In many ways, Reality TV may be the best example of many characteristics of television in the future.” ~Herb Terry (associate professor of communications at Indiana University Bloomington)
Reality TV is a major cultural phenomenon. Henry Jenkins, Director of the Compar-ative Media Studies Program at MIT, describes Reality TV as “the ‘killer app’ of the age of media convergence.” He means it integrates commercial TV with the internet, documentary with drama, tabloid journalism with hard news, and passive viewing along with audience participation. It is the most interesting thing to happen to television since the launch of MTV in the 1980s.
Reality TV is also wildly successful, described by media insiders as “Ratings Crack.” Shows like Survivor and The Bachelor have achieved enormous commercial success garnering blockbuster ratings. Historically, Reality TV has cinematic roots in cinema verité as well as shows such as Candid Camera. But few expected the success or staying power of this TV format. It is now described as the “bellwether” of TV programming.
Reality TV exploits the petty desires of average people. Fame, fashion, and fortune are creatively packaged in modern versions of the Cinderella story. The average Joe marries the princess. The ugly duckling is transformed into a swan. The dragon is vanquished and the maiden saved. There is in their appeal both something deeply human as well as truly troubling. Our desires are real, powerful, and purposeful. Their aim is to point beyond to the source of all desire. And yet, like so much of modern life, Reality TV short cuts the process and makes the petty fulfillment the metaphysical goal of life. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga notes, “Human desire, deep and restless and seemingly unfulfillable, keeps stuffing itself with finite goods, but these cannot satisfy. If we try to fill our hearts with anything besides the God of the universe, we find that we are overfed but undernourished, and we find that day by day, week by week, year after year, we are thinning down to a mere outline of a human being.”
Overfed but undernourished. This is the essence of Reality TV and why its appeal is insatiable and its formats ever changing. Here are ten reasons why Reality TV has caught on with audiences and producers worldwide.
Appeal #1: Large audience, cheap costs
First and foremost, Reality TV makes money for producers and delivers audiences for advertisers. TV in America is a commercial enterprise and the bottom-line is the bottom-line. A successful TV drama, such as ER or Alias cost approximately $1 to $1.5 million dollars per episode. In contrast, Reality TV programming ranges from $150,000 to $250,000 per episode. Gone are expensive scriptwriters and celebrity-filled casts. The cost/ benefit ratio is skewed in favor of multiple Reality TV formats and controversial formats because the downside risks are greatly reduced.
Tribal Council on Survivor
Appeal #2: More airtime = more programming
The second reason for the success of Reality TV is the dearth of good dramatic TV. Network TV is caught in a double bind. On one hand, the cost of producing a successful dramatic series is increasing, while the expansion of media outlets requires more and more programming. Faced with rising costs and the growing need for programming, Reality TV is a perfect fit. Moreover, with the ability to advertise a network’s Reality TV show on other network programs, such as Entertainment Tonight or the Today Show, networks have found that they have an advantage over cable programming outlets.
Appeal #3: Customized audiences for advertisers
Equally important, Reality TV has demonstrated the ability to deliver advertisers less fractionated audiences on shows like Survivor by assembling a broader cast. Casts can be carefully chosen by age, gender, sexual preference, and race to fit the audience targeted by a given advertiser. “If film is a director’s medium, and television drama is a writer’s medium, Reality TV is without question a casting director’s medium,” claims Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “Fragmentation,” adds Stacey Lynn Koerner from Initiative Media, “makes it harder for advertisers to appeal to a broad audience, so they are looking toward product placement and interactive viewing and purchasing. Reality TV allows us to understand at a basic level how viewers want to communicate with their television set, as well as the convergence of behavior with the internet.” Reality TV offers the promise of a “family”-wide viewing audience.
Cost per episode, the need for programming, and the breadth of audience are the economic reasons for the format’s success. There are additional reasons audiences find these shows appealing.
Appeal #4: Celebrities like me
Perhaps the greatest reason Reality TV “works” is that our culture is obsessed with celebrities. We want to know about them (The Osbournes, The Anna Nicole Show), become like them (Becoming, I Want A Famous Face), or be with them (The Simple Life, The Surreal Life). Reality TV is based on the premise that anyone can become a celebrity. “We live in a world in which people are obsessed with the private lives of celebrities, and Reality TV takes the shortcut of making people celebrities based on their willingness to expose their private lives,” writes Mark Andrejevic, associate professor of communication at the University of Iowa. Celebrities are modern culture’s Greek gods and goddesses. They are the projection of our ideals and aspirations. Reality TV has made an industry of Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame.” For major Reality TV shows, producers are forced to sort through 250,000 applicants and Reality TV Casting Newsletter gives tips to aspiring contestants about how to succeed in auditions.
