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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

I reject your reality and substitute my own – THIS IS NOT A TEST #12 (transcript)

Published March 14, 2015  [Podcast link]

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I’ve spent the last couple weeks juggling books and CDs and DVDs around the house, and everything seems to have landed safely in its new spot. I talked about having too much stuff a few weeks ago, and I still have too much stuff, but now we have a couple hundred fewer books, so that’s something anyway. I buy a lot fewer books these days, what with the Kindle and the Nexus tablet laying around. I was not a fan of reading on a screen for a long time, but I forced myself to do it, and now, to me, it’s not much different than reading a book on paper. Though I still don’t understand how anyone can read a book on the 2 inch wide screen of a phone. I can’t go there. I have some limits. Did I just say “not much different than reading a book on paper?” Blasphemy! I know. But it’s true. and when I do feel uncomfortable about it I just remember that what I’m reading is a little digital file that hardly even really exists rather than a pound of paper and ink and glue sitting on a shelf in my house.

While we were able to get rid of almost 300 pounds of books, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to get rid of any CDs or LPs. I will only continue to accumulate more of them as time goes on, even though I also have copies of all of those records in digital files. Yes, CDs. I’m one of those dinosaurs who still buys and listens to CDs, and if you listened to the episode where I talk about the sound of CDs you know why. And if you haven’t listened to it, go do it now. #6: Throw away your records. If you listen to that and still think I’m full of shit, I’ll gladly take all of your CDs off your hands for a buck apiece.

Anyway, the amount of space taken up by 1000 books and 1000 CDs or LPs is vastly different. Books are incredible space hogs. So I use that flimsy premise to justify getting more records every time I turn around. I don’t understand people who rip their music to digital files – even if they are lossless digital files – and then get rid of their physical discs. Those digital files are so fragile and ephemeral. Unless your CDs and LPs burn up in a fire or get crushed in an earthquake, you’re still going to be able to play them in 20 years. You know, if you can find a CD player or a turntable. But those digital files? The odds you’ll have those in 20 years are about a million to one against.

Speaking of digital files, I was going to talk about how the way we consume television has changed, and I probably will talk about that one of these days, but a new season of the TV show Survivor started a couple weeks ago, so I’m going to talk about that instead, and reality shows in general. But it’s the 30th season of Survivor and I’ve watched every one of them. When the first season was announced I thought, “Oh shit, a show where people actually have to survive? That’s going to be incredible!” I though they’d have to get food, find water, kill things…you know survive. That didn’t turn out to be quite what happened, but what has happened has been good enough to keep me coming back for 30 seasons. That’s 15 years watching essentially the same game played out again and again. But the game is played by humans, and I find human nature fascinating, so I’ll watch it as long as they want to keep making it.

That doesn’t go for every reality show. Most of them will burn you out and make you feel like an idiot within a few seasons. Survivor is better at stripping people down to their true essence because they add living out in the elements and real suffering into the mix. Sticking people out in nature for weeks at a time tends to make them less able to put on an act. Even though a lot of them are still putting on an act, more true aspects of their characters emerge.

But to back up for minute, where did this horrible spawn of Satan called reality TV come from? Well, it came from PBS of all places. In 1973 they aired a documentary series called An American Family, which sort of chronicled a bit of time in the life of the Loud family. That was actually their name, they weren’t just loud like my neighbors are loud. Anyway, I’m not sure why the Louds were chosen to be the guinea pigs for the birth of reality TV, but it was a goldmine for the producers of the thing, since the mother and father’s marriage kind of splintered while the filming was going on. I was only 13 years old when it aired, so the breakup of the marriage was pretty much lost on me. Or it wasn’t as important a subtext as it probably was for adults watching the thing. And while An American Family was the template for all reality TV to follow it, it wasn’t really what we think of as reality TV now. It was more of a serialized cinema verite documentary. It was shot on film, which made it look like a movie, and it didn’t seem – at least at the time – exploitative the way almost all reality TV is now.

So the genre took root in 1973, but it would be almost 20 years before it blossomed into the reality TV we know today, and that happened in 1992 with MTV’s The Real World. The Real World was compelling because it was absolutely unlike anything else on TV at the time – or ever, really. You know the formula – seven strangers live together for a few months and awkwardness and hilarity ensue. Sure. But when the first season of The Real World started there was no formula. It was as much an experiment as it was a television production. They had no idea what would happen when they gave those seven people – and, you know, a crew of dozens of other people – the keys to that place.

And if you look back on most of those episodes now, they are tame and boring compared to today’s reality TV. But to watch it at the time was fascinating, and it made people want more television like it. It made me want more television like it anyway. I would tell my friends about it and they’d just stare at me. Kind of like how they stared at me a few years later when I tried to tell them how cool this new world wide web thing was. I was talking to a friend of mine a couple months after I told him about The Real World and he said, “Are you still watching that show where the kids sit around in an apartment?” To him and a lot of people that was all it was. And that was all it was, but again, it was people and if you are interested in human behavior watching people is never boring.

