I remember being 9 at my neighbor’s house and walking into the living room while his older siblings were watching the first season of “The Real World,” an MTV reality show. They quickly changed the channel and ushered us out, explaining that this wasn’t for kids. “It’s too real,” they said.
A piece that ran this week on Salon suggested that this election season is better than reality television, though a more concise assessment is that this election is a product of it; one of reality TV’s biggest stars has dictated the rules. This has so much become the case that almost every day provides material that is a little “too real” for kids in the room. So much so, in fact, that the Clinton campaign has run a commercial that resonates, even if you disagree with every single one of the candidate’s policies.
The ad, called “Role Models,” juxtaposes some of the GOP candidate’s more inflammatory language with images of children watching and listening to the candidate on television.
As I watch it, I again recall being ushered out of that room because “The Real World” was “too real.” Now I’m wondering how “real” it was. Wasn’t it simply the predictable result of putting a bunch of cameras in the faces of adolescents?
I grew up during the rise of reality television, from the advent of “The Real World” to the birth of “Survivor.” I was reminded of this recently when I watched Albert Brooks’ great 1979 film “Real Life,” a mocumentary that imagined the production of a reality television series. Sure, the film is a spoof of the 1973 series “An American Family,” though it is genius for its foretelling of how a forthcoming reality entertainment culture would soon create incredible opportunities for narcissists, con artists and everything in between.
The spectacle that is this election reminds me of the great piece about “The Real World” by Chuck Klosterman, which ran in his collection “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs,” in which the essayist details the rise of the groundbreaking show and its journey from an interesting and innovative experiment to a bunch of people acting the way they saw the specimens that paved the way for them act, creating an entertainment echo chamber that spawned professional reality television stars. It created archetypes, it created new markets for those archetypes, and then it cast those influenced by those archetypes to take over. Multiply this trend by 25 years. Multiply it by the entertainment industry. Multiply it by political theater. Welcome to 2016.
None of this is to say that the presidential race, let alone high political life in the U.S. generally, hasn’t always had a reality television aspect running through it. There has been a long-running critique of America’s embrace of entertainment over civic engagement.
Remember that movie “American Dreamz,” which 10 years ago essentially chastised the public at large for this preference?
The 2016 election asks, why should we have to choose? This is the year the two realms, entertainment and civic engagement, have accomplished singularity. They now live wholly and unabashedly as one.
That helps to put into context, though not excuse, the GOP nominee picking his fight with the Khans or suggesting — accidentally or on purpose — that gun lovers can do Clinton in. These behaviors aren’t presidential in character, no. But they are things that one hell of a reality show contestant would say on one hell of a reality show. They’re things that Puck would have said way, way, way back in “The Real World: San Francisco” — something a reality TV villain would say, not a president.
Being president is very much a reality-based job. But this election season is going by the rules of reality entertainment — and that’s something entirely different.
By the way, has the former star of “The Apprentice” yet dropped the line, “I’m not here to make friends?”
Back in 2009, on the radio show “This American Life,” writer Rich Juzwiak said of the now-classic reality TV trope: “What makes, ‘I’m not here to make friends’ quintessential reality TV is that it’s impossible to imagine ever saying it in real life.”
And so, seven years later, it would fit right in this election season, would it not?
Is this even real anymore? It’s getting harder and harder to tell.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.