It’s a conversation we’ve had many times in our household, especially when we’re making the case to turn off the television, or at least trying to steer young minds away from that which destroys rather than builds braincells. We make such an effort to fill our bellies with good healthy food, yet often our minds are fed what is the equivalent of brain spam (as in nasty unidentifiable meat in cans).
I find it ironic that amidst the wild cacophony of available choices, five billion cable channels and satellite, and streaming and the equivalent in print and radio, we as a culture often consume the same damned things as if we were back in the days when media choices could be counted on one hand.
The trap grasps me too, sometimes, although I fight it. At least I have the illusion of choosing for myself rather than letting popular culture and the power of advertising and ever-so-potent media promotion choose for me. Surely I fail at times, and give in, we all do.
One such trap is the X-Factor. After many years of remaining blissfully oblivious to the ins and outs of Idol and America’s-got-this-and-got-that this was a bullet I thought I’d dodged… until it knocked on my door. The three days that I devoted, alongside my incredibly talented daughter, to Simon Cowell were well spent. The highs and lows we went through of making it to the next round, and then being rejected, all in a 24-hour period, made us all that much more aware of what the beast is. Needless to say I am so very thankful that she is not there on the screen but sitting with me on the couch as we at once enjoy the entertainment but decipher it for exactly what it is, and what it is not.
We know that in order to even to get to that “first” audition the contestants went to round after round after round of mini-auditions, or rehearsals, of meetings. They left their families, missed school and work and incurred expenses to travel and remain at the producers’ beck and call. Willingly, of course, but do not minimize the sacrifice. Their personal lives were examined as the writers and producers decided not who the best singers were, but who would bring the story, bring the excitement, the drama. Reality television is about as far from reality as Pluto from the Sun. That’s no surprise. I worked in advertising. I know that.
But what became more apparent to me, perhaps painfully so for now I place my daughter’s face, her life, as an overlay on those I see on the screen, is how cruelly they are used. Expectations are built up, minds are manipulated, families are exploited as stories are molded to feed the entertainment beast—and we buy it, I buy it.
Entertainment is all about the story. I tell stories in my writing, I seek them out in my reading. The difference is that in fiction tears are not salty. We close the book or turn off the movie and life goes on… “no animals were harmed in the making of this movie,” we are comforted to hear, but at the same time we grin as we watch people hurt all the time, made fools of, built up so that we can watch them crash down.
They’ve written a novel here, formulaic, epic. There are challenges overcome, soaring successes and devastating failures. Alliances, conflicts, suspense. It’s perfect. The characters work. The plot is in place to keep our interest, to leave us hanging after each show to ensure that we will be back, and we will, for rejecting the temptation is far too difficult. Fiction packaged as reality a la The Truman Show but Jim Carrey and Laura Linney were actors, and little Rachel Crow (who is 14 but packaged to look 10) and Dexter the homeless man, Chris the addict and Tiah of the big lips… well, they are people. Packaged people, but people nonetheless.
Now to my favorite reality tv show. Surely it too has aspects which are not real, but hell, I love cooking and I love travel and I love irreverent traveling chefs. Anthony Bourdain did a great interview with David Sheff which appeared in Playboy (no, I don’t read Playboy, but got a link to it via Longreads). It is well worth reading, but don’t do it at work or in front of children for the breasts of naked ladies which are stacked up, literally, in the right-hand column are a bit disconcerting).
Here, for example, is his take on truth and censorship (whether it be external or internal):
PLAYBOY: You’ve done shows from places such as Japan, Beirut and Egypt that have been in the news after natural disasters and upheavals. What has been your reaction?
BOURDAIN: For me these places become about the people I meet. My first thoughts go to them. Japan is overwhelming. What can you say about it? I’m still trying to figure out what the fuck is going on in the Middle East. I don’t know that I’m smart enough to say anything intelligent about what’s going on over there, but listen, if Thomas Friedman can disappear up his own ass and not see daylight, what hope is there for me to understand it? Who knows who’s going to end up in power in Egypt or Libya or any of those places? We don’t know if the next asshole is going to be any better than the previous asshole, but at least it’s a new asshole. In Egypt we saw that most people’s diet was bread and some lentils, nothing else. We wanted to film that, and our government handlers suddenly got very upset. What were they so frightened of? They wanted us to show the wealthy two percent who live spectacularly.
PLAYBOY: Do foreign governments often try to control what you film?
BOURDAIN: In some countries it becomes clear that our driver’s or translator’s day job is working for the secret police. It’s not a problem, because at the end of the day I can come back to America and say whatever the fuck I want. I can say, “Look at these assholes.” I come home from Romania and I’m free to say, “Look at the dog-and-pony show they put on for us.” So yeah, sometimes the government shows us what they want us to see, but sometimes they take a chance; they trust us not to screw them. They go against their instincts and let a Western crew in. It can be harder when they let us do whatever we want. There’s a responsibility. We’ll go to a country that doesn’t have the kind of freedom of speech that we enjoy, where there are consequences for what you say, particularly about certain issues. A lot of nice people are open with us, are frank with us, both on camera and off. Afterward it’s easy for me to go back home and say what I think about Chinese policy on Tibet, but I have to think about all the people who were nice to me, who let me into their homes, who were openhearted and kind and helped us—people who may have hard questions to answer if we do a show critical of their country. I try to find a way to balance that. It’s a constraint, but I’m not fucking Dan Rather. Presumably this is a food and travel show, but sometimes the elephant in the room is unavoidable. If you’re in Laos and your host is missing two limbs, it’s worth mentioning. “Hey, fella, how’d you lose those limbs?”
PLAYBOY: Your host was missing two limbs? What happened?
BOURDAIN: Thank you, America. So you state the fact that we dumped a hell of a lot of cluster bomblets into Laos on the way back to Saigon many years ago. One week I’ll get a lot of angry mail from couch Rambos on the right, and the next my brethren on the left are screaming bloody murder because I’m taking a sustained piss on Danny Ortega.
That’s precisely what I love about him. He doesn’t avoid the elephant in the room. He is aware of the consequences which are inevitable when you show real people for your own entertainment (and that of millions). He doesn’t manipulate scenes so that we will share his opinions but offers them up as they are, without reservations.
But the sweetest thing I’ve read in awhile was also tucked into the interview, and while it has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this, I just want to share it here…
PLAYBOY: You mentioned that you want to stay sober for your daughter. A while back, before you had a child, you said you’d make a shitty parent. What changed?
BOURDAIN: I remember the precise moment it changed. I was living in a crummy walk-up apartment in New York, above Manganaro’s Hero Boy, and I’d met this woman who’s now my wife—a woman like me, who came out of the restaurant business. We were lying in bed spooning, as I recall, and for the first time in my life I thought, Not only would I like to make a baby with this woman, but I’m up to the job. I could actually be a good father. I thought, I’m at that point in my life for the first time, and I think it would be a beautiful thing to have a baby with this woman. I’ve finally grown up enough to be a good dad. And I’ve loved everything about it. I loved living with a pregnant woman. This was something I never would have understood before, not having done it; it just didn’t sound good. I loved it. I miss it. I loved the entire process, loved every minute of fatherhood, all of it, every fucking second. It’s very hard leaving, hard being away.
I’m not one for profanity. My daughter laughs because I still wince over the “f” word, but somehow it seems right when Tony says it, especially now that I read that last part… I’ll forgive him any profanity in face of such sweetness. And I’ll definitely watch his next episode. Wait, have I been manipulated into tuning in?…hmmmmm.