Since it was such a raw new format though, the producers had to learn as they went along. And it was obvious that one of the things they learned really quickly was that they were going to have to interfere to create tension. The people were different enough to disagree and argue over stupid shit, but that wasn’t enough blood for the producers so they did things like send some of the cast on a trip to Jamaica while leaving some behind in New York, and leaving sexually suggestive books around the house. But they didn’t really have to go too far to find tension and conflict in subsequent seasons, since the people interested in going on that kind of show had seen the first season, so they knew what was expected of them.

Even from the first season it was certainly cast with different “types,” but later the people on the show became caricatures of types and the whole thing devolved into an unwatchable stew of bad vibes. Really only the first season of any show with a rotating cast like that has the luxury of casting people who may not even realize that they fit into a type. After the first season though, prospective cast members will “play to type” or play up aspects of their personalities that they think make them more of a type. Mainly because they think – probably rightly so – that it makes them more attractive to producers.

So that’s where the observer effect that they talk about in physics comes in to play. The idea being that you can’t observe or measure something without affecting the thing you’re observing or measuring. And if you’ve affected something, your observation or measurement of it is then inaccurate. Because you’ve affected it. It’s no longer in its natural state. And when it comes to people, that observer effect is even more profound. You cannot stick a camera or a microphone in someone’s face and not have it affect how they behave. This microphone in front of me is a perfect example. I’m not speaking now the way I’d speak to you if we were sitting in the room together. I’m performing to some extent. The same way some people put on a goofy face or dance around like monkeys when you aim a camera at them. Even if they don’t ham it up, they subtly change their posture and the way they are looking at you, even if they are doing it unconsciously.

And that all by itself makes reality TV unrealistic, and give people critical of reality TV their main complaint and argument against it. It isn’t real! well of course it isn’t real, and the people who produce these things know that, which is why they don’t call it reality TV, they call it “unscripted TV.” Of course now even calling some of the shows unscripted is inaccurate, because so many of them are obviously scripted.

The Real World manufactured tension in the first few seasons, but now it seems that tension and ugliness are what some of the lesser idiot shows rely on for their whole premise. It’s all they’ve got. And so many reality shows now are just awful street gutter rotten garbage. Which isn’t surprising, considering television isn’t exactly a hotbed of creativity, and if there’s one thing that a successful new idea creates in Hollywood, it’s 500 copycats. and of those 500 copycats, maybe one or two will put a good spin on their clone and come up with something compelling. The other 498 just crank out the shit that covers the cable dial now: 20 different shows about storage lockers or 20 different shows about towing companies or 20 different shows about people living in Alaska or 20 different shows that repeat YouTube videos dozens of times while talking over them in “funny” voices. Or the families or groups of people just endlessly screaming at each other and behaving like hillbillies or prisoners or cavemen. You know the shows I’m talking about. The Honey Boo Boo Bad Girls Kardashian Duck Hunting Club kind of shit that just makes you feel like you need a bath if you happen to catch a few minutes of it.

The bad side of reality TV is really bad. Like bottom of the barrel bad. The stink of decomposing boiled cabbage bad. But there’s no point in dwelling on that cheap shit because the good stuff, even if it’s rare, can be really good. Jon Taffer’s Bar Rescue is exactly the same show every time, but I can’t stop watching it because it’s compelling to see people so out of touch with reality. Which is the same reason the late, lamented What Not To Wear or the new Love, Lust or Run are interesting. Because we don’t really see ourselves as the world sees us, we’re out of touch with reality. So to watch someone go through the probably awful process of having that pointed out to them – and then helping them fix their business or not look like clowns as they walk around through life – will always be worth watching to me.

But those are still the minor leagues when it comes to reality TV. The major leagues to me are shows like Survivor or Big Brother. Pitting people against each other and watching them strategize and manipulate – and seeing how easily so many people are manipulated – that’s fascinating to me. I mean, I work in an office, which is like being on Big Brother every day. The way you have to understand group dynamics and human behavior and weaknesses and strengths…it’s not like The Apprentice, but then it is kind of exactly like the apprentice. Life imitates art! Well, a little bit anyway. That doesn’t mean you should work in an office though. I wouldn’t recommend it. Really.

A great job would be building the challenges on Survivor – or to a lesser extent, on Big Brother. The same guy designs the challenges for both shows, but I could totally see myself on an island in the South Pacific somewhere building those awesome obstacle courses or the tribal council set. What a cool job that would be. Fuck the office. But speaking of the south pacific, Survivor has always been shot there, or on island somewhere. They venture inland rarely, like to Africa or the Australian outback. But what I’d like to see, as someone who grew up in Minnesota, and what would be the ultimate survival scenario is: Survivor Alaskan Winter. Or Survivor North Pole.

