Speaking Loud and Clear About Reality TV

The Sports Guy reviews the latest reality-TV entry, The Contender:

[Unlikeable contestants aren't] a problem with "Contender," not with 16 boxers all plugging away for the same break, sharing the same hopes and dreams. You can't pretend in a boxing ring when somebody is trying to pummel you. You just can't. And with the way it's edited ? gratuitous family shots, gut-wrenching music, almost like one of those old Sally Struthers commercials with the hungry kids ? you're emotionally invested in each fighter before his big showdown. Does it come off like a bad Hallmark commercial sometimes? Absolutely. But it's impossible not to feel something for the loser of the big match every week, as he walks back to the darkened locker room, faces his disappointed family, questions his career and dreams, then limps out of the building with a gonging noise in the background, like the 10-count of a bell.

(Note: Last week's show was especially poignant since it was the one when Najai Turpin, the boxer who committed suicide just five weeks ago, got knocked off. His show turned out to be hauntingly manipulative and I'm not entirely sure they should have shown it; I couldn't get him out of my mind on Sunday night. Too many questions left unanswered after the fact. Did he kill himself because of the show? What were the circumstances? Was he more troubled during the taping than they made it seem? There was something sneaky about the way they presented it, like they were holding back information from us. Still, I can't remember a show affecting me like that in a long time. It was like watching someone die right in front of you, even though he wasn't dead yet.)

. . .

In case you haven't seen the show, they edit the matches into a few action-packed minutes ? giving them leeway to add a pounding soundtrack, cuts to the crowd, reactions of family members and slow-motion punches ? so it plays like a scene from a boxing movie. Sure, it's impossible to get a feel for the ebb and flow of the fight. But I'm not sure you need it. With the way they edit these matches, they could turn the Ruiz-Holyfield trilogy into a replica of the three Gatti-Ward fights.

Say what you will about SG, but he is nothing if not competent at taking the pulse of the 30-something male pop culture consumer. And as soon as I read his words, I was reminded of Baudrillard's analysis of the Loud family in Simulacra and Simulation:

The End of the Panopticon

It is again to this ideology of the lived experience, of exhumation, of the real in its fundamental banality, in its radical authenticity, that the American TV-verite experiment on the Loud family in 1971 refers: 7 months of uninterrupted shooting. 300 hours of direct non-stop broadcasting, without script or scenario, the odyssey of a family, its dramas, its joys, ups and downs - in brief, a "raw" historical document, and the "best thing ever on television, comparable, at the level of our daily existence, to the film of the lunar landing." Things are complicated by the fact that this family came apart during the shooting: a crisis flared up, the Louds went their separate ways, etc. Whence that insoluble controversy: was TV responsible? What would have happened if TV hadn't been there.

More interesting is the phantasm of filming the Louds as if TV wasn't there. The producer's trump card was to say: "They lived as if we weren't there". An absurd, paradoxical formula - neither true, nor false: but utopian. The "as if we weren't there" is equivalent to "as if you were there". It is this utopia, this paradox that fascinated 20 million viewers, much more than the "perverse" pleasure of prying. In this "truth" experiment, it is neither a question of secrecy nor of perversion, but of a kind of thrill of the real, or of an aesthetics of the hyperreal, a thrill of vertiginous and phony exactitude, a thrill of alienation and of magnification, of distortion in scale, of excessive transparency all at the same time. The joy in an excess of meaning, when the bar of the sign slips below the regular water line of meaning: the non-signifier is elevated by the camera angle. Here the real can be seen to have never existed (but "as if you were there"), without the distance which produces perspective space and our depth vision (but "more true than nature"). Joy in the microscopic simulation which transforms the real into the hyperreal. (This is also a little like what happens in porno, where fascination is more metaphysical than sexual.)

This family was in any case already somewhat hyperreal by its very selection: a typical, California-housed, 3-garage, 5-children, well-to-do professional upper middle class ideal American family with an ornamental housewife. In a way, it is this statistical perfection which dooms it to death. This ideal heroine of the American way of life is chosen, as in sacrificial rites, to be glorified and to die under the fiery glare of the studio lights, a modern fatum. For the heavenly fire no longer strikes depraved cities, it is rather the lens which cuts through ordinary reality like a laser, putting it to death. "The Louds: simply a family who agreed to deliver themselves into the hands of television, and to die from it", said the producer. So it is really a question of a sacrificial process, of a sacrificial spectacle offered to 20 million Americans. The liturgical drama of a mass society.

TV-verite. Admirable ambivalent terms: does it refer to the truth of this family, or to the truth of TV? In fact, it is TV which is the Loud's truth, it is it which is true, it is it which renders true. A truth which is no longer the reflexive truth of the mirror, nor the perspective truth of the panoptic system and of the gaze, but the manipulative truth of the test which probes and interrogates, of the laser which touches and then pierces, of computer cards which retain your punchedout sequences, of the genetic code which regulates your combinations, of cells which inform your sensory universe. It is to this kind of truth that the Loud family is subjected by the TV medium, and in this sense it really amounts to a death sentence (but is it still a question of truth?).

I think the fundamental change a few decades after the Louds is that we, the spectators, are far more complicit in the hyperreal production of reality TV. Deep down, the audience knows that the process is manipulated — we wink-wink, nudge-nudge with the producers — and then turn around and consume the output as if it were real.

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