Well, it’s here again: the one week per year in which I must lecture on reality television.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a fun lecture to give. It’s always easier to generate discussion with controversial subjects. Some of my students hate reality television, while others watch almost nothing else. The reasons behind the popularity of the genre are pretty fascinating, and I really like talking about the wish/shame complex the shows use to draw viewers in and keep them hooked. These shows tend to be cleverly put together and structured in ways that do get people addicted; a given reality episode is structurally similar to a news broadcast or, interestingly, a soap. The continually deferred fulfilment is, in part, what keeps people glued to these shows.
That’s not why I *sigh*ed in this entry’s title. I *sigh*ed because in order to talk about reality TV, I have to watch it.
I Ranted about American Idol a bit over a year ago (February 28, 2011), so I won’t go deeply into my feelings regarding that particular show. I am following it again this year, as well as The Amazing Race, and I’ve watched some episodes of Kitchen Nightmares in the past. That’s about as far as I’m willing to go. I feel as if reality TV is trying to devour my soul. Even The Amazing Race, which is relatively harmless and at the very least introduces a bunch of Americans to the fact that they are not, in fact, living in the only country on the planet, is awfully fond of dwelling lingeringly on the contestants’ meltdowns and interpersonal abuse. Emotionally abusive boyfriends, shrewish wives, brothers who can’t stop fighting, liars and cheaters and people who end up in hysterics because they can’t taste the difference between six distinct types of tea: sometimes, I think the show’s main purpose is to demonstrate how awful all people everywhere are. Leave the poor taxi drivers alone, guys, seriously. You ran up out of nowhere, stuck a camera-person in the front seat, and are now screaming abuse at your driver because he doesn’t understand English and is unwilling to drive like a lunatic so you can win a million dollars.
These shows delight in showing us how horrible people are. Even when they pretend to be “educational,” they are really just voyeuristic. If someone starts a “documentary” reality series called simply Dirty Underwear, I won’t be at all surprised.
I was therefore delighted this week when the usual American Idol parade of soppy ballads sung by desperate teenagers who believe that they will fail at everything if they don’t get to move into the mansion was interrupted by the fantastic Idol contestant Heejun Han, who has so far utterly failed to take the process at all seriously. Despite the fact that Heejun’s voice is just sort of okay, he is wildly popular because he is a very, very funny guy, and not in an extroverted LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME kind of way. If someone sets him up, he will say something hilarious. He does it every time. In a group of earnest kids fixated on their images, he is extraordinarily refreshing.
Last week, which was Billy Joel themed, Heejun started with what seemed to be one of his usual ballads, then apparently lost his place. He turned to the piano player and asked for something faster, then tore off his suit jacket and went running all over the stage, singing “My Life” in what was really an extended comedy routine. His singing was all over the place, but it didn’t matter. The judges were not as happy as I was; Stephen Tyler was clearly furious and felt Heejun had disrespected the song.
Well, why shouldn’t he? Good lord…do we really need to treat American Idol like sacred ground? It involves a bunch of kids crooning pop songs for months. Apparently, music is not allowed to be fun; it’s a deadly serious business.
This is what damn reality TV does to me; it makes me care about stupid things. I even know how it does it. I just can’t stop it from happening. For now, therefore, I’ll just quietly raise a glass to Heejun and his increasingly entertaining attempts to deconstruct the entire Idol process. More power to you, Heejun. There should be a Heejun in every episode of every reality TV show ever made. At the very least, he thoroughly shatters the illusion that this stuff is as immensely important as it claims it is.