The opening scene of Vertigo is one of the most spectacular in film: across a series of San Francisco rooftops, the city and bay glittering in the background, a cop and a detective chase a criminal—until the detective slips and the cop falls to his death. Hanging from a ledge that seems certain to rip away, Jimmy Stewart eyes the twisted body below him, and the movie’s narrative is set. Will Stewart’s acrophobic sleuth conquer his vertigo as he trails a possessed woman who’ll also take a plunge? We watch to find out, even though the film’s dominant image—and theme—has already been revealed.
I thought of Vertigo, Hitchcock’s masterwork, as I watched the latest episode of Damages, the FX series starring Glenn Close that returned for its third season this Monday. Nominally a legal drama, the show’s serpentine plotting and titrated flashes of violence make it a first-rate thriller, and Close plays her quasi-villain to the hilt. As Patty Hewes, an attorney more ruthless and brilliant than any before seen on TV, she projects ambiguity at every moment. It’s impossible to know what her role in the plot is, a tension only heightened by Damages’ “flash forwards,” which depict each season’s brutal denouement from the outset. This season’s premiere showed Tate Donovan’s character, Patty’s right-hand man, in a body bag, while six months earlier he’d become a named partner at her firm. The image of his death is returned to again and again, as the temporal gap starts to close.
This back-and-forth dynamic is nothing new—it’s the classic whodunit structure, and the show’s creators have credited the Greek tragedies as an inspiration—but as Vertigo did back in 1958, Damages makes the conceit an integral part of its effect. As compelling as Close is (she towers over her incipient awards rival Julianna Margulies, whose attorney character on CBS’s The Good Wife would be chewed up by Patty in court), the show’s obsessive, almost fetishistic circling is what keeps me watching. It heightens the suspense, yes, but it also viscerally expresses the main characters’ central emotion: a constant, uncertain dread. As a narrative tactic, the flash forward enacts a perfect mimesis for the viewer.
It’s an impressively artful technique at a time when TV still hews to conventional (read: boring) three-act plots, with conclusions that are all too predictable. Shows that neatly wrap up at the end of every episode have a better shot at maintaining ratings both seasonally and year to year, since missing an episode doesn’t matter. In its first year, viewership for Damages fell from roughly 3.7 million to around 1.4, where it perilously remains. A new ABC series this fall, FlashForward, in which an earthquake-like event gives everyone in the world a glimpse of their lives six months hence, experienced a similar decline and may now be canceled. (The show is based on a 1999 science-fiction novel of the same name, a genre that has the future-present duality at its core.) Even Lost, a one-time juggernaut that also features flash forwards, kicks off its sixth and final season next week.
But plenty of shows have complicated plots that reward consistent viewing, especially premium fare like HBO’s Big Love (which, in its fourth season, continues to mesmerize). And many have earned the honorific “literary,” or “novelistic,” like the incomparable The Wire. It’s also true that Damages is not quite in their league, given its tendency for outright melodrama and writing that could be sharper across the board. This season’s Madoff-inspired story arc already seems tired, despite the presence of Lily Tomlin and Martin Short as the family’s respective matriarch and lawyer. (And what else can possibly be said about Patty’s relationship with Ellen, her protégé-turned-nemesis? Rose O’Byrne is still wooden in the perpetually fuzzy role—the show might be better off without her.)
But by employing the flash forward, Damages is innovating in a way these other shows haven’t, in a medium that’s traditionally an also-ran in trends of any kind. Eleven years after Vertigo was released, Robert Coover published his remarkable story collection Pricksongs & Descants, including the celebrated piece “The Babysitter.” In it, a period of about two hours is dissected into various characters’ perspectives and moments that go in and out of linear sequence. (The 1995 film adaptation starring Alicia Silverstone notably flattened out this bumpy chronological terrain.) By the end, the story—ostensibly about a young woman who’s raped while the couple she’s babysitting for are at a dinner party—is beside the point, smothered in a pile-up of implausible, outlandish details. Coover’s point is to show the narrative sleight of hand at work—a literary tradition we may take for granted now but which Damages brought to TV.
In the 1990s, a scourge swept across the world of entertainment. It threatened the livelihoods of those in the creative industry and presented a world where the average person, dwelling in obscurity, could be plucked from the masses and made a star. It was equal parts thrilling and horrifying. No, I’m not talking about the internet, I’m talking about its cultural predecessor, reality television. Reality TV was supposed to devour television. It was going to make writers and actors irrelevant, and single-handedly lower the national reading level by two full grades. Reality television became shorthand for stupidity and quickly found a place as a scapegoat for one side or another of the culture war. These shows, with their cameras hidden and seen, were Orwellian nightmares come to life, Jean Beaudrillard essays in pixelated form. They were the beginning of the end of the world. Except that they weren’t. They didn’t really do any of the things they were feared to do. And yet, though their overall presence on the airwaves is a fraction what it was at their peak, their influence remains enormous.
