Not having watched much reality television after intentionally avoiding it for years, there’s no way to be sure this was The Reality Low Point. But if not, please don’t tell me what was.
It was one of those dating reality shows where young, generically attractive Los Angelinos go out on a first date followed by a camera crew eager to record and broadcast their every uncomfortable moment. Throughout, and unbeknownst to them, balloons pop over the young couple’s heads to inform the viewer what, supposedly, they’re really thinking. Bon mots such as, “She’s hot,” and “His breath stinks.” The players are the usual, young, undiscovered, wanna-be actors who office temp by day and dream of this chance by night; the chance to exploit themselves in a local television market where their mothers in Ohio won’t see them but a casting agent might — the casting agent who will finally discover what they’ve known all along: That they are the stuff of movie stars.
If this seems like a lot of know-how coming from someone who claims to avoid reality shows, my defense is that the grandkids were in town. Three of them, ages nine to thirteen, were fresh off the plane when the unthinkable happened.
They were innocently splayed out on the floor in front of the television still unaware of the evils of the world and intrigued by dating reality television, something they don’t see back in quaint ole Wisconsin. What plot points led our young television daters into the back of that van, and where the second girl came from, I can’t say. What I can say is that I walked into the television room to find my unspoiled grandkids watching the two young women admiring the young man’s pixilated, uhm, nudity.
This was at four in the afternoon.
My explanation for immediately hustling the kids into the car and off to church probably wasn’t terribly coherent at the time, but in my mind it was our only hope. Surely the apocalypse was moments away and time to get right with God.
That was three years ago. Since then, thanks to their popularity, ability to be produced cheaply, and immunity from writer strikes, the reality genre has only increased. Today, there are few channels out of our hundred-plus where at some time during the day there isn’t some barely-was/has-been shamelessly contriving melodrama — or some off the street never-was, desperate for the validity they are in fact special doing the same. But out of all this — Jerry-Springering-without-the-live-audience — has come something a little wonderful.
The return of the working class hero.
God bless America, the popular new wave of reality shows — and some of the highest rated on cable — have nothing to do with vaguely familiar botoxed faces or the everyday people who ape them. Instead, we’re watching men and women comfortable in their own skin, ingenious at what they do, and unafraid of the hard, challenging work that makes our world go round. They catch the fish, drive the trucks, load the docks, build, create, and craft, often in environments and conditions so harsh they seem like superheroes.
But in a way they are. Who else has the stamina for twenty hour shifts in the freezing cold with waves crashing aboard and heavy equipment whizzing dangerously past? Who else possesses the bravery to drive an eighteen-wheeler over frozen water? They adapt, they overcome, and with calloused hands and nimble minds they gut-check through every working day doing the dirty jobs the rest of us won’t.
And we watch. We marvel at the men populating Ice Road Truckers, The Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs, and American Chopper. Men who cuss and smoke cigarettes and lose their tempers and get the job done. We marvel at the creativity that gets them through, and we marvel at those fascinating six minute segments taking us into the dit-dit of How It’s Made. We marvel enough that every new season brings another guy just doing what he does so well. This year it was exterminators. Like eating cotton candy or slowing to pick up the grisly details of a car crash, watching the fame-addicted humiliate themselves may well fascinate, but it doesn’t feel very good inside. But watching the people who take enormous pride in the difficult work they do makes this the healthiest television trend since Fox News upended the liberal media monopoly.
While the cultural divide grew as wide as flyover country between those who create television and those who watch it, we’ve seen the working class pretty much relegated to buffoonish sitcom husbands; balding, heavyset men, married to impossibly lovely wives who bubble with love but also deliver sharp zingers that manifest the contempt she (and the show’s creators) have for their mate’s humble station in life. Gone are the lunch bucket heroes. They’ve long been replaced by lawyers, doctors, perfectly tailored detectives, and Manhattan lofted friends.
But something good is happening on the higher-numbered channels where the nobility of hard work plays out in such a fascinating way that The Deadliest Catch has been “synergized” into a video game and a family of motorcycle builders are treated like movie stars by movie stars. Somewhere along the line, narcissism on parade took a back seat to the virtues of the men in flannel. Yes, it’s our dads, uncles, and neighbors.
This trend won’t last forever. None do. But for now let’s stop for just a second to take in this moment — the moment when the apocalypse has been postponed on account of the common everyday decency and resourceful intelligence of those who get their hands dirty.