Did you see this Monday’s Bachelor? When Casey S. got called to come outside and talk to Chris about something important, you knew, you knew it was something important. You just knew her bags were packed, she was leaving her chance at, her life with Ben. Casey S. had that look, like “I know I’m about to be found out, but I’m going to hold these cards up until the very last minute. I can’t give in. Well, I want to, but I don’t want to, you know?” You know? The scene was so perfect. Out the heavily windowed courtyard, where the rest of the cast could watch as well as we could on television, Casey S. is forced to admit that–ugh!–she’s in love with someone else, someone from back home. Her self-justification is painfully real–her weeping is really painful. She doesn’t just put her cards down, she shoves in all her chips, essentially throws the game. She tells Chris she went on The Bachelor to forget this other guy, who no longer wants to be with her, that she wanted, really wanted, this whole-reality-tv-thing to work out with Ben, you know, to help her get over him. And now she’s stuck, she can’t deny she loves boy-back-home, she can’t deny it’s not right for her to stay on the show, and yet she must go home and…double ugh!…be single. Goodbyes are hard enough, so she doesn’t even change out of the denim jumpsuit or go back up to the room to hug her competitors. The van is waiting. She weeps then and there on the way to the airport. Between these swelling and yowling groans, these beast-cries you didn’t know could come from beneath such a pretty face, a pretty face now gone hideous, she can only say, “And now I have neither!”
And then there’s Jamie–man, Jamie!–the Dryden, New York R.N., people!–and the most mortifying kissing lesson you’ve ever seen from a 25-year-old on national television. It’s almost too raw to reproduce. You’d have to watch it, but then again, don’t. Knowing her elimination is all but certain unless she can show Ben a different Jamie, a sexy Jamie, instead of the (self-identified) “prude Jamie” he knows, she decides to go for it–the home run, the lap-straddled make-out–when they have their one-on-one. So, in dress, straddling him on the couch during the pre-Rose Ceremony cocktail party (I know…) she then, the prude, proceeds to give Ben a lesson on how to kiss a girl properly. Her nervousness is palpably unnerving, his confusion and discomfort thick in the air. It’s like some hellish conduction: on his lap, his discomfort heightens the stakes, her nerves jolt, she continues to self-destruct in nervous laughter, and Ben’s discomfort reaches a rolling boil. He says, “I can’t do this anymore!” They walk back to the group.
In her final confession, after her (uh, duh!) dismissal, you can’t help but feel for Jamie. She explains how love is all she wants but that it’s also the hardest thing for her to let herself do. “It’s all I want, but it’s my biggest fear.” She explains that she really liked Ben, that he was the best guy she ever knew, but that it took her too long to figure it out. The worst part? She explains that things might have worked out differently if she just showed her love sooner. (Sat on his lap earlier? Not been so awkward every time? Not been herself? It’s unclear, but one worries…) “It’s too late now.” She weeps.
The Bachelor shows us the Me versus the Me-I-Know-I-Could-Be-If-Only…, and the endless–and endlessly futile–attempts at reconciling the two into something love-worthy. Say what you want, get all pious if you want, I know I have, but watch one episode and tell me you don’t understand why some of the more inane decisions are being made, why you like certain castmembers and detest others. Cast the stone, if you will. I will. But I know I’m stoning, well, Me. That’s kind of what’s ironically cathartic about the whole thing–that watching reality television is this simultaneous identification-with and detachment-from that self-same conflict between my Me and my Me-I-Should-Be. Seeing Casey squalling in the van like a 5-year-old, I laugh at her. But I don’t really. It doesn’t matter, though. Watching them is knowing you’re not alone, judging them is (just secretly) knowing you’re not alone.
There was a time when people liked to point out that reality TV isn’t really real. “They’re just acting up for the cameras.” “That’s staged.” “The producers are telling them what to do!” “I hate those [expletive]!” and so forth. Then there was a sort of deuxieme naivete when people thought, Maybe there is something real about it. “Because you know, we can be narcissistic like that.” “It’s our culture.” “It gives us a window onto certain…” And such things. But I would argue that all these different straw people I’ve invented are missing the single most important thing about reality TV, which is the way it has successfully appropriated reality.
…Came a point at which the people being cast on the shows were for the most part people who thrilled back home to watch the shows, people (especially among the younger generation) whose very consciousness had been formed by the shows. Somewhere, far below, a switch was flipped. Now, when you watch a reality show—when you follow The Real World, for instance—you’re not watching a bunch of people who’ve been hurled into some contrived scenario and are getting filmed, you’re watching people caught in the act of being on a reality show. This is now the plot of all reality shows, no matter their cooked-up themes.
Here’s the surprising thing about this shift toward greater self-consciousness, this increased awareness of complicity in the falseness of it all—it made things more real. Because, of course, people being on a reality show is precisely what these people are. Think of it this way: if you come to my office and film me doing my job (I don’t have one, but that only makes this thought experiment more rigorous), you wouldn’t really see what it was like to watch me doing my job, because you’d be there watching me (the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, interior auto-mediation, and so forth). But now add this: What if my job were to be on a reality show, being filmed, having you watching me, interior auto-mediation, and so forth? What if that were my reality, bros? Are your faces melting yet?
This is where we are, as people. And not just that. No, the other exciting thing that’s happened—really just in the last few years—involves the ramping acceleration of a self-reinforcing system that’s been in place since the birth of reality TV. Because the population from which producers and casting directors can draw to get bodies onto these shows has come to comprise almost exclusively persons who “get” reality shows and are therefore hip to the fact that one is all but certain to be humiliated and irrevocably compromised on such a show, the producers and casting directors, who’ve always had to be careful to screen out candidates who are overly self-aware and therefore prone to freeze up and act all “dignified” in front of the cameras, are forever having to work harder and harder to locate the “spontaneous” individuals, people who, as the Miz says approvingly, “just can’t help being who they are.”
…People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. It’s all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, a great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would [expletive] with their money, their cash, and always knowing, always preaching. Using weird phrases nobody uses, except everybody uses now. Constantly talking about “goals.” Throwing carbonic acid on our castmates because they used our special cup and then calling our mom to say, in a baby voice, “People don’t get me here.” Walking around half-naked with a butcher knife behind our backs. Telling it like it is, y’all (what-what). And never passive-aggressive, no. Saying it straight to your face. But crying…My God, there have more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows of the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them—too many shows and too many people on the shows—for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.