The Situation: Is Reality TV the Symptom of a Cultural Disease?

Excuse me for a moment while I rant.

I don’t know what free-to-air television is like where you’re from, but I can’t watch it anymore. I’m considering unplugging my television antenna and retreating permanently into the warm comfort of my DVDs, Blu-rays and the infinite possibilities of downloadable content. These days, it seems that there are only two types of show on television: police procedurals and reality TV.

The police stuff for me is only a minor gripe. I appreciate that there is nothing new under the sun. But at what point did it become important to have twenty different shows that cover almost exactly the same territory? At what point did it become okay to make the same show over and over, with the only variation lying in a change of geography (yes, CSI, I’m talking to you).

But that’s just an aside – it’s reality TV that really breaks my heart.

Reality TV

Reality TV is really just a symptom (like a cold sore or a severe rash) of a far more insidious cultural disease. It’s the same disease that’s resulted in a generation of young men and women looking into the mirror in horror at their imperfections. It’s the same disease that has instilled unrealistic expectations about life into the minds of the young. It’s even the same disease that’s caused a new obsession with having well groomed Frankensteins carve up human beings, stuff them with silicone, Botox and whatever other “upgrades” they have on hand, before sending them out into the world ten percent younger and twenty percent more synthetic. It’s the cultural disease of narcissism and it is unbearable.

Anybody can be a star, and anything is worthy of star attention. The lower a human being can descend, the more worthy they are of star attention. Monstrosities like “The Situation” aren’t liable to cause damage just because of the chronic eye-rolling effect their televisual presence has on viewers – the damage they cause is in the obliteration of standards. Success is presented as the result of pure chance.

People scramble so desperately for the screen that in England that they are literally willing to display their most horrific and embarrassing body-parts to the world – and we want to see them?!?  And, Big Brother! A bunch of narcissistic train-wrecks locked in a room talking about themselves. I’m all for locking them up, but why add the camera? These are people so self-involved that, with the validation of the camera, they literally become intellectual black holes, surging through the airwaves to suck the juice out of the human race until we’re all reduced to babbling idiots. I’m aware most countries have cancelled Big Brother. So had ours – but then it came back like a serial killer in a poorly conceived horror sequel. A sad sign of the times.

Some people will argue that they watch these programs ironically, in order to laugh at the foibles of the rabble in front of them. I’m not particularly interested in watching people for the satisfaction of passing judgement upon them, and I don’t know if the introduction of irony acts as any kind of buffer. After all, eating a bowl of sewer sludge with a knowing grin is unlikely to reduce the effect on your internal organs.

So what am I blabbering on about?

Obviously, there are solutions to my problem. Cable, whilst predominantly made up of the kind of rubbish I was just complaining about, also features some of the best programs on television. And it is certainly true that the output of companies like HBO and the BBC often transcends anything that the small screen has ever seen.

But in the digital age we are able to obtain these programs at will, legally or illegally – I imagine mostly illegally. It seems that most people are pirates these days, having abandoned traditional television programming in favour or an entirely democratised approach. This may be morally problematic, but I can’t help but admire the way people have liberated themselves from the passive confines of traditional TV watching and made the experience their own. After all, it’s better to be a pirate than the victim of ocular molestation and a participant in cultural degradation.

All I’m saying is – switch it off.

Footnote: Of course there are the “other” reality TV shows about renovations, antique collection and stamp collection (I imagine there must be a stamp show). These are probably not to be tarnished with the same brush, although they are hardly art.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

54 thoughts on “The Situation: Is Reality TV the Symptom of a Cultural Disease?

  1. My sister used to love watching these reality tv shows on MTV. I sat down one time to watch one of them with her and picked up the remote and changed it. I don’t much care for the reality tv shows that support people going to clubs and getting drunk till they are passed out on the floor. I don’t much watch tv anymore. I usually only watch it in the afternoon, but I’m not cursed with reality tv. I don’t have cable and would rather not pay for stupid shows that I don’t want to see. I really enjoyed your rant every word is genius and so true.

