Tony Watts ponders upon the existential question of what “reality” has to do with our current crop of “TV reality shows”
I was recently pondering the nature of reality. As you do. I think it was when I was watching (behind my fingers, from behind the sofa) the bit on Planet Earth II where some poor baby iguana, fresh out of the egg, gets chased across a beach by a swarm of snakes. If this is reality, I thought, it’s not surprising that so many of us spend so much of our time and money trying to escape it.
And a thought popped uninvited into my head: why are TV reality shows so called? After all, they bear very little comparison with what I would term “reality”. I felt some research was in order: first find out what this reality TV is meant to be, and then watch one or two programmes to see whether their definition of reality accorded with my own.
If in doubt, go to Wiki is my motto. And here I was reliably informed that “Reality television is a genre of television programming that documents supposedly unscripted real-life situations, and often features an otherwise unknown cast of individuals who are typically not professional actors, although in some shows celebrities may participate.”
Well that puts it into some sort of perspective. It seems that actual reality hasn’t necessarily got to take place on a reality TV show. The whole thing simply has to be unscripted. Except, of course, we know that virtually every reality show is planned and set up for people to respond to each other in a pre-determined way, then the footage cut mercilessly so that anything ordinary and boring, and therefore “real”, is edited out.
Not only that, indicates Wiki, but the cast may well involve celebrities. Hmmm.
This caused me another problem. I looked at the latest list of participants in “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”. I only recognised a couple of them.
It might have been the fact that they were all wearing fetching identical bush-whacking tailoring and no make up which meant they bore little resemblance to their screen personae, but their reason for being celebrities in the first place (possibly the “cause célèbre”) was entirely lost on me.
Perhaps my version of reality is simply different than other people’s. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I confess I didn’t watch more than a few minutes of I’m a Celebrity as a result of that unsettling disconnect with reality. And also because seeing someone gag whilst eating a kangaroo’s genitalia is probably enough for one lifetime.
But reading the news later, I was struck that the ultimate winner proved to be one of the “stars” from Gogglebox, whose appears to hail from somewhere north of Watford Gap. Which struck me as a very circular affair: here is a person who becomes a TV celebrity by watching and commenting on other TV celebrities, and then enhances her celebrity by appearing on a programme dedicated to eliminating celebrities one by one (rather like Highlander, if you’ve seen the film, where the cast of immortals chop each other’s heads off until there’s only one of them left).
I had some more luck on the celebrity front with Strictly Come Dancing, in that I actually recognised one of the contestants. The issue I had, however, was that the sight of a dad-dancing Ed Balls strutting his stuff in sparkly Spandex threatened to blow out all the cerebral synapses I keep specially reserved for maintaining my connection with the real world. Unable to cope with such an alternative take on “reality”, I had to reach for the “off” button before I started having waking-nightmares where Teresa May competed in our pub’s karaoke night or Jeremy Corbyn took up residence serving in my local chippie.
It was a close run thing, I can tell you.
Thank goodness, I thought, that X Factor has no such perils as celebrities doing things they really shouldn’t. But a quick gander at that revealed a middle-aged white woman in very large dark glasses and a 1980s vintage shellsuit who was patently unable to string two notes together without causing deep offence, if not a bad case of tinnitus, to anyone within hearing distance.
That was only the half of it.
The songs she was unable to sing turned out to be misguided attempts at what I’ve been told people call gangsta rap, or hip-hop, or grime, depending on what side of the tracks they were born. Several minutes were endured listening to this, mostly in the hope that the audience and the panel would subsequently disillusion her of her pretentions of talent and consign her back home on the first bus to Basildon (or whichever circle of hell she lived in). No such luck. They actually seemed to like what she did.
If nothing else, this did demonstrate the adage that you can fool a lot of people for large tracts of time. Especially on television.
Thank goodness there was only one reality show left to view. And as it involved cakes, what could possibly go wrong? Luckily there was one familiar face I recognised, as it was an older version of the face that used to adorn many of the cookbooks from what I will call “the good old days of cookbooks”, when you only had a limited selection to choose from when making your Christmas present purchases. You may remember those days – before everyone in the land who could poach an egg was publishing at least six cookbooks a year.
This should be a nice, sweet, gentle hour of viewing I thought. Mistakenly. Apparently baking cakes in 2016 only includes short sections of pummelling flour and eggs and drizzling lemon in an artistic fashion. The rest of the time it involves tears, tantrums, dramas evolving into crises, meltdowns, breakdowns, dressing downs, an overabundance of overfamiliar hugs and behind the scenes multi-million pound contract shenanigans.
So it’s back to Planet Earth II for me. In fairness, I have grown fond of my viewing position behind the sofa. I take bags of crisps and glasses of wine there and come out when the music sounds sufficiently soothing and life affirming for me to watch. I like reality, but if I’m honest, there’s only so much of it that I can take.
Image from: http://bakeoff.wikia.com