What we watch when on the box.
Watching television is a passive activity. Given how we assume the position, recumbent across our black leather couches, remote in one hand, packet in the other, our eyes on the screen with robotic disinterest; there is plenty of easy material supporting the claim that to watch television is to laze. But this accusation becomes all the more vicious when what you’re watching is in and of itself ‘lazy’. Reality TV seems to take the brunt of the crap flak. The novelist Salmon Rushdie once called it “tawdry narcissism”. For Rushdie, watching reality TV is a form of voyeurism that dulls our sense of morality as we gradually become immune to watching people become famous for doing absolutely nothing.
Rushdie is probably right on one account – voyeurism is unhealthy with regards to shows such as Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. These shows operate on a currency of curse words, vomit-takes, and sex (sex, as Rushdie surely knows, is often employed with similar coarseness in other art forms – such as the novel.) Yet the Brother and the Celebrity are programs that do not currently represent the genre. I have watched neither of these shows but my understanding is they are both in terminal decline. The genre, as it stands today, is better exemplified by other programs, programs that in my opinion can be defended. Made in Chelsea is one such program. I am no community leader for the genre for I only sup from this one bowl and, somewhat hypocritically, I detest all other reality TV shows. Made in Chelsea is my exception and I suppose that if I can allow myself this one exception then others are also allowed to sip from their poison of choice.
What is Made in Chelsea? It is simultaneously the most fantastic and boring way to waste an hour of your life. The show follows the personal lives of the just-graduated Eton elite who discover that they don’t need to work, not only because pops will be around for a little while yet, but because an old school chum recently shoved into their hands a television contract. The episodes are approximately twenty minutes of adverts (all part of the fun), thirty minutes of exposition (explored through various mediums – brunch, cocktails, dog-walking), and a final ten minutes of what-actually-happened-in-the-event-that-everyones-been-building-towards-for-thirty-minutes (Barney kisses Binky so Bonky slaps Barney).
To the question. Is enjoying this indefensible? The show has no substance. None whatsoever. Yet this absence is somehow embraced rather than avoided. The show depends entirely on entertaining exposition, in what is arguably an inversive challenge to the common cinematic whine that there is too much exposition. Exposition is at the core of the show. The frivolous tonal centre of an ostensibly atonal symphony.
I did not stumble across Made in Chelsea while flicking. I’m not really a flicker. Originally, it was a conscious decision on my part to watch the show because I thought it would be fun to laugh at. Then I realised that I was several episodes in and the show was having the last laugh. How do ironic viewers appear in the ratings? As Mitchell once told Webb during a sketch satirising The Apprentice: “They show up just the same.” I have only recently, perhaps when I first thought of writing this, come to terms with my condition (and it is a condition) and I now rationalise it by telling myself that I’ll only continue to give them my stat as long as they continued to produce a show that keeps on giving back. After enough time with the show, you do begin to enjoy it for different reasons – like trying to catch the parts that are scripted in between the moments that seem more genuine. You then begin to pick up on little idiosyncrasies. You notice moments where characters relish their lack of authenticity. The expectant laugh. The overly pointed comment. I can provide no precise examples – you just have to watch the show enough. In the state of what Slavoj Zizek has called “active submission”, the veteran viewer can easily pick up on an inside-joke, even when the character may not have intended it for viewers.
There are also enjoyable parts to the show that by definition cannot be superficial. For example, the editing process. The show makes no qualms about fabricating awkward silences between characters. These can last for several seconds, which in the real world never happen. As the seasons progressed, these silences became longer and longer as the show’s structure learned to play with itself and the masturbatory directors became just as much an player as the on-screen cast. This is exemplified by the way in which they erect conditions for possibility – moments that have many as of yet have undecided directions. When X walks down the street after his tragic breakup with Y, it’s quite surreal to try and imagine exactly what X is experiencing. Given that he is being watched by a filmcrew and is presumably encouraged to display emotion, the absurdity of his position makes me wonder whether he is actually laughing inside? Or is this just another scene for him, another performance? Is he actually crying inside? Surely not? What is he actually feeling? He isn’t capable of forgetting he is on TV is he? I mean, how far can the willing suspension of disbelief actually be stretched?
