Reality Bites

And tonight on pay-per-view, $14.95 can get you The Spirit of Diana – a seance in which a “trans-channeler” will attempt to contact the dead princess and find out if she was really pregnant, whether she still loved Charles, that kind of thing. While Diana was the subject of our very first editorial, back in 1997, we suspect that the end-product, while being undeniably tacky, will likely fail to plumb the depths far enough to merit shelling out. But it is yet another example of the untrammelled rise of reality TV.

As long-time fans of Jerry Springer (and, if the truth be told, occasional viewers of Judge Judy), it perhaps doesn’t seem right for us to rip into shows which are their cousins. But to me, there is a large gulf between watching Klansmen use their dying breaths to curse a relation who had the temerity to go out with (gasp!) a black man, and American Idol. This really shouldn’t need any further clarification.

We watch television for much the same reason we go to the movies, to escape from normal life, and this includes normal people. If we wanted to listen to people sing (with an alarming tendency to slide up and down the scale – hey, people, pick a note and stick with it), we’d head out to the nearest karaoke bar. And there, as the evening wore on, we could also witness Joe Millionaire and The Batchelorette, as people desperately try to impress those of the opposite sex.

It is, obviously, a cheap alternative to quality – you know, anything involving scripts and actors. Put a few people through a microscopic version of hell, be it living in the Amazon jungle or suffering the sarcastic remarks of the judges, with a tempting (usually financial) prize at the end and film their reactions. Simple, inexpensive and, it seems, a better chance of success than a regular drama.

It is especially galling when a great show like 24, which is genuinely pushing the boundaries, is pre-empted in the schedules for three weeks – and just when a nuclear bomb has been set off, too – to make way for some poor excuse for pseudo-entertainment, featuring people whom you would actively avoid if you worked in the same office. However, no matter how Chris and I may look at each and roll our eyes, the success of these shows suggests (in addition to proving that we must be from a different species) that we’re going to see more of them in future.

It’s tempting to supply a conspiratorial theory here, and quote the Roman author Juvenal: “The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things – bread and circuses!” Here we are, teetering on the edge of a war which will likely see another 100,000 Iraqi soldiers getting bulldozed into trenches, and people seem more concerned with the climax of American Idol. Coincidence? I think not. Perhaps that’s what Al-Qaeda needs – anyone up for Life with Osama? After all, it can hardly be any worse than The Anna Nicole Smith Show or The Osbournes, can it?