Last night I made the acquaintance of a reality TV producer. He told me the story of his ascent to the big time in a rather “Southern” way. That is to say, he told it with the utmost in confidence that what he was saying was of interest to me, the listener. I don’t mean that to be insulting; I find Southerners to be enrapturing speakers, raised by a tradition of patient storytelling. As a point of comparison, many Midwesterners find the need to communicate that which might be of use to the listener. Out of humility, we tend to keep our life stories to ourselves. But it has been my experience that when given an open ear, the Southerner will take it as an opportunity to tell his or her life story with passion. Buying a quart of 2% milk can sound interesting from the mouth of a Southerner.
The problem is, I don’t watch TV, so I was in a sense, a dispassionate listener. In fact, the consumption of more than 1.5 hours of TV makes me feel exhausted. As much as white people love to brag that they don’t even own one, I honestly can say that I don’t care about those people I see on the cover of those magazines you buy in the impulse aisle of the supermarket. I know some of their names (Snookie? Kim Kardashian?) but I don’t know their stories because I don’t watch their shows. They have, in a sense occupied our brains with their lives. “They’re just like us!” we observe.
I imagine an imaginative storyteller having an experience while picking up a quart of 2% milk at the supermarket. They might see an elderly woman struggling to get around a group of babbling hipsters (“These people these days are so rude!”). Or maybe the imaginer talks to a pregnant woman and finds out that they are neighbors (“Oh, this sweet little lady lives right down the street from us!”). Inspired (or angered), they go to the checkout counter with their quart of milk and they see the new US Weekly. The cover story: Rachel Zoe is pregnant! The story inside the magazine: Watch Rachel Zoe at the supermarket! She’s just like you!
Somehow Rachel Zoe becomes just as important as the pregnant neighbor, or just as sympathetic as the elderly woman. In the eyes of the storyteller, she is a “friend” of his, being “just like him.” So instead of telling his own story, he simply lives vicariously through his favorite reality TV star. She has, in a sense, taken over his imagination. Of course I’m not giving the shopper enough credit. He may go home and tell both stories, but my fear that it is that Rachel Zoe’s that has become the more compelling of the two. And, of course, her story is more compelling, being a glamorous fashion person to the stars or whatever.
The value judgment here is that TV requires little to no imagination. I know that’s not true, with Shows White People Like such as Mad Men and, um, Mad Men. There is “great writing” out there, somewhere. Maybe I simply have not bothered to find out about it. One of these days people are going to start to realize that our reality binge is getting old and we’d rather see a sitcom about an alien that’s landed in a living room in Los Angeles and decides to become a fashion consultant to the stars. Or maybe a family of aliens that fight over whose baby daddy slept with who. After getting too ridiculous, TV will then go back to Rachel Zoe Redux. Until then, we’re stuck with part one.