Okay, so I'm a bit of a tv addict. I can go passive in front of the small screen for sustained periods, and enjoy it. It's a guilty pleasure, and there's no denying that much of what is consumed while gazing at the tube is mind-numbingly insubstantial. But I'm here today to laud the genre of 'Reality Television' - at least some of it. Now a junkie will always defend his or her poison, and you might put this down to nothing more or less than that. But keep an open mind. I won't argue that television deserves the share of my lifescape that it holds, let alone that of the average North American. However, there's a merit to reality shows that shouldn't be overlooked. And I'm here to testify.
So what's the particular flavor of my poison? It starts with Biggest Loser, the weight-loss marathon show that I blogged about a year ago. The favorites that I've added since, and that I watch regularly are So You Think You Can Dance? and yes, The X Factor. But it doesn't end there. Channel-surfing to put off bed time turns up all sorts of unexpected reality fare. (Did you know there's a match-making show on which this guy who lives in his parents' basement has a bunch of young women bunking up in the house while he eliminates them one by one? And no, that's not one that's hooked me) So occassionally I find myself watching an episode of The Amazing Race, Iron Chef, or Survivor! In fact, I've watched season finales of four of these shows in just the last week, and I'm eagerly awaiting the finale of The X Factor on Wednesday. Yes, I've got it bad!
But wait! Before you write me off as a loser, living vicariously through the anything-but-real fantasy fodder of media tycoons, let me make my case. Which is, that these shows are often thrilling, authentic and inspiring windows into possibility! Yes, inspiring!
I'm inspired watching a group of people transform both their bodies and sense of self, reclaiming movement and dynamism, as they replace an often life-long repertoire of putting off and avoiding life (Biggest Loser). I'm thrilled as I watch couples dashing around the globe, while engaging in all sorts of limit-breaking challenges (The Amazing Race). And I'm absolutely awe struck at the grace and power of dancers, stretching the limits of what the human body can do, combining athleticism and artistry, creating moving poetry with their bodies, on So You Think You Can Dance.
The X Factor confirms for me that artistry and creativity is widespread, as is aspiration, courage and the willingness to dream. And sure, there are plenty of the deluded who show up for the auditions, displaying not a scrap of musical ability. I can't conclude anything about them really - there is sadness in some of them, desperation in others, a radiant joy and confidence in others. They are fascinating too. Among other things, they remind me that genius so often goes unrecognized. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his life - and that via his devoted brother, an art dealer. And Ornette Coleman, when he first arrived in New York with his plastic saxophone, was laughed at and chased off stages, for not knowing how to play.
But as for the group of performers that made it to the playoffs - they all do magic with their voices, and with their showmanship. And the final three for tomorrow night's finale are dreamers all: a pudgy, thirty-something burrito maker, who first appeared on stage a scruffy, unkempt mess; a young, tatooed garbageman just out of rehab, and a young immigrant from the Caribbean who seemed absolutely ordinary until she opened her mouth and let out a blazing, electrifying voice.
Survivor fascinates me as a kind of ultimate game. It reminds me of Thucydides and his epic work about the wars between ancient Athens and Sparta. He writes in his introduction to the work that war presents the best opportunity for studying man, because he reveals his true self when under the extreme pressures and discomforts that war places him in. And survivor seems to back that up, as contestants, placed in a pseudo state-of-nature environment, learn their true values and limits. Again and again they try - and generally fail - to maintain friendship, loyalty and principle, while simultaneously strategizing to secure the million dollar prize. I'm repeatedly thrown into wondering, as I watch the plots and aliances form and dissolve, "What would I do?"
And when all is said and done, I don't know that there's anything that approaches The Iron Chef for the sheer intensity of creative artistry. I'm dazzled watching the competing chefs come up with multiple ways to prepare each show's 'secret ingredient', which could be anything from pork loin to pinapple, or, as on one recent show, popcorn.
Each one of these shows inspires or moves me in some way. They remind me of possibilties I don't always make room for in my life. They tease out my dormant potential, support and encourage my dreams. Which is all good. I know that one of the complaints about television is that it can too easily become a substitute for living; televised dreams can become easy stand-ins for actualized dreams. It may be so. But that's choice too, isn't it? I have a rich live, but I also thrill at richness in the lives of others, strangers and friends. Will I ever actually take on one of the other-worldly and larger than life adventures that these shows tantalize me with? Not likely. But it seems to me that, just as books and movies, music and bedtime stories have all had their role in openning the world to me, these shows do as well. They make the world a little bigger, but also a little closer; they thicken my personal catalogue of "What I Might Do." And, in the larger realm of aspiration and possibility, they link me to you.