Reality check

I have often said that watching reality television is one of the quickest ways to lose whatever remaining faith you have in humanity.

Not so long ago, we Americans considered reality TV an oddity of certain foreign cultures. These shows were popular in places like England, Japan, and the Netherlands. Even though MTV’s “The Real World” had been around since 1992, the thinking was that mainstream American audiences were too sophisticated for such fare. Then Fox News demonstrated conclusively that the average American TV viewer had roughly the same IQ as a platter of fried clams. Before you knew it, reality show concepts were invading this country faster than the Asian Longhorned Beetle. That’s how we got major network shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother.”

I am proud to say I never watched them. Not once. The same goes for “The Apprentice,” “The Bachelor,” “The Amazing Race,” “Jon & Kate Plus 8” (and its sequel, “Jon & Kate Plus 8 Minus Jon”), and “American Idol.” I have managed to avoid every last one of them. I wouldn’t even know what a “Snooki” was if the corporate media machine didn’t insist on covering her exploits as though they were newsworthy.

Reality shows are either surreptitiously scripted (which makes them phony), or accurate portrayals of real people (which makes them pathetic). I suspect they are both. And the recent highly publicized suicide of one of the cast members of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” serves as a tragic reminder of the risks of exploiting defective people for mass entertainment.

Even daytime television has been altered by the reality craze, as soap operas have been almost entirely supplanted by courtroom programs and “talk” shows whose studio audiences exhibit a demeanor usually associated with cock fights. Fortunately, since I have a day job, daytime TV has been even easier to avoid than the primetime drivel. But there’s a restaurant I frequently patronize at lunchtime that has the TV tuned to WGN. “Maury” comes on at 1 PM. Maury Povich’s target audience is apparently comprised of people who consider Jerry Springer too highbrow for their taste.

My first exposure to Maury Povich was some years ago when his show was addressing the Very Serious Issue of childhood obesity. I was ready to believe that Maury was actually performing a public service, until he started parading out three- and four-year old children weighing in excess of one hundred pounds, dressed in shorts and diapers, to a pulsing disco soundtrack, as the words “BIGGEST BABIES EVER!” flashed on the screen. I realized that Maury was no more than a carnival barker with a decent production budget.

Maury’s most frequent topic these days seems to be paternity testing. These shows feature disgruntled single mothers claiming that someone or another is the biological father of (one or more of) her children. Maury allows the unhappy couple to argue their respective cases, whipping the audience into a frenzy, until the Big Reveal when Maury discloses the results of a previously administered paternity test.


(Maury is sitting in an overstuffed chair. Across from him, on the sofa, is an overweight woman with sad eyes and an indignant expression.)

MAURY: This is Leticia. Here is her story.

(Dissolve to pre-taped footage showing Leticia walking slowly through a flower garden, sitting pensively in her kitchen, and walking along the path leading up to her trailer home. In each shot she has sad eyes and an indignant expression. Downbeat music plays in the background.)

MAURY (VO): Like most young women, Leticia had big dreams. Like getting that promotion to first shift at the rendering plant. Being able to live in a house without wheels. And…falling in love.

(Romantic music plays)

MAURY (VO): It all started when Leticia called a repairman to unclog the toilet in her mobile home. That’s when she met Edgar. And it was love at first sight. Before long, the couple was inseparable.

(We see a montage of blurry still photos of Leticia and Edgar together. They are clearly heavily intoxicated in each picture.)

MAURY (VO): Soon Edgar and Leticia were talking marriage. Leticia was happy beyond words. And then Edgar…began to change.

(An ominous piano chord sounds as the photo of Leticia and Edgar flips to a negative image and begins to lose focus.)

MAURY (VO): Edgar became distant and non-communicative. Leticia began to suspect there was another woman. And then, Leticia discovered…she was with child.

(A photo of Leticia appears. She is wearing a belly shirt and is at least eight months pregnant.)

MAURY (VO): Edgar vehemently denied responsibility. They fought constantly. And then, one day…Edgar was gone.

(Fade to black. Next, the camera begins to zoom in on a photo of a two-year old girl. She is wearing a belly shirt and has sad eyes and an indignant expression.)

MAURY (VO): Leticia gave birth to a beautiful little girl and named her Edgarina. But the joy of motherhood is tempered by the knowledge that little Edgarina will never know her father. And to this day, Leticia can only wonder why Edgar left them…cold and alone.

(Dissolve back to the studio and a close up of Leticia. The audience sobs pitifully.)

