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So-called reality TV is reviled for the same reason that it’s such a huge, sitcom-threatening success: The very premise puts control of the asylum firmly into the hands of the lunatics. Whether this is good news or not depends on whom you trust to shape the arc of a prime-time TV show.

The idea of “quality television” is hopelessly outdated—solid, serious hourlong dramas and ensemble sitcoms are not the ratings juggernauts or next-day talking points they once were. Thanks to the advent of cable and the explosion in the number of available viewing delights via TiVo, dishes, and digital TV, niche marketing has bested “very special” episodes in an easy rout. Even the once-great TV auteurs find themselves unable to pour new soup in old crocks—Aaron Sorkin recently announced that he’s throwing in the West Wing towel; Steven Bochco is an ’80s joke along the lines of A Flock of Seagulls; the public is no longer willing to indulge David E. Kelley’s unpleasant fantasies. And someone please tell Dick Wolf that there are only so many hours in a day to fill up with variations on Law & Order.

MTV’s The Real World started it all—cheap, juicy, young-skewing, and addictive, like a fast-food burger. Putting fame whores on camera and letting them act like fools for a season proved to be a low-cost alternative to paying actual actors and writers. The fledgling nets picked up the idea, while the Big Three turned up their noses—which was their mistake, because college students were happy to see their peers get stupid on TV. With their not-ready-for-prime-time slots, Studs, Blind Date, and the like became cult favorites. And then Mark Burnett got a bright idea, and the dam burst.

Survivor is still the most elegant version of the reality show, combining as it does three out of four of the genre’s chief elements: game show, endurance contest, and unpredictable romance. And the fourth element, audience participation, is compensated for by the show’s unparalleled utility as water-cooler topic. In this and such other epics as the great Joe Millionaire, rooting for/despising real people—as real as the magnificent editing on these shows allows them to be—is more intense than rooting for Daphne and Niles to get together or taking satisfaction in seeing Rosalind Shays drop down the elevator shaft. When a character dies on reality TV, that person is dead. (R.I.P. Angel from Murder in Small Town X; we won’t forget you, Real World Pedro.)

And when a show’s premise is predicated on audience participation, obsession with its outcome can become an almost crippling addiction, helped along by the speed with which one can communicate with other fans online. Generally speaking, fan sites sprout upon a show’s premiere, spawn other sites about characters or story lines, and feature message boards or chat rooms where like-minded devotees can trade comments or fanfic ranging from PG fantasies to the X-rated unlikely couplings called slash fiction. (The template applies not just to TV but to celebrities both real and unreal: There’s Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy slashfic, just to offer an idea of the range.)

If the uptick in intensity in recent fanship—it’s easy to get carried away by others’ hysteria and laserlike focus, even to engage in a kind of No. 1 Fan one-upmanship—can readily be attributed to Internet communities, it’s hard to say what they’ve done to the numbers. But merely because Internet fans avail themselves of their ability to skew polls, talk back to (or become) critics, and rally the troops for letter-writing and other campaigns, they have assumed a new power. With the advent of the ostensibly voter-driven show, the old producer-audience-professional critic triangle is out; fan as sculptor is in.

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Pro and amateur criticism blur on the greatest and wisest and by far the funniest of the TV sites, Television Without Pity, née MightyBigTV, a spinoff of the legendary Canadian site Fametracker. TWoP’s ostensible purpose is to meticulously recap dramas, series, and reality shows—which it does, in pages-long diatribes that describe the episodes thoroughly and with astonishing acuity. The site’s slogan is “Spare the Snark, Spoil the Networks,” which is its pithy way of claiming the critic’s noble dual purpose: demand that the artists (in this case, the producers, creators, and writers—known as “the powers that be”) keep their standards high and that the audiences expect more and better. The opinionated recappers insist that shows must stay true to their private mythologies, premises, and psychologies. The much-beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been routinely excoriated during this last season by its enraged official recapper for a number of unforgivable offenses: forgetting or rewriting the show’s own history, tweaking characters’ basic personalities out of either expediency or laziness, cluttering up the Buffyscape with characters who could and should not exist in the world we’ve been watching lo these many years.

