Monday, April 23, 2007

Dancing with The Stars

Television viewers are locked in life and death struggle with regards to their reality programming. Large sections of America take time out on their Tuesday nights to park it on the couch and watch American Idol, where relative unknowns sing covers of songs that some might know, but this observer does not always know (To my credit, I knew when Blake was singing 311. Me:1, Judges: 10). Anyway, this singing all ends up with a slightly incoherent comment, a underhandedly positive comment, and a very snarky, critical comment. But it does require you to call up and vote. There is another show that has the same voting method, but it is far different and speaks to something stranger.

Dancing with the Stars has the same voting method with the calling in, but its values are different. The public does not solely determine the eliminated person because both the public and the judges have a voice. Regardless, the people on this show are attempting, like the folks on American Idol, to get their breakthrough into the mainstream of American culture. The primary difference is the people on Dancing... have already had their opportunity to shine in the light. The dancers, not the professionals mind you, are B- and C-list celebrities. They are famous from other periods of time. For example, Billy Ray Cyrus is on this current season due to his hit song "Achy Breaky Heart"....from the early 1990's. There's also the guy from Cheers and the former Mrs. Paul McCartney, Heather Mills. For the record, I don't know WHAT Heather Mills actually does.

There has always been this split within me as I watch such situations. Do I want to feel sympathy towards these celebrities who have allowed themselves to be exploited in the search of cheap ratings for a network pandering to a 18-49 Female demographic (what did you think I was going to say? ABC puts on Desperate Housewives, Brothers and Sisters & Grey's Anatomy for the lads?) and in an attempt to salvage their careers? Better yet, do I want to watch people sell their images and selves out in search of momentary popularity and idol worship while being used to shill products by their corporate sponsor? Neither of these options is particularly alluring, but this is the state of reality television as an unnecessary blight upon the American landscape. It has pervaded the minds of many people, giving them the belief that if they come on television, they are instantaneously famous and important. While they are selling themselves out in search of this fleeting flame of success, the contestants/subjects on these programs are subjected to a different form of humiliation.

In many of these shows, the participants are unwilling shill artists, hawking a new product at every bat of the eyelash. I fail to see how telling me that they are cooking in the Kenmore Pro kitchen is supposed to impress me, Top Chef. But, I guess I would rather have to sell an object subliminally instead of openly like they do on American Idol or Project Runway (Don't think Tim Gunn distracted me from those plugs for Banana Republic). I can, at least, take solace in the fact that these programs are based on talent more than one's ability to bullshit and play politics (Survivor, you're on notice) even though they are shameless product pushers all the while. At least they are not America's Next Top Model, which is a constant advertisement for a product such as Vitamin Water. On some of these shows, the ratio between contest and product placement gets so high, it makes you wonder whether you are watching a television show or an hour long infomercial. I thought I was supposed to be forewarned before those. But since they are the channel's actual message, there is no need to alert the viewer that these shows are chocked with product placement. While I have great problems with the advertising and the faux attempts at celebrity, there is a reasonable question that I have to respond to.

That question is why don't you just stop watching? The short answer is that I can't. But, this inability is not due to my interest in reality programming.* On the contrary, I find most reality programming to be offensive to the people that participate in it, as it turns into the contestants' last ditch attempts to gain their 15 minutes of fame. Do I laugh at the people? Of course. They do stupid things. It's my American right to laugh at someone who does something wrong. But, the humor that I derive from their plight is something that has to be noticed and deconstructed.

The images from shows such as the Flavor of Love series are ones that have to be dissected and fully considered in opposition to those groups' regular representations (blacks, women, hip-hop in this situation) to ensure that there is a fair picture of those groups in the public's mind. While I might not necessarily like them, I have to watch reality programming because it helps me to fully understand the nature of American culture and the images that pervade it. Culture is an influence upon our politics and purview as Americans. It is important to understand all of its components, so as to understand what is relevant to the country and its different groups. Television is not the passive medium that everyone believes that it is. TV is a discursive form, one that requires our viewing of it as well as our critique of the images that come across it. I do not believe in television as a bankrupting form. Quite the contrary, I think that it can be an enlightening format, allowing people a view of the world they may never be able to have. But, with its possibilities also come risks. There is a need for us to recognize that television is something that tries to mislead us, disenfranchise us, stereotype us, and that has to always be considered in watching in TV. Reality programming is always considered to be a reflection upon our own lives. Therefore, it is necessary that its images, messages, and content be analyzed more thoroughly than other shows, which might be more based in fantasy or unrealistic situations (not to suggest that reality programming is truly real or practical) as its ramifications can be more immediate on society.

*In all fairness, the only reality shows that leave me in pain are those on MTV. In particular, the continual Real World/Road Rules challenges need to stop and now. They are very tragic to watch. They start off as no ones. They morph into no ones who were on a television show, so they are now required to appear on these aimless, shapeless, pointless reality competition shows that prove nothing to anyone except for how desperate they are. Even the C-Listers on VH1 aren't as desperate as the continually returning Real Worlders and Road Rulers, and VH1 loves to scrap the bottom of the barrel. I also have a problem with Top Design, but that show is just awful and Todd Oldham is not a very good host, no matter how hipster dreamy he truly is. Don't misconstrue this, most reality programming is insufferable when not amusing (the only exceptions being Project Runway and Top Chef), but I can't tolerate the MTV reality shows at all.