The Curious Temptation of Summertime Reality
Summer’s here, and the time is right for reality contests on every single channel, it seems. True, that doesn’t have the same ring as “Dancing in the Streets,” but it does have the added benefit of being more true. From Design Star, The Glee Project and The Great Escape on cable to broadcast shows like The Glass House and Hell’s Kitchen, summer is when television decides that we want to see people just like us struggle, weep and say things like “I’m not here to make friends – I’m here to win.” The worst thing? That’s entirely true for me.
I don’t know what it is about reality contests and the summer; I’ve not seen more than, at most, two episodes of American Idol in total, and similar shows like The Voice or The Sing-Off hold no lure for me. Things like America’s Got Talent and Dancing With The Stars are even less inviting; if the choice was between destroying my television forever and watching an episode of Dancing, I’d be more tempted by the former option than I should admit to. And yet, come the summer and the promise of watching chefs battle it out in cooking contests that I’ll be entirely unable to judge by watching, or artists rushing to create works of art outside of their comfort zone or skill level in a couple of hours and I’ll be setting the TiVo without a second thought. But why?
There’s a couple of reasons I can think of, offhand. The first is a simple “There’s nothing else on in the summer.” It’s not exactly true – I’ll happily watch White Collar and Leverage when they come back – but it has to be said that the lack of competition for my televisual attention has probably resulted in my watching episodes of The Glee Project as much as the quality of the show itself on more than one occasion. The second, though, has more to do with the shows themselves than their scheduling, as well as what I’ll find myself agreeing to watch.
What something like Design Star or Top Chef will do that something like American Idol won’t is, essentially, turn the show into a narrative where winning and losing are secondary to the overall character arcs of specific contestants. To watch one of the summer shows is to buy into that year’s storyline, made up from familiar ingredients (The “I’m Not Here To Make Friends” character – normally a villain, but there may be a redemption if they make it far enough, normally revealing a sick relative – the innocent savant, the comedian, the contestant struggling with their sexuality, the contestant making some kind of personal comeback after earlier drama, and so on…) and, more often than not, following a familiar arc.
(Idol and similar contests offer narratives of their own, of course, but the structure is different: In shows where the talent is more obvious to the layman – We can all tell when someone can sing well, after all – it’s easier to leave the contest as a contest. When it’s more specialized or difficult to discern on screen, the narrative takes on more importance, and the competition becomes just one element of the storytelling, instead of the sun around which the rest of the storytelling orbits.)
Maybe the more obscure reality contests that appeal to me during the summer do so not because of their contests, but because of the story it tells, over and over again. After all, I find myself never caring about the actual winners and losers, in the end.
Maybe I should start watching Jersey Shore, and see if it has the same effect…