Television

Searching for “The Real World” in Reality Television

RWNewYorkCast

Truman Burbank:
“Was nothing real?”

Christof:
“You were real. That’s what made you so good to watch.”

Ever marvel at how far reality television has come since Peter Weir’s groundbreaking 1998 film, The Truman Show?

“Strike that. Reverse it.”

CriminalEver dry heave at how low reality television has sunk since the promising days of a little MTV experiment called The Real World? Before reality stars knew they were stars, the whole concept felt as groundbreaking as The Truman Show. The tragic beauty of Truman’s world is that he was unaware of the cameras that fed his celebrity. Today’s reality stars, on the other hand, aren’t only aware of the cameras…they’d dry-hump the lens if they thought it would give birth to a new lease on celebrity life. A life that’s now fueled by 140-character tweets that attempt to extend their 15-minutes of shame.

Case in point: If a Jersey Bore half-wit like “The Situation” can ride the reality rainbow all the way to the pot of gold toner at the end, how low can the genre ultimately go? I mean, can it possibly get any worse than the Cracker Barrel dedicating an entire wing to The Duck Dynasty clan of back-assward millionaires? Yes it can. How about a local liquor store selling The Sitch’s “Devotion”, a brand of protein vodka? Where’s a real Italian like Vinnie Barbarino and his rubber hose when you need one?

DEVOTION_SITCHThe Situation’s Devotion. Tastes like
vodka, reeks of desperation. 
 

What makes the show within The Truman Show so popular is the simple fact that Truman Burbank thinks he’s an ordinary man living an ordinary existence. In Christof’s words: “While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit….there’s nothing fake about Truman himself.” Bingo! For as cleverly disguised and criminally contrived as his world is, Truman’s actions in this world are real. Which is more than I can say for today’s half-baked and mostly-faked reality offerings.

“My name is Rick Harrison…and THIS is my pawn shop!”
A few years ago, I visited the site of my then-favorite reality show…Rick Harrison’s Vegas pawn shop. Let’s just say that if all the world is a stage for Truman, then all the world is staged in Rick Harrison’s Little Pawn Shop of Hoarders. Pawn Stars didn’t just jump the shark, it humped it, harpooned it, stuffed it, and pawned it off on millions.

IMG_2596My father and brother at Rick Harrison’s Pawn Shop.

But Rick Harrison isn’t alone, and the demise of reality TV started long before he made “so you wanna pawn it or sell it” a catch-phrase. To understand when reality TV stopped being real (that means you Ozzy), you have to go back to when it first started getting real.

“This is the true story… of seven strangers… picked to live in a house…work together and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real…”

When it debuted in 1992, The Real World captivated viewers like me. Partly because it looked and felt real, but mostly because its “stars” hadn’t even considered a world of reality stardom yet. Eric “The Grind” Nies wasn’t acting like a douche-bag to score a big douche-bag endorsement deal. Eric Niese was, in fact, a douche-bag.

1EricNiesAprEric “The Grind” Nies. Reality
television’s first douche bag. 

And The Real World was still very real in 1994 when many Americans, like me, first got to know someone living with AIDS. Everything about Pedro Zamora’s life felt real to me. So at the risk of melodramaticizing (if that’s not a real word…it should be), maybe the “reality” in reality TV has been dying a slow death ever since Pedro lost his public and courageous battle with AIDS in 1994.

Twenty years later, the whole genre is out of control. When the Duck Dynasty patriarch, Phil Robertson, spewed his anti-gay venom at GQ magazine, he was crucified by the mainstream media and suspended by his own network. Even if you don’t agree with Robertson’s views, he was being REAL. Call him a real hick, a real hillbilly, or a real hater…no matter…GQ managed to capture what countless hours of highly-rated, and meticulously-edited footage had never offered: The Real World–Duck Dynasty.

The Real Housewives of [insert zip code here]? Please! The real housewives I know work their asses off in the most thankless, grossly underpaid and under-appreciated job in America. You want reality? Strap a GoPro camera on my wife’s head in the morning and stick with her on the rare night when she actually has 5 minutes to herself to read 5 pages of romantic western porn. Sorry, wrong post. Where was I? Oh yeah…

…Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!
But reality television’s most colossal boo boo arrived in 2011, when The Learning (about what exactly?) Channel introduced  us to Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson. I’ll confess that I was charmed by Here Comes Honey Boo Boo during its first season on TLC. It was funny, fresh, and the family’s love felt real. Then it happened. Back in October of 2012, I watched a barefoot and visibly irritated Alana Thompson fake sleep in an attempt to avoid being questioned by Dr. Drew on TV. That’s when it hit me! Maybe this was her Truman Burbank moment? Confronted with the harsh realities of the spotlight surrounding her life, maybe this was America’s most overexposed and exploited young reality star crying out for help.

article-0-15A171BA000005DC-637_634x378Honey Boo Boo fakes sleep as Dr. Drew fakes caring.

