The public . . . this indolent mass . . . is on the look-out for distraction and soon abandons itself to the idea that everything that anyone does is done in order to give it something to gossip about.
— Soren Kierkegaard
On one level, predicting what the future holds for American pop culture is painfully easy. Just cast your eyes across the Atlantic to see what the European purveyors of reality television have on the drawing boards. In the by-the-numbers logic of reality marketing, American TV executives will vacuum up all salable product from Europe’s louche airwaves and then find a way to make it crasser. After all, it worked with Survivor and Big Brother down through Deal or No Deal and What Not to Wear.
So be afraid. Producers at BBC4 have just greenlighted Virgin School, in which the home audience thrills to the antics of a young man determined to get laid for the first time. Then there’s Private Stars, another European show tossing five men in a phallic mosh pit, looking to score a long-term contract with a continental porn star; Reuters reports that its producers are already negotiating a licensing deal with American broadcasters.
Such glassy-eyed updates of the reality form don’t really shock anymore; like their counterparts in the porn industry, producers in the reality business must continually up the taboo ante to prevent viewers from succumbing to boredom. Indeed, the reality biz is all about exposure for its own sake — over-exposure, really — and its ethos has overtaken much of our culture at large. Where once the cult of exposure served a recognizable purpose — the muckrakers’ good government crusade, say, or the feminist attack on the stifling hypocrisies of bourgeois propriety — the point now just seems to be an escalating titillation race. So now we see the all-too-raw materials of the celebrity-media complex broken down, quite literally, into body parts, be it the frat-boy scatology of Sacha Baron Cohen or the all-too-calculated crotch shots of Mouseketeer-manque Britney Spears. Even in television hit dramas there’s a boomlet in body display, via the scores of new crime and medical-pathology shows, such as Bones, House, and the CSI franchise, all of which dwell lovingly on slow-motion forensic recreations of sadistic crimes and holographic dissections of the dead and dreadfully ill, a new sort of high-tech money shot for a new sort of Thanatos-driven porn.
This is where forecasting pop culture’s next configurations gets trickier. For the larger story of our current, numbingly banal chapter in pop-cult history is this: the conventions of reality programming have migrated to the culture at large, and morphed into an all-purpose form of storytelling. The point now is to abase our rivals in ever more exotic venues. Reality spectacles always foreground their exotic settings, while their lead characters are reduced to eager-to-please floating signifiers, empty vessels of adulation or scorn, playing out rituals of mere exposure and humiliation. In both social and formal terms, it is pseudo reality — one without real characters who experience plausible moral conflicts or life quandaries.
The flattened-out character of the pseudo-reality experience explains why its basic narrative, which is assembled to flatter the sensibilities of the all-watching consumer, gets played out over and over again in evermore unlikely outlets. Its deliberate thinness guarantees its compulsive repetition.
Which is not to say the content doesn’t change. These days, the core pseudo-reality narrative gets amped up by inserting evermore overt treatments of social class into the picture. Bravo’s Project Runway, for example, is all about the grasping beginner’s quest to win over the fickle fashion world’s witless overseers — and in the process purge one’s personal characters of any tics revealing an embarrassingly backward social past. Here, you — the sovereign viewer — stand above your fantasized social and moral inferiors, dreaming of your privileged secession from their shabby sameness, no matter how peculiar their setting. Call it the politics of viewer retreat, or, to cast it in reality-TV terms, “This is Your Life, Thomas Hobbes.”
Or, if you prefer, call it My Super Sweet Sixteen. This breakout MTV reality franchise, released in January 2005, is like Thorstein Veblen on acid. In each episode, the show tracks a different new-money scion as she (or very occasionally, he) burns through family dough at a potlatch-style pace. Of course, these are frenetic dispersals of wealth that never seemed all that real in the first place: one week, an Iranian exile of vaguely royal background hires out a retinue of male models to carry her into her soiree on a litter; another episode has a debutante entering via helicopter to a lavish do featuring a “surprise” appearance from the pint-size rapper Bow Wow.
Nearly every episode follows the same dramatic arc. First, family infighting produces a phony crisis: will the little princess get the dress, the venue, and the entertainers she covets? (Yes.) Will mom rescind her threat to cancel the soiree because of a craptastic report card? (She will.) Will an ex-boyfriend remain sober, faithful, and/or hetero? (Maybe, but who cares?)