Our shows are coming back. Our young men and women fighting the Bush War won’t be back anytime soon, but network TV will be regaining its primetime series. (Hey, Scott, great way to crush the secret glee we had about watching Desperate Housewives again, you big killjoy!)
Storytelling is one of mankind’s oldest sources of insight and solace. Though we can (and do) take stabs at understanding and accommodating the human condition purely by living it, we’re much better off when we have our stories — with all their high-falutin’ metaphors and allegories — to help us gain context. A dog deprived of meat turns ornery; a human deprived of metaphor becomes a reality-show celebu-freak (or a member of its FaceBook friends list).
In the absence of our stories, how have we sublimated, media-wise? Well, an unlikely prominence has been achieved by something called The Hills, which has presented us with nubile blond people whose names and nipples I don’t recognize (and have no intention of familiarizing myself with). American Idol has stepped up, after a stultifying last season, with some actual talent this year. TMZ has brought gossip-mongers and paparazzi as far into your living room as possible without needing to cover the furniture in plastic. And Bravo, the cable-network bastion of reality programming — home of the ultimate guilty pleasure, Project Runway — has gone about blurring the lines between something and something-else once again.
If you are a longtime reader of this column, you know how I love me my dance competition show. By that, I refer to So You Think You Can Dance?, the talent-drenched summer reality series on Fox. I don’t cotton to Dancing with the Stars, which is hardly a celebration of talent (unless it is exalting the struggles of C-list celebrities to become B-list celebrities). And a tawdry little entry called Your Mama Don’t Dance on the peculiar Oxygen network is just creepy, with its professional dancers forced to compete as teams with their opposite-sex parent (Sophocles could’ve written Oedipus Part Two: Electra Boogaloo if he had seen the sleazy shimmying of these parent-child duos). And now Bravo has premiered Step It Up and Dance, an alleged competition show that spends two minutes showing gifted dancers dancing and 58 showing them misbehaving like reality-show jackasses. There used to be a delineation, however slight, between the “competition” reality shows and the “throw tantrums and fornicate” reality shows; Step It Up and Dance makes the distinction even iffier, as exemplified by its hostess, the Queen of Tawdry Career Choices, Elizabeth Berkley (that’s Nomi Malone from Showgirls to you, bitch!). It is enough to make me tune into Dancing with the Stars to see if Heather Mills’ leg flies off or Marlee Matlin loses count. (I love Marlee Matlin, by the way — I just don’t like special-needs stunt casting.)
Has this year’s election been infused with extra drama to compensate for the absence of Gray’s Anatomy? Hillary has laughed, wept, exaggerated (is that pronounced “lied”?), and evidently been up at 3 a.m. quite a lot. Obama has bowled (badly), denounced (religiously) and spoken to us like adults about race (that last bit not covered by TMZ). And McCain — perhaps with Kickin’ Karl Rove behind the curtain — has somehow managed to convince portions of the electorate that he is a “renegade” and not W’s kitchen whore. (Did I just make up that term? Perhaps a kitchen whore is like a jailhouse bitch, but with snacks.)
Have we dwelled more significantly on the inane machinations of the 24-hour news corporations because we haven’t had our stories? In counterpoint, Oprah seems to have used the dearth of predigested drama in a purposeful manner, sticking her Big Give on Sunday nights to inspire us common folk to find ways to pay it forward, and staking out a few acres on the Internet to offer some nondenominational spirituality with Eckhart Tolle. For free.
Will the rest of TV be less prone to drama if the scripted kind returns? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Aristotle and all those old Greek guys who created theater with its transcendent characteristics didn’t have to compete against the blonde, the nippled and the loudly unstable (funny how all three descriptions fit both Britney and Ann Coulter — assuming Coulter is blonde, and is a mammal). It is altogether possible that the “reality” pyrotechnics with which we are currently bombarded didn’t ramp up to this level because our stories went on strike; it is possible they were already in a steady trajectory that has just continued its brazen growth. In which case, I have been writing about nothing intrinsic or conclusive. But at least there have been a couple bigger words than you would hear on TMZ.
Scott Patrick Wagner can be contacted at www.scottpatrickwagner.com.