Hollywood is a city powered by theater and creative writing majors, yet it is run by business administration majors, and there’s a lot of strife between the two camps as the studio heads try to figure out how to make as much money as possible while the writers and actors try to figure out how to make as much money as possible while maintaining creative integrity and, if possible, dignity. This past fall, just as Lucifer led angels against God (Paradise Lost) and Magneto led mutants against humans (X Men, X Men 2, X Men 3), Hollywood’s writers rose against the studio executives and went on strike in hopes of making more money. The result was several months without scripted television, and when the strike ended we got our TV back, but what we didn’t realize was that in all that time the writers weren’t working, they weren’t writing new summer replacement shows. Now, with no scripts to base shows on and an actors’ strike on the horizon, the studios have pulled the “Cop Out” crank and dumped even more reality TV shows onto the airwaves.
Of course I hate reality TV – why wouldn’t I? It’s a thing that most people like, and this blog seems to thrive on my not liking things that people like, and then making overly verbose penis jokes. I feel like that at heart, way back when the team of hamsters in control of television programming first drew up the plans for reality TV, they had somewhat honorable intentions that I, as a writer, can appreciate to some extent. Most reality TV shows, and by most I mean all, revolve around a group of ethnically and psychologically diverse people working together to achieve some sort of goal whilst quietly dicking one another over in pursuit of the big win (or, in some cases, just dicking one another – that, ladies and gentlemen, is this paragraph’s penis joke). Shows like Big Brother and Survivor are all espionage and backstabbing; everybody’s in cahoots with one another and lying to serve their own needs, yet despite all this they need to work as a team in order to build a mashed potato trough down a ramp that will guide a nonstop flow of gravy into a bucket in the interests of gaining the right to use pool toys (I’ve watched one episode of Big Brother and that is exactly what they did). Now, all of these elements – deception, pursuit of a common goal, bizarre feats involving gravy – appear to make for absolutely crackerjack entertainment, because they play people against one another at every turn in order to create conflict, which the basis for drama, which is the basis for storytelling. Just thinking about this sort of thing sets my creative parts a-tinglin’ as I try to imagine how best to play out each character’s emotions and actions as they struggle with and against one another and gravity itself in their attempt to channel a river of gravy into a bucket at the bottom of a ramp using nothing but mashed potatoes and their own two hands. This event is just one of thousands that provide fodder for emotional video confession booth sessions and hushed bedroom strategy meetings filmed in voyeuristic night vision green. On paper, a reality TV show looks like the best thing to happen to storytelling since the invention of the mafia.
The problem with all this (and there’s always a problem) is that what makes our favorite stories so great is that real people, the mainstay of reality television, aren’t in them. No one in the universe will ever be as cool as Han Solo: I don’t care if you smoke Camel Lights and shit black T-Birds; you’re never going to be able to stare down a vat of carbonite and still totally put Leia in her place. You’ll never be able to defeat a legion of zombies using only your shotgun, your Oldsmobile, and your gigantic chin. And, if you’ll permit me to once again visit the works of Harrison Ford, you will never, ever, ever say “No ticket.” These sorts of things are balls-to-the-wall fuckin’ Awesome, and part of what makes them so Awesome is that real life is at any given time up to 60% less Awesome than the realm of fiction. If it were a real person in Han Solo’s shoes, his response to Leia would probably be, “Oh holy shit Jesus I love you too DON’T LET THEM FREEZE ME IT’LL BE SO COLD OH LORD-” In the face of the Army of Darkness, a real person would probably die. And to the shocked passengers on the zeppelin, the most likely response from a real person would be, “Holy shit! Did you see what I just did? I just did that!”
So a Big Brother setup, while ideal for fictional characters with their foresight and their capacity for Awesome, is squandered on 29 year old bartenders from Miami and the occasional Midwestern single Mom. The high-strung emotional climate generated by the goals the group is forced to achieve winds up expressed by sloppily censored profanity and a lot of huffing and puffing as people sit around bemused and covered in gravy. The scheming and plotting consists of contestants tearing others down behind their backs while trying to act tough and resolute, which doesn’t come across very well from people like Becky (51, dental hygienist, Ypsilanti, Michigan). Worst of all, the video confessions usually wind up with people crying, and frankly, sadness in real life just isn’t half as good as sadness in fiction. In real life there’s puffy faces and congested voices and stammering, all of which are like poison for Awesome. What makes me angriest about this is that Fox cancelled two of humankind’s greatest achievements, Firefly and Arrested Development, in favor of reality shows, when really the shows they cancelled featured all the same dramatic elements, only more gracefully presented and with the occasional psychotic Reaver or deranged seal attack.
So I’ve been tearing down reality television for a good thousand words – now is the perfect time to mention that I have been watching and enjoying a reality TV show for the past couple of weeks. “Oh, well,” You say to yourself. “If Truman likes it, it’s bound to be highly sophisticated and very up its own ass symbols and meaning.” In fact, this show is pretty much the opposite of that: It’s called Wipeout, and the title of the show is more or less its premise. In every half hour episode, 24 people race against the clock in elimination-style rounds to complete a series of elaborate obstacle courses that involve mud pits, automatic punching fists, and jumping on giant bouncy balls, all of which is narrated pseudo-MST3K style by two guys cracking lame jokes about the contestants’ performance.
It is a work of absolute genius.
You know why? Because it’s entertaining to watch! You remember entertainment, right? It’s what TV was before they added high school girls’ bathroom conspiracies and teary monologues. Wipeout does not pretend to be high drama; it does not pit people against another, it instead pits them against a series of elaborate traps designed to make them look like pillocks on national television. Wipeout is genius because it’s taken all the degrading feats that reality TV contestants have to perform and left out all the interpersonal fluff that makes up the other 90% of any given Big Brother episode – it isn’t trying to be drama, it’s trying and succeeding at being comedy. There is no way that you can shimmy across a one inch ledge along a mud pit and not get clocked in the face by one of the boxing gloves that pop out of the wall; thing is, the show isn’t about people achieving their goals, it’s about people failing miserably and us getting to watch slow motion replays of the results. While real people aren’t well suited to drama, they are absolutely perfect for comedy. Watching a fat butcher from Indiana, already covered in mud from previous pitfalls, trying to jump from one giant bouncy globe to another and instead ricochet headfirst into the water is absolute gold. There is no need for writing or acting here, because the beauty of it is watching his genuine reaction. Wipeout has no mission statement or attempt at social relevance; it simply subjects people to gross indignity in the pursuit of a cash prize, and when one has spent his day making hot fudge banana milkshakes for a thankless public, sometimes watching greedy people embarrass themselves is just what the doctor ordered.
Wipeout, reveling in its one-dimensional pursuit of laughs, could even be construed as a sendup of reality TV itself. “That’s it!” Wipeout is saying. “We’re out of ideas! Just laugh at people’s bizarre misfortune for half an hour!” I like a show that’s honest with itself and its audience: Like an ideal one night stand, both parties understand exactly what they have to offer one another and everyone goes away satisfied. While Big Brother tries to draw you in emotionally and eventually boils your pet rabbit, Wipeout goes on its merry way after a half hour, not afraid to be a callous penis joke in a TV landscape that gives itself too much credit.
Truman Capps only knows what a one night stand is because of Wikipedia, Mom.