Appeal #5: Rubbernecking Life
Coupled with celebrity obsession is our growing acceptance of voyeurism. The prurient interest in the private lives of others is being fed by the confluence of cultural attitudes and emerging technologies. Voyeurism can be defined, in a clinical sense, as having “over a period of at least six months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the act of observing an unsuspecting person who is naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity” (Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV). Voyeurism runs the gamut from the woman who peeks at her neighbor through the windows of her own home to the man who uses hidden mini-cams to videotape unsuspecting women.
Television has a natural affinity with voyeurism, and the advent of the internet expands the opportunity for supposedly anonymous voyeurism. Google the word “voyeur” and one has instant access to over 400,000 websites. The “peeping Tom” of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Rear Window, has lost its stigma as well as its association with perversion. And so the boundaries of appropriate public and private behavior blur. America is a nation of those who watch and are watched. From the bank ATM to the hidden camera in 7-11, we have become immune to the gaze of others, and so we gaze back with desensitized impunity. The premise of most Reality TV shows is based on some aspect of voyeurism—watching the private lives and emotions of others without being seen. The show Big Brother offers 24/7 internet streaming. On a Dutch edition of the show a couple had sex for all viewers to watch. In a Spanish edition, TV viewers control which camera is on at any given time. Lisa Bernard of TV Guide remarks, “You know, they’re like car wrecks—[Reality TV shows] appeal to titillation.”
Appeal #6: Embracing the Absurdity of Life
An often-cited appeal of Reality TV is its latent unpredictability. While the situations are scripted and the contestants carefully cast, no one can finally predict the outcome of any given show, even the producers. “It’s just like high school,” explains a college coed who is a regular viewer of the format. “Everything is so dramatic.” Joel Betts, a participant on Australian Survivor, adds “[W]atching a real event as it unfolds where there’s danger is an irresistible combination.”
If, however, we begin to view all of life as unpredictable, we are implying that life is governed by chance and lacks a telos. This is an existentialist affirmation. Here the plots of Reality TV differ from that of the classic novel, which is based on the true structure of reality.
Appeal #7: Participation in the Story
The ongoing conversation about the shows as they unfold in living rooms and dorm rooms across the nation leads to the two other aspects of Reality TV’s appeal. Reality TV shows are now designed so that audiences can vote on performances or who is to be removed from the show. For example, the last episode of American Idol, which aired June 2003, had 24 million phone and text voters for their favorite performers, which is approximately 25% of the votes cast in the 2000 presidential election. This participatory aspect of Reality TV is an aspect of the programming that will expand in the coming years as TV and the internet continue to converge. To channel surfing at the click of the remote will soon be added the substantive direction of a show.
Appeal #8: Laughter at the Misfortunes of Others
An interesting aspect of Reality TV viewing is that it is often more enjoyable to watch with other people. Reality TV has spawned the rise of weekly TV parties. These shows are social events where a group of friends gather to watch, discuss, and critique the participants’ appearance and behavior. It allows a group of friends to explore apparently real social situations from the safety of anonymity. “What’s up with those shoes?” one female viewer comments to her friends about a contestant entering a timeout on The Bachelor. “What’s up with her hair?” another retorts. This kind of nonstop social banter and mocking allow one to feel good about oneself as well as provide a venue for casually exploring the fluidity of social norms among one’s peers.
At a deeper level, many Reality TV shows promote what Germans call schadenfeude. It means delighting in the misfortunes of others. Augustine described envy as “sorrow over other men’s good fortune and joy over other men’s misfortune.” Even in the joking banter while watching these shows, there is often a callous edge of put-downs and amusement at the emotional turmoil of the show’s participants. Sociologist Mark Fishman of Brooklyn College asks what causes us to derive entertainment from the suffering of others. “Certainly there may be catharsis involved,” he explains, “but that is also achieved through fiction—we don’t need to see a real person suffer in order to have a cathartic experience. Perhaps we are simply happy that these things aren’t happening to us, but that seems more reasonable when we see something accidental and spontaneous rather than something deliberately staged for our amusement.” Our laughter and non-stop critique can point to a more sinister motivation. These shows give us the freedom to express an envious spirit.