MAURY: Edgar is waiting backstage right now.

(A still image of Edgar is shown on the screen. His hair is disheveled and he looks like he was awakened at 4 A.M. for the photo. The audience boos lustily.)

MAURY: Edgar has recently taken a paternity test and we’re going to announce the results…right after this.

(ten minutes of commercials)

MAURY: We’re back. Before we bring Edgar out, Leticia, what would you like to say to him?

(Editor’s note: The subjects on Maury’s show frequently speak in a crude and bizarre dialect, which my erudite and highly literate readers may have difficulty comprehending. Therefore, I have taken the liberty of translating their dialog into proper grammatical English.)

LETICIA: Frankly, Maury, I am appalled by Edgar’s rank cowardice and ethical shortcomings. I have made it abundantly clear that he is, beyond any reasonable doubt, the biological father of my offspring. I am acting solely in Edgarina’s best interest and not seeking any personal financial benefit, although I will gladly accept remuneration from Edgar once the test conclusively establishes his paternity.

MAURY: All right. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Edgar.

(Edgar walks on set to loud audience boos and catcalls. He takes a seat on the couch as far away from Leticia as possible.)

MAURY: Edgar, what do you have to say for yourself?

EDGAR: Well, Maury, first I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to present my rebuttal to Leticia’s misguided accusations. Mind you, I hold Leticia in the highest regard. We just happen to be having a dispute as to the actual parentage of her child.

MAURY: You deny that you are the father?

EDGAR: I do indeed.

MAURY: Did you not have sexual relations with Leticia?

EDGAR: I have never denied that Leticia and I were intimately involved. However, at the approximate time of conception, Leticia and I were on a relationship hiatus. And at the risk of sounding…shall we say, indiscreet, I must contend that Leticia has had a well-documented past history of lewd and promiscuous behavior.

(Audience howls with outrage)

LETICIA: I object in the strongest possible terms to this scurrilous and unjustified besmirching of my character!

LETICIA’S MOTHER (from audience): Edgar is a cad and a ne’er-do-well! An unsavory reprobate, in my considered opinion!

MAURY: Now, now. I’d like to conduct these proceedings in a polite and respectful manner.

(Audience boos)

EDGAR: Regardless, I want to state publicly that if the test results do indicate that the child is indeed my offspring, I am fully aware that I will be expected to conduct myself in a responsible manner and provide for the child in whatever fashion necessary, to the best of my ability.

LETICIA: You are exceedingly correct in that regard.

MAURY: It’s now time to announce the test results…right after this.

(ten more minutes of commercials)

MAURY: Edgar, you…

(thirty-second pause)

MAURY: …are NOT the father!

(Audience erupts)

EDGAR: (leaping to his feet) Huzzah! I am duly vindicated! (to Leticia) You are a strumpet, and your integrity and personal hygiene are highly questionable. Both you and your dear mother are cordially invited to fellate me vigorously. I shall now bid you adieu.

MAURY: Tomorrow on “Maury”…shocking sex secrets involving a high school journalism teacher, her husband, her insurance broker, and a two-pound kielbasa. Don’t miss it!


I think I’ll find somewhere else to have lunch tomorrow.


Reality check — 4 Comments

  1. Nice blog, very funny! I think part of the problem with “reality” tv is that years ago the media confused “reality” with “unscripted” shows of various flavors. Most of the shows you list in your blog are actually game shows. What is survivor if not a big game? Survivor is Battle of the Network Stars minus the stars and increase the set budget with an exotic location. The Bachelor is a multi-episode Dating Game. I think Jon & Kate Plus 8 might have been a reality show when it started. By the time Kate Plus 8 started airing it had turned into a travelog show with a non-traditional family. And Maury is just a talk show/acid trip.

    What started reality tv with me was “COPS” in 1989. COPS is not a true telling of what its like to be in law enforcement because they take hundreds of hours of footage and boil it down to 20 minutes. However, what you see actually happened. They only use fill shots for the beginning and ending of shows and they never use reenactments. This is different from most of the shows that are on tru tv that use up to 90% reenactments.

    Actual reality tv is so rare that I can’t think of another example right now…but I still watch COPS!

    • Good point about COPS – I’m glad I left that show out of the discussion. And I guess what really annoys me is everything devolving into a game show/competition of some sort. My beloved Food Network is becoming a wasteland of cooking-related game shows where the participants are manipulated and abused.

  2. I can’t get enough of “The Real Housewives of” anywhere. What does that say about me? I even watch the after show with Andy Cohen.