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Let’s Put the ‘Reality’ Back in Reality TV

How about a domestic version of Survivor, in which contestants are dropped off in Detroit and challenged to make a living?

by
Patricia Beauchamp

Bio

December 29, 2008 - 12:00 am

Ever since the economic crisis hit, news coverage has reported how all facets of America are coming to grips with the sobering effects of the recession. Even Hollywood, where economizing means not upgrading your assistant’s Blackberry, has had to go back to the drawing board to adjust to this “new reality.”

While Tinseltown power brokers still feel it’s best to push escapism on the big screen, they’re expressing sensitivity — or the closest thing Botox will allow — everywhere else. For television, they’re going to emphasize blue-collar heroes and pull back on shows and movies that celebrate conspicuous wealth. Smart move. With folks like Bernard Madoff helping billionaires lose their fortunes faster than the auto industry can hemorrhage jobs, depictions of excess would be as appropriate as trying to sell a Slip-n-Slide in Ethiopia.

Surely, the “new reality” should have some effect on the so-called reality of unscripted programming; otherwise it would lose its credibility as “reality TV.” And, let’s face it — nothing mirrors the world as accurately as shows like The Bachelorette. What is more believable than 25 hot, gainfully employed bachelors vying for a committed relationship with a woman?

It seems the most innocuous reality programs are the ones that will need the most adjustment to keep pace with the times. Home and garden shows could be hit the hardest, for what seems more frivolous than choosing paint color for a window box when your house is being foreclosed on?

I once considered The Learning Channel’s My First Home an uplifting show about people living out the American dream. Looking back on an episode about a buyer with bad credit, I can’t help but wonder how things stand today. TLC should launch a follow-up show revisiting those first-time homeowners. It could be called That House I Used to Have or My First Home: It Would Have Been Less Painful if it Had Fallen on Me.

If the creators of unscripted TV shows want to avoid appearing out of touch, they should consider adapting their existing programs to the new circumstances. This might even offer some viewers a little catharsis.

For example, TLC’s Trading Spaces — where neighbors redecorate a room in each other’s home — could allow CEOs of now-bankrupt companies like Lehman Brothers to swap houses with the workers who have lost their jobs and life savings. Just imagine what a kick it would be for those former employees to put their own personal touch on an executive’s living room. Who says urine isn’t just as good as primer?

Surely the makers of Survivor see the potential for a domestic version of the show given the hostile conditions in many American cities. I can see it now … Survivor: Detroit. A bunch of uber-competitive celebrity wannabes are dropped off in the Motor City and challenged to make a living that could sustain a spouse and two kids. After a few weeks of fruitless job searches, they will be begging to join the Survivor casts who have to eat grubs.

During this avalanche of bleak financial reports, MTV continues to roll out celeb-driven offerings that have little connection to the real world, not to be confused with its ubiquitous series, The Real World, which also set the precedent for having no connection to the real world. 50 Cent: The Money and The Power, which has been described as a hip-hop version of The Apprentice, offers contestants a chance to prove they’re ready to be a mogul. But I think regular people should host their own show: 50 Cent – That’s All We Have Left in Our 401(k).

In the years since reality TV became the dominant force on the airwaves, flipping through the channels has been an exercise in trying to avoid celebutantes searching for their new bling, Bentleys, and BFFs.

The pervasiveness of shows that celebrate the lifestyles of the rich and useless has left me avoiding the Zoom-whitened smiles of the over-privileged in much the same way I race to press “1” for English before I have to hear “para espanol” on voice menus. But with the Dow going up and down, then down some more 00 the bad news on the stock market could spell relief for me and anyone exhausted by “excess” TV.

I predict more shows about former moguls who will have to adjust to life as regular people. It could be as heart wrenching as the video diary entry Sean P. “Diddy” Combs posted during the gas crisis, begging his Arab “brothers” to lower the cost of oil so he could once again use his private jet. I was so touched. In fact, I thought about suggesting an “Adopt-a-Diddy” program at local schools. “Please kids. Forget about saving those pennies for your college education. Diddy is having to fly commercial!”

Call me a sadist or the ultimate optimist, but I am thankful there’s finally an upside to the downturn: maybe reality TV will actually have to earn its name and reflect a little — I don’t know — reality.

Patricia Beauchamp is a writer living in Los Angeles.
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