Opinion Columns & Blogs

'Reality TV' anything but

Reality's not what it's cracked up to be.

The Charlotte Observer last week reported on a filming of an episode of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," a series that sends deserving families on vacation to an exotic locale while a crew destroys their house and replaces it with a brand-new one.

Given the landscape of "reality" TV, "Extreme Makeover" may be one of the better shows. I admit to having been hooked by the one episode I watched. In it, the family home had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, and the owners returned to find a brand-new house.

Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on one's cynicism quotient -- henceforth, I will watch "reality" shows with a more jaundiced eye.

Spontaneous reactions

As The Observer reported, the spontaneous reactions of the lucky Charlotte family were not actually spontaneous. Put another way, when their responses didn't quite measure up, family members were asked to repeat the scene -- sometimes more than once. So when you watch this episode in coming months, be aware that as the "Extreme Makeover" crew knocks on the door to surprise the deserving family, you may be seeing the second or third version of the "surprise."

I may be the only person in America bothered by the deceit underlying "reality" TV. The shows certainly are popular. I don't know how many currently are running on either broadcast or cable channels, but there are dozens. They include everything from "Survivor" knockoffs to cake-designing contests; from blockbuster talent searches such as "American Idol," to purported documentaries of the private lives of over-the-hill celebrities.

Although "reality" plots vary, they share two premises: That reality can be tailored to meet requirements of commercial TV, and that viewer credulity is boundless.

Take "American Idol," perhaps my least favorite "reality" program. Does anyone think that the producers make a serious attempt to find the most capable amateur performers in the country?

You can find better singers waiting tables in any eatery in Nashville. If "American Idol" wanted to find exceptional vocalists, they could visit any of a hundred good music schools in the country, including Winthrop University, and draft the top voice majors.

Drop the skepticism

I am not so out of touch with the realities of the entertainment marketplace to suggest that "reality" TV could handle unscripted life. As much as it pleases me to imagine the "Extreme Makeover" folks knocking on a door and greeted by snarling pit bull, or an aspiring celebrity chef decking Gordon Ramsay, the abusive, foul-mouthed star of "Hell's Kitchen," I know neither scenario likely is to happen.

To appreciate "reality" TV, viewers must put aside their skeptical selves -- in much the same way professional wrestling fans don't agonize over whether the villain really is an al-Qaida terrorist or just another tanned weightlifter in a turban.

It would bother me less if these shows weren't so weakly scripted. By the end of the first episode, typecasting is obvious. The little blonde girl is a harridan. The tall guy is the bully. The chap wearing horn-rimmed glasses is the designated wuss, etc. Of course, the casting must be politically correct, with gender, race and ethnic background in an acceptable mix.

I admit to having grown up in an age when "reality" TV was limited to such gems as Ted Mack's "Original Amateur Hour" and "Queen for a Day." I also remember the uproar over game-show scandals during the 1950s, when it was revealed that nerdy college professor Charles Van Doren had been prepped for his appearances on the hit TV quiz show "Twenty One."

Today, the reaction likely would consist of a collective national yawn.

My case is not so much that "reality" TV is anything but real; it's a nagging concern that so many of us live vicariously in the psyches of these stereotypical characters, acting out story lines that could have been scripted by junior high students. If we spent half as much time chatting with our neighbors or volunteering for a local nonprofit agency, how much better reality would be.

On the other hand, if you hear anything about casting for a program called "Extreme Makeover: Lawn Edition," give me a call.