Anthropologist Defends Reality TV, Swears It's Making Us Smarter


I’m not a big fan of reality TV. The Housewives do not appeal to me. In all honestly, I doubt I would watch Honey Boo Boo, Sister Wives or Jersey Shore if I had a different job. I do enjoy some talent/competition shows — Project Runway and RuPaul’s Drag Race, but what I really love is a well-crafted narrative, well-drawn,well-defined characters who have revelatory character arcs. I count among my favorites Buffy, The Wire, Absolutely Fabulous, 30 Rock, Mad Men, and Veronica Mars. Over the summer I got sucked into both Pretty Little Liars and Sons of Anarchy; with ensemble casts, dark plots and unexpected twists, they’re actually pretty similar, and my kind of entertainment.

But in a piece for Wired, Grant McCracken argues that reality TV turns us all into virtual anthropologists, which, he says, “may lead to the improvement [..] of Western civilization.”

Audiences grew bored with early TV shows — sitcoms, cop shows and westerns — McCracken explains, because genre programs are predictable. Writers ditched formulaic programs and thought outside the box, but:

Writers were free of genre but they were still forming the narrative. They were still making a story when what we wanted was the uncontrolled, spontaneous, accident-prone, and most of all, the unpredictable. Because, by this time, it took a matter of seconds to divine what was going on and get there first. We needed to know that not even the producer knew where this baby was headed.

I’d argue that some of the greatest entertainment on earth is very, very predictable. All over the world, plays by Shakespeare are remade, despite the fact that audiences know Romeo and Juliet aren’t going to make it, and Hamlet’s doomed, too. Opera’s the same way — age-old stories, being told not to surprise or shock, but because the beauty’s in the telling. And even people who think Shakespeare and opera are boring will watch reruns — George sleeping under his desk on Seinfeld remains funny the second, third, or fourth time around. Even if the genre is predictable — cue hijinks — it feels like you never know what’s gonna happen on shows like Parks and Rec, Revenge, and Scandal.

I can’t deny that Project Runway is educational and informative — I’ll agree with McCracken on that. But I’m not sure about this:

A key feature of anthropology is the long, observational, “ethnographic” interview. Anthropologists believe one of the advantages of this method is that no one can manage appearances, let alone lie, successfully for a long period of time.
So while the Kardashian sisters may wish to create an impression – and the producers edit to reinforce that impression – over many episodes and seasons, the truth will out. Whether they like it or not, eventually we will see into Kardashian souls.

Sorry, but I think you see exactly what the Kardashians (and Executive Producer Ryan Seacrest) want you to see. A perfectly-lit, carefully constructed version of the truth that a small army of participants — producers, directors, camera operators, sound-effects people, gaffers, hair, makeup and so on — have colluded to present. Reality TV’s existence and popularity is informative, in that it offers up clues to what makes Western society tick right now. But you’ll learn much more about the human condition from Wile E Coyote than you will from Honey Boo Boo, in my opinion.

That said, you will pry House Hunters International from my cold, dead hands.

Why Reality TV Doesn’t Suck, and May Even Make Us Smarter [Wired]

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