Reality TV: The Return of the Working Class Hero

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.