A Lament for Scripted Television

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Tonight I watched two shows about motorcyles (to one extent or another).  One was the season finale of Sons of Anarchy on FX.  The other was the American Chopper Build-Off Live on Discovery.  The common theme shared by these two programs exacerbated the differences in a very telling fashion.

Sons of Anarchy is possibly the best show on television, a masterpiece by Kurt Sutter (one of the masterminds behind my all-time favorite series, The Shield).  It follows a motorcycle club (read: gang) brought together by intense bonds of fidelity but torn apart by power struggles, greed, and sheer lunatic mania.  The club is their only real loyalty.  They call club meetings “church,” for crying out loud.  It has, impressively, maintained edge-of-your-seat drama through all four seasons.  I’ve never watched an episode and thought, “That was a dud.”  Not so for much-lauded programs like The Sopranos, for instance.  Excellent acting, intriguing characters, but most of all – amazing writing.  Storylines are weaved with mastery, and every angle, look, and pause has meaning.

Thanks to the wonder of DVR, I also watched the live build-off between the elder and junior Teutels and the now-infamous Jesse James (look up Sandra Bullock’s personal life if you’re not tracking). This series has been revived, sadly, due to the falling out – personal and professional – between the father and son duo that won the company such acclaim both on TV and in the custom bike industry.  As the series has been revived as a father vs. son competition – their bike shops build similar products in the same town, to be fair – there have been questions as to the authenticity of the drama.  I hadn’t been too concerned about this, but tonight’s programming was the height of manipulation.

They held a “build-off” between the three main characters and their teams.  Jesse James has never before been mentioned on the show as competition or even inspiration, so I’m not sure why he was brought in except to add lots of bleeps and false bravado.  That, and Discovery may be bringing him back on a new show yet to be named.  A couple episodes ago, James sent obscene cakes, seperately, to Senior and Junior to drum up some conflict.  In every frame, he finds something negative to say about their respective NY bike shops.  They aren’t real builders, for instance, they are “cake decorators.”  Each built a machine that was shown in the previous episode, and the hook for tonight was that you tune-in to find out who would get the most votes for the title of “Greatest Builder on the Planet” or something awful like that.  Of course, this wasn’t a judged competition at Sturgis, but a staged performance for cameras in Vegas.  It was clearly a popularity contest from start to finish, and if you paid attention you knew who was going to win weeks ago.

The actual live show was terrible.  The host went out of his way to get each competitor to say negative things about the others’ projects.  When they didn’t give sufficiently biting critique, he asked them not to hold back.  When there was a moment that actually meant something – father and son embraced for the first time in over a year – it was followed up immediately by a clip of the elder smack-talking the younger.  The one moment worth viewing was immediately spoiled by a Michael Moore style editing trick, forcing a clip in your face that was hoping to create tension.

I finished SOA in awe at the story I’d just seen unfold: it’s elegance, unpredictability.

I finished American Chopper Live and just felt…dirty.  This poor family has been made wealthy and famous by reality TV, and been torn apart by it.  I’m not sure if the subjects or the views are being more exploited in all of this.

There’s no art in this or any ‘reality’ show.  It shouldn’t even be called ‘reality’.  Reality indicates that it corresponds to the way the world actually is.

But in reality, there is no zoom, no music to toy with your emotions, no editors to crop out the boring parts and create plots out of days on end of reel.  Reality can be quite boring, lifeless, rigid, and drama-free, which is why we perhaps want the escapist contrivance of “reality” TV.  I think this current trend may be the most obvious effect of human sinfulness in the realm of entertainment: we are so uninterested in reality (actual love, drama, conflict, hopes and dreams) that we can no longer identify it.  We are hoarding fool’s gold.

As Don Draper said on another great scripted TV show, “Can’t you find something else to do besides dining on the drama of other people’s lives like a bunch of teenage girls?”

If the current crop of reality television programs is indicative of what the networks think of us, then we should all be insulted.  Here’s looking at you, Jersey Shore.

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