Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Five Stages of Watching Really Bad Reality TV Shows and What It Has To Do With Being a Writer (With Apologies to Elizabeth Kubler Ross)

I hereby admit that I have watched a fair amount of bad reality TV.  I watch while I am exercising.  Really.

Over the years, I have seen shows about drug addicts and alcoholics, young women who drink bleach and eat deodorant, people who hoard, people who discuss their peculiar sexual predilections, people who speak to the dead, people who cook, people who make clothes, little girls who compete in beauty pageants, little girls who compete in dance competitions, little girls who compete in cheerleading competitions, people who sell real estate, people who hunt ducks, people who rehab their houses, people who try successfully and unsuccessfully to lose weight.  And housewives who yell at each other.  In different cities.

Of course, I am embarrassed about this.  Of course, I want you to know that I never watch anything with Kardashians in it.  And I want to assure you that I also watch “Downton Abbey” and “Girls” and “Southland.”  Lest you think that all I do is watch TV, I want to add that I read voraciously and run and write and just generally have an actual life.

I was thinking about all this recently, and it occurred to me that there has been a certain emotional pattern to my reality-TV-watching career.

Boredom: I was doing kickbacks and there was nothing else to watch except “The View.”

Incredulity: How can you drink bleach and live?  How can there be a dead cat in your living room and you don’t know it?  How can you not be embarrassed to be yelling at your close friend because she said you aren’t really Italian?

Fascination: The mothers.  I can’t get enough of the mothers of little girls and the things they say, without any trace of irony or embarrassment.  I used to be the mother of a little girl, and I never said things like, “She’s so clumsy” or “Why can’t you be like her?”  I didn’t even think things like that, but if I had, I certainly wouldn’t have said them on national television.

Compassion: Some of the people who endure terrible anguish and embarrassment in front of millions of people captured my heart.  Like Ruby, a morbidly obese woman from Georgia who allowed cameras to follow her as she attempted to lose weight and deal with her (erstwhile) private demons.  Her show was cancelled, so I don’t know what became of her.  She had such a sweet and joyous soul.  I hope she is all right.

Empathy: Ultimately, I have started to feel that reality TV’s greatest “contribution” to the culture may be the way it encourages us to see that we aren’t all that different from each other.  The mothers of little girls on dance teams are about as obnoxious a group of women as I can imagine, but they all love their daughters and believe they are doing right by them, just as I would like to believe that I have done right by my daughter.  I don’t get hoarding At All, but I do get feeling so bad about the loss of a loved one that you lose your way.  The wealthy Orange County housewives may overdo the Botox and dress like hookers, but they’re really just trying to find a little happiness.  What’s not to understand about that?

Empathy is important to writers: it allows you to imagine what someone else’s life is like.  You can’t really be a good writer without it.  Maybe John Updike and Saul Bellow didn’t need reality TV to create believable characters, and maybe I don’t, either, but if “Duck Dynasty” is on and I’m doing crunches, then I’m going to watch it and not be embarrassed.  Really.

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