It’s an interesting thing that the category of “reality tv” even exists. I suppose one could argue that anything other than Sci-Fi could be considered “reality” so that you could go all the way back to shows like “I Love Lucy” and claim that to be reality tv. However, I think most people will instantly know what I’m talking about when I refer to reality tv.
The first reality tv show that I remember was when “The Real World” came out back when I was in High School. The whole idea was for a bunch of people (12?) were picked to live in one house together and have a camera crew document everything that happened. In order to make things seem more real, the people picked couldn’t just be boring and the same, they had to all be “characters” that represented different aspects of society. Because who surrounds themselves with people who like the same things and believe the same things?
Of course, the show wouldn’t be very entertaining if there weren’t some personality clashes and drama. The good girl who gets caught sleeping around, someone comes out of the closet, someone’s expensive computer gets ruined etc. I mean, how boring would it be for people who were similar to one another to constantly attempt to give others the benefit of the doubt and sit down to calmly diffuse situations and work things out and work together selflessly?
At this point I think it’s interesting that most everyone I know would say that they hate drama, and try to avoid it at all costs. It just makes life more stressful and difficult doesn’t it? Then why is it that we are drawn to tv shows that have a ton of it? Somehow it’s a bad thing in real life, and a wonderful thing in “reality” tv. I can’t help but be reminded of ancient Rome here. I’m willing to bet that most of the people who attended the bouts in the Colosseum wouldn’t want to be in such situations in their lives, but it certainly was entertaining to watch it happen in someone else’s. I think both of these examples point to elements of human depravity. If we are able to enjoy watching drama on tv, perhaps we can find a way to make drama in real life easier. To pull a page from Ravi’s book, we think we can change the outcome if we observe it happening, or perhaps if we observe it happening and can associate good/happy emotions with it, and thereby make it not what it is. What does that mean? Well, we hear comedians all the time use humor to get out of awkward or immoral situations. We laugh so that we don’t have to deal with the fact that the act itself was immoral and needs to be thought about and judged etc. (I hear the objection of “no, I laugh because it’s funny” and my response would be, “ok, why is it funny? What is the point of that objection?”)
There were also shows like “Road Rules”, which was basically the same as “Real World”, except in an RV (I think). Because a house was just too boring. Which basically means it was too big and didn’t involve enough explosive atmospheres. To change that, they confined people to a smaller space and gave them challenges. In order to make it a bit more interesting, there were two teams competing with one another. Here we have all the fond memories of our own going on road trips combined with the spirit of competition where the prize might’ve been money or some trip or something (it’s been probably 7 or 8 years, give me a break.) Naturally, we all want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. But if the point of the show is that it’s “reality”, then there really aren’t clear-cut good guys and bad guys so much as one random collection of people against another, where the only moral judgments that can be made (even though we’ll say we shouldn’t make them, we all do, especially in entertainment) would be if someone decides to be a poor sport. It’s no wonder that was short lived.
Fast forward several years and we’ve got things like “America’s Got Talent” and “Dancing With the Stars” and “Lost” and “House” and “CSI” and “The River” etc. But those aren’t considered “reality” tv shows, are they? Are you sure? How do you tell? I suppose the previously mentioned shows we all recognize to be fake. Staged situations and hired actors who are paid to do their best to represent real life. These new shows are either real people in real competitions or they’re real (or close to real) situations that could possibly happen with actors thrown in, sort of a cross between tv and movies. Art imitating life imitating art. Let me ask you something, how do you tell the difference between a fake and a replica?
It seems there is one commonality amongst just about everything we watch, whether that is on tv or in movies, and that is that there is some aspect about us that we wish would happen or like to see it happen to others. We wish we were powerful or intelligent or successful or rich or had super powers. We like watching situations happen to others that we would never want to happen to ourselves so that we can say things like “well, I would’ve handled that better” or “the good guy needs to win, because I’m also a good guy” etc. It’s considered safe to pass moral judgments on things we know to be fake, while we’re in a society where it is not ok to pass judgments on things that happen in real life. However, what happens when those two worlds start to become blurred?