We can say this now, from our perch in the shiny new decade. We’ve largely moved on to other fascinations, other distractions. We’re scapegoating Twilight now, and we’re all terrified of the internet. Or we’re terrified of Twilight and scapegoating the internet. Paris Hilton has moved on to Twitter. We’ve all moved on to Twitter. But it wasn’t too long ago when none of this seemed possible. It was a time before Lost, before The Wire, before the end. It was the glory days of reality television, and it all started on a cable network that had hours to fill, and little money with which to fill them.
MTV wanted to make a soap opera. Like all the new cable networks, they had to fill the hours. America, it turned out, had an insatiable appetite for television, and the new cable networks were struggling to keep up. Some of them turned to re-runs of programs that had been modest hits in their original network incarnations — the My Two Dads and Eight Is Enoughs of the world — while others made cut-rate game shows and aired Just One of the Guys four times a day.
MTV had tried a few different things to kill time — most notably, a twenty-year experiment in which they showed music videos in their entirety — but had finally settled on a strategy of appealing to youth culture: the eternal fountain of disposable income. MTV’s dilemma, however, was that, while it recognized that a soap opera would likely be popular and would round out its lineup of oversexed game shows and quasi-journalistic news programs, they lacked the funds to produce such a show. Their solution was brilliant — they’d simply make a show without actors or writers — two of the most expensive parts of any decent soap opera.
The result was The Real World, whose premise was neatly summed up in its introductory statement: “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real.” That I can remember this sentence, awkward though it may be, with greater ease than I can The Pledge of Allegiance is testament to the incredible success of The Real World. Not only is it the longest running program in MTV’s history (the network recently renewed the program for a 26th season), it created an entire category of programming and influenced some of the most successful shows on television today.
The first two seasons of The Real World contain the seeds of all reality television, as well some elements that would find their way into today’s most successful scripted programming. At first glance, the first season of The Real World appears to be a collection of random, diverse twenty-somethings thrown together in Manhattan. A closer look reveals that all of the cast members, from model/actor wannabe Eric Nies to writer/journalist Kevin Powell, aspired to a career in entertainment or the arts. The casting logic of the show was fairly simple: find some young people willing to try this experiment in exchange for some exposure. In this way, the cast member’s situation wasn’t unlike that of today’s bloggers and vloggers — they worked for free in exchange for an audience, presumably with the hope that the experience would translate into a career. For some it did; for others, not so much.
The first season of The Real World relied heavily on the pressures of their various careers for dramatic tension. We saw the characters balancing the time commitments of practice, rehearsal and performance with their newfound quasi-family unit back at the loft, a situation the young audience for the show could begin to appreciate. This balancing act — with help from some racial tension — blew up infamously when Kevin missed a group dinner meeting and was threatened with expulsion from the loft and the show. In the end, Kevin remained, but one could see that this episode, easily the most dramatic of the season, would not be an isolated incident in future iterations of the show.
Season two of The Real World is, arguably, the single most important season of any TV show of the last twenty years. It is one of those watershed moments that happens once or twice a generation. The first season of The Sopranos was such a moment. The third season of Mad Men, one could argue, was another. The second season of The Real World is so important because it revealed the flaws in the show’s premise and, more importantly, several ways to work around those flaws. It provided, in a way, the template for all of the major reality TV shows to follow, though one could be forgiven for not realizing it at the time.
The second season took roughly the same premise as the first and moved it to Los Angeles, where it played up the aspirational angle a little bit more. Again we saw characters who desired fame and success — singer Tami, comedian David, country singer Jon — and again there was a healthy dollop of racial and sexual tension. This volatile mix exploded mid-season when David “assaulted” Tami, pulling a blanket off of her after she repeatedly asked him not to, revealing her in her underwear. For this crime — something kids at camp do every summer — David was forced out of the house and off the show entirely.
Several aspects of the controversy are worth noting. Firstly, the incident initially appeared to be a joke. While the house was somewhat divided over how serious it was (from where I stand, it’s pretty clear that David was trying to be funny and, maybe, a little bit flirty), the general consensus, at first blush, was that it wasn’t a big deal. It was only after the issue was rehashed several times in the confessional that each person seemed to realize it as a moment of great import. One could almost see each cast member realizing that this made great drama as the issue built and built. In the end, the producers cited Tami’s request for safety and removed David.
