Friday, December 10, 2010

unreal and unjust

The nation is on a heightened state of alert. There is tension everywhere and speculation that something awful might happen. People are talking about it at home and at work; productivity has declined and internet chat has increased dramatically. We have to suffer the anxiety and the frustration that, individually, we can do very little to influence the outcome. All we can do is wait and see what happens; for some the state of terror they are in is almost unbearable. Somebody we don’t like might win the competition, as our favourite Reality TV shows reach their finals.

You can tell it’s Reality TV because it is so detached from the reality most people know, and the men hug each other. In no particular order, the contestants dance, they sing, they cry, they swear, they complain, or they just talk rubbish in the hope of gaining a job working for someone whom, apart from the highly attractive salary, nobody in their right mind would want to work for.

If politicians could somehow stimulate the passion, the love, the hatred, the interest and the excitement shown towards the contenders in X-factor, Strictly Come Dancing and the Apprentice then turnout at elections would be enormous, and democracy would be back in fashion. If we felt the same level of caring about ordinary and disadvantaged people then charities would be awash with funds and every day would be Christmas.

But we don’t of course and never will. We want celebrities, known or unknown, because they are special. They either have talents we admire, and wish we had, or they have a conspicuous lack of talent at what they are asked to do, lured into jumping out of their comfort zone by the temptation of more fame and publicity and huge sums of money, that we wish we had.

Watching them just competing on TV is nowhere near enough. We must have the spin-off programmes too so we can keep up with what they are feeling, what publicity they are getting, what romantic liaisons they have formed and how much it all means to them, to which the usual answer is everything. We need to read about them in newspapers and magazines, make posts in chat forums and listen to phone-ins so that we can all debate (passionately of course) who should win and who should be thrown out, metaphorically although many would prefer physically.

On X-factor, the audience screams continually when the judges are judging, hating them for saying anything critical of their favourites, loving them for praising a good performance. And the judges want to be loved, so they usually say something nice, whilst with little subtlety encouraging the voters to prefer the acts they each own, or, as they like to put it, mentor. Some say it is all fixed, but it isn’t; at least no more than any democratic election is perverted by tactical voting.

The public decide ! Aren’t we lucky. Well, we partly decide; we choose between those contestants that the judges engineer to reach the final stages. We always keep in one of the talentless for as long as possible because we want to upset the system, show its flaws, teach the authorities that we are in charge, and have a good laugh. The most marketable will win through in the end.

No other show generates as much emotion, some of it surfacing in disturbing ways, for example the vile, and often illegally threatening, twitters about the contestant Cher, who, as some say, may well be as or even more unpleasant than her critics but stayed in the competition because people voted for her. So who are the haters attacking; her or their fellow viewers who voted her in each time ? This is a vitriolic civil war between players in an unreal and entirely trivial game.

On the curiously titled Strictly Come Dancing, this year they abolished the power of judges to choose between the two couples least preferred by the viewers. It may have seemed a good idea at the time, power to the people and all that, but it wasn’t. It resulted in the continued appearance week after week of the smug and mouthy Anne Widdecombe on the show, well past her natural expiry date. She was the joke contestant from the start, but the joke wore thinner each week that she captured the hearts and malice of the voting viewers. She can’t dance at all, and doesn't even look good (the essential talent in all Reality TV shows), but still maintained the arrogance and conceit of a time honoured politician. Despite her high academic intelligence, she mistakenly thought that she commanded the support of her voters because they liked her and empathised with her absurdly spurious notion that she was representing the ordinary elderly lady amidst a collection of the beautiful, young and talented people.

No, she stayed in because we wanted to laugh at her, to revel in schadenfreude, to see a famous politician lifted up and then thrown to the floor and receive deserved criticism from those judges, i.e. Craig and Bruno, who were (unlike their colleagues) not afraid of telling it as it was, even if it endangered their own popularity. Overwhelmingly awful, as Craig rightly said of her, when he was able to utter anything, so sickened as he was by the ugliness of her movements on what he sees as the sacred land that is a dance floor. In another age, she would have appeared at the Coliseum in Rome, a club in her hand, chasing after similarly shaped and unfit combatants until all but one met a bloody and horrible death. Now, that would ‘up the ratings’ in the Reality TV wars.

But even she can be easier to watch and listen to than most of the would be Apprentices. Chosen largely for their ghastliness, their eagerness to argue with each other in their fight to be top dog (or bitch), they amaze us with their unjustified self-obsession, their incongruous ignorance, and their insensitivity. Proud Children of Thatcher, they speak in random phrases torn from a badly written ‘Business for Dummies’ textbook. They don’t have abilities, they have a skill set; a strategy instead of a plan; a methodology rather than a method; they make errors of judgement but never mistakes. They all give at least 110% but can’t calculate a percentage. They know nothing about project management but all rate themselves as expert.

And yet they are a watchable drug that is so easy to become addicted to. We want to laugh at how they make a mess of the tasks, we are embarrassed by their lack of embarrassment, we want to know what they will say and do next, we want to see them fight (almost literally) for survival, to set upon each other with venom, stab their team mate in the back, and plead with a stern, sour, unimpressed Lord Sugar to allow them just one more chance to prove themselves not even half as brilliant as they think they are. The cheating Laertes killing Hamlet with a poisoned sword could not match the vindictive melodrama of the boardroom. Whatever nastiness the loser has been dealt by a colleague, a false but heart warming hug is always the next scene. As they say in the Godfather, it’s business not personal.

One contestant seemed to be breaking the mould. Personable, intelligent, and sensible, Liz spoke in non-bizspeak language, knew what she was doing and worked hard. She could sell, plan, manage people and was numerate and literate. Not the kind of self-absorbed, jumped up, cold, humourless anti-personality that the Lord would hire. So she had to go of course, and this week, despite being by far the best on her team, she did.

Nobody should watch Reality TV to see fairness or reality, nor should we complain at their absence. It is a compelling mixture of randomness and contrivance. That's the whole talking point of it.



At January 06, 2011 10:17 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't agree re Liz at all at all. She was spiteful towards the eventual winner in a most undignified way. Ho hum, my disagreeing supports the thrust of your post anyway :-)


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