I still remember the first time I experienced the thrill that comes with watching untalented, egotistical and unsuspecting individuals make fools of themselves on national TV. Watching the premiere of The WB’s Superstar USA in 2004, I had no idea this show was going to alter my perception of acceptable (and entertaining) television forever.
Superstar USA, essentially a spoof of American Idol, was unlike any other reality TV show—it was not mind-numbingly boring (a la Big Brother or Survivor) or a talent competition (American Idol). On Superstar USA contenders even close to possessing singing skills were given the boot, while ridiculously tone-deaf participants were lauded and lied to by the judges until the end.
But what launched Superstar USA from just entertaining to “pure reality TV gold” (a phrase later coined by my reality-TV-loving friends to describe Flavor of Love) was the finale. The winning “superstar,” in this case a deluded and untalented reality TV star, was finally clued in to the satiric nature of the show, much to the contestant’s dismay and the audience’s delight. The horrified, betrayed, confused look on the contestant’s face was priceless. I loved every moment.
This show allowed the viewer a sensation that American Idol, at least in its competitive stages, did not. It allowed us to feel special for being in on the “prank.” This was more than entertainment; it was “feel good” television. I felt so sophisticated compared to these pitiful wannabes, who didn’t even realize how pathetic they were.
Bad TV filled our conversations
My friends and I compared ourselves to our desperate TV counterparts to boost our self-esteem and get a few laughs. But as our obsession with reality TV grew, and our tastes graduated to MTV’s Real World and Real World/Road Rules Challenge, what started as somewhat normal comparisons between our lives and theirs avalanched into a blatant ignorance of the line between “reality” and “reality TV.”
“Tonya.” “Aneesa.” “Coral.” “Beth.” These names became part of our everyday vocabulary. We’d use Tonya’s TV persona to characterize someone prone to psychotic freak-outs, like she had on the Chicago season of Real World. We’d talk about how we thought Mark, the over-the-hill Road Rules veteran, should consider retiring from the Challenge series and start acting his age.
My obsession got even worse when VH1’s Flavor of Love premiered in 2006. It seemed as if the whole world was watching this show about a washed-up 48-year-old rapper (Flavor Flav) trying to find love (in reality, trying to make a comeback) in a house full of girls half his age. But the age difference wasn’t the most disgraceful thing; it was how the girls acted and how they let Flav treat them. Although I felt guilty watching a show that featured people so desperate for fame they didn’t care how they came off, it made great TV.
Fighting, cursing and backstabbing were plentiful, and the girls were portrayed as close to uncivilized as possible. Flavor Flav’s actions weren’t any more redeeming. In one episdode, he told the women to clean the beer-drenched, toilet-papered and dirty house of one of his rapper friends. He wanted to make sure that his chosen lady could clean up after him and his kids. In another disgraceful step backwards for women’s rights, Flavor Flav ended up eliminating the make-no-apologies Tiffany (nicknamed “New York”) in season two’s finale because she had dared “talk back to him.”
It was one of those train wrecks I had to watch. The day after the finale, I literally ran to meet my friends to discuss it.
“Can you believe the way Flavor Flav treated ‘New York’ on the boat, as if she were inferior to him?”
“True but it isn’t as if ‘New York’ is the very essence of innocence—she was an evil, vindictive manipulator who went out of her way to push others’ buttons!”
Of course, I had friends who viewed our obsession with reality TV as unhealthy and ridiculous, but I always had a response prepared: “I only watch these shows to criticize them, not because I actually like them.”
“Right,” my doubtful friends replied.
A year after the Flavor of Love 2 finale, and also the conclusion of New York’s own spinoff (I Love New York), I became a self-proclaimed “critic,” yet also a devoted viewer, of MTV’s The Hills, VH1’s Charm School and MTV’s My Super Sweet 16. While I hated these characters, I loved the chance to denounce their flagrant acts of selfishness and naivete.
I became a hypocrite
But no matter what my excuses, I was watching the reality TV shows I condemned. I was like one of those people who complained about the media’s obsession with fluff, yet dwelled on Anna Nicole’s death and Paris Hilton’s stint in jail as if (a) no one had ever died or gone to jail before and (b) these famous-for-being-famous individuals deserved attention. I had always prided myself on steering away from gossip rags, but never noticed that reality TV shows were my gossip rags.
I wasn’t any better than these “reality” TV stars. We, the viewers, were why reality TV existed, just as Star Magazine’s subscribers were the reason paparazzi existed. The more we watched these meaningless reality TV shows, even if we were criticizing them, the more we legitimized the types of behavior these shows portrayed.
Maybe the only way to really criticize these shows is not to watch them at all. However, giving up reality TV is easier said than done, especially with VH1’s newest reality addition, Rock of Love, but it’s the only way to keep from becoming a hypocrite. It’s hard not to indulge in this guilty pleasure, and to gush about all the ridiculous plots, but I feel better now that I’ve given up reality TV.
Yes, reality shows may be entertaining, but it’s also embarrassing to waste my time passing judgments on people I don’t know, people who have absolutely no impact on my life. Comparing myself to them is even worse.
Other stories by this writer …
The senior prank that went too far. Causing thousands of dollars damage to Beverly Hills High and covering the halls with manure for the senior prank last year went way beyond funny, says Desiree, 17. (Summer 2006)
Would you believe we’re triplets? Desiree, 17, likes being a triplet, although she wishes people treated her as an individual. (May – June 2006)