Laugh as you may, Reality Television is converging on a new form that even its savviest, Nielson-hungry headproducers do not grasp in full. This form is gaining shape inch by inch, plot twist by plot twist, layer by layer, until the lines between reality and reflection, myth and history, fame and the familiar- between dad and Ozzy Ozbourne- have been blurred and cut and pasted into a seamless televisual Hyperreality. Because, this is what I’m talking about of course: Hyperreality. An example: one station- ABC, FOX, I forget which- has on the drawing board a new Reality show, based on the Real World/Big Brother format; that is, several heads living and bitching under the Omniscient Eye of a Ubiquitous Camera. The twist: they intend to fill the house with Has-Beens; a star-studded C-list including the likes of Emmanuel Lewis from Webster fame, an old playboy bunny, Vince Neil from Motley Crue, MC Hammer, and- the real crowdpleaser- “Natalie” from The Facts of Life. How many leapfrogging layers of hyperreality can you count? How many knots in the webs of significance? The disorientation is immense- and this is its virtue. The high/low tension, the inability to decide whether something is myth or history. This is where Reality Television is heading, or I should say, may be heading; like a dandelion growing and groping towards the Sun. Right now, the forms and format are crude- studio responses to writer strikes, more reminiscent of Daytime Television. But with time and demand, Reality Television might become a magic, mystical, meaningful hall-of-mirrors, deserving of that sublime confusion of myth and history himself, Andy Kaufman- in my mind, the only true genius in the history of American Entertainment.
Hyperreality will not just be a handmaiden of entertainment, but a starring player in our great American Mythos and in the re-enchantment of the world; crossing, like our best religious traditions, the sacred and the profane, myth and history, the Up and the Down. Only with modern equivalents: fame, fiction, and performance. It may be crass for now, but one day some world-disclosing genius will put it all together- use the form against itself; use fame, fiction, and performace against themselves- this is when Reality Television will ripen and fall to the ground. Why is it that intelligent people can derive so much pleasure from watching a bloated, xanaxed Anna Nicole Smith get stuck underneath a table, or families in a gameshow square-off for the bequests of a dearly departed, or stranded celebrities chugging olive oil and eating sand, or Ozzy Ozbourne fumbling with the remote control and watching himself on Jay Leno? It is voyeuristic, true, but something more is involved. It satisfies the American demand for both, as Umberto Eco has noted, a perfectly unreal Reality and a perfectly real Unreality. Just the confusion I’m searching for. I think Andy Warhol, with his seven hour films of sleeping friends, his fifteen minutes of fame, and his antiromantic genius for the boring and mundane, would be a good touchstone here. Good in that he undermined categories and perverted fame, fiction, and performance- with the schizophrenic Superstars on bennies and ludes, the lifelike nonexistence of proper edit and plotlines, and hours of staring, babbling, sleeping, incongruent poolside flirtations, and self-destruction. Warhol knew exactly what he was doing. Unlike Warhol however, who could flip channels and watch commercials and TV-snow for days on end, I am notorious for my inability to watch the bluebox for more than twenty-minute stretches at a time (I literally watch movies in bitesize, half-hour chunks). I ask then, that those Nielson families out there, and all good people with remote controls and TV eyes and butts the size of Utah, to please keep me updated as television begins its fiery ascent into the Astral Plane.