Monday, June 4, 2007

The First Reality Show

With the glut of reality programming that comes on television now, it is nice to recall the more pleasant times when Fox showed programming like When Animals Attack and When Good Times Go Bad along with Melrose Place (Heather Locklear, you evil bitch) and Party of Five. In those days, Fox was on the forefront of creating the phenomenon of that floods our television now and has a channel dedicated to it, and no I'm not talking about MTV.

Fox went out above everyone with the brilliance that is Cops. It is the simplest of all concepts of all time: put camera crew with police cops, ride with police cops on calls, videotape all happenings. The sheer simplicity of this show is why it succeeded. We were put in shotgun to experience what it is like to be a cop, to chase down a crackhead that's hopping fences, or going to a domestic dispute. We have no better idea of what is going on than the cops; it's a radical and very fun idea. It reminds me of cinema verité in its lack of a clear plot or connectedness other than the fact that the people involved are cops.

This program started back in the 1980's and has, according to Wikipedia, shown over 650 episodes. Clearly, Cops has done something right. What it has done is make one of the first but the best reality show of all time. The informational tips aside, Cops still has its own character and doesn't feel like it has been sold out. I understand that Cops can't drop a product in here, but I mean that the situations and "players" are far more real than in other reality shows. The scriptedness of a lot of other shows is far too great for me and gets me into fairly complex structuralist arguments with myself about the (non) reality of reality and questions of authorship and detachment (read: things I deal with in art history). It is nice to watch a show where genuine emotions and reactions are present and shown in the forefront. It reminds me of the halcyon days of The Real World in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco when the roommates were starkly different and true tensions would boil up in the house. In two of those seasons, people left the house (David and Puck, if my memory serves me correctly). The shit was straight up raw funk. And the camera crew did not invade or intrude. They were neutral observers who were just following along.

Cops still lives by this simple mantra. As much as I love Project Runway, I can't watch it all of the time. There's all this built-in drama, an overanxious editor, and a lot of pomp and circumstance. I don't have to worry about that with Cops, as it is always consistent and simple. I can always turn the show on and not have to figure out what is going on or what they are supposed to be doing. Cops every week is three vignettes on the seedier side of America done documentary style, and that simplicity of concept is why it is the boss of the reality show.