But the site’s subsidiary claim to fame is its vast and intelligent forum. Anyone with fingers (and some, they claim, with pen in teeth) can register to post comments on the site’s message boards. Second only to Buffy in the number of rabid forum-posters it attracts is this season’s American Idol, which has turned hordes of formerly casual viewers and forum lurkers into assiduous chatsters. Including, ahem, myself. (Full disclosure: My fellow members of the People’s Republic of Clay know who I am by now. *waves* )

What’s most entertaining about the AI forum is its nutshell sociology. Human beings thrown together in any situation—stalled-elevator unfortunates, WWII bombing crews, scrappy tap-dance troupes—tend to organize themselves quickly. With the use of online pseudonyms and a passel of contrasting personalities, everyone makes his—or, more usually, her—presence felt quickly, specifically, and forcefully. When the discussion of AI2 finalist Clay Aiken on the standard Performers thread, which assesses the qualities and performances of each contestant, grew to unmanageable levels, rabid Clay fans were thrown over to the Idol Entertainment board, in which their elaborate fantasies were allowed to roam free.

The fans there started up a “Claytrain,” establishing various cars for different types of fans. They wake each other up in the morning; stomp through the cars looking for other posters; hold parties in the bar car (the Flaming Red, formerly the Gay for Clay Car), where drinks are always on tap and anyone can stop in to perform a parody number; and fantasize booted contestants as the train’s servants. Sometimes the Claytrain is about Clay; sometimes it’s about the strange, intense cybercommunity itself. Visit often enough and it seems to be as rich and busy a life as that in the 3-D world, and often more so—you can’t get a virtual chocolate martini and a real group of simpatico people to talk with at 6 in the morning anywhere else I know of.

Of course, the Claytrain, like such forums in general, is an escape—a place where fans can talk about what they do or don’t like about the show and its contestants. But show bigwigs are their real, if indirect, target. After every episode is aired, there’s a flurry of speculation that the AI voting totals are being juggled to motivate or discourage certain contestants’ fan bases—along with, of course, the producers’ desire for a satisfying final twosome and a cushy ratings blanket along the way.

But because America supposedly controls the course of the show, posters use their clout as a community to boost their favorites—messing with other contestants’ sites, manipulating the media as best they can. Fans look for the press “shout-outs” that acknowledge the steady stream of advice/encouragement/invective coming from TWoP, down to its invented vocabulary, bywords, and vast store of in-jokes. The Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer recently scoped the site for Clay fans to interview—thus, along with unfortunately passing on certain PRoC state secrets, delivering maximum bang for the posters’ bucks.

Undue influence on average readers is not really the issue, for AI or any other show. The powers that be read newspapers, as do professional critics who work for them. And it has to warm the cold cockles of reality-TV creators’ hearts that “real” critics are now stepping out of the closet—in Esquire, the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide—to declare reality TV officially not the end of civilization, but maybe even a new beginning. Some online amateur criticism sites look and sound as professional as the newspapers’ Internet versions; ElitesTV.com runs a number of smart columns reviewing each episode of AI2, including one by a PRoC honcho.

The powers have good reason to listen to their online fans. Fans tend to be both more accepting and in some ways more perspicacious than professional critics, whose agenda sometimes leaves out the hybrids spawning all over the television landscape. It isn’t sluggish complacency that impels fans to spend hours conversing online about some new twist in the reality format, but an up-for-anything delight in a medium that keeps expanding its boundaries. If they air it—Fox’s Miss Dog Beauty Pageant, for instance—we will come. And if they screw it up, they should be prepared for a blast from the likes of the heavily populated “Fox. Ruins. Everything. Car,” where drinkies, grousing, and a lot of great criticism are always on tap. CP