By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In fact, good shows like Big Brother, Survivor, The Bachelor and Changing Rooms (or its American knockoff, Trading Spaces) are actually far more compelling television than the humdrum sitcoms and dramas they're replacing. They have seductive premises, build excitement with crackerjack editing and, by thrusting ordinary people into extreme situations, are ingeniously designed to manufacture drama: Think how deliberately Survivor builds up loyalties and resentments or how those suburbanites start to fume in Trading Spaceswhen their once-tasteful living room suddenly looks like a bordello for Smurfs.
Above all, such programs are good at creating characters. Television has always been about making viewers feel intimate with those on the screen — that was the great secret of letting contestants take their agonizing time on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? — and over the past few years, Reality TV has begun providing what scripted television so often fails to deliver. It's the rare fiction show that creates archetypal figures to match Survivor's gay Machiavel Richard Hatch, the lovable New Yawkers from The Amazing Race, American Idol's waspish Simon Cowell or The Bachelor's games-playing Helene, who manipulated bland Midwestern banker Aaron into offering her an engagement ring she didn't really want (she can tell he's a dope).
The networks realize this, which is why the Reality world is slowly coming to resemble Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, in which characters who have small roles in some novels become the lead figures in others. (Joe Millionaire is essentially a Snopes version of The Bachelor.) The current star of The Bachelorette is foxy Trista Rehn, who made her name by being the popular runner-up on the first series of The Bachelor. Meanwhile, Jerri Manthey — known to the world as "the bitch" from the Outback season of Survivor — has recently turned up on The Surreal Lifesharing a candy-colored, SIMs-style house with six low-level celebrities whose careers demonstrate Emily Dickinson's dictum that "Fame is a fickle food/Upon a shifting plate." What a motley crew! There's Vince Neil (who actually is from Motley Crue), Webster's chuckling Emmanuel Lewis, rapper-turned-minister M.C. Hammer, Gabrielle Carteris from Beverly Hills 90210, faded Goonie Corey Feldman and 2001 Playmate of the Year Brande Roderick, whose first name looks like a misprint.
In the new novel Gilligan's Wake, Tom Carson creates a universe in which all of American culture becomes a gigantic blur — Gilligan, JFK, Daisy Buchanan, Holden Caulfield, Bob Dole and Homer Simpson all live in the same space-time continuum. Something similar, albeit less extreme, happens on our TV screens, where Dana Carvey's impression of George Bush comes to seem more real than the actual president, Joe Lieberman pops up on the fake newscast, The Daily Show, to prove he's not the killjoy we all know him to be (he found it "shockingly wrong" when Illinois commuted its death sentences), and North Korean leader Kim Jong II is mainly known as the butt of gags about his Leningrad Cowboys hairdo and demented cruelty. Letterman joked that he keeps fit through "Torturecise."
Such leveling is the underlying theme of The Surreal Life, and, boy, does the cast know it. Although the first episode climaxed with Hammer refusing to eat sushi off a naked woman (never say these shows lack dignity), the best moment came when Jerri's six housemates grumbled because she was allowed on the show (the Playmate wanted a real celeb, like Robin Givens). "She's not part of our society," muttered Feldman, and you kind of got what he meant. After all, they'd once had hit movies, hit TV shows, hit records — or sat on Hef's lap. All Jerri had ever done was get voted off Survivor. The great joke, of course, is that these days, such an achievement makes her the most famous one of the bunch.