Now some might argue that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was real. But it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t misguided and irresponsible. Am I the only TV viewer who weeps for Alana Thompson’s future? Haven’t we all heard the oft-repeated cautionary tale about the “former child star”? Is a Playboy cover story 10 years from now boasting the headline “Honey Bares Her Boo Boobs” really such a stretch? Heck, that might be a best-case scenario.

There Goes Honey Boo Boo!
Late last week, TLC finally and mercifully cancelled Here Comes Honey Boo Boo after reports linked “Mama June” Shannon romantically to Dr. Drew. I’m kidding. Reports linked her to a registered sex offender. I argue that TLC should have pulled the plug sooner.

What scares me is that we have no test-subject for what becomes of the broken reality TV child star. If countless child stars who played fictional TV characters struggle to grow up normally, what becomes of a child star famous for playing herself when she discovers how fleeting a friend fame really is? In Christof’s words:

“We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.”

At 9 years-old, Alana Thompson is already a “former reality TV child star”.

I just hope she’s able to accept the reality of the world with which she’s now presented.

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Vanity Scare: George Costanza’s Guide to Male Pattern Baldness

you-are-a-young-george-costanza-1-30845-1366996589-9_big1I write about my age a lot. I’ve written about being a 14-year-old freshman in a 4-year-old’s khaki suspender pants. About turning 40, but still acting 14. And about spending the first 3 months of 41 glued to my toilet and breaking bad wind.

Age was still on my mind when I started my 4-week treatment for colitis in early January. I was feeling old and weary. I needed some light at the end of my ulcerated tunnel. So I threw caution to the wind and made it rain on StubHub. Since Super Bowl weekend would coincide with the end of my treatment, I marked that weekend as my coming out of the bathroom party: Keith Urban at The Garden followed by The Chilli Peppers at Barclays Center.

En route to the world’s most famous arena, my father and I stopped at Jersey’s most famous diner. Unbeknownst to me, Tops Diner would soon turn into Tom’s Restaurant.

I’m [41] years old. I haven’t outgrown the problems of puberty…I’m already facing the problems of old age. I completely skipped healthy adulthood.”

Like the show about nothing, I expected a meaningless conversation during our pre-concert meal. I ordered my colitis-friendly chicken blandwich. Dad ordered the hot open roast beef with French fries, extra gravy, and a side order of stent.

Then I made a colossal mistake. I asked my dad for pity. I whined about my colitis and how the doctor decided to extend my treatment indefinitely. I told my dad that I felt old. That’s when I started having dinner with George Costanza.

Dad:
“Old? How do you think I feel? I got moles on my face.
My skin’s startin’ to sag. My hair’s all wispy. And I have tits.”

 Shane:
“Dad, you’re 74!”

Dad:
“Yeah, but you don’t get it Shane. Up until a few years ago, I still had it. I mean,
young women would still check me out. But nowadays…” 

As a young, mildly attractive waitress passes by without returning dad’s smile…

Dad:
“You see that shit! I get nothing!”

Shane:
“Dad, you’re 74!!!”

 Dad:
“Shane, I have tits!!!”

“After seeing my father’s hooters, I threw up all night. It was like my own personal Crying Game.”

When we reached the Garden, I was still feeling old and I was surprised to see so many young Keith Urban fans. Wasn’t it only yesterday that I felt like a frat boy at Kenny Chesney’s Garden party? Flash forward a few years, and I couldn’t even drink beer. I had to trade in my “keg in the closet” for prune juice in a f**king sippy cup. 

“You should have seen her face. It was the exact same look my father gave me when I told him I wanted to be a ventriloquist.”

When dad failed to get so much as a “look at the cute old man” smile from a female fan, he turned sour for the rest of the night. Every wannabe Urban Cowboy was “a DOOF” in dad’s eyes. Every woman “built like a brick shit house” was a woman he could no longer woo. Sensing dad’s vulnerability, I shifted the focus back to me. I opened up to him about things that make me feel old. Most notably, the current state of my hair. 

“These are not scraps. These are the historic remains of a once great society of hair.”get-attachment.aspx

It’s no secret that the Smith men are hair guys. I’ve been obsessed with my hair ever since my wife cited it as THE reason she said yes. And while I’m sure my father was a lot balder than me at 41, I never considered him bald. I mean, nobody has ever done so much with so little. 