Secondly, it’s no coincidence that the two characters at the heart of the major strife in seasons one and two were both black men. The Real World aimed to be a microcosm of American society, and at least in this respect, it succeeded. Black men would find themselves vilified and ostracized for much of the show’s run.
While the house may have been split on David’s departure, the audience ate it up. Removing him from the show turned out to be the single most interesting thing to happen that season. This speaks to both how dramatic the confrontation and aftermath were as well as to how boring the rest of the show was. No character signified the stagnation of season two more than country singer Jon, who spent nearly every minute of his screentime watching television and drinking Kool-Aid. The producers’ disgust with Jon must’ve been intense. How does one build an aspirational story arc around someone who refuses to do much of anything?
If season two hinted at the potential that overt conflict might play on the program, season three confirmed it. When the noxious Puck refused to play nice with his fellow cast members, particularly the saintly AIDS patient Pedro Zamora, he found himself voted out of the house by popular decree. Here, long before the phrase “voted off the island” became a popular idiom, we see the template that reality shows would use for years to come. If people tune in to find out if someone might get booted off the show, what if you kicked someone off every episode?
Additionally, season three marks one of the last seasons the cast members would be left to their own devices (Season four’s setting in London was interesting enough to generate drama on its own). In subsequent seasons, Real Worlders would be asked to do a variety of tasks, including working with children (a disastrous idea, considering that alcohol was fast becoming a vital component of every RW season) to running a tanning salon (okay, spray tanning salon, but still). The shows may not have lacked for drama, but they needed a scaffolding to hang that drama on, and it would have to come from outside the house.
It is difficult to remember how revolutionary that first season of The Real World felt. Here were people, attractive people, yes, but regular folks (something that would become less and less the case as the seasons wore on) living their lives. The emotion on the show seemed real. When characters fought, the scenes became simultaneously difficult to watch and irresistible. There was an untamed, unpredictable quality to these scenes that made them compelling. Something might happen; this was the “real world” after all. (The producers should be given some credit for simply getting out of the way. One has to imagine the network wasn’t pleased when the season one cast decided to de facto endorse presidential candidate Jerry Brown by painting the number for his donation hotline on the wall of their loft, and yet they allowed it.)
In addition to its unpredictability, the show was a voyeur’s dream. These people were fascinating! Watching them do the most basic things — eat a bowl of cereal or prepare for bed — felt illicit, like we were privileged to something special and unique. Nobody, it turns out, ate a bowl of cereal exactly like you did.
And when they revealed something unique about themselves — such as Heather B.’s infatuation with NBA all star Larry Johnson (“Larry Johnson is so fine!”) — it was revelatory. Reality TV almost certainly created the now ubiquitous straw man argument “Why do I care what you ate for breakfast today?” That this question is raised about so much that happens online is no coincidence. It’s certainly possible that our 90s diet of reality TV validated our own solipsism, which bore fruit during the latter half of the 2000s, when web 2.0 made it possible for us to share our own lives with the world.
Whatever the case, the initial infatuation with “reality” didn’t last. A few things broke the spell. For one thing, The Real World started to seem less and less real. Cast members knew the experiences of previous Real Worlders, lending the entire show a meta quality that it previously lacked. The first episode of every Real World season now consists mostly of people waiting to discover exactly how awesome the house will be. They also know that each season involves a trip to some fun, exotic locale, and they anticipate these trips, discussing where they might go.
This acknowledgment of the conceit is present in any long-running reality show. It can’t be that the women of The Bachelor all came up with the phrase “here for the right reasons” on their own, can it? Rather they learned that phrase through watching previous seasons of the show, just as the girls of America’s Next Top Model learned to scream “Tyra Mail!” every time the show’s producers drop off one of their cryptic missives. In fact, the dialogue of the shows is often so codified as to seem scripted. They may not have employed a writer to produce such gems as “Nobody wants to go home,” and “I’m not here to make friends,” but the result is the same.
For these programs, built around elaborate elimination rituals and repetition of formulas, this self-awareness is both inevitable and even desirable — if someone follows the show enough to know its every twist and turn, to be able to trace the patterns of the show, then the show must have truly reached a place of importance. It’s affirming for the product to be emulated in this manner. And when that emulation includes asserting, repeatedly “This is real, okay?”, all the better.