  2. You need to both take into account and remember that there are very few “Guidos” or “Chavs” (are the Geordie shor mob Chavs?) and so forth that actually manage to achieve this level of success. Most of them are just generic schlubs like you or I – society’s worker drones.

    The ones that are elevated to this level are put up there as something to be pointed and stared at. They are the circus freaks, the geeks of this generation. The difference is that they at least get paid well today. It’s cheap television, designed to engender an emotional reaction to maintain the interest and outrage of the easily-offended public – whether it’s one of superiority, revulsion, or jealousy.

    Sadly, cestgigi seems to have fallen right into the trap.

    If you dislike these shows (are they worthy of your energy to be outraged or offended?), then just ignore them. There’s plenty of smart, cynical, intelligent shows out there if you do a bit of research…

  3. You have such a great turn of phrase! I really enjoyed reading this post. I put a small rant myself on a social media site about how my mom, my teachers, and the companies I’ve worked for, have gone to such pains to make sure I was civilized, well-spoken, well-intentioned, well-behaved, and well-groomed, and for what? So that I could still be broke and without a teaching job, while ‘people behaving badly’ and looking like every kind of trash, get to become rich doing the opposite? I don’t watch them because of the sheer banality of the conversations, which make me want to shoot myself summarily in order not to have to listen- (POW camps hadn’t better get hold of this concept, or else the prisoners will surely lose all hope). I miss the great sitcoms of the recent and distant past, and I am not alone, hence the proliferation on evening television of shows from the previous century. Now and then, I’ll actually come across a new one I’ve ignored and find I really enjoy- Rules of Engagement, being one. I’ve already seen every episode, thanks to Netflix. A gladiator show wouldn’t surprise me in the least- human nature hasn’t changed that much since the Romans had their little ‘shows’. Lynchings and public executions are not only that distant in history, but still occur in parts of the world now, and are heavily attended.

  4. Interesting article. I haven’t watched Free-to-air in years, and have both cable and ..other sources of Television. I have to admit that I have indeed seen the odd episode of Jersey/Geordie Shore and found myself sitting through it, judging them all the while. While I’m all too happy to judge these people from my ivory throne, Though reading through the comments there’s more than a generous helping of holier-than-thou towards both the participants in these shows and those who choose to watch them. Interestingly, the cast of Jersey Shore are now making more than most any of us can hope to, and frankly – more power to them!

    Some reality shows I’ve actually enjoyed were: Miami Ink for a time, before the scripted nature of this “reality” overtook the artistic elements too much – the sequels and spinoffs in the tattoo genre are all even more horrible. I enjoyed the art and the insight into the process.

    I do enjoy Come Dine with Me. though. I’m absolutely aware of the snide and judgemental way that the show treats it’s prey. Charlie Brooker also said some interesting things about the show (starting at 4:00)

    Ultimately, reality TV is successful because of the combination of cheap production costs, people’s desire to be on TV, manipulative editing, and the car-crash viewing, element. Then they add the “scripted” element on top of it when the producers coach the people on-screen to say and act in certain ways – just as they did on shows like Jerry Springer for years before “reality TV” was a thing.

  5. I have actually appeared in a reality show, and yes, I would never want anyone to know it was me. In order to preserve the reputation of the program, I cannot make public any facts concerning anything about it. Yes, very vague, I know. However I can say it was totally fun and while I would never want to be confused with the personality I represented, I did have a very good time doing it. So before we all jump on the band wagon of hating reality TV; it does after all pale in comparison to real entertainment remember somewhere someone is having a really good time acting completely foolish for a few extra bucks. 🙂

  6. Like the rant, Curn, and “why the camera?” indeed. My fear is what has happened since the advent of cable and the internet, the entire system that lies before us today has become an evolutionary Tower of Babel if you consider how the species mind evolves, when populations become separated from each other and variations begin to occur, if we don’t blow ourselves up, in a few generations, hell, maybe it’s already happened. In the America of the 70’s growing up in the central United States, we had a few channels growing up and the kids grew up pretty much being able to communicate with each other because we shared a culture experience and heritage. The system we have now, if it continues, will create social environments where people have no stories to share with each other, they speak the same language, sort of, but have nothing in common to bridge bonds of humanity like sharing a story or even nodding and smiling at each other in the queue. And don’t get me started on smartphones!