When we were kids, my brother and I would watch in awe as dad would wake up, enter the bathroom with 72 strands of disheveled hair, and exit the bathroom as Fonzy. “How does he do it?” we’d ask ourselves. Was it a magic comb? Did he buy the comb from the same guy who sold Jack his beanstalk beans? (see My Cousin Vinny).

Whatever the case, I’ve been trying to replicate dad’s magic hair trick ever since. My brother Brett came close to replicating it when he joined the Marine Corps. During infantry training, Brett mastered the art of camouflaging his bald spot by shaving his sparse ginger locks tighter than Gerald “Major Dad” McRaney.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find the magic beans strong enough to restore my windswept wisps to their Brandon “90210” Walsh heyday. But you can’t say I haven’t tried.

“I was in the pool!!! I was in the pool!!!”

When I was 35, I tried Propecia. For those of you who aren’t medical writers, let me break down Propecia for you:

  • Merck boasts that Propecia regrows hair by blocking the formation of DHT. 
  • After several months, I could only boast that it blocked the formation of boners. 

raymond_george-costanza-shrinkage

“Significant shrinkage!”

Funnily enough, my brother started taking Propecia around the same time I did. Of course, he was far too proud to share his “frightened little turtle” story with me. He called me one night and used his best Lieutenant Columbo act to break me before he did. Vague statements like “…well, uh, they say it’s not uncommon for, you know…” evolved into a cryptic confession: “I mean, uh, it’s not like I can’t…you know…it’s just, uh, kind of bendy.”

So we said goodbye to Proshrinkage, and I vowed to never sacrifice my vitality for vanity again.

“I would like to dip my bald head in oil and rub it all over your body.”

I never gave Rogaine oil or foam much of a chance to regrow hair out of my head. After a few dollops, Rogaine made my heart beat out of my chest. So the last option I considered was Bosley Hair Transplantation. The Bosley commercials were inviting and the whole process sounded like a Sherwood Forest adventure. The doctor steals follicles from the follically-rich areas and gives them to the follically-poor areas. Here’s what they don’t show you in their follically-misleading commercials:

  1. “Stealing follicles” is Dr. Frankenstein speak for scarring your scalp.
  2. The hair that “regrows” is about as thick and voluminous as my 8th grade pubes.

Oh, and if you want to maintain your freshly grown pubes, you have to take Propecia for the rest of your life. Thanks Bosley! A lifetime of sex using my freshly boiled “Fusilli Jerry”.

“[Shane] is getting upset!!!”

That’s all it took. My father opened up to me about Father Time and feeling past his prime. So I cheered him up by reminding him that his sons, 30 years his juniors, often feel the same way. We laughed the whole ride home. 

I also reminded my dad that there aren’t too many 74-year-olds who still hang out with their sons. I mean, if my dad weren’t so young for his age, we’d drop him off at the Bingo parlor on our way to the show. The truth is, we love hanging out with him. And I’m sure hanging out with us makes him feel young again. Which is why, I think, dad turned into George Costanza that night. When I started talking like an old fart, I think dad started to feel like one. Never again!

“Appearance not important! This is unbelievable. Finally an ideology I can embrace.”

Two nights later, I found myself at a much younger, cooler event. The Chilli Peppers rocked out to a sold-out Barclays Center crowd half their age. My “old age” and bald spot were the furthest things from my mind. In fact, I’ve never felt so young and alive at a concert. And it wasn’t the strong gust of second-hand wind that must’ve blown in from Colorado that gave me such a buzz (and my kids the munchies). It was the opportunity to experience what my father experiences with his 2 sons several times each year. I was the old man, feeling lucky as hell to rock out with his young sons. With any luck, I’ll still be young enough to rock out with them 33 years from now. 

get-attachment-1.aspxThe truth is, I’ll never stop trying to look and feel younger. At 41, I’m probably not ready to stop shopping at American Eagle…even if my sons think it’s “getting kind of creepy”. I may never stop searching for that fountain of youthful hair. And the next time I post a picture of myself, I’m sure I’ll still search for a Hair Restoration photo filter between Antique and Sepia. But I will try my best to embrace my advancing age and my ever-expanding bald spot. When all else fails, I’ll follow the example of the youngest 74-year-old man in the world.

I will also hold out hope that my favorite prophet, George Costanza, was on to something when he said:

“Hey believe me, baldness will catch on. When the aliens come, who do you think they’re gonna relate to? Who do you think’s gonna be the first ones getting a tour of the ship?”

I know who…

Me. My brother. My father. And his tits.