For other shows, the effect is less desirable. Certainly The Hills struggled to maintain its veneer of “reality.” It was difficult to convince the audience that Lauren Conrad was living anything resembling a normal life, even by the bizarre standards of an affluent LA party girl, when she was simultaneously the Teen Vogue covergirl and an intern at the magazine. It’s no wonder that the show’s “characters” seem to burn out after a few seasons. It can be difficult to keep up the illusion.
At some point, even the people on The Real World began to seem less real. Gone were the mildly overweight, the slightly odd looking. Each cast began more and more to resemble an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. The show lost its ties to the artistic world (always tenuous at best) and became primarily about clubbing and hot-tubbing. It ceased to be a mirror into the everyday lives of its characters and became more the document of a long vacation.
The shift in focus from reality to fantasy isn’t unique to The Real World. Reality TV is no longer about reality, not the world that any of us live in, anyway (if it ever was). Most reality TV shows are just game shows containing reality TV elements. Survivor, Big Brother, The Biggest Loser, America’s Next Top Model, and The Bachelor are all long game shows in which the contestants play for a prize much larger than anything they might have won on The Price is Right (Indeed, on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, they compete for a spouse). No game show has made more of The Real World’s great revelation than American Idol has: that being real is all well and good, but what people really want is blood (metaphorically speaking). Idol was among the first shows to take the next step of involving the audience in the fate of its cast members, upping the ante just that much in the process. In fact, the show makes entire episodes out of the elimination ceremonies.
The only non-game show reality shows left are about people who were most decidedly unreal. Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that we only wanted to watch people do nothing if we’d already watched them do something. Today, the only reality shows that simply follow people around in their daily lives are celebrity-based shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians (Featuring Kim Kardashian, a celebrity famous for appearing in the 2000s version of a reality show, the internet sex tape). The lone exceptions to this rule are what might be called “anthropological shows,” programs that aim to show us a life we will never lead. Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives of Wherever, The Hills, and the myriad shows about bizarre families are exemplar of this. Equal parts curiosity and incredulity attract viewers to these shows. Reality TV has ceased to try to show us normalcy, perhaps because it no longer needs to.
Around the time The Real World drifted into the land of fantasy, the internet emerged from its awkward adolescence to become a platform for personal expression that made anyone who so desired into a kind of quasi-reality TV character. One could write an online journal (they called them blogs) or video themselves doing… well, anything. With that kind of capability, reality TV was free to explore the less commonplace aspects of modern existence. Occasionally, the mundane still has the power to amuse — think about the craze created around The Situation’s summertime Jersey Shore regimen of G.T.L. (Gym, Tan, Laundry) — but it’s not like it was. For a few years there, watching people’s lives was all we really wanted to do.
Reality TV still has a massive footprint on television, but all but the biggest hits have moved back to cable, where they help fill the endless hours. That isn’t to say that reality TV’s influence isn’t felt in a variety of programs. The confessional, perhaps The Real World’s most important innovation, plays a key role in a new breed of sitcom. The casts of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and several other shows often sit alone in a room and confess their thoughts to the camera in a direct address. These shows revel in the mundane, appropriating the reality of The Real World and adding to it the perfection of scripted drama. They bring back some of the imperfections of the early days of reality TV.
It’s difficult to say exactly why we retreated from reality television. My own theory is that the watershed moment was the 9/11 terror attacks, a media event that was just a little too real. After we’d seen that, reality was dead, so to speak. We needed something other than ourselves, bigger than ourselves. HBO had already begun the counterrevolution, airing The Sopranos in 1999, and continuing with Six Feet Under before finally reaching its apex with The Wire. These were long-form narratives the likes of which a television audience had never seen. Where television had seemed hopelessly shallow a few years earlier, suddenly it was entering a golden age. Soon the networks were following suit, bringing out a series of expensive, indulgently fantastic dramas, most notably Lost, Heroes and 24.
It might seem like a stretch to call the late surge of “quality” scripted dramas a direct reaction to the glut of reality TV that permeated the networks in the late 90s, but it appears to be the case. Television moves in a somewhat cyclical manner, with each new generation proclaiming the death of the sitcom. Perhaps each subsequent generation will proclaim the death of reality TV.
If they do, they will be wrong, as the reality shows are proving as durable and adaptable as the sitcom, and it’s no surprise that MTV leads the pack in innovation. Just when it looks like The Real World is running on fumes, The Hills emerges from the ashes of Laguna Beach to become a phenomenon. As The Hills wanes and Lauren Conrad decamps the more lucrative world of young adult fiction, Jersey Shore arrives, tanned and fist pumping its way into the zeitgeist. In the world of reality, Ecclesiastes was right: “There is no new thing under the sun.”
[Image credits: MTV]