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September 24th, 2008 10:00am EDT
The HillsPeople used to believe in fictional television. They didn't believe that it was real, simply that it was an honest fabrication of reality, a mild funhouse reflecting life as it is lived. They watched whether they could identify with it or not; they watched to imagine the lives they saw on the screen. Some still do. But others, a growing majority, watch reality television; they take comfort in the truthful depictions, no, profiles of the lives of others. These shows cannot be melodramatic, cannot be dismissed as over-the-top like Grey's Anatomy. They are "real."

America's fascination with television began in the days of I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show. After long days slaving away in the office or at home, Americans around the country would crowd in front of their newfangled televisions to escape their lives. Families would watch Leave It to Beaver and laugh over Little Bobby wetting his bed while the Beav broke his new bike. Housewives would scurry to finish up dinner before their husbands came home so they could all tune in to see Ricky announce, "Honey, I'm home!" Then, once "The End" flashed across the screen, entire houses would turn pitch black with families heading to bed.

These shows were a method of escapism in a culture arising from the depths of an enormous American crisis. Various generations of these same families had faced the Great Depression and their first or second World War. Husbands were coming home to their families; others did not. It was a time of regrowth for a country that had been so badly wounded. These citizens wanted to remove themselves from the pain of past lives. They wanted to close that door and barricade it with light-hearted television.

The HillsBut over the years, as light-hearted television waned from the spotlight, as America became critical of themselves and cynical of others, television took on a new face. Americans no longer desired to see malnourished bottle-blondes traipse across their televisions into the arms of chiseled men named Todd. No one they knew was that skinny or that attractive or had it that good. Americans were jaded. The funhouse had become more distorted, twisting into a bastard child that had broken away from the society that birthed it and developed on its own. Now, that bastard child laughed back; Americans found themselves to be dogs licking peanut butter while the cast of Melrose Place held the spoon.

America did not take kindly to being relegated to the fat kid who sits in the bleachers, gulping punch and cookies while all his friends dance and laugh. Americans were not going to be the odd man out.

A few movies before had prophesied the coming transformation of television. Years before Survivor or Big Brother, EdTV and The Truman Show spun the camera away from Hollywood into the faces of those staring at the screen. These films parodied the premise of The Real World. They turned their protagonists into rats in a cage, houses into zoos, tears into ratings. And they were comedies. They laughed at the novelty of reality television, at the idea that millions around America would tune in to watch a Texan buffoon who wore a bottle opener around his neck do the "Chicken Dance" with his equally ape-like brother. They also laughed at the idea that Americans would believe reality television to be as it claimed, real. They set up an entire antfarm-like biodome in which all the ants were in on the joke except one. That ant was to carry about his occasionally dramatic but generically regular routine every day as the others scurried about to ensure its perceived authenticity. These outlandish plots were not meant to be taken seriously. Marketing reps at the major networks were not supposed to these films as an untapped oil field.

The Flavor of LoveBut they did and so did the American people. With the onslaught of Survivor, American Idol, and Flavor of Love, anyone could be a star. As more participants went on to become hosts of daytime television and parodies of themselves on cable television, more Americans wanted to become participants. Lonesome souls vied to become The Bachelor while vulture-like matchmakers took their turns. Even tanning salons received their fifteen minutes of fame. Teenagers enduring hard-fought lives in one of the most privileged communities in the nation became overnight sensations with MTV's Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.

Television was no longer an escapist vehicle set to press pause on everyday lives. It became the fast-forward button to stardom. Even the pages of celebrity rags like Us Weekly and People began featuring this new brand of celebrity. Mothers walking on sidewalks alongside other mothers would be approached and lauded because they were on TV. America became the children at baseball games who chirp with glee when they see their faces on the big screen.

Except, Americans do not let the camera pan away from them. Reality television has boomed like the Internet in the late '90s. Entire networks have become devoted to the adolescent genre. A majority of television's summer listings, broadcast and cable, were overrun with reality programming. Even this year's Emmy Awards feature a new category for best reality show host. It is no longer enough for Americans to see a Desperate Housewifewhile shopping or on vacation or at a restaurant. It is not even enough to know someone who knows a Desperate Housewife. Now everyone wants to be a Desperate Housewife. Fancy that.

The genesis of reality television lies in America's jaded perception of entertainment. The result is programming in which authenticity need not be argued, in which believability is a given; shows with credibility that make one exclaim "Hey, that could be me!" not grumble "Man, that never happens to me." Shows that people embrace because they empathize, not proselytize. Americans are cynical enough. In an era when Americans ignore their imagination, when The Hills recruits more viewers than 90210 and nonfiction outsells fiction, why argue? There's money to be made.


Tim Peterson
Story by Tim Peterson

Starpulse contributing writer