Take Charlie Sheen for example. How is it that he became known to us, even if we had never watched or heard of “Two and a Half Men”? Well, because he started doing/saying/writing things that were outlandish, over the top, and offensive. He lived, said, and did whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it with whomever he wanted to do it with. From what I’m told, this sort of care-free lifestyle is essentially what his character in said tv show was, albeit toned down. From his perspective, I suppose that was a natural shift to make, since his tv show was popular, and he was a popular character on said tv show, and he had become successful that way, why not simply become his character? At this point we have a few options, we can either pass a moral judgment onto this person, we can pretend we’re still watching him in not-so-real life, or we can just sort of laugh it off as if we can change the ending. It’s interesting how someone like Lindsay Lohan gets an eye roll from most people and Charlie Sheen gets a laugh. They’re doing similar things, but they are viewed so differently by just about everyone.
It’s as if we have taken a look at reality and tried to tone it down, that is, to live in such a way that we don’t offend anyone or make people jealous etc. We want things to be normal. However, we realize that normal is boring, so when we pay to get entertained, we don’t want normal, we want things to be abnormal, but not so abnormal that we couldn’t envision ourselves as the good guys and so live out their success in some way or another. So we want something that’s a lot like life, just not like the life that we’ve made for ourselves. When everyday people act like our entertainers, we stigmatize them in some way, since that’s just not how you act. When our entertainers become their characters we sort of don’t know what to do. It becomes a willful suspension of belief in the difference between reality and “reality.” Art imitating life imitating art.
Several people love movies that make you think. Movies like “The Matrix” and “Inception.” However, it’s more rare to find people who love to think about life and their own actions. Why is that? Perhaps it’s ok to think about things that have no bearing on reality, so that way when you go back to reality, you don’t have to add all that stress to your life. Interesting. We’ve gone from going to movies to get away from life and to turn off our minds and be entertained, to going to movies to get away from life and to turn on our minds and to think.
Lao Tze had a famous quote of “If, when I am sleeping, I am a man dreaming I am a butterfly, how do I know that when I am awake I am not a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” I think that sums up the two movies I mentioned fairly well, but I think these things point to a rather large problem we face in society. We’ve willfully jettisoned our grasp on reality. We don’t really want life to be as it is, so we attempt to construct it in such a way that it is how we want, then we go to get away from all that and be entertained by fake things which are made to be more real than real so that we can pretend that we are the characters. Then we have actors from those tv shows and movies who simply retain their characters (remember all that talk about Heath Ledger being possessed by The Joker?) and try to assimilate their lives into their characters, or perhaps life into their movies. Things like Star Trek’s multiverse becomes today’s science. Things like “the force” from Star Wars becomes today’s spiritual connection (think of the “higher power” or “nature” or “the big spirit”). Art imitating life imitating art. How do we tell the difference between a replica and a fake? How do we know if we are the butterfly or the man? How do we know we are not dreaming? How do we know we are not in someone else’s dream?
Traditionally, there have been a lot of attempts to answer these questions, but most of us feel that these answers have let us down, so we have to get rid of them. Get rid of religion, get rid of government, get rid of philosophy, get rid of science, get rid of democracy, get rid of morality. What happens now? What’s left? Do we even know who we are anymore, if we have blurred the lines of realty and “reality?” If we have jettisoned everything we can jettison, will that be enough to make sense of everything? So long as we get rid of everything outside of us, then we’re told all we have to do is look deeper inside of us to find answers. Down there somewhere, we are who we want to be, and who we want to be will slowly change the world. Down there somewhere is our totem. What happens if nothing actually changes, or worse, we don’t like what we see? What if Oprah, Deepak Chopra, The Dalai Lama, Donald Miller, Joel Osteen, and Rob Bell are wrong? What if traveling to holy sites, doing daily prayers, doing good deeds, trying to balance out our karma, confessing to a priest, and going deeper into ourselves doesn’t ultimately do anything in the long run? Then it seems that we are lost; not knowing who we are or where to go. If all of these fail, then it seems that the answer must be outside of us and our efforts. It must be personal, so as to be able to relate and care.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – Jesus (John 14:16)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9