Appeal #9: Your tears are my tears
It is almost impossible when one invests so much of oneself into the unfolding drama of a given Reality TV show not to become emotionally involved in one or more of the characters. Emotional openness and the willingness to bare one’s soul is a major characteristic looked for when casting a Reality TV participant. Sasha Alpert, the vice president for casting for Bunim/Murray Productions, which produces The Real World, observes: “In casting, you want to see how far people will go in terms of opening up—how much they will tell you about the guy they have a crush on or their confusing relationship with their father. You need people who are open, enigmatic and unpredictable.” The shows are cast with engaging stylized types of personas. The villains are vilified. The sluts are scorned. The lovable geeks are dumped—with tears, of course—just as the hunks are embraced with cheers and hugs among the viewers. A “real” event on TV has more power when there is some kind of personal connection. I noticed this with the news of Prince Diana’s death. It struck me much more powerfully than news of other celebrities’ deaths, simply because years before I shook her hand on a street in Cambridge, England. A touch of reality—even if distanced by the medium of TV—makes it much easier to be invested in the unfolding lives of the participants.
Appeal #10: Lessons about life
Finally, Reality TV has an appeal because it offers lessons about life. However contrived, Reality TV shows become social experiments in human interaction. The good, the bad, the cruel, and the noble are all there. In fact, the social experiments seen week to week have few counterparts in the academy. Social scientists Rick Pieto and Kelly Otter write, “The type of manipulation and control which television shows like Survivor, Big Brother, or The Bachelor perform regularly with impunity would never be allowed in any kind of legitimate social science experiment, at least not without rigorous and strict oversight by a Human Subjects Review board.” Rather than making us shy away from the format, most viewers are further intrigued, repressing their qualms with notions of “consenting adults” and “monetary reward.”
Genres of “Reality”
Reality TV formats fall into approximately ten categories. We will probably see a further blurring of these distinctions and, of course, spoofs about Reality TV shows in the future. Relationship-oriented shows appeal more to women just as competition-oriented shows appeal more to men.
Relationships (The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Temptation Island, Average Joe, Cheater, elimiDate, Blind Date, DisMissed, Shipmates)
Extreme Situations/Physical Tests (Survivor, Boot Camp) and Psychological Tests (Fear Factor, Scare Tactics)
Talent Searches (American Idol, The Apprentice, American Candidate, Popstars)
Competitions (The Mole, Amazing Race, Iron Chef)
Personal Makeover (Extreme Makeover, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, What Not To Wear, Starting Over)
Home Makeover (Trading Spaces, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition)
Celebrity Life (The Simple Life, The Surreal Life, The Anna Nicole Show, The Osbournes, The Newlyweds)
Professional (Cops, America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries, Rescue 911)
Talk Shows (The Jerry Springer Show, Oprah, Dr. Phil)
Voyeur (Big Brother, Road Rules)
Clearly, after examining this list of Reality TV programs, we see that the allure of the celebrity form and the hidden pleasures of voyeurism are dominant appeals of Reality TV. To date, seven movies have been made about the format, each having box office grosses in excess of $34 million. They include: The Truman Show, Jackass, Showtime, Edtv, The Real Cancun, Real Life, and Series 7: The Contenders.
While legitimate difference can be noted between the different Reality TV formats and some are clearly more scandalous in their design, the similarities tend to outweigh the differences. Perhaps one of the most meaningful questions we can ask ourselves is why we are so prone to being sucked into to these shows. What lessons are we learning as we follow week to week the unpredictable drama of staged realities of normal people placed in abnormal situations for all to watch?
Reality TV shows succeed because they appeal to real human desires, often the most petty desires. They are frequently exploited for our amusement and other’s profit. And these petty desires are made the main thing. In the end, Reality TV promises what it cannot deliver—nourishment and satisfaction. “Beneath all their surface liveliness,” Plantinga concludes, “the sadness of these programs is that they reduce their participants to mere leering silhouettes.”
In the past few years television viewing has been transformed by the phenomenal success of Reality TV, a dramatic format that focuses on the lives of ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations. Why is this voyeuristic style of television such a ratings winner? What does the success of Reality TV indicate about the character of contemporary society? And what demands does this place on discerning Christians?
