Indirect Reflectivity or Really Real Reality or No Way Out

12Jul08

The rift between narrative and non-narrative has been crystallized in the recent writers strike – as it becomes as visible as possible, what exactly it is the writers do for the television industry. Executives have predictably turned to reality television in its various forms to wait out the storm. Reality television is, in fact, almost as old as TV itself, if one counts candid camera and related shows as reality tv.

However, the game shows and hidden camera shows which are only considered reality television in the broad sense – in that it is a program which is generally unscripted. The first truly ‘real’ reality show would be An American Family, where a nuclear family going through a divorce was caught on film. An American Family was shot documentary style and falls in the same category of ‘real’ reality such as Cops and American High. And, interestingly enough, Cops came about because of a crippling writer’s strike in the 1980s.

The question becomes – are reality shows more about constructing an artifice which will generate a particular kind of reality (ie a set of contests and competitions is set up to show us the true competitive/angry/sleazy etc nature of people) or does it actually try to represent something natural or purportedly unconstructed, at least in a narrative sense?

Rob and Big was was funny as it was because it consciously played with the aforementioned tension. From the distance the show appeared rather unremarkable – it was about a semi-professional skate boarder and his body guard. While the two ostensibly make an odd couple – the appeal of the show was in fact not various entertaining moments of strife between them but the remarkable ease of their friendship (the show’s theme song is “Bestfriends”). What also makes the show interesting is that its scripted nature is semi-transparent. In each episode the duo sets about attempting some ridiculous task which they have both suddenly assigned the utmost importance. That is, Rob always acts as if he has just come up with a really silly idea out of nowhere (like putting sacred geometry on his skateboard or deciding to break as many Guinness Book of Word Records as Possible).

Unlike the vast majority of reality shows, there is no face to face confession in Rob and Big, the camera appears far less intrusive. Instead of embodying a real persona, Rob and Big play the roles of reality television personalities. The show purposefully constructs the object of reality television which is supposed to be spontaneous when it is in fact not. The duo’s interesting motto ‘Do work son,’ is partially the generic justification beyond their numerous shenanigans as well as an interesting call to do, to not just sit around doing nothing. Overall the show offered a kind of willing accidental entertainment is coupled with a generic heterogeneous encouragement. Together these themes question the knot, one which I have addressed before, of seriousness and intent. There is a well known quote that it is imperative to take what you do seriously and never take yourself seriously. Here Rob and Big’s take on the narrative plays ruthelssly with the boundaries of seriousness and intent.

Rob and Big, as a self aware reality show, or at least self aware in terms of form (not content), is part of a growing sense that the illusion is to be dropped when it comes to so called reality and, taking Lesie and the Lys as a model, critical ironic distance as well. Leslie Hall seems to be making fun of those who do ridiculous things self critically by doing what seems ridiculous seriously while aware that she’s doing is for an audience. In a sense then, Hall is reflecting on her performance (making sure that it is ironic) which makes it less seriously ridiculous – meaning that it comes off as more earnest (in its attempt to be ridiculous) and therefore seems less like an attempt at being ridiculous and more simply ridiculous thing.

To be clear: what we have here is a kind of non-relfexive Cartesian subjectivity (as Lacan articulates it) run amok that is “I think where I am not” and “I am therefore it thinks” is embodied as “When I think I should act as if I am not thinking and also my social being must have the halo of thought to show that I am aware of my being but not trying to form my being.” This is Zizek’s simultaneous postmodern decline and return of the big Other – the internalization of authority not in a traditionally disciplinary way but in a panoptic function.

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