  7. I suppose this may be strange thing to tell, but behind the iron curtain – when there was one – we had a good TV. To be exact: we had 10% of fantastic TV and 90% of pure political indoctrination, but this was no problem at all. Everyone knew which programs should be omitted, and which should be watched, and the whole nation did turn on TV at the same hour. (Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Still it’s true. There were two television channels available all together, and one of them was news/weather forecast channel). The 10% worth to remember were shows made by very intelligent people, playing subtle games with censorship, using surreal humour to tell forbidden things. When we became free and democratic country, life got better, but television got much worse. Local edition of Big Brother has arrived. And commercials. And all the rest of idiotic shows of the world. I have thrown away my TV a few years ago and I don’t miss it.

    • Wow! This is an incredible insightful and fascinating comment.

      There have always been theories around an inverse relationship between democratic consumer culture and the quality of artistic output – this may be evidence of that! That is to say, the more culture is commodified, the more popular art forms are homogenized in an attempt to cater to the people. Why make a great show with a small audience, when you can make a mediocre show that caters to a large one.

      Thanks for sharing.

  8. Well said, I agree totaly with your point of view! Infact, I don’t watch TV anymore and my children prefer watching “right food” on DVD, etc. We live in Italy and you surely will be shocked of the TV world here! You have an awesome and informative blog, I like it and will follow you. Thank you also for following my blog. All the best, Katharina

  9. I agree with most of what you say but Embarassing Bodies (although I find the concept of doing what those people too very strange) as a reality TV show, at least has an educational element to it and the psychology of the show is gentle and nurturing, unlike that of Big Brother and others you mention. Glad you kept the “vintage junk study” shows out of your rant. I think they are more “Open University” than “Reality TV”. Thanks for following my blog.

  10. This editorial rant is not only spot-on correct, but is also quite entertaining to read. It reminds me of the satirical film, Idiocracy, where human intelligence devolves and civilization decays from the over-commercialization of society. The author here describes what’s wrong with broadcast television, but doesn’t explain why this has happened. The answer probably involves many contributing factors which could be covered in a followup article – which I’d love to see.

  11. Narcissistic reality TV, like bullying and government corruption, is just another symptom of a society that doesn’t feel good about itself. Excellent rant, although unfortunately, greed and the need for attention sadly win the day.

  12. I’ve been waiting for someone to do a good post on reality TV – Thank you! Will be sharing this. The depressing thing to me is I thought this was a purely American phenomena, that our American narcissism and voyeurism fed the frenzy – and that is true, but that the country that gave us Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife has these as well is incredibly depressing. I look forward to more reading from you.

    • Glad you liked it – makes it worthwhile 🙂

      Tragically, no. Reality TV’s incredibly low overheads have made catering to the lowest common denominator far too attractive across the world.

      Unfortunately, I can’t lay claim to Downton Abbey – I’m an Aussie. However I do know that all three countries have fairly similar televisual lows. For example, The Shire, Geordie Shore and Jersey Shore are entirely interchangeable examples of the same thinly veiled encouragement to laugh at a lower socio-economic group. Nasty stuff…

  13. I’ve heard folks say they watch shows like The Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of Wherever because it makes them feel better about their own lives. I say, if I ever get so low I need to watch the bottom-dwellers of humanity just to feel good about myself, euthanize me on the spot because there are, in fact, worse things than death.

    Excellent rant, brother.
    🙂 Nikki

  14. Sewer sludge. Smirk. Today agree. Confession: I like the competition shows. There’s one for anything (if you have cable, which where I live it’s one and a half channels or cable), but at least it encourages being good at something. Kind of.

