I've been having a strange experience lately. As a waitress and a person who frequents coffee shops alone (in other words, as a person who has occasion to overhear conversations in which I am not involved at least 75% of the time I'm awake), I've begun to notice that at least 70% of all randomly overheard conversations sound like complete nonsense. I'm not talking about not being able to get a handle on what is being discussed because I'm only hearing snippets of conversations between people I know nothing about. I'm talking about hearing a full 20 minutes of a conversation and thinking to myself, “This sounds like gobbledy gook! Are these people talking in circles? Was that last statement even a sentence, or was it just a string of words spoken with inflection?” It's a lot like the scene in Some Kind of Monster when somebody says that the band should come up with a mission statement. “Mission statement?” someone asks as if he's never heard the term before. “Mission statement,” replies whomever made the suggestion. “Mission statement?” asks the other person again (it was hard to tell who in the room full of Metallica and hangers-on was asking), still stumped. “Mission statement,” comes the reply, amazingly unfased and unfrustrated. At some point this exchange just becomes like the drone of white noise.
And that's the thing: this strange experience I've been having reminds me a lot of what it's like when I watch reality TV.
Most people I know with similar intellectual interests to my own are generally in one of two camps when it comes to television: they refuse to get cable because watching TV is a waste of time, or they watch critically-acclaimed, artsy-fartsy smarty-pants TV shows on DVD even if they have cable. They wouldn't want to chance a run-in with some sundry common sit-com or reality rif-raf while clicking through the channels to watch The Wire. Me? I am a firm believer in television programming's right to be crap. I can watch an entire season of America's Next Top Model over the course of a lazy Sunday, and the smartest thing I watch with any regularity is Law & Order if left to my own devices. My current favorite television shows are The Real Housewives of (Insert Location Here), Millionaire Matchmaker, and whatever win-the-love-of-semi-famous-has-been show is currently running on VH1. I love reality TV. What I find so funny is that so many people make the argument that reality television is terrible because it's nothing like reality. Whenever I hear this argument, my initial reaction is that it is true—reality television is not reality. But I don't think this has any bearing on whether or not reality TV is good or bad. I love sitting on the couch watching a movie and snuggling with my boyfriend on a Tuesday night, but I doubt this very real scenario makes for riveting television. Even less riveting would be me doing my laundry or reading for an hour at the local coffeeshop (where I don't really read—I just pretend to read while listening to other people have conversations that make no sense to me). The argument that we shouldn't watch reality TV because people would never act like themselves in front of a television camera holds no weight because that is exactly why it's in any way interesting. The first 4 seasons of The Real World showed 7 20-something strangers getting real; in the fifth season we saw the 7 cast members forced to work together to create a business as well. Why? Because everyone knows that the episode in season 3 when Cory went job-hunting for a whole day—and we were forced to watch her fill out applications and talk to managers—was booooo-ring. It's something we all really do at different points in our very real lives, and we all really hate it. We don't want to be reminded of it while watching television.
My recent experiences have led me to believe, though, that there may be another reason for society's love/hate relationship with reality TV. Maybe it's not so much that reality TV is nothing like reality; maybe it's that reality TV is a little too much like reality.
I can completely understand why we don't want to admit that we spend 82% of our time over-analyzing every subtle nuance of our personal lives out loud to other people, all the while doing it in a language that loses it's meaning the longer we speak it. I mean, when did everyone start saying, “You know?” at the end of every other sentence? This has to be a sign that none of us are 100% sure we're making sense.
While watching the season finale of Tough Love, a reality show about 8 women who have serious problems with men who move into a house together and work out their issues with the help of a matchmaker (Sex and the City meets the therapist's couch), it dawned on me just how similar everyone's lives are. Two of the most disparate women in the house became best friends, crying and saying things like, “Oh, I've learned so much from you!” after initially hating each others guts (been there). One of the women had to choose between the affections of two different men (I don't want to brag, but...done that). Another woman quit the show when the matchmaker wouldn't stop getting in her face about being such a slut. I've never had that exact experience (mostly because I've never been on a reality television show centering on 8 women with serious relationship problems), but, trust me—I can relate. I think what makes us so uncomfortable with reality television is that we're really afraid that these are the days of our lives. Someone may not be able to relate to the situations on Tough Love in a direct sense, but when we listen to the conversations these women have about what's going on in their dramatized lives, we can't help but relate on some level. When our conversations are repeated by a bunch of people we don't know on television, they tend to seem much more ridiculous and meaningless than when we had them in a real life scenario with our friends or ourselves.
We're left asking ourselves, “Are we really this stupid?”
Sure, most of us would like to believe that our personal dramas are deeper than that. We'd like to believe that these intensely personal experiences aren't being replicated in anyone else's life, let alone played out on television. We'd like to believe that our lives are more ground-breaking than the basic 5 possible plots. When we're watching those plots play out on a scripted sit-com or drama, it's easy to believe that our lives are more complex and less ridiculous—that stuff is fiction! But reality TV hits a little too close to home. When I found myself relating to the ladies of Tough Love, it made me realize just how comforting it is to know that all the stuff about me that I think is so fucked up is fucked up in other people, too—which, in the end, makes it seem a lot less fucked up.
So, I guess, yes—we really are this stupid! The good news is that we're pretty much all this stupid! Trust me; I've been eavesdropping on everyone, and we all sound like nonsense.
Especially whoever it was in Some Kind of Monster who didn't understand the concept of a mission statement. That guy's an idiot.
And I can relate.