So, Autumn is upon us again, and with it, the glut of mass-market, cunningly edited ‘talent’ shows to fill the TV schedules, the front of every tabloid newspaper, and, every five minutes of each show’s duration, the status updates of what seems like half of Facebook.
For me, these ultra-staged ‘reality’ shows drive me up the wall. They all seem to blur into one hideous, homologised entity of tripe with a title like Strictly Dine On Ice with a Celebrity Apprentice Chef. And yet, as my boyfriend pointed out, I find myself talking about them even more than their fans. What can be the reason? My dislike of the format is probably an overreaction, and yet I can’t stay away from it. The most apt comparison would be to say that they’re like a scab I can’t stop picking.
The growth of ‘reality’ television (I use inverted commas because these shows are transparently the most faked slices of reality you’re ever likely to see) has been an insidious one over the last ten years or so, starting with Popstars and the original Big Brother. But there’s nothing new under the sun, and the irony is that most of the big shows are actually updates of ancient formats that at the time were considered massively uncool.
Strictly Come Dancing is nothing more or less than creaky old ballroom dance show Come Dancing, which the embarrassed BBC used to bury in the schedules at the dead of night while allowing an apparently tipsy Terry Wogan to gently mock the stiff contestants. What the new show does differently is bring a media-savvy propagandist’s method of presentation, all cleverly edited artificial tension and emotional manipulation. Oh, and pander to the increasingly daft cult of ‘celebrity’ by interspersing their actual dancers with the sort of Z-listers that would struggle to find a place in Heat magazine.
In taking these old formats, the shows have cross-pollinated with each other, learning from and adapting each other’s methods to try and retain the mental stranglehold on Britain’s otherwise mostly sane populace. Undoubted master of all the techniques from these last ten years of brainwashing is The X Factor, a so-called ‘talent’ show that is basically a version of the ancient Opportunity Knocks polished up by Josef Goebbels – here incarnated as the massively smug and punchable Simon Cowell.
Well might Cowell be smug though – he’s working one of the best con tricks since Barnum. He’s feeding the viewing masses rubbish, and not only are they begging him for more, they’re prepared to pay him for it. So he lines his pockets, allows his ‘discoveries’ a brief, Icarus-like shot at fame with the strategically placed Christmas release of a bland, anodyne single, then rubs his hands all the way to the bank while they shuffle off to a baffled obscurity.
“But, but,” say Cowell’s blinkered defenders, “The X Factor’s all about discovering new talent. Some of the contestants are really good musicians/have really good voices.” The tragedy is that some of them really do. But what Cowell’s trying to do is make the most money possible, and where music is concerned that means smoothing out any trace of individuality so that your product will appeal to the greatest number possible. The songs we end up with are so overproduced and bland that they serve as the musical equivalent of the Ford Mondeo.
And they can’t even be bothered to come up with original songs. The usual material available for cover is mass-produced pop that was trite enough to begin with – hardly an opportunity to display any talent the ‘star’ may have. Even when they use a song that does have some character of its won, they immediately use pitch-shifting, audio filtration, and a sub-Phil Spector production style to bludgeon it into mass-market conformity. Witness Alexandra Burke’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic ‘Hallelujah’. Burke genuinely does have a good voice, and the song’s an undoubted classic – albeit covered many, many times already. But her version ends up as the one that displays less genuine emotion than a sociopathic Vulcan. It may have been popular, but then so was ‘The Birdy Song’, and I’d like to think ‘Hallelujah’ has a bit more dignity than that. Elsewhere, Leona Lewis took Snow Patrol’s raw, fragile ‘Run’ and turned it into an overproduced dirge that presumably caused Gary Lightbody to take the money and run.
But The X Factor isn’t about music. It isn’t about talent. It’s about money. And the way to maximise the revenue is to shamelessly manipulate the show’s audience with the breathtaking propaganda skills of a latterday Leni Riefenstahl. Anyone who thinks success or progression within the show’s competition format has anything to do with actual talent is being startlingly naïve. The pre formulated drama of the show demands certain archetypes, and if you don’t fit into one of the pigeonholes then, talent or not, you’re out mush.
By now, many contestants seem to have learned to exploit the show’s need for caricatured archetypes. Hence the most successful at winning the audience’s sympathy, and those all-important £1 a minute phone votes, are the ones who have a dead, or dying dad/gran/dog etc. “If only he/she/it could have been here to see me,” they tearfully moan as the viewing public collectively goes “Aaah”, seemingly unaware that it’s just been had.
The X Factor though, like all these shows, is not reality. It’s actually drama that, because its characters are the unpaid members of the British public, is very cheap to produce – a godsend for an increasingly desperate and cash-starved ITV. And drama can’t function with just a hero, you need a villain too. Ever since Nick Bateman propelled himself, unwittingly or not, into this role in the original Big Brother, reality show producers have realised that they need a baddie. For every show, every year, someone is cleverly manipulated into being the one the viewers love to hate.
If the ‘villain’ is one of the contestants, the irony is that, while they won’t win, they’ll often end up better remembered – Bateman being an obvious example. But it’s more usually one of the judges, a lesson learned from Nigel Lythgoe’s unforgettably spiteful turn on Popstars and honed to sneering perfection by Cowell.
Elsewhere, we have The Apprentice – a concept that, as far as I know, isn’t derived from a creaky, ancient relic of an uncool show. But this too learns from the historical lessons of Big Brother, turning its everyday business drones into gladiatorial competitors hoping to score a ‘proper job’ as some kind of yuppie wanker. And Alan Sugar, originator of the crummy Amstrad brand, is hardly a substitute for megalomaniac tycoon Donald Trump – Sugar doesn’t have a giant skyscraper named after him that tourists come to gawp at. It’s all rather low-rent and British.
The rebirth of the humble cookery show as polished imbecile contest took place even earlier. Loyd Grossman’s 80s drivel Masterchef has been given the same slick polish as the other shows, but remains basically a way to turn food porn into cheap drama. And allows the viewing masses to bay for the blood of yet more Z list celebrities to boot. Along the way, Gordon Ramsay – who really should have been a football manager – has managed to become the food porn shows’ equivalent of Simon Cowell, though his ceaseless swearing at least makes him seem somewhat more human than Cowell’s withering, dead-eyed scorn.
Since the advent of Big Brother in 1999 and Popstars in 2001, the reality show has come to dominate British television while simultaneously reducing it to its cheapest, lowest common denominator. It’s Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame reduced to two seconds. It’s Christians fighting lions in the arena for a bloodthirsty public that distracts them from thinking about anything worthwhile. And more than anything, it’s dishonest. It’s not about ‘reality’. It’s not about ‘talent’. It’s a combination of money making exercise and latter day freak show. How many of the liberal viewers watching it ‘ironically’ would think it was acceptable if it was Siamese twins or bearded ladies put up on their screens to have fun poked at them?
From America, where the reality shows are becoming more insane and surreal by the day, I think the late Bill Hicks encapsulates the phenomenon and my feelings about it best:
“Go back to bed America, your government is in control. Here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up, go back to bed America, here is American Gladiators, here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on the living in the land of freedom. Here you go America – you are free to do what well tell you!”
Rant over. For now…