Remember the golden days of television where everything appeared so tame and lighthearted? The nearest thing to a villain would be the ridiculously pantomime characters such as J.R. Ewing and Alexis Colby from Dallas and Dynasty. Saccharine shows were prime-time television for families in the seventies, eighties and nineties. Nowadays, we are far more interested in an ‘intimate’ glance at ‘reality,’ which becomes no holds-barred television gold. This is through the format of reality television and we, like the MTV generation we are, simply can’t avert our eyes. The ultimate reason for the explosion of reality television appears to be because we want to become voyeurs into the lives of normal people and celebrities.
We were quite happy to see Paris yield her new BBF on an entirely manufactured show, Celebutant Maureen, from Driving School, seemingly desperate to pass her test (so much so that she appeared to be going through a nervous breakdown) and a group of retired bitchy ex-educators teach ladettes to become ladies. We also got off on a gaggle of celebrity-led family antics: particularly the Kardashians homemade bikini-waxes and communal visits to the toilet together, on camera – of course. Nothing is hidden for our benefit.
Indeed no idea for a show can be too tacky. Jodie Marsh being taken down the aisle (pun intended): check. Calum Best trying to avoid shagging anything that moves for forty days: check (and it wasn’t even for lent). We’ll even watch any rags to riches stories that come our way, que Peter Andre, Kerry Katona and Katie Price, who reside around the gutter, and bring their children every step of the way with them.
There has however been a change in the air for reality television television, whether it started with Gossip Girl or not, it was certainly aided by MTV’s international hit – The Hills. An aspirational show featuring rich people leading out-of-this-world existences – and still finding time to bitch about it – was instantly popular. Originally about career, the programme soon found the successful formula: ‘awkward’ conversations, drama and a strong dosage of tension. This programme had a beautiful veneer, which was followed by programmes that left the gloss firmly off the camera lens.
Jersey Shore became the next hugely successful MTV show: it was a programme spawning the utter depths of humanity. The cast of characters include Snooki as the Queen Guidette and The Situation as the Godfather of the family; Sammi’s the tartar, JWoww ‘s the bitch and Ronnie the steroid junkie. The plot is to drink, perform a mediocre job for the MTV producers, drink some more, tan, tan some more, sleep around, visit the gym and complete their laundry. The women’s prime ambition is to get hot guidos, the guy’s to get the guidettes. MTV know they can degrade these people for ratings, and they do.
These people are aggressive and shouldn’t be living together (yet, have to). They raise their fists as much as they often as they work on their tans, and the popularity of this programme has led to the UK’s Geordie Shore, an ironic title, since there is no sign of Whistable beach in the programme.
The real motivation for all these programmes is the bitchiness which drives the characters and keeps the viewer engaged in turn. The Only Way Is Essex obsesses over the word ‘drama’, a word that unsurprisingly dominates university culture just as frequently. University students love to bitch, to gossip, to provoke scandal and your popularity can be built around gossip. The only pleasant, likeable characters are the jokers in the pack, Arg and Joey, who are also exceptionally stupid individuals. To look at cyber popular, we only need to look at Mark Wright recent boasting about having 60,000 twitter followers. His smug claim is not based on anything but his cocksure demeanour which is frequently oafish and often offensive. You don’t win friends with salad but Mark is an exception with his casual chauvinism and never-ending ego. The female characters frequent all the major tabloids and magazines, and their popularity is based on their vein, bitchy nature, as well as their constant ‘weight battles.’ Their scripted dramas are the tabloid’s wet dream.
It becomes unsurprising then that TOWIE has been piped by Made In Chelsea. To promote TOWIE’s doppelganger, E4 used that very language to get us involved. A programme about the wealthy elite a-la Gossip Girl, we were promised these values: glamour; romance; wealth; excess; gossip; drama; bitchiness. The clear message within the show is France’s ethos ad victorem spolias – to the victor, the spoils. It is indeed an accurate one. The show is based around someone being humiliated very publicly for the viewer’s discerning eye.
I believe however, when watching these shows, we are feeding into this drama and becoming far more selfish as individuals. Whilst these people lead enviable lives and must continually fight to be top-dog, we would rather enjoy to follow suit. If that comes by being a bastard, so be it. I could give examples, but they’re hardly needed because we can’t get enough of discord on television or in reality. But to be less judgemental in our reality, we need to read into the Made In Chelsea mantra and step as far away as possible from those very words of vice, greed, bitchiness and excess. Whether we can or not is a different question.