I Think We Owe Reality Television An Apology

So, I was listening to a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast–which is a very good podcast if you are into podcasts–in which he interviewed Joe Rogan about whatever it is that Marc Maron is always interviewing people about. Sad boners? I feel like that show, which I have already pointed out is great, is mostly about who has the saddest boner. ANYWAY: at one point in the conversation, Marc brought up Joe Rogan’s time hosting Fear Factor, and went into some kind of Marxist tirade against that show, reality television in general, and most fantastically, Joe Rogan’s responsibility for the ruination of Western Civilization. Oh brother. Now look, I’m no Joe Rogan apologist. The flame war he got into (and lost) on MySpace with a 20-year-old boy is still one of the funniest things the Internet has ever seen. Also Fear Factor was a particularly awful show. TALK ABOUT (EATING) SAD BONERS! But, Marc Maron’s argument that Joe Rogan is somehow responsible for, well, anything, seems patently ridiculous. He was the hired host of a reality show! Everyone has to eat. How else was he supposed to put Muscle Milk and flax seed smoothies on his family? He didn’t invent the show, or pay for it, or put it on his network. He just stood in front of the camera and said “Put this in your mouth.” Give the guy a break! (I also find it hard to believe, although I haven’t finished the episode, so maybe Marc Maron addresses this, but I find it hard to believe that if given the opportunity, especially back when Fear Factor was actually on, that Marc Maron would not take that opportunity. So what are we even talking about here?)

But there was actually a more interesting thing that struck me in listening to this argument about who is to blame for reality television and what the overwhelming reality TV explosion has done to popular culture and the general argument that it is dumbing the culture down and that it is overall a “bad” thing that got me thinking: well, no. I’m not the biggest fan of reality TV, a lot of it is very stupid and very garbage, but I don’t know how problematic that is, and the more I think about it, the more the categorization of reality TV as “bad,” and the idealization of a pre-reality TV culture as “better” just seems false. Marc Maron owes Joe Rogan an apology! (Unless he apologized to him in the part of the episode I have not finished listening to yet! What do I look like, an actual journalist who does his research?!) That being said, I think we (as in myself and the people who read this website) have probably found ourselves thinking along the same lines as Marc Maron on this subject in the past, so, if anything, we owe reality TV an apology.

First of all, some reality TV is abjectly miserable (I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant), and some of it is just dumb (The Real Housewives of New Jersey), and some of it is incredibly entertaining but morally suspect (Hoarders), and some of it is pretty decent (Top Chef). There are all kinds now! So it’s just not possible to make a broad, all-encompassing claim about it. It’s just a structure, and it’s hard to get mad at a structure. A good way to think about this problem is in the evolution of one of the first reality shows: The Real World*. The first couple of seasons were genuinely interesting, and doing something new, and exploring the human drama in a new way. And the last couple of seasons are body shots on the first night in a Senor Frogs. Is one of them more demonstrative of reality TV than the other, or are they both reality TV? I say no!

THERE WILL BE A TEST ON THIS LATER. Sorry, I’m not trying to take everyone to Boring And Simplistic Thoughts About TV School. But it does seem like it’s something worth putting a little thought into, considering how pervasive it is, and how much time we all spend with it. Or not. I don’t know. TGIM!

More important than the argument defending reality television, though, is the argument ATTACKING the past. You guys, FUCK THE PAST! Don’t be fooled by that silver-tongued trickster! That motherfucker was just as lazy and crude and dumb as the present is. Not to mention racist as hellllllll. The argument that Marc Maron made (remember that part?) about how reality TV forced out scripted television and killed a lot of TV writing jobs is kind of true, but it doesn’t tautologically prove that those scripted TV shows were any good. Because they weren’t! Do you know how much bad television there has been in the history of television PRIOR to reality shows? Most. Most of it. Absolute garbage. MOREOVER, I like to think (because that is how convincing logical arguments are constructed, by how much you like to think stuff) that our scripted television is actually better NOW and probably BECAUSE of reality TV. Those who reject that omnipresent new form of “mindless” entertainment are looking for something more engaging, and shows like The Wire, and 30 Rock, and Justified are there to provide just that. Television is awesome right now, actually! In your face, Family Matters!

So enough about reality TV. It is certainly not going anywhere. And a lot of people like it! Good for them! We should all be so lucky as to find something in this world that makes us momentarily forget about the inexorable approach of our own death even if it is just for an hour and it involves a lot of screaming. Besides, it wasn’t ever any better. This guy knows what I’m talking about:


*I recognize there is already a fatal flaw in my argument right here, insofar as someone could point out that looking at the evolution of The Real World expresses exactly what I am supposedly countering: that reality TV is moving in one inexorable movement away from human stories and towards stupidity, alcohol abuse, sordid sexual exploitation, and base-level “entertainment.” But I still think it is a) impossible to claim that reality TV is any one thing, and b) my second point about the ways in which the “golden era” of the past is deceptive may be the stronger of the two points.