Welcome To The Desert Of Reality TV

Our media spooled up earlier this month to commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington. We had the same set of recollections told again and again, usually of journalists saying things like, “I was going to cover a dog show when I got a call…” and so on. Almost every news site had a timeline down to the minute, at such and such a time this plane hit, then this, then that. Out of all of this programming, only one thing really stood out and captured the sense of that day, I am referring here to the documentary 102 Minutes That Changed America. What is so powerful about this documentary is that, while it uses raw footage similar to what you can see elsewhere, it does so without the after-the-fact interviews from witnesses and experts and without the narrator’s voice guiding us through the events.

By not guiding us through these events with all these details, 102 Minutes actually captures the feeling of that day. The voices in the background are confused, did a plane hit? Two planes? What kind? Is that a person jumping out of the tower? There is no narrator to correct and guide our impressions. Indeed that was what 9/11 was like, no one knew for sure what was happening, how many planes were affected, there were attacks and rumours of attacks, it seemed unending. We were all walking into a dusty haze.

Fast forward:

In the past ten years the rise of “reality television” has been unavoidable. Every fall we are told of a host of new reality shows where people marry/catch bad guys/drive trucks/sing songs/open restaurants. What is remarkable is how powerfully the narrative form has returned in these shows. I remember there being a truism that was oft-repeated by my elders when I was a child that went something like, “you can’t nicely wrap up all your problems in an hour like on TV.” This though is precisely what reality TV offers: nice neat resolutions in an hour (or half-hour). The formulas here are almost ridiculously repetitive: Ramsay cleans up the restaurant, the Ice Pilots deliver their load, Dog catches another confused meth addict, Simon Cowell make an atonal teenager cry.

Is it not possible to tie together these two phenomena? The paradigmatic event of the past decade ruptured every North American’s Tuesday morning in a chaotic sort of way, the consequences of this are still spilling out over the world. As a reaction we cleave to this artificial sorts of narratives that slice up life into plot structures, and we put on it a veneer of “reality” (that no one really believes I would suggest). After being introduced to such a brutally random event that killed with indifference, we try to set right the world with these nice neat “real” stories.