Friday, December 10, 2010

Just a Thought about Reality Shows

Go read Dave's post "Fallacies" if you haven't yet, it's much more weighty than this academic observation I've made:

Reality shows take place in the past.

Almost all of other storytelling formats - fictional TV, movies, novels, plays, even some documentaries - take place in the "literary present." Because fiction is made up and never actually happened, it "is happening" whenever you watch/read it - even if the setting is historical.

Reality shows, however - the kind that simply follow (and impose through judicious editing a narratife structure upon) the lives of various interesting individuals and pseudo-celebrities - can not take place entirely within the "literary present." Why? Because the lives of these real people continued after the show was finished being filming, and still continue to this day (or at least until their death). There is, in other words, story outside of the "story." A reality show, in this sense, is much more like, say, a show on the History Channel - a narrative imposed on the past - than it is like a scripted drama.

Sure, reality show producers enforce a code of silence on their subjects and crews to prevent the viewers from learning about the intervening history, but no matter what they do - particularly in the case of public figures who we are already aware of (like Marion Barry) - those peoples' lives continued after filming was done.

News programs, by contrast, take place in the actual present (excepting a trivial reporting delay). Documentaries either fall into the review-of-the-past type and are thus similar to reality shows as mentioned, or are stories imposed on random subjects in a version of "literary present." (Like the Earth series.)

However, unlike history shows, reality shows seem claim to be "literary present" because of the way they are shown; and unlike documentaries that are current but become dated, reality shows were dated from the very moment they aired.

(Note that this does not apply to some genres of reality shows, mainly contest-type ones like Top Chef, which, like game shows, take the contest [with its clear beginning-and-end] as their subject; since the contest ends with the show, it doesn't have the same issue with meta-show continuing lives as, say, Real World or The Osbournes.)

There has always been, for me, a slightly uncanny or awkward feeling to watching person-based reality shows, and I think this is something to do with it.

Some literary theory ruminations for your Friday morning!


jbrinke said...

i thought they were awkward the moment they became a genre.
and spiraled down hill from there

Aniruddha said...

Nice article. Last week my son got admission into the PHS Global Ecology and Science/Math programs and we are trying to decide which program he should join. I came across your article while searching for information on Google. Given a chance which program ( Global Ecology or Science / SMACS) would you join? We are talking to students who currently attend these programs but I would like to hear it from someone like you who has gone through the program. If possible, can you list the pros and cons of these programs? Would really appreciate your response. My email address is anisathe AT hotmail DOT com