A Mirror into Our Collective Soul
The world of TV is the pop culture village square. And the talk of the town for the past several years has been the ups and downs of various Reality TV “celetoids” — whether Bachelorette couple Ryan and Tristan’s wedding, American Idol winners, or the latest tirades of Apprentice’s Donald Trump. Reality TV, once thought a summer programming gimmick, has morphed into being a defining genre of the culture industry. Car ads as well as presidential candidates have taken up the format. Reality TV is the zeitgeist of our media-saturated culture—an undeniable and inescapable force. (One can find more about Reality TV at websites such as realityblurred.com or orwellproject.com.)
The discerning Christian needs to step back from the phenomena and ask some probing questions. Why this? Why now? What does it mean for society? What does it mean for me? Literary critic Kenneth Burke writes, “We are reminded that every document bequeathed us by history must be treated as a strategy for encompassing a situation. Thus, when considering some document like the American Constitution, we shall be automatically warned not to consider it in isolation, but as the answer or rejoinder to assertions current in the situation in which it arose.” Reality TV is not an accident. It is the media’s answer to a cultural question. It is a mirror of our culture’s collective externalizations of our heart’s aspirations. It is thus the definition of worldliness in our day.
Worldliness as an Interpretation of Reality
Worldliness has less to do with individual or social sin as “an interpretation of reality that excludes the reality of God from the business of life.” It is a way of seeing the world through the lens of our communal idolatries. Christians face the daily three-fold challenge of temptation from the Devil, the flesh, and the world. However, this last source of sin can often be the most insidious, because the least recognized. The “world” is by definition the largely taken-for-granted way we think about things. We are literally “squeezed into the world’s mold” without being consciously aware of our own complicity. Little red flags may selectively pop up in our consciences when faced with challenges to our personal morals, but too often we do not think deeply about the way our thinking is being shaped by simply living in Babylon. Theologian Craig Gay warns, “For although the temptation to worldliness is obviously not new, the extent to which modern societies provide structural and institutional support for a practically atheistic view of life is quite remarkable. Perhaps at no other time in history has the structural coherence of a social order depended less upon religious and/or theological understanding than it does today in modern societies.”
Culture, like education, is not value neutral. It has a point of view, a given set of priorities, a normative framework, even if it is nothing more than denouncing the possibility for a normative framework. Christians are to guard their taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of things—to be appropriately discerning. How else are we to understand the biblical injunction, “Do not love the world or anything in the world”? Resistance to a problem demands recognition of a problem. A Christian’s goal is not isolation from the world, but influence within it for the sake of God’s kingdom. But if we are not aware of the contours of the world’s constraints, our contact with it may result in casual conformity rather than courteous confrontation. “Television,” states philosopher Douglas Groothuis, “is not simply an appliance or a business: it is a way of life and a mentality for approaching reality.” Television shapes the spirit of the world. Francis Schaeffer in calling us to resist the spirit of the world reminds us that it takes different shapes. “The Christian must resist the spirit of the world in the form it takes in his own generation. If he does not do this he is not resisting the world spirit at all.”
The Reality TV phenomenon has many lessons it can teach us about our culture. Three deserve Christian discernment: a weakened sense of the real, a weakened sense of the sacred, and a weakened sense of self.
Loss of the Real Big Brother
Reality TV serves to weaken our sense of reality. Just as no one thinks that professional wrestling is “real,” so too no one really believes that Reality TV is not staged and edited. Most viewers are aware that reality programming, like other TV programming, is commercially packaged stories designed to sell products for advertisers. But when these staged stories about real people in real situations are treated as “real,” the power of the story displaces reality. For example, during the last National Republican Convention, WWF superstar The Rock (aka Dwayne Douglas Johnson) introduced the vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney to the audience. The VP candidate was parlaying the image of WWF professional wrestler—fiction merged with reality to become “reality.” In effect, a cartoon character was asked to provide gravitas to matters of national significance.
When pseudo-reality takes on the importance of reality, it becomes in effect more “real” than the real. French social theorist Jean Baudrillard traces this accelerating process of abstraction and artifice. First the representation of a thing, the sign, comes to replace the thing being represented, the signifier (a process that Baudrillard calls “simulation”). Soon the representation of a thing becomes a thing in and of itself without any relationship to that which it once represented (what he calls “simulacra”). The sign has become “hyperreality.” In the words of Baudrillard, “Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible.”
