Place a boomgate in front of your televisions

I hate The Shire, and it hasn’t even been filmed yet. I hate it even more than the Mayor of the Sutherland Shire does, and she hates it so much that she’s threatened to put a boom gate over all of the bridges in her area to stop them filming there. I hate it even more than I hated Sylvania Waters, unless you remember that the Donahers laid the ground for all the other reality TV that’s followed, in which case we really should hurry up and invent time travel so that somebody, presumably Bruce Willis, can travel back and make sure it never happened.

The main reason I hate The Shire is because they’ve stolen the title of my hilarious parody series of The Wire set in Middle-Earth. Police hobbits like Jimmy McFrodo and Merry BrandyBunk would have faced off against the ultimate evil, Sauron Barksdale. Rhonda would’ve been Galadriel, Clay Davis would’ve been Gollum – you get the idea. It would have gone viral around the world like this video about Mitt Romney which my friend Hugh Atkin made which actually has no place in this article but you should watch anyway because it’s amazing, and besides, I’ve already digressed onto a very self-indulgentWire/LOTR mashup fantasy from which I really should return before I lose you completely. Ahem.

The media coverage of The Shire has centred around the idea that it’s an Australian version of Jersey Shore. The producers have tried to defend it by saying that it’s more like an Australian version of The Only Way Is Essex, which like saying “no, the nuclear accident I caused wasn’t another Chernobyl, it was more of a Three Mile Island”. Admittedly I haven’t watched it, but surely The Only Way Is Essex can’t possibly work as television when it doesn’t even work as a pun.

Shine, the production company responsible for unleashing The Shire upon an unsuspecting planet, has suggested that people suspend judgement until the show is aired. And that’s fair enough from the perspective of a television critic. If I were one, I wouldn’t dream of actually writing off the series until I’d watched at least ten minutes, after which time I suspect most of my melted brain tissue would have dripped out from my cranium through my nostrils.

For better or worse, those shows just don’t work for me. And I’ve tried, or at least they’ve tried me – a former flatmate of mine regularly watched Real HousewivesRachel Zoe,Australia’s Next Top ModelProject Runway and the like in our lounge room, and even though I tried to watch them to be sociable, I just found them annoying and boring. I wouldn’t enjoy having most of the participants of those shows in my lounge room in person, so the televisual equivalent didn’t do much for me either.

But it’s easy to write about the awfulness of reality TV, especially when it’s pitched as “a bold, highly addictive ‘dramality’ series that follows the often outrageous lives and loves of a group of people who are destined to become the most talked about in Australia” like The Shire. I’m sure they will. The more interesting question, though, is what the popularity of shows like these says about us.

The major appeal of these shows, if it’s not too blitheringly obvious to say, is that they’re real. The storylines and characters aren’t sufficiently engrossing that if they appeared on a soap, we’d be hooked. There’s an enormous difference between fact and fiction in terms of the credibility an audience gives to a story, as Mike Daisey has discovered this week. A fictional Snooki, surely, would never have gained anybody’s interest. Nor would a guy who decided, for reasons I’ve no interest in fathoming, to refer to himself as “The Situation”. 

But carefully selected real people, when viewed through the filter of skilful editing that removes the most tedious 97% of of their lives, have proven fascinating to millions of people, who marvel at the taboos these human gargoyles break when the camera’s rolling. Viewers constantly find themselves unable to believe that the participants actually said or did those things, ignoring the fact that to guarantee the maximum amount of drama, the producers of these shows overly manipulate the situation and/or The Situation.

It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what the appeal of reality TV says about our culture, but I’m convinced it’s nothing good. Its appeal is a noxious blend of voyeurism, Schadenfreude, celebrity culture and gossip. The participants become famous, but don’t win the public’s admiration the way famous actors and sportspeople do. The Kardashians aren’t exactly respected by the wider community, for instance. And if Snooki has one thing going for her, and I’m not yet convinced that she does, it’s that she can make almost anybody feel comfortingly superior.

The instinct that makes us enthralled by reality TV is the same one that packed the Coliseum in Roman times, and still fills cockfighting arenas in South America and the public gallery at Question Time. It’s the same instinct that makes a crowd gather around whenever there’s a fight in the street. For better or for worse, we love watching conflict, and excess, and rudeness as long as we aren’t involved ourselves. And above all, we love watching stupid people saying stupid things so we can talk about how stupid they are. The Shire, I’m certain, will offer ample opportunities. But marvelling at participants in reality TV is like watching performing animals debase themselves in return for a lump of sugar, or in this case, a TV Week profile. It may be superficially entertaining, but it’s ultimately just sad.

This piece originally appeared at Daily Life.

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