The Perfect Art: Reality Television and Polygamy
Consider this: reality television is the perfected height of cinema. New forms of media depend on the introduction of one new technical element that is impossible to accommodate in an older form. When theater gave way to cinema, the one irreproducible element was editing, the technique that allowed a series of non-linear images, scenes, moods, expressions, and actions to be plucked from time and associated with one another in a reverberant collage. Accepting that the purest expression of cinema comes from editing–not direction, cinematography, dialogue, art direction, or any of the other old school theatrical elements–reality television becomes the most distilled and artistically potent form of cinema there is. It begins with an unordered mess of artless footage from which an editor culls a drama of emotions, ideas, and vulgarized poignance.
I can no longer watch scripted television without boredom and discomfort. You might say reality television is no less fictive with its coercing producers, prodding characters into staged conversations about whichever issue is meant to be addressed in an episode. This is a common but bizarre criticism, as if the absence of artifice might somehow make the art more valid. In traditionally scripted shows the artifice is savored, recapped, and enshrined with superlatives. Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, Heroes, Big Love–each comes pre-masticated, needing only ingestion to begin working. In the late 90′s HBO came upon an eerie formula for success by replicating in its serial dramas the gravitas and production value of two hour motion pictures.
When pressed for descriptions of why these shows are so worthwhile–The Wire, say–it’s uncanny how frequently people retreat to high/low categorization. It’s the best written show on television, or it’s a movie-quality drama–all discrete ways of saying a thing has value by virtue of its manner of production. They’re filmed with hand-me-down artistry, alternating variations of Godard’s handheld kineticism and Welles pregnant, packed frames. Likewise, the idea that mafia members lead mundane lives is something we know already, so too The Wire’s interrelated series of irresolvable social, political, and personal dramas unfolding against the collapsing scenery of bankrupt urban centers.
The point can be seen coming, however well intentioned and carefully produced it might be. One might hope for art to be always skimming the outer dark, in search of new aspects and views of ourselves, but in the case of scripted television, art has become an elaborate synthesizer of old truths, retelling fairytales about corruption, masculinity, consumerism, and sexual morality so familiar they’re actually comforting. They’re narcoleptic snuggie-dramas marketed as hollow agitprop.
Criticisms of reality television often come from the same line of thought, dismissing it because it’s trashy brain-rot, bereft of socially significance. The delusion contained in this is nauseating: the value of art derives from its ability to edify and pre-digest socio-political narratives. That which doesn’t hope to edify or, worse yet, stands outside of socio-political narrative are taken as trash.
Jersey Shore can be taken a self-contained psycho-drama about drinking, fucking, and enriching one’s self by taking part in an amorphous spectacle culture–the diametric opposite of The Wire or Mad Men. There are no morality plays to be worked out and, scarier still, there is no outside structure to impose morality on the shiny-faced shot-takers who always seem to be getting away with something. Reality shows are built around a faith that people, when prompted, will improvise an interesting spectacle. Scripted shows revolve around the idea that all spectacles must be followed by tragically punitive consequences.
I have recently been made aware of Sister Wives, a reality show about a polygamist Mormon family in the process of accommodating its fourth wife. The show, which airs on The Learning Channel(!), contains all of the best parts of art: voyeurism, remarkable circumstances, bliss, revulsion, and a central conflict that, even after repeated viewing, is impossible to process. One of the darkest moments I have ever seen on television comes in the show’s first season when the god-in-training Kody Brown is in the hospital with his third wife Christine, who was pregnant and had just begun labor induction. Kody asks Christine’s doctor about in vitro fertilization techniques for his first wife Meri, with whom he’s only been able to have one child.
The Browns are cheerful and modest people for whom the world is be reducible into three general categories: cool, awesome, and great. Kody and his four wives seem to operate by a kind of self-hypnosis, sweetly thankful for the benefits of sisterly solidarity, while having anesthetized the parts of themselves that might experience ecstasy, jealousy, and intimacy. I can think of no greater betrayal of intimacy than talking about maybe getting someone else pregnant while your wife is on the verge of beginning labor right in front of you.
Sister Wives is a profoundly unpleasant show to watch. The brightness of its tone and the darkness of its subject almost cancel each other out, creating a gaping emptiness. Optimistic guitars underscore pleasant vignettes of the kids getting up early to help make breakfast or playing with dolls. In one scene, one of Kody’s teen daughters tells his fourth wife-to-be that she won’t continue the polygamist tradition and wants a husband for herself. “I’m not against the lifestyle,” she says, “I just don’t think it’s right for me.”
Maybe it’s me who’s wrong about everything, I think when I watch this. If I had to squeeze all of my most cherished principles into a few simple lines while staring into a camera lens, blinded by its on-board light, wouldn’t everything seem nonsensical? And if someone cared enough to capture and log all of the events of my life and could cross-check my behavior against the balloon of ethics that I’d characterize myself by, wouldn’t it turn into a massive intellectual hallucination that, when viewed form the outside becomes pathetic, even funny?
The state of Utah begins an investigation of the Browns’ lifestyle and eventually prompts a move to Nevada, which seems like a cruel overreaction, even less just than keeping multiple wives, hounding a peaceful and happy family–hypnotized though they may seem–with criminal accusations. In watching reality television, I feel a great togetherness with those who endure in a stupid conviction that, to them, is self-evidently true. Reality show actors are perfectly convicted to an ideal whose flaws they cannot see. The serialized melodramas of scripted television reinforce the opposite view: it’s us who’ve failed our social ideals, and not the ideals that have betrayed us. They’re an elaborate guilt matrix, and totally boring.
“Boredom is an instrument of social control,” Saul Bellow wrote in Humboldt’s Gift. “Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and with death.”
When people call reality television trash, it sounds like a self-reflexive statement–an uncomfortable confession that they cannot control their impulse judge someone in an artificially manipulated posture. This is not a consequence of the spectacle, drunkenness, and unconsidered arguments that tend to play best in reality television, but because consequences rarely seem to come from any of it. Snooki blacks out, shows her vagina, to a disco of strangers, hits a police car the next day, and after a five minute segment of tears and drama, everything is wiped clean again.
In scripted television, a single action spreads a web of guilt-amplifying consequences. It’s a way of teasing our need to see retribution, and to secretly relieve some inner suspicion that we’ve done something similarly awful, which will, if we don’t keep up the moral seeming, lead to ruination. Imagine the opposite: most of the actions one takes in life, both cruel and kind, are equally forgettable. What consequences they do provoke are worse in the imagining than in actual experience, and they often evaporate as easily as they appeared.
Reality television is the conscious art of self-deception, and scripted television is the unconscious art of self-deception. Everyone can determine for themselves whether there is value in self-deception, but once the trick has been made conscious it is frightfully boring to see it made unconscious again.
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