x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

An ordinary TV show that dredges up the very worst in us

The difference between reality and "reality" TV is very large; people eager to be recruited for these shows may find the experience more challenging than they expect.

For my daily dose of heartbreaking social realism, I always turn to Craigslist.org.

This online bazaar is a place where people meet to sell junk, buy junk, rent apartments and get low-paid, mostly odd jobs.

It was started - by a guy called Craig, naturally - as a not-for-profit quasi-charity. The resulting snapshot of American culture in decline makes for riveting reading.

I like to monitor the unhappiness of my fellow citizens by keeping track of their "Ugly Divorce! Must Sell Jerk Ex's Possessions!" ads on Craigslist's "For Sale" pages, and the "Need Older Mixed-Breed Dog For Developmentally Disabled Child" queries in the "Unusual Requests" section.

It takes little imagination to embroider rich, operatic tragedies from these little clumps of pixels - a kind of a do-it-yourself Dickens. But unlike, say, Little Dorrit, you can wrap the whole thing up in the time it takes to finish a cranberry muffin and a tall coffee.

On the Los Angeles version of the site, there's a section called "TV Contestants". These are want ads for the current glut of reality programmes. Anyone who has ever seen Survivor or Big Brother or the like has at some point asked: "Where do they find these awful people?"

Well, they find them on Craigslist.

"Couples with Problems!" screams one entry. "New TV show! Top therapist helps real people solve real problems in their homes. Fee paid to couples chosen."

Or how about: "Moral Court! Win the argument and win big buck$. A new national TV show is looking for interesting and exciting people locked in moral conflict. If you're at odds with someone, take it to the judge!!!" Or "Are you a woman planning a big event? Or a small one? And there's no time and no money? Our team of style experts can help! And put you on TV!"

People who read these adverts are people in some kind of moral/financial/career crisis - or, like me, people with a lot of free time. And Craigslist efficiently funnels these unhappy and unfulfilled citizens of Los Angeles to a sun-baked soundstage, to a leatherette couch next to a fraudulent therapist or, in the case of the big networks, to a fully furnished dream house, one where the contestants live with a bunch of strangers, watched by more hidden cameras than were in the US Embassy in Moscow.

Who are the people who answer these ads? They are Craigslist geeks who will do pretty much anything to be on television, that's who. They are in moral conflict over an event they can't organise or pay for, or having trouble with a landlord. They hope to solve their personality deficiencies by letting a network audience watch them use dental floss.

They are, in other words, ordinary people, as depressing as that may be. It is now considered ordinary to want to be on television. And ordinary people now appear regularly in TV time slots until recently reserved for attractive actors and actresses pretending to be ordinary people, reciting edited, prepared speeches - speeches, I need hardly add, written by writers like me.

In other words, ordinary has replaced "ordinary". It's a DIY-style entertainment product. What is Anna Karenina, anyway, but a highly polished, stylised, tarted-up version of Couples with Problems? And MTV's The Real World is really just a version of the 1990s sitcom Friends, but "more real", without the attractive people and the snappy comebacks.

One of the greatest episodes of one of the greatest television shows, The Honeymooners, had the hapless Ralph Kramden - played by the great Jackie Gleason, who excelled at portraying "ordinary" - convinced that his latest pie-in-the-sky invention, a kitchen tool dubbed the "Chef of the Future", would make him rich. All he needed to do was advertise on television, he bellowed pridefully to his best friend and neighbour, Ed Norton. And what better on-camera spokesman than Ralph himself? The moment the camera light goes on, of course, he freezes, making a fool of himself.

It's funny, naturally, but it also teaches a valuable lesson: being on TV is harder than it looks.

Being actually natural and free is two parts appalling to one part boring. But appearing "natural" and "free" on film, well, that's tricky.

As they warn us on adventure shows and in car advertisements: these are professionals, driving on a closed course. Do not try this at home. If only the casts of reality television understood that.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood. Follow him on Twitter: @rbcl