The tropics are easy to survive in. You sit under a tree and food falls on your head. a million different plants to eat. But try surviving outside for more than 20 minutes when it’s 30 degrees below zero. That kind of climate separates the amateurs from the professionals. I’d like to see some of the surfers and debutantes from Survivor try to make a god damn snow cave or pull fish out of a frozen lake. But I don’t think that’ll ever happen. Too many liability issues. All those lawsuits over extremities lost to frostbite. That and there would be no half naked young girls, which is likely the main reason most young guys watch Survivor. A hot chick in a snowmobile suit and a parka probably wouldn’t generate the same ratings.

The game in a show like Survivor or Big Brother seems simple on the surface. It’s a competition and a lot of dumb games of skill and chance are played and there are winners and losers. But those dumb games aren’t the real competition. The real competition is between the people and how they manage relationships. And when you’re managing separate relationships with half a dozen people, you’re really playing a game that operates on a thousand different levels. It’s like Spock’s Vulcan chess in Star Trek. Overlapping levels of complexity that just become more horribly intertwined with every move you make. Watching a good Survivor or Big Brother player is – to me – like watching a genius construct something or create something. You’ve got to function on a really high level to dominate one of those shows, because you can play perfectly for a month and then one mistake can kill you in a matter of hours.

Listen, in real life you probably don’t want to be within a hundred feet of someone with those kinds of people manipulating skills. I sure don’t. But watching it play out is something else all together. You have to remember too, that as a viewer you have the advantage of knowing everything that’s happening with everyone. What they’re thinking and what their strategies are. But imagine being inside that game and having to manage that multi-faceted sort of puppet mastering without knowing what anyone else around you is really thinking. That’s an amazing feat, and a rare skill or talent or burden. Depending on how you look at it.

It’s funny that there aren’t more good shows like Survivor or Big Brother since it’s a pretty straightforward concept, and one that’s probably pretty easy to replicate in a different scenario. But the shows that try to do it usually fail, or at least they don’t appeal to me. And I think at the core of the success of any show like that is the casting. They have to choose people who can be analytic and perceptive and duplicitous or abrasive but somehow still sympathetic. No small feat, that. And you can see in the shows that fail, that failure is usually in the casting. If you just want to punch someone in the mouth, chances are you aren’t going to care about them or their show.

And speaking of casting, it never ceases to amaze me that there seems to be an inexhaustible well of willing victims to sign on to do the shows. Aside from the obvious strange aspects of it, who can just drop everything and go into seclusion on a sound stage for three months for Big Brother? Or even more ridiculous, for a year like they asked people to do for some awful Utopia show last fall – which only lasted two months before the plug was pulled. That’s not a normal person, someone who can say, “Sure, I’ll go live out in the middle of nowhere for a year to be on your show.” The mind boggles. But then the mind boggles at most of the people who appear on these things. For the good shows, I get it – it could be like an adventure or a challenge or something, and a once in a lifetime kind of weird outward bound excursion.

But even the crappy shows, which again, is most of them, have no trouble rounding up a dozen people who agree to be subjected to just about anything just to appear on TV. That’s the tragic thing, and the awful thing about all of those shows. The fact that so many young people see them as a viable employment option, as a stepping stone to their inevitable fame. Because fame is what it’s all about. Even Z list reality TV fame. Fame is awful and soul-sucking enough when it’s top shelf fame, I can’t even imagine the horror of the level of fame that a reality TV contestant might get. It’s like being the best weight lifter or the prettiest girl in prison. Or I suppose you could be both of those. But it’s just such a sad, low, awful ugly thing, reality TV “fame.” It’s depressing, and the people who enjoy it and seek it out are depressing. I don’t know what they did in the past. How they fed their need for attention. They had to exist before reality TV, didn’t they? Or did reality TV create them?

Well, I’ll leave you to ponder that question. me, I’ll just keep enjoying the rare reality TV shows that work for me. And I’m sticking to my excuse for watching being an endless fascination with what makes us tick. If I wasn’t doing that I’d probably be sitting at the mall watching people, and that’s just creepy. Especially since all the malls are closed now. Wait – coincidence? The rise of reality TV and the decline of the mall? I don’t know. Sounds like a conspiracy to me.

All right, I’ve talked about it and threatened it and promised it until you’re sick of it, but I’m actually doing the interview with Mat Gleason this weekend, so you’ll get to hear it on the next episode. It’s either going to be really cool, or like listening two turds dry. I’m suspecting and anticipating and hoping it will be really cool. But if it does turn out bad it will be my fault. Mat is entertaining and can talk forever, so he’ll be doing his part. It’s my ship to sink. Until then, my precious tamales, I bid you a fond farewell.

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