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THE BITE OF 'REALITY' TV



Published: Sun, February 9, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



THE BITE OF 'REALITY' TV

Chicago Tribune: RIght up front we should concede that many, many people were addicted to the first "Survivor," one of the progenitors of the "reality" craze that some say is changing the landscape of television forever. It had an allure precisely because the contestants were real people, with beer bellies and imperfect complexions. And beneath the immunity challenges, there was a really sly and vicious game of office politics going on.

It's easy to deride these shows as mindless entertainment (as if there's something wrong with that?) But that's to miss the real point here: What's happening beneath the surface of the American psyche to make these shows so popular? It's kind of scary to think that a lunk-headed show like "Joe Millionaire" has tapped into something deep and true about America. But the ratings don't lie.

'Joe' the fake

"Joe" is not actually a millionaire, as the women on the show have been misled into believing. He's supposedly a construction worker earning $19,000 a year. So he's only pretending to be a multimillionaire while a bevy of golddig-, uh, young women attempt to convince him that they're really after him for his personality.

Which would be OK, if he had one.

Anyway, on the surface we admit this is not a show designed for the folks drawn to Masterpiece Theatre. But look deeper, and you find the fascinating common threads that bind all these shows.

Yes, they're about regular people faced with often bizarre situations. And there's some fantasy mixed in -- having your pick of 25 handsome bachelors ("The Bachelorette"), getting discovered as a rock star ("American Idol"), overcoming phobias to win big bucks ("Fear Factor.")

But most of all they're about utter, complete and abject humiliation. Losers abound on these shows. They're the ones not chosen to go on a date. They're kicked off the island or out of the house. They're so homely they need plastic surgery. They're rejected as America's next rock star, but not before suffering a stinging tirade from judge Simon (who recently told one contestant that he might be the "worst singer in the world.")

Shattered egos

At the end of every "Bachelorette," for instance, several suitors get the boot. "Who will be sent home with his ego shattered?" the announcer gleefully asked near the climax of one episode.

Sure, viewers want to see who ends up with the girl or the guy, or who wins the money. But mostly they want to relish all the emotional wreckage left behind, commiserate with or condemn the losers, and cluck about the type of person who would publicly participate in such lunacy.

These shows allow us to sit back in the comfort and privacy of our homes and watch people do stuff that we wouldn't have the nerve, grit or stupidity to try. So maybe it's not reality as most of us know it. But it sure is entertaining.




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