astern: illustration from Lane Smith and Dr Seuss's HOORAY FOR DIFFENDOOFER DAY (Default)
[personal profile] astern
I refer to my approach to reality TV that I refer to as a Pyramid of Loathing. I came up with this theory during season 8 of Big Brother, as I tried to explain why the players I dis/liked kept changing. My favorite person (in that case, Daniele) is at the top, people who actively support him/her are on the next level, then people who are neutral, then people who are passively against, and then enemies. How high you are on the pyramid is inversely proportionate to how much I want you gone. The higher you are, the more I will excuse your bad actions; the lower you are, the more I will find a reason to see your good actions in the worst light.

Big Brother turns you into a hypocrite. There's really no way it doesn't- for the cast or the audience. Players want people to be loyal, but when they're disloyal it's just a game. They want people to respect their game play, but if someone screws them over they're terrible people who should die. When people trash-talk your favorites, it's terrible, but when your faves trash-talk other people it's hilarious.

There are a million justifications, but at the end of the day, it's part of the game. And honestly, it's the part that I love maybe the most out of the show: that it's a game of perspective. You choose your favorite player, and they become the protagonist of the series. Things they do to help themselves are heroic behaviors and things other people do to hurt them are villainous.

I would argue that the real reason discussions about reality TV can get so heated, and fans so fervent, is there IS NO RIGHT ANSWER. Arguments in scripted programs have an established baseline of perspective. You recognize whether someone is an antagonist or an anti-hero. More importantly, the writers (and usually the actors!) know where the story is headed. The ultimate 'winner' of the fight, so to speak, is pre-determined.

Not so with Big Brother. People who'd been in the background are suddenly foregrounded; people who were set up as major players are evicted without any real fight. The producers don't know what plotlines are coming, and they don't know who will win, so the protagonist isn’t determined by an artificial internal source. It's both easy and encouraged to see your favorite as the protagonist, the hero, the victim, and their opponent as mean, crazy, and generally unpleasant. It's up in the air.

In a way, this makes reality TV viewing a very complicated endeavor. The media cues we're trained to look for aren't there, so we have to rely on gut instinct and just hope that the person we're cheering for is the 'right' one. It's kind of like having a favorite sports team, who you'll root for no matter how terrible they are. It's kind of like real life.

As humans, we're trained to approach life as though we were the protagonists. This is a GOOD thing; think about how awful life could be if you were looking at situations as a way to work to someone ELSE'S best advantage. But it also colors perception. And the cool thing with reality shows like Big Brother is that we get a real, concrete view of how that influences decision making. If I want to seriously evaluate gameplay, I have to look past the hypocrisy that gut-level informs my choices, and say that hey, Britney (for example) is making some really terrible moves, even though she's Britney, and the Brigade (for example) are actually doing things right, even though those moves might hurt Britney.

(Britney, right now, is at the top of my Pyramid of Loathing. Obvi.)

And because there aren't spoilers, and because this is being edited as it goes, we don't know before getting emotionally invested whether we're going to be okay or not. We know that Sydney Bristow will catch the bad guys and Veronica will find out who killed Lilly and Ted will eventually meet Your Mother, but reality TV requires you to jump into the great unknown. Sometimes Richard Hatch wins a million dollars. Sometimes the one who was supposed to be the hero turns out to be the villain, and sometimes the jackass you hated at first turns out to be the best person on the show.

I don't think that knowledge or understanding makes this go away, incidentally. I still believe firmly that some form of empirical evidence will magically back my assertion that Daniele was a better HG than Jen during season 8, as if 'better' has some type of quantifiable standard. Because reality television has the power to get you madly, passionately invested with absolutely no way to guess how it's going to turn out. Story conventions won't tell you who survives; it's a crapshoot, and you have to make your decisions without the life vest.

Ultimately, I would argue from the critical viewer's point of view, reality television can be more emotionally complex than scripted.

You can stone me now.
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astern: illustration from Lane Smith and Dr Seuss's HOORAY FOR DIFFENDOOFER DAY (Default)
Amy Stern

February 2012

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