BY KEN WALCZAK
You probably were not aware, but another season of reality TV limped lamely to a close Tuesday evening. I’ll spare you the bang/whimper allusion — in addition to the moratorium on nautical metaphors I’m self-imposing, Fox’s own “The Maiden Voyage” being repugnant enough, thank you — in favor of moving quickly to the most compelling reason for patting your oblivious self on the back. The Love Cruise was a drag. It was not compelling television, because it was not sexy, it was not original, and most of all, it wasn’t evil. At least, not evil enough.
These are truly sinister days for the medium of television. New advances in electronic technology and national ironic detachment have rendered the old-fashioned kinds of manipulation obsolete. In their place has arisen a multi-headed beast, a real RICO-defying monster of a conspiracy, tying together viewers, characters and (by far the biggest head) producers. The beast has been working since well before the turn of the century to up the ante on manipulative television, essentially by pitting Art and Life against each other in a glorious mud wrestling match over who is imitating whom. The results to date have been inspiring, low-brow but tremendously engrossing. In other words, we have all been winning. Television today is very possibly as good as it’s ever been, and we have the beast to thank for it.
But if Tuesday’s Cruise is any indication, the boom times may soon be over. Love Cruise’s finale was a simple amalgam of all the failings of late-period Reality TV. The characters left standing on the dais at the show’s end were some of its least interesting, the truly compelling ones having being seen as potential “threats,” and thus ejected. Decisions between couples (at stake, a Trip-Around-The-World voucher and a suitcase stuffed with 2,000 hundreds) were made on the basis of such non-starters as “who was the most genuine?” and “who kept their head high?” Voting conferences whose mere transcripts speak volumes on the multiple connotations of words like “player” and “real” (particularly potent and depressing when, as is often the case, they are used in tandem: “She played the game like a real, genuine person; he was just a real player”) were delivered with nary a smirk. The Anthony character berated the Melissa character over her lack of character; she broke down and declared, screaming, that she wanted no one’s vote. He pronounced himself “a righteous man” for the effort. Melissa won the trip and the money.
Believe me, it doesn’t have to be like this. As David Foster Wallace once observed, in a superb essay whose only flaw is that it was written before the advent of Reality programming, television is capable of “ingeniously absorbing, homogenizing and re-presenting the very same cynical postmodern aesthetic that was once the best alternative to the appeal of Low, over-easy, mass-marketed narrative.” Exciting stuff! And really riveting entertainment, when it’s done right. But the key, the absolutely essential ingredient in doing it right these days, is the introduction to this mix of some sinister, manipulative element. (And this is where the producer-head wins out, since it is never those behind the camera being manipulated.) A few successful examples should clarify what I mean, and hopefully shed some light on why Fox can no longer hope to impress us with above-average-looking non-actors whispering to each other on boats:
First, Blind Date. Not an early entry in the post-Survivor feeding frenzy, but among the first of the now-ubiquitous Survivor In Love subgenre. A program which takes no apparent shame in its utter inability to ever match compatible people with one another. The dates almost invariably fail miserably, as one or both participants is gradually revealed to be hopelessly pathetic and/or patently offensive. The mockery of these hapless folks is rounded out by sarcastic subtitles and “what a jerk” computer graphics, and bookended with sardonic commentary by the mechanical host, Roger Lodge. The couples suffer, the audience suffers. Pity and contempt evolve into feelings of superiority (either because Joe Audience-member isn’t dating or has dates that go a lot better than this. Given the show’s time slot in Boston, I think the former is the safer assumption) which in turn produce self-affirmation and delight. Somewhere, a producer cackles malevolently into his clipboard.
Second, Change of Heart. Actually predates Survivor, as a bastard child of the Love Connection. Hampered only by its more traditional dating-show structure, since its premise is truly evil. The pitch made to potential contestants (by the Satanically-goateed Chris Jagger) goes something like this: “Dump your girlfriend [boyfriend, significant other, whatever]. Go ahead, dump her. Then you’ll be instantly qualified to date the girl [boy, again whatever] of your dreams. You could have had these supermodel-babes all along if you weren’t strapped to that old bag. And anyway, if you change your mind, you can always run back to the old steady post-fling and tell her you really want to Stay Together. What’s to lose?” I swear, this show destroys people’s psyches. Oh, they’re contributorily negligent; they could have watched the show enough times to figure out the subtext behind what they were getting into. But this observation only makes it all the easier to savor our Audience-contempt for the poor slobs …
Clearly, Love Cruise is not in the same league with this kind of diabolical programming. Unfortunately, it isn’t very good eye candy, either. But then, in this area too the bar has been raised, at least since the eroticization of teenagers came back into style. I will delay speculation on the relative “evil” of this particular trend for another day … but if it was sex appeal you were looking for from Love Cruise, might I instead suggest MTV Undressed? It moves a lot faster, and the acting is much more entertaining.