January 28, 2015

The "Real" in Reality TV

Here's a shocker for you: a column that hasn't been thought out carefully, but comes to you on the fly.  I know; a number of you probably think that all the pieces on the blog come out that way, that I just make things up on the go.  And to a certain point that's true - there are many times when I begin writing without knowing exactly where I'm going.  But this one doesn't really have a narrative line per se; I'm just going to give it to you, and we'll see where we wind up.

So then: as you probably know, I'm no fan of reality television.  I've sniped at it often, and from time to time I've actually devoted significant space to it.  There are many people like me, people who think that reality TV is the most unreal thing on the tube.  "This isn't real," you can hear them say, "this is made up just like everything else."  But then, so is professional wrestling.

And it's pro wrestling that we're about to turn to; as something which has been on TV since, well, virtually the beginning of TV, you can't really divorce the two subjects.  From the days of Gorgeous George to Hulk Hogan to today, wrestlers have been some of the biggest stars on television.  Now, I know what you're thinking here: wrestling isn't real.  Of course not.  Yesterday I would have agreed with you completely, and that would have been the end of the discussion.  (And I would have been out of an idea for the blog.)

What changed my mind about this, and what causes me to think differently about reality TV (in the abstract, if not the concrete, is this terrific article from Grantland.  Entitled "Pro Wrestling for Auteurs," it gives the reader a look at the most significant wrestling documentaries of the last 50 or so years.  The fact that I'm just coming to it now, nearly three years after it was first published, is unimportant except to demonstrate that I'm sometimes behind the times, though always willing to revisit them.  But in discussing the history of wrestling documentaries, the author, David Shoemaker, points to a landmark in the genre, 1961's La Lutte, and it is here that we get the money quote, the part that explains everything that's to come.  The filmmakers, a couple of French-Canadians named Michel Brault and Claude Jutre, are planning to expose the fakery of wrestling, how everything was far from real:

Serendipitously, they met one Roland Barthes at a party, and although he was initially intrigued by the idea of a wrestling documentary, he was appalled by their objective. “Are you crazy?” Barthes said, according to Brault. “It’s as if you want to expose theater. The people’s theater, popular theater. It exists because people go see it, that’s the reason it exists. And that’s the beauty of wrestling. It’s an outlet for the crowd and it demonstrates how hard it is for right to overcome wrong. The good versus the bad. And don’t tamper with that. You mustn’t destroy that!”

As Shoemaker suggests, wrestling is perhaps the ultimate in interactive television, where the involvement of the fan actually can influence the storyline.  "The role of pro wrestling isn’t to be real — it’s to convey narrative reality, the way a documentary shapes a week of reality into two hours of greater reality."  As Roland Barthes puts it, "Wrestling is a stage managed sport (which ought, by the way, to mitigate its ignominy). The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.”  Adds Schoemaker, "The point is to give us what we want - what we need."

Perhaps we should look at the more overt forms of reality television in the same way.  Nobody in their right minds thinks that the Kardashians and Honey Boo-Boo are "real."  Probably not many think that the shows capture the lives of these people as they really are - they're obviously stage-managed for television.  Even the term "unscripted," which sounds more respectable than "reality," is a crock - perhaps the participants don't speak lines from a script, but you might as well say the same thing about a Cassavetes film.  The direction of the story, the plot, is anything but spontaneous.  But does that make them any less plausible than wrestling - than any scripted television, for that matter?  These shows may well give us what we want, what we need.

That doesn't make them good television, of course, nor does it mean they have any redeeming social qualities.  For every Duck Dynasty that presents values a sizable part of the country can sign off on, there's a Bachelor or Bachelorette that makes a mockery out of a long-standing institution.*  As repugnant as these shows are, can we honestly say that they're any worse than American Horror Story?

*Which, to be frank, doesn't need reality television to be made a mockery of nowadays.

Shoemaker has this to say about wrestling documentaries, but in fact couldn't one say the same about the entire reality genre?

What’s at stake in pro wrestling — what the directors of La Lutte got, and what [fellow documentarian Robert] Greene gets — is the very question of narrative art. Wrestling documentaries work so well because they — like wrestling itself — are edited and assembled to create certain emotional reactions. And when we, as fans, react to these films, we’re playing our part in the show. That Fake It and today’s best wrestling documentaries expose the “reality” of wrestlers’ lives doesn’t diminish the power of the craft that Barthes longed to protect. It shows us how much we’re all like those wrestlers we’re watching, and how much wrestling is like everything else we watch.

In the end, this kind of television - "reality," or "unscripted," or whatever you want to call it - should be judged the same way we judge any other television series.  My favorite series, Top Gear, could be considered unscripted, and I think it's great television.  Forget all the labels, don't get caught up in just how "real" the show is - simply ask yourself if it's any good, if it has any redeeming qualities, if it adds anything to the social fabric (which is often a matter of opinion).  Perhaps they don't give us what we need, but what we deserve.

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