Stranger Than Fiction

We interrupt your regularly scheduled NYRD articles so that we can talk about the elephant in the room, the one wearing the bad toupee and worth several billion dollars. Donald Trump is still leading in the Republican Primaries, with 24% of registered Republicans saying they will vote for him as their candidate. Make no mistake, this lead is not happening despite the horrible and shocking things he has said about immigration, Mexicans, women and other topics. No, his current lead is very much because of those things. Even worse the “Trump Effect” is now something that other GOP candidates are trying to embrace in order to get noticed, and we here at The NYRD are looking for someone to blame. Thankfully -like the answers to all great questions in life- we only have to look to our television sets to find it.

The sad truth is that we are no longer watching a serious public debate on policy and issues. Instead, we are watching America’s Top Candidate, a reality show being orchestrated and run by none other than the Celebrity Apprentice himself, Donald “Screw You and Your Ovaries” Trump. There is a reason that the media and the public cannot seem to get enough of Trump, no matter how much we try. It is because our brains are now hardwired to be dangerously addicted to reality TV, and The Great Orange Blowhard knows how to give everyone exactly what they want, fake reality.

Celebrity Rehab
Reality shows and the drama they give us are a drug. According to studies conducted at Ohio University people watch reality TV to feel better about themselves, and to escape the pressures of their own world. The same could be said about chocolate, but like chocolate, too much is a bad thing, and we might all be heading toward sugar overload. No, that is a bad analogy. Reality TV is not like alcohol or drugs, two substances we indulge in to forget our troubles, they are more like an addiction we use to reinforce our own self image.

As human being you have a few tactics for feeling better about your life. You can exercise, learn something, help someone in need, or make some other positive change in your world. However, another and quicker way to get a self-esteem boost is to compare yourself to someone who may not have it as “together” as you do, and unless you are actually staring on the next season of The Bachelor, than that’s probably 95% of all people on reality TV. Thus, watching reality TV is not so much about entertainment as it is about a quick fix of superiority, mixed with the same sort of morbid fascination you might have while watching a slow train derailment.

Reality TV is like potato chips. There is not a lot of nutrients but it still fills a hole. You do not even need to leave the couch, but know that this “hole” is something that only reality TV can fill. Shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Breaking Bad, will never satisfy the same need. Even worse, like any addiction, the more you feed into the hole, the bigger it gets.

In other words, when watching contestants eat bugs for money stops being satisfying, you may then have to graduate to two middle aged women fist-fighting, then to two washed up celebrities screaming at one another, because sometimes both Terrell Owens and Gilbert Gottfried want to work for Donald Trump. That last sentence, by the way, is so unfathomably against the laws of nature, that somewhere a kitten just died. The point is, that watching reality shows is more about the strange satisfaction we get, than it is about any substance that might be within the show.

Even shows like House Hunters which is not about seven Italian stereotypes being way too Italian on the shores of New Jersey, still has elements of this. There is something strangely satisfying about watching a placid pale couple make totally outrageous demands, or be unrealistic in their expectations, or even make a decision to buy a house that is out of their price range. We know that you, our dear viewer, would probably never spend more on a house than you could afford, except that 52% of you do. Well, at least you can still judge them for that stupid haircut they have.

Keeping Up with the Kardashians
Humans become numb to new experiences pretty quickly. It’s why we keep building faster roller-coasters, bigger movie explosions, newer iPhones, and Charlie Sheen. Similarly, reality TV feels the same pressure to keep topping itself, but we are reaching a point of absurdity. Compare the two commercials below:

In case you hadn’t guessed it, the one on the top is a fake reality show from 30 Rock. The second one  is an actual reality show from… sigh… the Discovery Channel. There were also numerous other examples we could have shown you, including a reality show on WE TV where couples have sex in a box in front of a live audience, aptly titled Sex Box. We also could have point to a reality show where thirty women are tricked into thinking they are competing for a chance to marry Prince Harry in I Wanna Marry Harry, because apparently making all the bad guys in Star Wars have British accents wasn’t quite insulting enough. We could also mention Sister Wives, a reality show that follows a family that boasts three wives and one husband, because polygamy is still a thing and apparently warrants its own TV show. The real reality shows are beginning to look more absurd than the fake reality shows that other TV and movies come up with to make fun of them. When did we start living in a Mel Brooks’ movie?

