Some people make New Year's resolutions to give themselves motivation to try new things, have new experiences, make positive changes to their lives. I'm the opposite; every year I choose something to give up. It started with diet soda, then all artificial sweeteners, and in 2013 I took a deep breath and decided to drastically cut back on my Bravo intake. This plan was somewhat compromised when I realized that it ultimately was going to fall on me to inform Grantland's readership about the saddest show on television, but now that the Beverly Hills housewives have sealed their third season with champagne toasts and casual accusations of inter-sibling death wishes, I could finally begin my Bravo cleanse in earnest. No more housewives, no more matchmakers, no more watching what happens — be it live, on demand, or on DVR. Maybe I'd even start watching The Americans or something crazy like that.
But then, not 12 hours after the final credits ran on the RHOBH reunion, Bravo announced "their largest slate of original programming ever," and I suddenly knew how Kim Richards felt clinking her plastic water bottle against the flutes of bubbly. This used to be my lifeblood, but now, like Bubba shipped off to 'Nam, I'm forced to just sit and list all the countless varieties of delicious scripted reality, keeping myself sane by imagining them in all their mind-numbing, opiate glory.
Anyway, here are some shows I'm not watching this year.
Of all the reality television dinosaurs, The Real World is maybe my third favorite, behind the friendly brontosaurus Survivor and the reliably mean T. rex American Idol. At its best, the flexible format and the world's endless supply of virgins with weird backstories make for an interesting social experiment (see: Hollywood's Greg Halstead with his "peasants" and "associates"; New Orleans's Ryan Leslie with his homophobia and inventive new uses for hair dryers). The compulsory employment, introduced in Season 5 (this season, everybody's working at an aquarium called Coral World — the aquarium has been used as a metaphor for the show for like 20 seasons; remember that crappy poem from Real World: San Francisco?), provides the only real structure for the show. Its watchability hinges almost entirely on its cast: You don't have to have any vested interest in housewife culture or assimilated Gypsies to enjoy it, because there's usually someone to identify with no matter what your bag happens to be. I ran into Puck at the Studio City farmers market two years ago and remembered how influential he was on my junior high school's loogie-hawking scene, and I can't hear "Goodnight, Irene" without my brain reflexively playing the words "because you're a homosexual, Stephen" over it, with a slapping noise.
With the loads upon loads of reality shows on television, I've come to the conclusion that anyone can be a reality "star" — all it takes are a few simple life-altering changes. Thank GOD I'm here to help
TO BE A FEMALE REALITY STAR
You've got to be batshit crazy.
I say this with love and honesty, but if you're not willing to have a fistfight in the front yard or flip a table over when someone disagrees with you, no one wants to see your boring ass on their television. If you don't get your way, you are going to have to be able to lose your freaking mind in front of children and senior citizens. You may find yourself pulling out hair extensions or scissor-kicking your nail lady, but that's how real Americans want to be entertained; keep reminding yourself you're doing the Lord's work. It's important to blow every little mundane aspect of your life completely out of proportion. Your dinner parties are the most important thing going on in the world. If the table linens are not to your liking, heads better roll.
Even if it goes on forever and is never any damn good again, it will be the Zippo flame with which I burn my palm, G. Gordon Liddy-style, to prove my devotion to the medium of reality television. I’m even going to watch the reunion show that airs on MTV tonight, even though, if past reunions are anything to go by, this one will yo-yo tonally between mildly contentious and gun-to-the-head stilted and suck away an hour of my life without teaching me anything. I don’t care. I’ll watch it, and I’ll be back for Season 6, which begins filming in Seaside this summer, despite abundant evidence that there’s not enough Ron-Ron Juice left in the tank to get this vehicle around the block one more time. I have made a commitment. I want to see what happens to these people, even if what happens to them is nothing. Which I guess means I just like looking at them on a screen, and that there is no objective difference between me and Pauly D’s stalker, except physical distance and the fact that I don’t carry a sparkly bag.
Bravo's new show Love Broker — which premiered last night — gives us the life of Lori Zaslow, a New York-area matchmaker for the firm Project Soulmate. She is skinny and blonde and pretty and nutty. The fictional characters she calls to mind are 30 Rock's Jenna Maroney, or a hybrid of Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe in Cruel Intentions. How would Jonathan Franzen feel about Edith Wharton if she had looked like Lori Zaslow? We will never know, because Jonathan Franzen doesn't watch TV and doesn't read the Internet or have a Google name alert set up. (Isn't that right, Jonathan Franzen?) Lori is married to some dude, a fact she brings up pointedly in her introduction to demonstrate that she lives what she teaches. Said dude is trotted out a few times, and is seen in promos proclaiming his wife "a fucking rock star" and standing next to her at charity events. This all reads as a dig at Patti Stanger, Bravo's original yenta from The Millionaire Matchmaker, whose unwed status is often thrown at her by violent bachelors when her setups fail. Where Stanger is harsh, brittle, and lookist, Zaslow is harsh, brittle, lookist, and blonde. Zaslow uses more false positivity to pump up the blind dates, but also says really crazy or mean things and just delivers them with a smile.