Rushdie’s critique of voyeurism is a common one from critics of the genre and in some ways it is an apt one because what we all really want is the dice-roll of possibility to land on X starting to cry miserably. But there is further hidden value, a hidden truth, to reality shows like Made in Chelsea and it can be revealed by way of an experimental analogy.
In 1971 Zimbardoo conducted his famous experiment at Stanford. The test is the go-to example of ‘social identity theory’, which posits that group identity can override individual personality. In it, participants were assigned the role of the guard or the prisoner – a clearly demarked identity within the contained socio-structure of a prison. The case of the TV show presents a similar ‘fictional’ structure, yet the difference is that the TV stars are presumably told to be themselves. Yet they are not themselves for themselves, they are themselves for the structure of the narrative (or the prison). So what we have here is an even more complex dynamic then that of the Zimbardoo experiment – where people are changing the way they behave to fit the narrative of the group identity, and yet the group identity can only be made up of their collective ‘real’ identities, which are not so clearly demarked as ‘guard’ or ‘prisoner’. This merging of group identity and individual identity leads to great confusion of identity. But does this not reflect the society that we live in today? Our technological age is obsessed with the micro-management of both our image and the image, which, rather than making reality stars more like us, actually makes us more like them. Who are we to say that, while the TV star might have started out on the show by presenting viewers with an alternative self, what we now see on TV isn’t who they actually are? With the invention of such medias as instagram, public persona is a consciously built wall that our generation unconsciously maintain all the time. Are they really all that different from us, just because they have that extra few thousand followers? Taken holistically then, reality TV might be said to be entirely rooted in reality. An experience more rooted in exhibitionism than voyeurism.
That then, was my defense of Made in Chelsea. I would encourage anyone to take up a reality show and see where it takes them. I would not encourage anyone to watch more then one reality show, because the experience as I have presented it does not gain anything by watching multiple versions of the same format. You learn a valuable lesson from falling off a bike, but it would be foolish to repeat the experience in order to learn lessons of even more value.
But there is a problem with reality TV. Unlike Rushdie, I think the problem is that the method of reality TV – that of a script presenting itself as something other than a script – is endemic across all pop culture.
Take the Top Gear Bolivia Special, where Richard the Hamster Hammond gets out of his car on top of a massive dune, supposedly forgets to put his handbrake on, and the car slides and tumbles to its destruction. The camera shooting this scene, positioned from a different dune, is in the perfect position to capture both its descent and Hammonds desperate attempt to run after it… run after it to do what exactly? No effort is made to make this scene ‘realistic’ at all. It’s clearly staged. Yet in a series in which most things appear natural, such staging is easy to miss, or at least easy to forgive. This clandestine scripting is pervasive not only in motorsport drama. American late night TV is saturated with different but the same talk-shows. With the exception of Craig Ferguson who pulled off a remarkable parody of his own medium, they all rely on the script. To be an audience member is apparently to have your laughter gauged by a warm up comedian who will then instruct you to turn up your laughter for the microphones in the ceiling. The pretense of originality has been lost. We know that The James Cordon Late Late Show is scripted, they know that The James Corden Late Late Show is scripted, and they know that we know that The James Corden Late Late Show is scripted. Even some pieces of film which present themselves as entirely off-the cusp have no fear in breaking the fourth-wall – one is reminded of a Vogue 73 Questions interview with Ben Stiller who assumes the role of his movie character Zoolander, and who is asked: “What are you reading at the moment?” His response: “The teleprompter.”
Is this phenomenon insidious? Not really, but it is becoming trite. Is reality TV itself insidious? Judge Judy is the only sinister reality TV show I can think of, one that makes a nasty mockery of the justice system in exchange for ratings, as brilliantly dissected by Laurie Ouellette in ‘Reality TV Making Modern Culture’. No, it is mostly a benign cancer. The problem, in as far as there is one, lies in the saturation of the idea. While it may seem an interesting cultural alleyway to explore, scripting reality ultimately ends in a cultural cul-de-sac. It is too easy to replicate, too easy to do well. Accusations of laziness should be focused broadly on the creative process, for art should be judged on the individuality of the artist. This standard appears to have been lost. In our flippancy, we are an audience blind to artistic purpose.