Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Death of Reality TV

I have to admit that I was one of the first to jump on to the reality TV bandwagon back in the day of the original MTV's "Real World." The idea of watching real people living together under one roof and all the twists and turns of human relationships was just SOO appealing to me as a lover of observing people and the psyche.

Part of what attracted me to psychology as a field, was of course the helping people part of it, but I also truly enjoyed learning about social science research and I guess you could say, the highly scientific versions of watching how people dealt with controlled (or some would say "staged") circumstances.

The Milgram studies from the early 1960's, for example, were absolutely fascinating and controversial experiments about the power of authority figures to cause volunteer subjects to apply presumably painful electric shocks to confederate "subjects" when they missed answers to simple tasks. It was mind blowing to watch the old black and white films of these experiments and wonder just how far each subject would go, simply because they were told to do so.

Or the classic Stanford Prison experiment from 1971, where 26 male students were chosen to perform the roles of 'prisoner' and 'guard' to test how human beings conform to role expectations. The new movie "The Experiment" starring Adrian Brody and Forest Whitaker was inspired by a book about this real life study where the subjects go farther than imagined in their fake roles and situation.

So I guess when TV began tapping into reality setups, they tapped into my own curiosity about what makes us tick and how far will people go.

Among the first shows I became hooked on was the phenom American Idol and later the Amazing Race and of course Bravo's awesome Project Runway and Top Chef.

And I have to admit that I was tempted into the seedy side of it all with Tyra's America's Next Top Model and even, gulp, Big Brother for a few seasons.

I could overlook Tyra's over-the-top hysterics in each episode, just to watch the inevitable fight between the "plus-sized" token girl and the "I'm just too in love with myself" anorexic.

Who doesn't tune in to Survivor just to watch them wear less and less each week as they exploit a little flesh for instant celebrity?

But lately, I've been finding myself too often on the disgusted side of the aisle, screaming aloud that the judging was FIXED or fast forwarding through the increasingly obvious product placement in almost every reality show these days.

Who doesn't know for example that American Idol is sponsored by Ford and Coke. Or that Jenny-O turkey is apparently the only meat allowed on The Biggest Loser?

Again, I could overlook a lot of the constant selling selling selling, especially on my absolutely favorite shows because I thought they were of a higher quality, with actual ethics.

Project Runway used to be in that camp for me.

The first few seasons of PR had me so hooked, it was one of those few shows that I absolutely could not wait to watch every week. If I could, I would brave those damned commercials on live, non-DVR'd TV, just to be absolutely caught up. It just seemed that truly, from week to week, you never knew who was going to win the design challenge and that the judges absolutely tried to remain fair and unbiased.

I waited patiently with them through the long break when they were fighting it out with Bravo and trying to move to Lifetime. I even made it through the slightly boring (and a bit confusing) year in Los Angeles.

I breathed a sigh of relief when they moved back to New York and even when they brought back super-orange Michael Kors and slightly constipated Nina Garcia as regular judges again.

Yes, I vehemently disagreed from time to time with them.

I so disliked the neck-tatoo guy from season three that I railed at the TV and swore to stop watching (which I of course didn't as my senses gradually returned) because I actually did understand that his clothes were quite beautiful and exciting, even if I didn't think he, as a person deserved it.

This year however, was very different for me and there was something not right with this season.

Several times, the winners just didn't seem right to me. Michael C was one of the sweetest contestants in a while, but I never quite saw a consistent voice in his designs. He was so honest about it too because he never could quite explain himself, endearing me even more to him.

Gretchen's early wins were puzzling as well, especially the jumpsuit thingy selected for the cover of Marie Claire. Ok, I get that it's different and "edgy", but she never really brought that kind of edge again in my opinion.

And then those darned producers.

They absolutely played up the affected manner of Gretchen, every chance they got. Maybe she wasn't always so overly confident, critical or enunciating, but it sure seemed like it. And no amount of editing could excuse her constant talking out of both sides of her mouth about the other designers and about her own flaws in front of the judges.

Aside from her wretched persona on TV, nothing about her designs excited or interested me during the entire season so when she won, I felt different this year, even a bit betrayed.

I am willing to give credit where credit is due. An evil personality can create beautiful and exciting clothes. Jeffrey Sebelia as case in point.

In every other season, I understood early on, that the eventually winner had talent and was doing something new and interesting. I am not a designer, but I know what I respond to and in almost every other season, I responded at least a little in a positive way to the creativity or the skills or the choices of the ones who made it to the top.

This year, I felt nothing for Gretchen or her designs. I mean nada, zero, zilch.

Maybe it was just me, but when I logged on to the PR website and the PR Facebook page, I wasn't the only person shocked by the result or has such a negative and visceral reaction to her bland and monochromatic separates.

So it got me thinking.

Michael Kors and Nina seemed to dig their heels in during the "discussion" by the judges. Even Heidi, and fashion icon (just kidding) Jessica Simpson, could not convince them to change their minds.

I started to wonder if perhaps, the little disclaimer at the end of the show that states that

means that in effect, Gretchen was selected early on in the show and that what I am watching is less of a reality competition and more of an entertainment show.

I've watched the product placement so blatant in other shows slowly creep into PR over the seasons, from the Piperlime accessory wall to the Garnier Fructis hair products.

This season, of all others, has caused me to sit up and take note.

Maybe Michael Kors and Nina Garcia really don't have good taste. Or maybe they did but now their opinions and tastes are passe and it's time for new judges. I have to say that the two Michael Kors shirts that I own are among my least favorite, feeling rather cheaply made and showing signs of wear after just a few months of laundering.

But maybe, just maybe, PR has fallen into the pit of cash and ratings and this was the year to "shake things up" no matter how gross the result or how untalented the winner.

So, if this unhappy result can happen to my cherished PR, you know that it's been happening to the other reality shows too. Only beautiful people seem to be selected more and more and if I see one more close up of a product label, I'm going to puke.

American Idol has lost it's glitter and the Bachelor is just a mess.

On the upside of the evidence, we have better scripted TV shows than we've had in a long time.

I never miss GLEE of course and Modern Family actually has decent writing!

So here's to you, reality TV, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

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