Reality bites back

New show ideas are endless—and depressing —when real life is the true basis of TV.

Thank you, Heidi Montag and your castmates—I mean friends—from The Hills, and you, too, good ole grumpy Simon Cowell. You deserve all the inexplicable celebrity you can squeeze out of your 15 minutes. You’ve saved me from the Real World!

After a day thumbing through the mayhem-fortified national papers of record, wading through stories of child homicides, school shootings, housing meltdowns, and the big muddy on the Euphrates (is that anxiety or newspaper ink rubbing off on my fingers?), it’s a relief to take a break from all my worries with a full lineup of reality TV shows each night. A guy can really clear his head and reconnect with the important stuff by watching all the unscripted (kinda) TV out there, just keeping it all-too-unreal for the general public.

In your face, Omarosa! Oh no you di’n’t, Kristin Cavallari! And, Oprah, I offer the big Kleenex wave of approval to your Big Give. I can’t get enough of this stuff. Reality shows cover the gamut of today’s hard-hitting social questions, from how a smug bunch of egocentrics can survive each other and their pedicures in the Hollywood Hills to how a smug collection of egocentrics can survive each other and their sand blisters in Micronesia.

Now that there are something like 472 reality shows on cable, I worry that Hollywood might be running out of fresh ideas for new reality-ish shows. Not to worry, I’ve got some ideas to share (for 10 percent of the gross):

Survivor Waukegan: A group of low-skilled American manufacturing workers get laid off unexpectedly when an overseas corporate raider moves their worksite to Vietnam. Watch these intrepid urban survivalists battle over the few remaining low-wage jobs left in their rust-belt Chicago suburb, navigate what’s left of Illinois’ social support network, and struggle to avoid being voted off the show and into a “volunteer” tour of duty in Iraq.

The Uninsured: Fifty gorgeous women with little coverage meet the handsome, ineligible PPO of their dreams. Only one will walk home with a family plan!

Dancing with the Four-Star Generals: The guys from the Joint Chiefs of Staff dance around the president’s Middle East policy in a delicate pas de deux with the American public and conditions in Baghdad. Losers who step on any toes within the vice president’s reality distortion field are abruptly retired (but may dance on as guest pundits on CNN).

American Idol Worship: Participants compete to compress contemporary history and culture into the grand unifying theory that is free market “idolology.” Look for reality cameos from Federal “unReserved” Chairman Ben Bernanke and download hilarious mp3 captures from Bear Stearns’ executive board meetings!

CSI Big Brother: Hit new voyeur-crime television! Join an NSA intrusion technology squad as they tap into the cultural matrix by eavesdropping on cell phones and reviewing Internet service records to find the guilty needles among the e-haystacks. Losers get snatched off the street, trading spaces for extreme makeover renditions in Egypt or Syria.

Hell’s Kitchen: Real Third-World families compete to fill cupboards and bellies in Haiti and Mali with actual foodstuffs as growing demand for biofuels drives commodity prices through the thatched roof! Watch safely from the sidelines as food riots not seen since the Great Depression pit our competitors against a hungry horde of actual poor people.

Via Dolorosa Drive: Our cameras follow a young man spouting peace, love, and understanding in his disbelieving hometown. He makes his way to the big city for celebrity and acclaim, then gives it all up in this straight-to-DVD message of justice, sacrifice, and mercy.

2-Real TeeVee: Live Internet streaming coverage of a middle-aged man as he ignores his family, crumbling civic culture, and his collapsed health as he plows through an apparently endless TIVOed video flow of reality television. Watch as nothing happens night after night after night.

Good night and good luck, everybody!

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the June 2008 (Volume 73, Number 6; page 46) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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