Here is both the power and the problem of Reality TV. It is a venue that celebrates hyperreality. “The promise of Reality TV is not that of access to unmediated reality so much as it is the promise of access to the reality of mediation,” writes Mark Andrejevic in his book, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. Listen to Australian Survivor contestant Joel Betts discuss the relationship of Reality TV to real life. “In most of our day-to-day behavior we are concerned with managing impressions. Like on Big Brother where they don’t want to get voted out, we don’t want to be voted out by the broader community if we say something that’s not appealing. A lot of what we do is strategic because we like to create good impressions, knowing that we can be rejected by our friends, our acquaintances or our co-workers. It’s this type of behavior that has people saying that Big Brother isn’t real, but essentially this is how we behave in real life, too.” We live in a world of fictions of every kind—digitally altered photos, surgically reconstructed celebrities, computer simulations, staged pseudo-events, lip-synching pop stars, and synthetic food substitutes. The only question is whether it is a good fiction or a convincing fake. Reality TV Lesson One: Life’s a mediated reality without remainder.
Why does this matter to a Christian? A Christian believes in objective truth. A Christian also believes in objective reality. Moreover, a Christian believes that truth is a description of what is real: TRUTH = REALITY. We can weaken the connection of truth to reality by attacking either side of the equation. Ideas attack the TRUTH side. Images attack the REALITY side. In neither case does the equation cease to be true, but the plausibility of true truth and the really real can be seriously undermined by the experience of hyperreality. It becomes easier to live with our own illusions of what is true and what is real. Instead, Christians must be staunch defenders of reality and extremely wary of anything that undermines its constraint on our unbounded egos. The allure of cyberspace and celebration of hyperreality is, in the end, the worship of autonomy. It is, to quote Mark Dery, a “theology of the ejector seat.” Those who worship a God who is both Creator and Incarnate Lord must challenge such technologically re-energized Gnosticism.
Loss of the Sacred—Temptation Island
Not only does Reality TV weaken our appreciation of objective reality, but it weakens our sense of the sacred. Everything becomes amenable to the commodity-form. Though Reality TV is an amalgam of earlier forms of programming—such as the game show, soap opera, documentary, and amateur video—it capitalizes on blurring the boundaries between what is public and private, forcibly exteriorizing the interior and making it something to be sold at a price. It is one thing to sell one’s body for sex, quite another to pimp one’s emotions. The allure of Reality TV shows is to capture its contestants in an authentic emotion produced by an artificial situation. It traffics in fear, shame, humiliation, loss, and betrayal. The audience traffics in tears and pain for their own shameless and unfeeling amusement.
The premise of Temptation Island is that four couples would be split up and invited to date other people to see whether they would be willing to cheat on their significant other. (Committed fornication is challenged by adulterous fornication—sex within marriage being outside the purview of the audience.) The scandal here is more than encouraged infidelity; it is the blatant attempt to manipulate the couples’ emotions. One distraught participant in Temptation Island needed reminding that he was less a person than a commodity under contract. When his relationship, the topic of the show, was under great stress, he tried to get the cameras to stop filming. “This is not about the show, this is about my life,” he pleaded. To which the cameraman responded, “Actually your life is the show.” The cameras rolled on. A spokesman for the Parents Television Council was widely quoted as saying, “If we’re putting this kind of thing on TV as a form of entertainment, we might as well throw Chris-tians to the lions.” In our culture of bread and circuses, nothing can be understood apart from what sociologist Robert Bellah calls, “market totalitarianism.” There is nothing that is so sacred that it will not be sold to the highest bidder, nothing so private that it will not be revealed to a nation of mass voyeurs.
Do not be duped. Reality TV is deadly serious advertainment. Its goal is to provide viewers who are 18- to 34-year-olds with disposable income to advertisers. On Survivor II contestants were allowed, as a reward, to shop online using a Visa card, Visa being one of the show’s sponsors. More abnormal than eating insects is not having the opportunity to shop. The free market, unfettered by personal conscience or social norms, produces reality programming like Jackass and Fear Factor with no thought to depravity or dehumanization.
