Reality television an effortless escape


Last week when my computer crashed, I suffered greatly. Not only did I lose access to my… Last week when my computer crashed, I suffered greatly. Not only did I lose access to my life-sustaining victuals – the Internet, e-mail, Word, iTunes, and solitaire – but I had to run to a campus computer lab every time I needed so much as to check the weather forecast. Needless to say, it was a pain in the ass.

But none of this mattered so much as did my anxiety caused from not knowing the answer to the following question: Does Flower leave her reliable man Zaphod to be with the younger, more virile Houdini?

I almost had a heart attack. I couldn’t stand the suspense.

For those of you who don’t recognize the names, and I’m assuming it’s almost everyone, I’m referring to the Animal Planet reality television series “Meerkat Manor.” It’s the only show I actually cough up the $1.99 to download onto my iTunes, and it’s oh-so-worth-it.

If you’ve never seen the show, the basic premise is that fixed cameras set in the Kalahari Desert follow a meerkat family through their wacky adventures of foraging, family politics, fending off predators and generally just living it up in sub-Sahara Africa. Sean Astin narrates the adventures of the Whiskers gang, providing the most extreme example of anthropomorphism I have ever seen.

Nonetheless, it’s captivating television, even if a little mindless, and it’s changed the way I view reality television’s ubiquitous place in our modern culture.

Channel surfing American television today reveals one overarching theme: reality. We want to indulge in the petty drama, caricatured personalities and over-stylized fantasies of our reflective media selves.

Of course, the “reality” in the title “reality television” is a misnomer. Ten people caged up in a house, prohibited from going outside, while cameras follow their every move isn’t reality. Neither is eating bugs to win immunity in order to avoid being voted off the island, unless you live in certain Southeast Asian Pacific cultures – which we don’t.

But trends in popular culture don’t just happen. There is a reason why some trends stick around and others are merely trendy.

So I’m proposing that maybe the fact that reality television has become so popular in today’s culture is indicative of another factor, one that is a bit more troublesome. Maybe reality television is, in fact, a reaction to our overworked selves, a consequence of the always on the go, 24/7 lifestyles that we lead.

After a day of nonstop working, studying, exercising, socializing, meeting-ing, eating and competing, most of us just want to come home and veg – really veg. Reality TV provides the perfect opportunity for that. It’s an electronic antidote, if you will, to the visceral toxins of running 24 hours a day.

I’m hooked into “Meerkat Manor” because it provides a specific sort of entertainment that I cannot find anywhere else. Nature books won’t provide me with such scintillating scandals of the Kalahari. Even if they did, it would require effort on my part. That’s the beauty of reality television: It’s effortless – in the worst way possible.

While “Meerkat Manor” might not be as inane as reality television shows about spoiled rich teenagers whining about their spoiled rich lives, it’s still inanity. I’m watching rodents run around a desert while a hobbit from “Lord of the Rings” tells me what they’re feeling. It’s one animated step away from a Disney movie.

Another favorite guilty pleasure of mine, “America’s Next Top Model,” certainly isn’t a world-changing, intellectually stimulating program, but I don’t watch it for that. I watch it because I want to live vicariously through twiggy-model types who get to wear sweet designer clothes and do cool photo shoots. Best of all, this doesn’t require me to think, analyze, read, calculate or hypothesize in any way. All I have to do it sit there and watch. Effort factor = zero; enjoyment factor = a very Tyra-esque 10.

I’m not advocating that watching mindless television is an acceptable substitute to reading or other stimulating activities. All I’m saying is that there has to be a reason why reality television has become so popular in our culture today. Is it laziness? Is it therapy? Is it necessary?

I don’t know. I’m sure there are blowhards out there who would create theses and cite sources on either side of that argument for years. But right now, I don’t have to answer those questions. I have more pressing matters to attend to. I got my computer fixed, and so I’ve got go find out if Flower and Houdini actually hook up.

“Meerkat Manor” fan? E-mail Colleen at [email protected].