Last night I had two very different and contrasting experiences while I sat in front of my television. In the middle of cooking up some dinner I turned on Kid Nation, yet another reality TV show, whose premise is to put a bunch of kids in a situation that is very much like the castaway-on-a-desert-island setup of that reality TV pioneer and heavyweight, Survivor. The kids are put by themselves in this Old Western town and have to build their own community. (I guess the producers chose the Old West because it’s primitive, but not too primitive – to see kids eating bugs and trying to build their own shelters might be too much)
It was interesting for a little while, but soon I found myself remembering an essay I read recently in Chuck Klosterman’s book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. The essay was about the reality TV show that started it all, MTV’s The Real World. Chuck has spent a disturbing amount of time watching and thinking about the Real World, and as a result he has some interesting things to say about Reality TV in general. His comment that I remembered while watching Kid Nation unravel was concerning archetypes.
His opinion is that it is very difficult for you and I to understand the complexity of another real human being, so we think better in archetypes. He points out that as the Real World got more popular, it was because the characters on the show actually became “less real.” Through the help of increased scripting and creative editing, The Real World’s producers began to take eight complicated real people and turn them into simple one-dimensional characters, like something out of the popular 80’s movie The Breakfast Club, which features “the Nerd,” “the Jock,” “the Rebel,” and “The Priss” (80’s heavyweights Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Molly Ringwald, respectively) – although in the Real World‘s case these archetypes have been updated to “the Hick,” “the Fratboy,” and “the Militant Gay Feminist.”
But the featuring of archetypes is where the similarities end. The Breakfast Club’s whole goal is to start with the archetypes and dissolve them, revealing the “real” complex people underneath and showing us that Nerds can be cool, Jocks can be sensitive, and The Priss can date The Rebel. The Real World, on the other hand, wallows in the shallow mire of stereotype for entertainment purposes.
So after Kid Nation ended, leaving me feeling like I had cotton candy for brains, I pulled up HBO On Demand and watched an episode of their new series Tell Me You Love Me. This show features four simultaneous storylines that focus on four couples at various stages in life – young and unmarried, married no kids, married with kids, and retired. And even though it features paid actors and fictional storylines, it is the “realest” show I’ve ever seen. The way it delves into these relationships is captivating because it shows every dimension – most notably the sexual (it’s definitely just for adults) – in glorious flawed detail. It routinely swings between exposing the ugliness of the relationships and celebrating their beauty, in a way that constantly has you saying “I’ve been there.” And the interesting conclusion is that professional actors can be more real than an untrained amateur when a camera is pointed at them, even when they are reading from a script.
So as Reality TV gets less real and celebrates the stereotypical simpleton, elsewhere people are developing great shows that tear down the stereotypes to find the wonderful complexity, commonality, and humanity in all of us. The Breakfast Club lives on.