Thursday, April 20, 2006

Reality television: the lonely crowd

I had the good fortune of visiting my teaching assistants' Introduction to Media classes this week and was fascinated by the discussions I was privy to on reality television. I'll confess that I'm hooked--especially on shows like Top Chef, Project Runway, Blow Out, and American Choppers, all of which give you a behind-the-scenes look at how people do things. I now wish I were a better cook, learned to sew, cut hair, and took metal shop, but that's another story.

Anyway, one of the instructors whose class I visited asked his students to reflect on the characteristics that might define reality television as a genre. One of them provocatively suggested, "isolation." Now, of course, not every show isolates its cast, but many of them--Survivor, Big Brother, Unan1mous, and to some extent programs like America's Next Top Model and The Real World--do. Indeed, in the case of Top Model, I recall seeing a behind-the-scenes show in which past cast members reflected on their not having had access to a telephone other than the one provided by the producers, been allowed to go out, read a paper, pick up a book, or, ironically, watch television. I don't mean to suggest that isolation is an absolutely necessary, generic condition of reality television, but I'd argue (following my teaching assistant's insightful student) that it certainly represents a dominant tendency within the genre. The question then becomes, what are the larger implications of this paradoxically public form of social isolation?

I'll need to ruminate on that question a bit, and perhaps I'll return to it at a later time. For now, I'd say there's an interesting connection to be made here between reality TV and the horror genre.

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