Some might want to compare shows like Fear Factor to Candid Camera. But one should note some differences. The victims of Candid Camera’s humorous surprises were not paid for their involvement, it was premised on harmless fun. Peter Funt, the creator of Candid Camera has this rule for his program, “Don’t put someone in a situation that you wouldn’t want to be in yourself. We never want to cross the line and make people look bad.” It is likely, however, that today’s Reality TV producers would not want to be contestants on their own show—eating cockroaches on Fear Factor, for example. Note promotional language of Spike TV’s program, Most Extreme Elimination Challenge: “If you enjoy broken bones, splattering spleens, high impact hematomas, and watching people get them, then you’ll love Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.” This is a long way from Funt’s Golden Rule dictum. Whether in its hedonistic or Spartan formats, Reality TV teaches its viewers that the good life is found in things and anything can be bought or sold. Reality TV Lesson Two: Life is pimping and nothing is beyond the pimp.
Jesus challenged the moneychangers in the temple, not because their actions were not helpful to temple worshippers, but because there are some places that are sacred and not enhanced by buying and selling. A Starbucks in the Holy of Holies is to offend our spiritual sensibilities. In a country that celebrates unconstrained capitalism and in a world where consumerism is the only functional metanarrative, we do well to listen to the prophetic words of Karl Marx who warned that market forces would one day engulf all of life. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all newly-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned.” We may not like the messenger, but we had better listen to the message, for that day has arrived with Reality TV.
Loss of the Soul—Extreme Makeover
Reality TV not only weakens our grasp on reality and appreciation for the sacred, but ignores the priority of the soul. Reality TV is not about depth, but surfaces; not about invisible qualities, but visible attributes. Going with her “feminine gut instinct” Larissa chooses the blonde hunk in lieu of Bryan, the Boston “Average Joe.” Ah, but when Gil finds out that Larissa had dated Fabio in her past, having been “out hunked,” he dumps Larissa. In the world of Reality TV, reality is what you see, and looks are everything. The commodity of exchange in these relationships is measured in abs and boobs.
by Mark Andrejevic
The losers need not worry for they can audition for a part in Extreme Makeover where a team of cosmetic surgeons, stylists, nutritionists, trainers, and fashion experts promise to “change your life.” “Following nationwide open casting calls and over 10 thousand written applications, the lucky individuals are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in Extreme Makeover. These men and women are given a truly Cinderella-like experience: A real life fairy tale in which their wishes come true, not just to change their looks, but their lives and destinies,” reads the ABC website on the program. The premise here is salvation by liposuction. Sweden’s Fame Factory sells participants what the media has exclusive power over, making people celebrities. With massive structural rehabilitation and proper handling, even the loser on Average Joe has a chance to win the girl—or so goes the promise, “We’ll stop at nothing to turn ordinary into extraordinary.” Plastic surgery as entertainment. French performance artist Orlan has nothing on Caroline and Catherine, 32-year old twins from Carson City or Cynthia, a mother of three from Baton Rouge. Participants choose from a cornucopia of surgical enhancements: breast augmentation, liposuction, nose jobs, brow lifts, eye surgery, chin augmentation, teeth whitening and straightening, collagen injections, tummy tucks, upper and lower eye lifts, porcelain veneers, and neck lifts gracefully supplemented with Botox, skin peels, and laser treatments. And when your body has healed and is ready for the next step, a team of home architects and interior decorators can accessorize your new body with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
Then there is the six-week series being produced by MTV News and Docs, I Want A Famous Face. This show combines MTV’s show, Becoming, where guests are recreated in the image of their favorite celebrity by taking on their lifestyle as a way of taking on their life, with the surgical elements of Extreme Makeover. Life swapping. Here contestants have surgery in order to look like their favorite celebrity. “We know that if we look like Brad Pitt, more girls will definitely dig us,” states Matt and Mike, 21-year-old twins. They want to be entertainers, but first they want to look like celebrities, an ambition that seems to have become completely detached from entertaining anyone. Hyperreality embodied. In this vein, a story is told of a woman named Cassandra who had plastic surgery in order to look like Pamela Anderson, but ended up being rejected by Playboy for looking too fake. It is the postmodern irony of a bad fake not looking as real as a good fake. Reality TV Lesson Three: You are what others see and nothing more.
This is the inversion of the biblical priority. “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7b). It is unlikely that Mother Teresa would audition for Extreme Makeover. For her life was about the inner life and things that last without the surgeon’s knife.
Reality TV requires discerning viewing since it is more than entertainment, it’s an education. And as an education, it’s an inversion of biblical priorities—on basic things like objective reality, the sacred, and the soul. Here is where resistance begins.