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Reality TV Is Making Us Smarter, Even When It's Stupid

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Oct 05, 2012 | 11:45am EDT

ALTReality TV has long been the bastard child of the television industry. Ever since its highfaluting sociological roots with PBS' The American Family, MTV's groundbreaking The Real World, and even CBS' watershed Survivor, the viewing public has treated reality television as if it is going to end civilization even as they tuned in to watch in droves. The general animus in the public spirit and the media (even the entertainment media) is that reality TV would somehow cause every museum to go bankrupt, every opera to close its curtains for good, and every breathing American to start desperately launching into fisticuffs like they were trying to be cast on some sort of exploitative documentary program. All these years later, we still have Survivor and, while there may be more useless step-and-repeats at insignificant events, thanks to all the Real Housewives and Mob Wives and Basketball Wives and the rest of the sundried wives that grace our tube, the world hasn't ended.

What if reality TV is making us smarter? That's the argument Grant McCracken makes in Wired magazine. In an excellent essay, he says that watching reality shows, no matter how massaged by producers and edited for effect, turns us all into miniature anthropologists. Not only do we learn things from different cultures other than our own (he uses learning about fashion via Project Runway), but it also makes us look beyond the surface of what we're watching to find the true meaning. "Culture is a thing of surfaces and secrets. The anthropologist is obliged to record the first and penetrate the second," McCracken says. "Once we’ve figured out what people believe to be true about themselves, we can begin to figure out what’s really going on in this culture. In this case, the surface says, 'reality TV is a dumbing down.' But the secret says 'not always.' Sometimes, reality TV contributes to a smartening up."

Of course I absolutely agree with his argument, except for a few core points. I've long posited that watching Jersey Shore, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, 19 Kids and Counting, or Deadliest Catch is like an anthropological experiment. We learn about these classes of people who live in the same country as we do, but we would never be exposed to usually because these people live in a region different from ours, exhibit a different socioeconomic caste, have a job that is shockingly dangerous, or wear outfits that would make our faces turn a deep shade of scarlet if people in public thought we were actually associating ourselves with them.

And this last point is where I came unleashed from McCracken. I don't think that there is anything inherently bad or trashy about reality shows. Just because I watch people I don't want to associate with doesn't mean that I am somehow like them. I have seen (and written about) every single episode of Jersey Shore, but that does not mean that I have lifted up my skirt and tinkled behind the bar at Karma, just as I have seen every episode of Breaking Bad but have never cooked meth. It's like reality TV fans, as McCracken confesses himself to be, have some sort of internalized hatred of the genre themselves.

McCracken starts his piece, "While some shows seem irredeemably bad (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, anyone?), others offer an indication of good things to come." People keep making this point about the beleaguered TLC show, but has every critic bothered to watch it? Or are they all just falling for the easy punchline? What is irredeemably bad about Honey Boo Boo? Just because you might disagree with the food they eat, the choices they make, the clothes they wear, or the way they live their lives, who are you to judge them? Neck crust may not be your cup of tea, but you can't deny its existence. The family members on the show is very loving; they encourage and supports each other. Boo Boo's mother is probably a much better person that every single one of the Real Housewives combined, but because the latter live in big fancy houses and scrap with each other at charity luncheons, that somehow makes them acceptable. But Honey Boo Boo is worth only our scorn?

This is the worst kind of hypocrisy. Watching people stand on a runway being judged by Heidi Klum is no better than watching Honey Boo Boo strut the stage in one of her pageant dresses, being judged by everyone in America. It is also no worse. If reality television is making us into a smarter set of television watchers, it happens when watching even the stupidest of shows. In many cases, when stuck watching a stupid show (sometimes the remote is just so far away) you have to work even harder to find some meaning in it. Maybe the stupider shows are actually better for growing our grey matter, because they make our brains work even more.

McCracken doesn't seem to have a knowledge of the depth and breadth of reality television that's out there. Of course he knows about the ubiquitous Kardashians and Real Housewives. And he seems like a smart classy guy, so of course he knows about Project Runway and other top-shelf programs. But there is another strata of reality television he seems to ignore completely, or perhaps just disdain. "Reality TV has a weakness for beautiful people who are too stupid to appreciate that their limitations are better kept from public view," McCracken writes. While that is true, it also has a growing weakness for the poor, unique, freakish, off-beat, and ugly, all with the same limitations. How else do you account for Pawn Stars, Storage Wars, Duck Dynasty, Ice Road Truckers, Small People, Big World, Abby & Brittany (yeah, the one about conjoined twins), or, of course Honey Boo Boo.

All of these have these programs have their individual problems and merits, but it doesn't mean that we should continue to disparage reality television because there are a few programs we don't want to watch. We don't hate all sitcoms because Two and a Half Men continues its very popular existence. Reality television is making us smarter by making us better judges and shrewder audiences. And this happens because of, not despite, the shows that many detractors would call the worst. It's time for all of us, especially those who acknowledge watching it, to stop being afraid of reality TV and start celebrating it.

Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan

[Photo Credit: TLC]

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