Remember 30 Rock's fictional reality TV show MILF Island? “25 Super-Hot Moms, 50 eighth grade boys, no rules”? That was a pretty great joke, right? Well, enjoy that subgenre of referential humor while you can. If current projections hold, in only a matter of months no form of knowing, arch reality TV satire, parody, or spoof will be possible. That's right: We are now heading directly, face-forward, and at a dangerously rapid rate, into a world where even the dumbest, most outrageous reality TV show concepts get immediately green-lit. Exhibit A: Teen Weddings.
My first memory of reality television dates back to the early 90's when MTV first brought us The Real World. The true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens, when people stop being polite and start getting real.
Most people around my age (I'm 33) watched at least one season of The Real World. It was totally intriguing. There were drunken fights, sex between roommates, people of different upbringings and sexual orientations all thrown together in some incredibly nice house that they would eventually fuck up beyond recognition. It got to the point where I couldn't wait to see how bad these sloppy kids would jack these tricked out houses up. Dishes piled in the sink, dirty sheets, and filthy bathrooms. It was a train wreck and I couldn't get enough.
Last week, Howard Stern announced that he will be joining the judge’s table on the NBC show America’s Got Talent, replacing Piers Morgan as ‘the judge with an actual opinion.’ Even as a prosumer of media, I really don’t know the difference between American Idol, X-Factor, and America’s Got Talent -- they are all shows attempting to manufacture stars who can capture the hearts of Middle American audiences. The only real difference is in the voice of the show, and now we will know AGT as ‘the show with Howard Stern as a judge’ in the same way that we know American Idol is ‘the show that used to have Simon Cowell as a judge.’
Depending on your perspective on the current media landscape (which basically depends on how old you are), Howard Stern’s title as “The King of All Media” might be a bit outdated. Not based on diminishing power as an influencer, but just because the internet has turned our perception of everything that doesn’t appeal to conservative Middle America into a ‘niche voice or content source.’ Even the massive cult of Howard Stern could be considered a ‘niche product for high end consumers’ if you aren’t a SiriusXM subscriber. The internet empowers unique voices to build tribes, but it also lets the loudest voices exist in quiet corners.
The past few years have been tough, and so it makes sense that we have sought comfort in adult footed pajamas, bacon, butter, and remaining in our romantic relationships even when the box has been open so long that they’re as stale as cardboard nuggets. It makes sense that, over a period of time when many of us have lost our jobs and residences, we seek ways to self-parent by wrapping ourselves up in Snuggies and devoting grandma-like brain space to what will make up our three squares a day. The connection between food and emotion is complex, covering all sorts of ground from vitamin deficiencies to sense-activated memory: Even thinking about comfort food is enough to combat loneliness. Is that why we watch so many cooking shows?
For a while, almost every dating show on TV could trace its lineage back to that time Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen were boning. Chuck D’s hypeman and Sly Stallone’s ex-jumpoff first hooked up on The Surreal Life, then got their own car-crash spinoff, Strange Love. When they broke up, VH1 kept milking the surprisingly potent Flav train with The Bachelor knockoff Flavor of Love. It was a hit, and the bonanza began. The simulacrums came for such luminaries as Tila Tequila, with A Shot at Love, and Bret Michaels, with Rock of Love. More bizarre were the spinoffs. Flavor of Love birthed I Love New York, in which bachelors sought the heart of a popular Flavor of Love contestant, Tiffany “New York” Pollard. I Love New York then birthed its own spinoffs featuring popular contestants, Frank the Entertainer in a Basement Affair and Real Chance of Love (starring, yep, Real and Chance). Just to be clear what we’re talking about here: These were dating shows that starred people famous for being on a dating show that itself starred people famous for being on a dating show that starred a famous person.
It’s hard to be a person who enjoys reality television. Not only do you have to struggle with the stigma of being the kind of piggy media-vacuum that sucks up big tumbleweeds of TV-watching every day, but you must at some point acknowledge your involvement in creating celebrities out of people who are (or — more likely perhaps — presented as) often scuzzy, vapid, or just downright horrible. You may worry, during some idle hour after watching what you swear will be your last episode of Jersey Shore, if you are responsible for making Snooki (and I should make the distinction between Snooki and Nicole Polizzi, the character on Jersey Shore versus the person none of us know: As with all reality show cast members, there exists the possibility that, like Jessica Rabbit, they aren’t bad, but just drawn that way). You may feel, down to the dark and most honest root of your confused soul, as though you never really cared about Snooki, but in fact you cared enough to train your eyes on her for several seasons. You familiarized yourself with her vernacular and recognized her unflattering likeness on South Park. You had a tent and occupied Jersey Shore in an accidental cultural movement; if you had been alone in your passive interest, it wouldn’t have mattered, but you were one of so many people that, for about a year, you could see the footprint of the show from space, and its halo of hair gel, and its Obey T-shirt.
But there is a show that causes an even bigger self-hate reaction. That show is The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.