Thursday, February 17, 2011

Next on "Inside The Actors Studio" -- Kim Kardashian

Part Three of my musings about Kim Kardashian.

As I watched Kim and Kourtney Kardashian sunning their augmented breasts in Miami on a friend's yacht, I thought to myself, "How do we watch this stuff?"

I didn't mean "Why do we watch this stuff?"  I meant literally "How?"

I was watching a clip of Kourtney and Kim Take New York on Hulu, and Kim was on this yacht with her sister and a friend.  She was fidgeting with her ever-present Blackberry, and she let out a big sigh that drew their attention.  They asked what was wrong, and Kim said, "I'm just trying to deal with this kind of like privately, but Reggie and I broke up."

I was struck by the irony of her statement.  She was trying to deal with her Bush break-up privately -- while being filmed talking about it.

What we call "reality TV" is filled with such moments, moments when the folks on screen seem to have a private experience for the benefit of the camera crew that is present when they speak and the millions they hope will watch later.  This should make us ask, "Just how real is reality television?"

I know this is not an original question.  I imagine most of us would answer it quickly: "Not very."

Since we know their reality is limited, I asked myself whether we watch such shows in a manner different from the way we watch "regular" drama.  When we watch a regular drama, we know what we see is not real.  It may imitate the real, and it may do this quite faithfully.  But those of us in the audience know what we watch is, in a sense, a lie.  This does not stop us from getting emotionally involved in the events.  This does not stop us from experiencing emotional reactions to what we see on the screen.

At the heart of the audience's experience is identification.  People in the audience identify with the people they see in the production.  They may think, "She is like me.  I have felt her pain before."  Or they might think, "I have never known that fear, but I imagine it is powerful!  Look at me, my heart is racing, yet I am sitting safely in my home, wrapped in a Snuggie and eating S'mores."  That is to say, even if we cannot relate our own lives to the lives we see on the screen (or read on the page or witness on the stage), we imagine ourselves in those lives.  We experience, vicariously, the actions and emotions being imitated for us.  And the fact that they are not really happening does not diminish our pleasure nor our participation.

Aristotle recognized this long ago and wrote about it in Poetics.  While many plays in his time were based upon historical events or on characters well known to the audience through myths, he noted there were some plays "where incidents and names alike are fictitious, and yet they give none the less pleasure."

Although Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" to argue for implausible or fantastic events in stories, the idea extends to many forms of storytelling.  For instance, while watching 3:10 to Yuma, I am supposed to suspend my disbelief that a man with a prosthetic foot -- one made in the 1870s no less -- could jump from roof to roof in hot pursuit of a bad guy.  (I'm sorry.  I snorted in the theater at those scenes.)  But at a more fundamental level, I suspend my disbelief enough to watch any of the film and allow it to influence my thoughts and emotions.

And so, while watching a show such as Kourtney and Kim Take New York, the viewer allows himself to forget that everything the sisters say is being recorded and they know it is being recorded -- and surely the sisters shape what they say or do because of that camera.  At some level they must be aware of how what they are saying is fitting into some storyline that has evolved through the creation of that episode or that is likely to evolve.  (They also must know their show is a collaborative effort.  What they say and do will be further shaped by editors, especially after the sisters tape the various cutaway commentaries on the episode's events.)

In this sense, a show such as theirs is not so much "reality TV" as it is "improvisational drama."  Larry David's HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he plays a character named "Larry David," is famous for its improvisational creation.  David gives his actors the bare minimum for a scene, and the actors create the rest as they go along.  As they stay in character, they are aware of the plot they need to follow, but they also are aware of the need to make each scene funny.

Similarly, Kim Kardashian plays a character named "Kim Kardashian" in scenes that are meant to resemble her life, knowing that as she goes through each scene she must do and say memorable things -- look glamorous, be happy, be heartbroken, be sentimental, be rich, etc.

After I started thinking about this aspect of shows such as hers, I came across another name for them: docusoap.  Part documentary, part soap opera.  It sounds fitting.  But that name seems reserved for the types of shows that document people (most likely not celebrities) doing things in the "real world," such as Deadliest Catch.  The people in those shows may play to the camera, may manufacture drama in order to get more air time, but they also must be aware of the competition they are a part of or the dangers that surround them.

The kind of crabs that might threaten Kim and Kourtney are not the kind you pull from the Bering Sea.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force
I am not saying that the Kardashians create television as compelling as Six Feet Under, The Wire, or even Aqua Teen Hunger Force.  While I suspend my disbelief in watching those shows -- "Come on!  A giant milkshake would never say that!" -- I also admire their invention and the craft of their construction.  I admire their understanding of human nature and the commentary they make on it.  But I do wonder whether the process of watching those shows is much different from watching the tawdry televised pathos of America's rich and famous.

I realize that not everyone watches these shows in the way I have described.  Not everyone watches something like Jersey Shore in the same way Aristotle would have enjoyed Antigone.  Some watch more like Romans enjoying their gladiators -- if the warriors sported Bumpits and fake tans.

I know many people tune in to see the human train wrecks that some reality TV shows present to us.  But not all watch for that, and some folks even watch as if the shows presented unmediated glimpses into the lives of other people.  But even those who watch like Romans at the Coliseum are to some degree reacting to events on screen as if they were accurate imitations of life, not people impersonating themselves in storylines intended to attract attention; the Roman-style viewers react as if they are watching real people doing real things -- evoking from the viewers genuine outrage, pity, scorn, or laughter, evoking that catharsis and purgation of human emotions for which Aristotle said drama was intended.


  1. "some folks even watch as if the shows presented unmediated glimpses into the lives of other people."

    Some people have ditched television in favor of YouTube seeking such glimpses. The popularity of web-based reality programs such as the Shaytards and Nalts attests to this.

    The interesting thing about the YouTube phenomenon is that you don't have to be "discovered" or come from a life of privilege to perform. Willingness to be silly on camera will suffice.

  2. great post - it put me in mind of a chuck klosterman essay identifying the third season of The Real World as the moment when "reality television" took a rare postmodern leap by showing its participants acknowledging that they are being filmed. i don't think this happens much anymore, perhaps because, nearly two decades later, the market for these shows has solidified atop a bedrock of suspended disbelief.

    and i guess it's no surprise that reality television watchers for the most part don't really want to meditate on the nature of living one's private life in the public eye. we're all doing that anyway, these days, in one way or another, online. it comes naturally enough to us that seeing the Kardashians do it requires no great imaginative leap.

  3. I enjoy Deadliest Catch--although lately its gotten REALLY repetitive, possibly due to some environmental and circumstantial factors that limited the footage from which the show is constructed in post--far more than I enjoy the Kardashians. Even got into Whale Wars, a fine plummet into OMFG-seamanship-101-you-kooks! Curb Your Enthusiasm was drop-dead hilarious and it was an easier sell to me than most reality teevee. We know some of the contestants from Amazing Race's earlier seasons and the curtain was pulled back for us pretty early in the "reality TV" phenom. I also prefer Reno 911 to COPS and Househunters International to Big Brother. Now its Face Off because the remote has been temporarily wrested from my grasp and I'm back to curing insomnia in large doses of Netflix Watch Instantly.

    As for Kim's "shape"... yeah. Doughy=real. Just sayin'.

  4. Bill -- Excellent point about YouTube.