We watch... so you don't have to.

Reality Show Lottery

I've often thought that anyone who aspired to a life in the performing arts should be made to sit through Waiting for Guffman, if only to learn that few things are more deserving of pillory than someone whose lack of talent is exceeded only by the delusion that they have any. I figure a forced viewing of this film would do one of two things: it would compel a would-be performer to take stock of their goals vis a vis their actual talents, or it would warn innocent bystanders that another talentless hack would be shamelessly mugging for attention for the next twenty-odd years. Either way, the results would do more good than harm.

But after reading an article in the August 2, 2002, issue of Entertainment Weekly, I'm now convinced that it is not enough to show Guffman to the would-be crooners, hoofers and actors of tomorrow: we must also show it to the reality-show alumni of yesterday and the contestants of today. The article, which should have been titled "Reality Show Participants Whose Watch Reads 14:59," but was not, explored two rather repellent side-effects of reality shows: people who confused random selection to appear in a reality show with a divine sign that they were meant to entertain, and people who somehow think that being on a reality show is akin to winning a lottery ticket.

In the former group, we have Big Brother contestants like George "Chicken Man" Boswell and Bunky "It's Not Okay to Cry" Miller insisting that their tenure on the grim CBS summer filler was merely a preview for greater things to come. We also have Survivor alumni talking vaguely about doing something, anything that other, real actors have done, and Real World alumni admitting that the reason they chase after more, more, more exposure is because their lives are too insignificant to compare to the thrill of standing in front of a spotlight, any spotlight.

In the latter group, we have would-be reality show contestants who freely admit that they're hoping national exposure on a television show will somehow set them apart from the mundane crowd. Says one: "I don't want to live a normal life and go to work every day." She continues by revealing that she would have liked to have been a "rock star" (her words) but she has no talent, so she'll settle for being a VJ instead.

This one statement sums up precisely what is so odious about reality shows and the people who willingly participate in them. First, reality shows have completely oversold the idea the idea that anyone can be on television, because even the most ordinary and talentless person is entertaining. Second, the people who participate in these things are nurturing the impression that because they were chosen for these Skinner-style pageants of idiocy, they are somehow unique and therefore deserving of attention.

What this gives us is a group of people who, reared on People magazine, all mistakenly believe that everyone is special, but some people -- i.e. them -- are special enough to be inflicted on the national consciousness long after the reality show they're on has moved on to more exotic locations and better-looking people. They are wrong.

Reality show contestants -- and the crowds nipping at their heels -- all seem to have forgotten that there is a difference between celebrity and notoriety. At its base, celebrity is still tied into the idea that the person being showered with gift baskets, attention and softball profiles in InStyle has, in fact, evidenced some talent at some point in their life. Celebrity is in no way proportional to the talent in question -- if it were, we'd be much more familiar with Joan Armatrading than Brittany Spears, or Jeremy Piven over Ted Danson -- but it is typically rooted in recognizing that which is indeed special. Notoriety, on the other hand, is what happens to people who live in O.J.'s guest house, marry 90-year-old men, or have their penis cut off by their irate wife. You will note that the only talent required for noteriety is that of happening into the right situation at the right time.

The very act of being cast on a reality show is that of being in the right place at the right time. It's akin to buying a winning lottery ticket from the AM/PM -- you went in, took your chances on a contest, and ended up being the lucky recipient of the laws of probability. The lottery myth -- luck, combined with an opportunity open to anyone who's sufficiently motivated -- is one to which many people subscribe these days, in part because there's something comfortably egalitarian about it. Luck relies neither on hard work (which is too ordinary and ubiquitous to be appealing) nor on talent (which is too randomly granted to people, and thus raises uncomfortable questions of life's innate fairness) -- rather, it's merely the result of probability plus opportunity.

Opportunity is no great talent unto itself: in fact, the most opportunistic things in this world -- rats, infections, and mercenary soldiers of fortune -- are the ones that we try hardest to avoid. To that category I would add "reality show participants past, present and future," as they are the Hollywood equivalent of a swarm of rats. They saw an opportunity, they came running, and the only justification they have for their presence is their existence, nothing more.

Fortunately, even television requires more. Even more fortunately, Hollywood is filled with people who have worked too hard and done too many things in the service of their career to cheerfully hand over a plum job to some deluded rube from flyover country. The odds of some producer who made his bones on Murder, She Wrote being bowled over by someone's tenure on Big Brother? Tiny. People who have worked hard to get where they are tend to take a dim view of the lottery mentality.

What that aspiring reality show contestant missed in her fantastic leap from Survivor 5 to MTV VJ was the simple truth that the reason those jobs are so desirable is that they're hard to get, and the reason they're hard to get is that a lot of very talented, very motivated people want them. Fundamentally, show business is an elitist business -- as it should be. We who consume entertainment deserve better than to have our time monopolized by hacks, and it's a small comfort to know that even on resolutely mediocre shows like Judging Amy or Providence, the people who make the shows are all working like crazy. They're competing for our attention. Reality show contestants aren't competing for our attention, because they don't think they should have to. After all, didn't they already win the lottery?

The thing about lotteries, however, is that probability is ultimately the most egalitarian thing of all -- selecting at random, within a limited range of conditions. The irony of being a reality show contestant is that it would probably have been easier to have pursued fame and fortune the old-fashioned way. But just as a lottery is really little more than a tax for the math-stupid, so are reality shows little more than a tax for the lazy. Fortunately, for us, we can sit at home, smug in our elitist insistence on being entertained by the hard-working and gifted, and click the remote duty-free.


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