Reality TV: The good, the bad, and the Hills

The San Francisco Chronicle’s invaluable TV critic, Tim Goodman, has written an article that will help television viewers deal with the upcoming “lull” in scripted programming.

Remember that writers’ strike? Oh, it’s long over, but its effects have yet to be truly felt. Take it from us, the offerings on TV are about to go downhill faster than Heroes. Sometime next year, the scripted goodness shall return, but until then, we gotta hunker down.

So hang on to your hats and try to assemble a decent TIVO lineup out of news, sports and the best of reality. Don’t worry, Timmy G is here to help:

The mere mention of the words “reality television” makes most sensible viewers recoil. It conjures up bug-eating 20-year-olds on MTV or D-list actors shamelessly trying to make ill-conceived and improbable comebacks. It brings up visions of Flavor Flav on VH1. If that fails to fell them, there’s the association with Fox – from “Joe Millionaire” through “Celebrity Boxing” and “The Littlest Groom” and … well, there really is no end.

And no bottom.

But reality television is also a misnomer. There’s a difference between what is essentially “unscripted television” and “Baby Borrowers.” That is, there’s a difference between something National Geographic or Discovery Channel puts on the air and a house full of hootchie skanks on Oxygen’s “Bad Girls Club.”

But sometimes parsing gets too confusing. Are “reality competition shows” like “Survivor” or “Project Runway” different in some way from “Deal or No Deal,” which is really a game show (albeit a dumb one)? Is “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” a game show or a reality show?

The easiest way to settle the issue is to separate “unscripted” from “reality” television, even if that’s technically not possible. So how do you tell the difference? If you feel like a voyeur, need to take a shower or worry about the sorry state of humankind after watching it, that’s reality television. If you were entertained without abject, crippling shame (“American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars”) or you learned something – even if it came while watching guys blow stuff up on “MythBusters” – then it’s probably an acceptable form of unscripted television.

[…]

“Top Chef” is acceptable unscripted television.

As it enters Season 5, “Top Chef” joins a growing number of unscripted series that are enjoyable, add to the TV landscape (get used to them, they’re not going away) and provide more entertainment value than yet another poorly written sitcom or predictable police procedural.

People who love “Top Chef” are mostly crazed foodies, but not all of them. Some people who watch can’t pour a bowl of cereal – they just like people with knives who yell and cry. They like to root for people who used to do something boring before turning to food preparation. They want to see people wilt in the heat of the kitchen (and food-prep battle). They want to see bad meals poorly made. Or good meals mangled – a debacle so evident to the millions watching that no oven mitt can hide the fingerprints of shame.

Or something like that.

Cold smoked scallops & triple olive tapenade for the foodies,
crazy peeps with knives for the rest of us.

The arrival of Season 5 of “Top Chef” (10 p.m., Bravo) is a perfect time to reconsider biases. Unscripted television was already dominating most of television before the writers strike. Then it increased. And now, as this first post-strike fall season keeps returning dismal ratings numbers to the networks and the economy remains bleak, you can expect to see plenty more unscripted fare.

Unscripted television is cheap to produce. It’s popular. It’s easy to get from idea to schedule. There are all kinds of formats throughout the world to import (or rip off) in case coming up with fresh ideas is a problem (no, that’s never been an issue in Hollywood, right?). And when an unscripted series takes off, it usually remains a hit with loyal fans season after season. The same can’t be said about scripted series. Just ask the people making “Heroes” right now.

And here’s a newer reason that you’re likely to see more and more unscripted shows: The last barrier, that unscripted fare does not repeat well, is no longer an issue because fewer networks rely on reruns anymore.

Sure, you’ll still see them. But not as many as in the old days. It’s a strange cycle: Sitcoms make the best reruns, but networks have great difficulty finding good comedies. Dramas, in which there’s been a creative renaissance, are wonderful, but viewers aren’t much inclined to watch them twice. Not wanting to risk airing reruns in a TV landscape that is moving quickly to a year-round schedule, programmers are finding it easier to plug the gaps with unscripted shows. As the era of the rerun fades, the era of unscripted rises.

That’s not as horrifying as you might think. Yes, dreck like “The Hills” rots the nation from the inside out. “The Real Housewives of (choose your awful city)” makes grown-ups as childish as anyone on “My Super Sweet 16” (if you don’t know, don’t ask, and definitely don’t watch). There is an endless amount of “Celebrity Rehab” trash on television. But remember – there are a lot of hours to fill on a lot of channels. Don’t fret. Just avoid.

And don’t judge it all the same way.

For example, competition series like “Top Chef,” “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “Project Runway,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “American Idol” and others provide plenty of excitement and entertainment without much more shame than your average beach book. Many of those shows are also the only ones that whole families can watch together.

In the realm of “infotainment” or “edutainment,” it’s hard to criticize “World’s Toughest Fixes” on National Geographic or “MythBusters,” “Dirty Jobs” and “Planet Earth” on Discovery. Life wouldn’t be very good without “Top Gear” on BBC America. And yes, there’s ever so much to ridicule on TLC, but viewers who go in for “Jon & Kate Plus 8” or “Little People, Big World” are not bad people. They want emotional stories that move them. And when they don’t, they watch “What Not to Wear” or “Say Yes to the Dress” – but it could be a whole lot worse.

It could be “The Moment of Truth” or “Hole in the Wall” on Fox. Or it could be pretty much anything on VH1.

hwives

The Real Housewives of NY: More harmful to your brain cells than sniffing glue.

[…]

There’s a reason nonfiction books outsell fiction in this country roughly 4 to 1. Americans like real-life stories. Unscripted series about birth, about gigantic machines, about tattoos, about how to hang drywall or guys who battle nature or whisper to dogs – those are compelling. More so, for some people, than “CSI” or “The Office.”

Despite the overabundance of junk (remember: avoid), there’s still something ceaselessly fascinating about unscripted television. Take a trip slowly around the dial one night between 7 p.m. and midnight. You can’t help but marvel at the ambition on display, the nonstop storytelling, the belief that there’s a niche audience out there just waiting to find a show like “Dirty Jobs” (who knew?) or “Whale Wars” on Animal Planet.

These are only excerpts: check out the whole column for more pointed, ornery takes on unscripted offerings.

For more valuable TIVO tips, check out Tim’s blog, The Bastard Machine.

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About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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