  15. I stopped watching TV years ago, while I was still a teenager, and took to downloading shows illegally if I heard they were good- but for the BBC iplayer has been a great help with this. Still it wasn’t so much the poor quality of programmes, since as a kid you’d watch TV for certain allocated hours, which would include both the desirable cartoons and the undesirable ones- not that I’d ever watch ‘realities’, as when I got a bit older my evening viewings were focused mainly on comedies- but the point is that what puts me off the most is adverts. Film4 used to play films without adverts, and it used to be watchable. By all means break up a silly TV show, but you don’t choose for me when I pause my movie, because that can ruin the effect. And American channels? They’re more advert than show. I don’t know how anyone can sit through all that drivel.

  16. I think it is an excellent rant with interesting comments. I’ve never considered watching reality shows as the core of bullying but I’m going to think about that point of view. I’ll temper that with the knowledge that the participants of reality shows are there of their own accord and paid well for not giving a stuff what people think. Like most, I don’t like bullying either. I don’t watch ‘reality’ shows though, although my wife gets caught on them. How can it be reality in any case given cameras, scripts, the power of editing and the quest for money? Enjoyed the read. Bruce

    • Thanks, Bruce – much appreciated.

      I’m not so much worried about the participants being subjected to bullying as I am about people being placed in the mindset of casually laying judgement upon those they perceive to be weak/less educated/unenlightened. Not a good habit to get into…

  17. I don’t TV much, for the same reasons you outlined and just because I have the internet! haha I am definitely not a fan of reality TV. I know people who watch them and then take what they watch on tv and put it up against the real world. So, for them all women are slutty, gold digging, attention whores. Even if they are women and they are the opposite.

    I did want to watch Honey Boo Boo, I think Alana is a fantastic character. However, it’s a half an hour of trying to make this loving family, look absolutely horrible. They just replayed burps, and went on and on about their nutrition. I’ll just stick to GIFs that show up on Tumblr.

  18. I watched about 10 minutes of Jersey Shore once, to see what it was like. I couldn’t believe it was actually as bad as it sounded. It’s interesting that it went from a show about people who live as if they were vapid celebrities to escape their empty lives (which almost sounds like an interesting premise), to being a show about vapid celebrities who are famous for being vapid celebrities.

  19. You’re spot on. I don’t actually watch TV anymore due to the mindless idiocy of Reality TV etc. Whatever needs to be watched can be viewed on Netflix and/or Lovefilm, or bought off Amazon. And amazing shows like Breaking Bad haven’t been picked up in England… I think it’s a reflection of how captivated by the media us Brits often are. From the sensationalism of The Sun and other tabloids to whatever hairstyle the odious Cheryl Tweedy’s got. Is there any way to escape it? No, but for those who dig beyond the mainstream can find a world of glorious creativity. Innit, geez! LOL!

    • Interesting. I work in film and commercial production, but don’t own a TV anymore either, for many of the reasons cited in the article. Like you, I only download the content that I wish to watch. I live in the U.S., but my friends and I often seek out BBC programming as well, since we don’t really have an equivalent. I can’t speak to tabloid captivity where you live, but here, it is nearly impossible even to walk into a restaurant that doesn’t have 30 TV’s blaring reality TV and cable “news.” (Much of what is presented as news would be better suited to the tabloids, but many people can no longer tell the difference.) It is actually very difficult to escape the sensationalism if you wish to leave your home.

  20. It is the ironic viewing that I find most offensive. First, the judgment. People looking down on others who are being exploited by these producers. This isn’t that far removed from the coliseum. Does anyone think that watching people actually fight to the death wouldn’t be the highest rated show on television? Second, the exploitation. These are real people. They may be greedy, stupid, selfish, untalented, obnoxious or any combination of these, but that doesn’t mean we should laugh at them. If we’re going to be serious about bullying, we need to know the core of bullying when we see it. This is it. False superiority over others to cover our own inadequacies.

    Here’s a clip of an episode of Screenwipe (with Charlie Brooker) very much worth watching:

    • Absolutely. It’s incredibly disturbing, and your point regarding a gladiatorial TV show is certainly one that has occurred to me.

      Will definitely check out this clip.

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