I’ve been a professional screenwriter for most of my adult life, so the following admission is even more troubling than embarrassing (and it’s plenty embarrassing). I am a reality show addict. Not the network extravaganzas like American Idol or Survivor, which never captured my interest enough to turn on the TV. The truth is that I haven’t even watched a television drama or comedy series in years. I rarely see movies anymore either, at home or in the theatre.
But after just one innocent viewing of a show on Bravo, my world was altered. I can’t stop watching “Top Chef.” And that’s not all. The door opened a crack and now I’m devoted to HGTV’s “Design Star” too. When I say addicted, I mean addicted. To fill up airtime cheaply, these cable channels air multiple episodes in marathon blocks several nights per week. I can and do enthusiastically watch the very same episodes not just once, or even twice, but over and over… some times on consecutive nights.
I’m not alone. My nine-year old daughter is right beside me. And so, apparently are millions of viewers.
For years, media prognosticators have been making fat livings predicting the death of the cinema because of television, the death of network television because of cable, and now, the death of the sitcom because of reality television. I fear they are viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. I think we may be approaching the death of drama.
I asked my daughter why she liked to watch these same episodes over and over. She stated the obvious fact that real people are more interesting to watch. True enough, voyeurism is humanity’s guilty pleasure. But there is nothing unpredictable or shocking about the behavior exhibited by the participants in these shows. In fact, the opposite is true. They are fun to watch precisely because they are familiar character types we have all encountered in our daily lives. And any rare unexpected behaviors they do exhibit are no longer surprising on second viewing. Yet the fascination remains. I mean this with no disrespect to the contestants, but it’s akin to the pleasure one gets watching mountain gorillas move about their habitat at the zoo. No matter how many times I see a mother gorilla tenderly pick mites off her child, I am always enthralled. Why?
We’ve all read articles and watched “20/20” segments ad nauseum about scientific studies of body language and facial expressions. Girls unconsciously brush their hair behind their ears when talking to cute boys. The muscles used to form an involuntary smile are completely different from those used when a subject is asked to smile. In interactions with other people, our brains recognize and react accordingly to a thousand imperceptible signals.
Imagine then, what we are seeing when we watch even the cheesiest reality show, compared with the most impeccably acted drama. Not even Sir Alec Guinness could give us the richness of body language and facial cues emanating from eliminated contestant “Organic Josh” on this season’s Design Star. The difference to the brain between watching reality television and scripted drama is like the difference to our vision between High Definition television and 1970’s quality video.
Don’t even get me started on content… I’ll save that for next week.