The Biggest Loser
Remember when we brought up It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Breaking Bad? You may have noticed that those are also shows about people who make less than moral choices in their lives. Yet, we do not get the same self-esteem boost from them as we do from reality TV shows. Our brains react to fictional shows different than supposed “reality” shows. We see those dramas or comedies and we learn to “suspend our belief.” We willingly enter into an agreement where everyone involved agrees that it is fake. Thus, self-esteem-wise, we do not compare ourselves to Mac, Dee, Charlie, and Dennis because even though they are horrible human beings, our brains still understand that they are fictional. We look at their antics and say, “That’s funny because no real person would act like that.” Reality shows, on the other hand, give an illusion of truth even when most of them have a credited writer attached.

Reality shows are just as fake as fictional shows. Most episodes are constructed from careful editing combined with producer prompted answers and situations. If you don’t believe us, read Cracked’s account of one of the stars on the show, Kid Nation, which was basically TV’s attempt at making Lord of the Flies. Producers had to goad the kids into turning on each other, basically teaching them how to aim for the little knee caps. This blurring between fiction and reality can be dangerous, and the amount of violence and aggression on reality shows is only rising. Producers may not always directly instigate the problems but they certainly know how to exploit things like alcohol and other situations to gently nudge people and situations in the direction that will get the most ratings.

Remember how there was always someone on TV claiming that their child put his eye out because he was imitating Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or GI Joe? Remember how parents protested that kids imitated violent video games and comic books? Remember when people raised hell over others imitating reality TV shows? Oh, you don’t remember that? Us neither, but it turns out that reality TV show imitation is way more dangerous than a six year old swinging around a dish rag and calling it a nunchuck.

A study conducted between 2002 and 2006, showed that crime rates rose in Laguna Beach during the years the reality show Laguna Beach was airing, as opposed to a demographically similar California beach town which saw crime rates fall in accordance with falling national crime rates during the same time period. Similarly, between 2008 and 2011, the crime rate of the Jersey Shore town, Seaside Heights, rose steadily. Coincidently, MTV’s Jersey Shore aired from 2009 to 2012. The basic assumption becomes, “Those people on TV get away with it all the time, in the same town. So why can’t I?”

When a show aims to convince people that what they are watching is the “truth,” then those people start seeing their own lives very differently. Now, we are not claiming that sixteen year old girls are going out to get pregnant so they can be the next Teen Mom, except that they might be, but more and more people are starting to glamorize and sympathize the self-indulgence and bad behavior witnessed on these shows. Other studies have even linked reality TV with an increase in fighting and an increase in plastic surgery, with “87% of all first time plastic surgery patients… influenced by reality TV.”

The Real World
Reality TV warps people’s perceptions. Let’s go back to the example of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In that fictional show, whenever Charlie and the gang do something horrible it often ends up having consequences, as do most fictional shows. Even Seinfeld and the gang went to jail because they were basically all horrible people, but what are the consequences of reality TV?

The biggest schemer often wins the prize, whether that be immunity or the Bachelor. The more a horrible a “real housewife” you are, the more likely you will find some modicum of celebrity status in the real world. The Teen Moms are now rich tabloid celebrities. In a world of Facebook and Twitter there is no more bad press. Sex tapes are not something to be ashamed of anymore, they are springboards to stardom, riches, and your own perfume line.

So what message do people get when they see all this? “Behave badly. Get Noticed,” A study done at the State University of New York crunched the numbers and found that there is a significant correlation between the amount of reality TV consumed by a person and the amount of “self-disclosure” that person posts to the Internet. Reality TV tells people that airing their dirty laundry in public is not only normal but be beneficial. So in a way, we have begun to associate poor behavior with not just success and celebrity, but the traits of a winner.

American Idol
Enter Donald Trump, a man who is never been afraid of the limelight or of making himself look like a fool. The man is no stranger to reality TV. The Apprentice has been on the air for 14 seasons, giving Trump a platform for his own special brand of obnoxious buffoonery. The GOP Primary is just the next step up in a larger arena of public spectacle, and perhaps even the next logical one.

Maybe it was only a matter of time before our reality TV influenced our reality. After all, what is a Presidential race, other than one long reality show. Maybe Trump is just giving everyone what they secretly want. He insults Mexicans and everyone takes notice. He insults women and all the other candidates get pushed aside. He acts like a clueless idiot and he takes over the GOP debate. He is playing right into the kind of expectations we would have for a contestant on shows like Survivor or Big Brother and that is bad. It lowers our national conversation, makes us look like idiots on an international stage, but worst of all, keep in mind that when it comes to reality TV, those are the type of people who often win.


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