How far I have fallen.
Television was banned from my house for entire decades, and even after that smarmy-screened camel slipped under the tent I successfully resisted the siren song of Reality TV…for a time, at least.
I was never tempted to watch Survivor. Ozzy Osbourne and his family held no charms for me. I have resisted Mr. Trump’s firings and Mr. Ramsay’s rages, and whole parades of Bachelors and Bachelorettes have escaped me.
Yet, I know OF them, and there is the point. Is there anyone among us whose cultural lexicon has not been pervaded by The Donald’s “You’re fired!” or who does not recognize the meaning of being “voted off the island”?
I suppose it all really started with Alan Funt and Candid Camera. As swoon-worthy as that rogue Ashton Kutcher is, he’s really just a plagiarist with friends in high places. But while he and Mr. Funt could not be further apart on the physiognomy spectrum, they share an understanding of one of the most regrettable human motivations: the guilty pleasures of schadenfreude. It’s that sly part of our psyche that reacts with I’m-so-glad-it’s-happening-to-him-and-not-me just a tick ahead of the more noble “Oh, how terrible, how can I help?” super-ego response.
And with several years of reality TV under our belt, it has morphed into something even worse, it seems; once the reality “stars” sign media releases and the cameras start rolling, the viewers (4.8 million for the most recent episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, a stunning 9.8 million for the Jon & Kate Plus 8 2009 premiere) gorge themselves on microwaved popcorn and a hailstorm of no-holds-barred permission to mock and judge from that lofty moral perch they occupy in front of their televisions.
Schadenfreude looks like compassion compared to this free-for-all of mean-spiritedness that seems to drive the national obsession with the Kardashian girls’, um, assets, and Kate’s mis-steps as a parent and a dancer. Is there anyone else for whom this evokes images of the Roman coliseum? Or at least Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery?
And I now knoweth the sound pride makes just before it goeth in advance of a fall – it’s a shrill, shrieky “Woohoo”. As screamed by Vicki, from The Real Housewives of Orange County. Because that’s where it all started for me. It began as an innocent channel-surfing pit stop, a harmless laugh and a half at these Armani-ed, massaged and manicured ladies mugging for the camera, oftimes drunk and always intoxicated – on the drug of their own images, viewed from the pool of Narcissus. Like the ill-fated Loud’s American Family, which signaled the opening of the Pandora’s Box of reality TV back in the 1970’s, it was a train wreck begging to be watched, and so what if I felt a little dirty afterwards – I also felt somehow smarter and classier than those woebegone OC’rs after the closing credits.
Soon Vicki’s “Woohoo” was silenced by the deafening “ca-ching” of the Bravo channel raking in the advertiser dough from their expanded “Housewives” franchise. It was sometime last year that I became aware that if conversation flagged at a social gathering, I could instantly perk things up by asking if anyone at the table watched The Real Housewives of New York. The decibel level instantly soared; some claiming (too insistently – they were clearly lying) that they had never heard of it, others shouting over the din that they loved or hated Ramona and ultimately, the question for the ages: is Kelly on drugs or is she really that stupid/disturbed?
Books gathered dust on our shelves, and our IQ’s dropped in tandem as the CE and I occasionally and then more-than-occasionally, tuned in, not just to The Real Housewives, but also to Flipping Out, What Not to Wear, and even (my head hangs in shame) Kendra (all the CE’s fault on that one, just to be clear).
We haven’t watched American Idol or any show featuring faux-celebrities busting their dance moves, not that we are redeemed in the least by those omissions. We do, however, claim higher moral ground based on a decision about zip codes: we have never watched RHOA or RHONJ, nor have we tuned into see Snooki and her antics on Jersey Shore. But then, whatever virtue we claimed was out the window with just one viewing of Pretty Wild. Please. Don’t go there.
Eventually, the accumulated voyeuristic grime became too much even for us. I hit the wall right around the time Kelly from RHONYC melted down on Mysterious Island. And a few nights later, when Mr. Novogratz of Nine By Design practically drooled on the copy of the New York Times that featured his family’s four-color portrait above the fold of the Life & Style section, I made a decision: I could not contribute to The Fall of this adorable family. It has to stop somewhere.
The Novogratzes, for those two of you out there who have not succumbed to the reality genre, are an impossibly charming family of nine who inexplicably manage to combine the parents’ home design biz with raising their seven (for the moment) irresistibly unspoiled children. The New York Observer aptly described Bob and Cortney Novogratz as a “disturbingly handsome couple” who sell renovated rundown properties for “disturbingly massive profits”. When the eldest son, darling and dimpled Wolfie, is told on-camera of a slavish news article about their family, he grows wide-eyed and thoughtful: “That’s a lot of hype to live up to”, he says.
And that moment was the beginning of the end for me. Even more than Kelly Killoren Bensimon’s troubled meltdown, the prospect of the adorable Novogratz family going all Gosselin was the moment of truth for me. That’s It. We’re Done, I said.
I threw myself into a frenzy of book-reading. And when my tv-remote finger itched, I clicked it squarely on fictional fare, although you might, deservedly, beg the question: exactly how is the mayhem of Criminal Minds morally superior to that of Jill and Bethenny? And I guess the only answer I have is that my moral compass doesn’t spin quite as out of control or seem quite as hazy while watching psychopaths go down as it does when mean girls bicker and meaner girls (the millions of us who Watch What Happens) convince ourselves that those splinters in our eyes are nothing compared to the ones we see on the screen.
Isn’t that really what it comes down to? Reality television is a way for the rest of us to minimize our failings. The sins of the Housewives are so deadly that the rest of us seem almost as angelic as the Novogratz kids by comparison. Except for that judging thing, that is.
The CE and I saw a bumper sticker once that made us smile. It read: “Where am I going, and why am I in this handbasket?” These days, I sometimes think the road to hell is paved by the Bravo channel and that cute Andy Cohen has his trigger finger on the automatic gate opener outside. Not that I’m judging, of course.
I faltered and watched the first RHONYC reunion, then regained my resolve and resisted the second one. Was feeling all smug and high and mighty about it until I slipped and caught the end of Reunion #3, with Jill burying her head in Bethenny’s lap and begging for forgiveness. I admit it: I did an eyeroll at that one. By then, all bets were off and I rolled right into Bethenny Getting Married (the first episode of which, incidentally, had the highest viewership of any Bravo series debut in history). And then I sunk even lower, hitting the hair of the dog the day after by reading Richard Lawson’s catty re-caps on Gawker.com. If you haven’t feasted on those yet, run, don’t walk to http://gawker.com/5567030/real-housewives-of-new-york-reunion-death-is-only-the-beginning?skyline=true&s=i
So it appears that I am weak. But not unaware. The kernel of the whole thing, folks, is that we may mock and judge, but in the end, we’re watching them, they aren’t watching us. Who’s the stupid one now?
A new week is dawning. I’ve begun another book. A big, fat 500-pager. But I still know where the tv remote is. Please, somebody stop me before I watch again…