple people in that category), but when it plays out in the real world, instead of The Real World, real people get hurt, lose opportunities along with dignity, and may even lose their lives.

My challenge lately has to not view the government as entertainment without consequences. I admit to slipping, hoping for the next big revelation to be outraged by to come sooner, but I and all of us need to stop. Remain vigilant, keep your eyes trained on the President, don’t forget last week’s transgressions (or last month’s), and don’t discount the deep and real pain this chaos can and will inflict on people simply because it might not reach you. We can’t just turn off the TV and wait 18 months for the next season because it’s 44 months away and if we tune out it’s us, in reality, who lose.