Illustration by Peter Bennett

I'M NOT SURE OF THE PRECISE MOMENT — IT WAS after Lara Flynn Boyle turned up as an Arbeit Macht Frei ballerina yet before Richard Gere praised Harvey Weinstein's “heart of gold” (presumably forged from the fillings of his victims) — but at one point during the Golden Globes, I thought, “You know, I think maybe America wasn't changed forever by September 11.”

Sure, some things are different. Our palms now get a bit sweaty as we approach LAX, and most of us could pick out weird-vibe Hans Blix in a police lineup. But we're a long way from the heroic age (you know, a year ago) when boning up on the Taliban or buying your own copy of Germs felt like a matter of life and death. (When was the last time you even thought about Cipro?) Although polls find Americans slightly fretful over impending war — the endlessly televised Bush-Saddam face-off still feels more than a little unreal — we're again caught up in the silly pop culture that is one of the charms and follies of American life. In the whole Golden Globes broadcast, only Pedro Almodóvar had the wit to say the word “peace.”

At the moment, our designated national obsession is Reality TV, an oxymoronic term that emphatically does not refer to the dinky coverage of last weekend's anti-war demonstrations, which had the misfortune of being real and not “real.” Turn on the tube and the faux-vérité shows are as inescapable as sales tax: Celebrity Mole Hawaii, High School Reunion, Meet My Folks, My Life Is a Sitcom, The Bachelorette, American Idol . . . the networks keep slicing them off like so much processed cheese. And viewers keep watching in such startling numbers that it's small wonder that the media never tire of pondering What It All Means.

“The Reality Trip: How Far Can It Go?” TV Guide recently asked, then got so preoccupied with puffery that it neglected to answer its own question. Even as Entertainment Weekly ran a long article showing how some Reality Shows fiddle with reality (daring stuff, guys), Time was busy comparing these shows' stars to Rupert Pupkin, the psychotic would-be star in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy. Never one to be outdone in milking the latest trend, New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich compared the Bush administration to Joe Millionaire, the show about a sweet-talking con man who falsely promises his female suitors love and millions of bucks. (Personally, I think Bush is more like self-righteous, technology-worshipping William Petersen on C.S.I., but that's another column.)

Like all movements in pop culture, the Reality explosion has triggered the hoary old cry that the barbarians are at the gates. The Washington Post's venerable Tom Shales seemingly believes that each new “reality” program is the End of Civilization (the same civilization, it's worth noting, that found entertainment in Let's Make a Deal, bearbaiting and gladiatorial slaughter). Shuddering over Joe Millionaire, The Wall Street Journal's defiantly square Daniel Henninger — who seems to have stepped out of an unreleased Whit Stillman movie — grumbles at how today's “hypermass” entertainment keeps wooing our old pal, “the lowest common denominator.” I'm not really sure what he expects from a game show in a country run by the free-market capitalists his paper so tirelessly champions. A quiz show called Name that Aria?

There is, of course, something slightly disreputable about Reality TV, which did, after all, give us Temptation Island and made a hit single of Kelly Clarkson caterwauling “A Moment Like This.” That's why many people pass it off as a Guilty Pleasure. As a very intelligent friend said of The Bachelorette: “I know it's stupid — but I love it.” Village Voice TV critic Joy Press recently began a piece with the declaration, “I might as well confess up front: I'm a
reality TV slut.” Still, this bold intellectual trampiness
didn't stop Press from quoting Jean Baudrillard in the next paragraph. I mean, it's one thing to dig these shows, quite another to let people think you're one of the proles they're supposedly aimed at.

For my part, I'm not a Reality TV john (if that's the proper analogy) and wish there weren't so damn many of these shows. But as one who does enjoy watching several of them, I'm struck that critics have been so busy abusing them as a lowbrow genre — vulgar, exploitative, slick with schadenfreude — that nobody ever bothers to say the most obvious thing: The best ones are brilliantly conceived works of pop culture.

For starters, they recognize their own goofy evanescence. Where old-school television is all about creating juggernauts that run for years — which is why NBC will overpay for Friends to preserve a Thursday-night dominance nobody else gives a hoot about — “reality” shows have the giddily brief shelf life of pop songs. They run a few weeks instead of a full TV season (ironically, this parallels high-class shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under), and they put a premium on catchy immediacy. Nobody thinks Fear Factor will be going three years from now — its formula is already worn thin — so its producers have no qualms about using up all their ideas or cross-pollinating programs, which is why we've had Celebrity Fear Factor (and why we'll soon be seeing Celebrity Survivor and an American Idol­style search for a supermodel).

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 Spaces when 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 Life sharing 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.

LA Weekly