Fictional reality and real fiction
Whatever happened to reality? It seems to be deeply unfashionable these days. For that matter, whatever happened to fiction?
The zeitgeist seems to be something that might be referred to as ‘Reality’. It’s a wonder that it doesn’t come with a trademark attached. Survivor, Big Brother, American Idol, The Apprentice, Fear Factor, and on and on and wearily on. Call them ‘Reality TV’, but they’re no such thing. There’s a perfectly good name for what they are, but it has the taint of something desperately old-fashioned, cheap. They’re game shows. Say it again: they’re game shows. Here’s the clue: if people are competing for a prize, whether it’s a million dollars, a recording contract, a new car, or a job with Donald Trump, that’s a game show. Calling such a thing ‘reality’ is an affront to the language.
What seems to licence the claim to the term is that these are game shows with a social element. People compete in social situations against each other for a prize that’s often potentially life-changing. All well and good, and these are often new and original ideas, but none of that makes them real. Artificially constructed social conflicts and challenges aren’t real.
There’s also a perfectly good name for television programmes which do present reality to the viewer. They’re called documentaries, and if you want to see them, at least on American television, you have to head for cable-channel ghettos like the History Channel, or the Discovery Channel. The idea that genuine, good-old-fashioned documentaries — real reality television — might exist on American network television is a bizarre one. The networks are in the business of vaudeville; expensive, lavishly-produced vaudeville, to be sure, but vaudeville all the same. Where the hell’s Lord Reith when you need him?
An interesting mirroring of this aspiration to reality is also present in more and more programmes which ought to be fictional, or which at least wear the cloak of the fictional. There are several giveaways: ‘Based on a true story’, they’ll say, or more excitingly: ‘Ripped from the headlines’. Bah. The moment I see those my heart sinks, because I know that the fiction has been immediately hamstrung. Fiction can be so many things. It can be a man on his own in a darkened room with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and his memories. It can be an X-wing fighter swooping down on the Death Star. But what makes fiction truly soar is that it isn’t bound by reality. Anything is possible.
Exhibit A for the prosecution: Law and Order. It’s a wonderfully made, often very skilfully written and acted series, which maintains an amazingly high standard throughout long runs. But it’s something less than fiction. It’s at best a fictionalised presentation of real-world issues. Those ties to reality are both its strength and its weakness. The characters are typically required — in an exposition-heavy format — to represent all sides of some issue of the day as if in debating class, where the exercise is to argue for something you don’t necessarily believe in, but which is on the agenda for that day, so that all sides can be represented. More even than fictionalised reality, a typical Law and Order episode resembles a fictionalised debate on some topical issue and its legal ramifications.
Fine, but where’s the fiction? The craft is plainly evident, but where’s the art? Where’s the quirky, individual perspective on the human condition? Where’s the surreal, and the soaring? It exists, but it’s not to be seen on network television. Neither the truly real, nor the truly fictional, seem to have a place there, as if both are somehow too difficult to swallow. What’s left is a curious mixture of reality softened into bite-size fictionalised chunks, and the gaudily artificial pretending unconvincingly to be real.