- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

I’ve been enjoying VH1 exec Michael Hirschorn’s back-of-the-book essays for the Atlantic. This month he has a (mostly) persuasive defense of reality television.

He argues, contra the culture snobs, that reality TV is a pleasing hybrid of fictional drama and documentary filmmaking. “Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters,” he writes. “They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness.”

I don’t watch nearly as much reality TV as Hirschorn apparently does, but I take his point.

Where I part with Hirschorn is where, it seems to me, he lets politics infect his analysis. “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” doesn’t just boast “maximum emotional impact”; it “features intensely emotional tales of people who have fallen through the cracks of Bush-era America - often blue-collar families ravaged by disease, health-care costs, insurance loopholes, layoffs and so forth.”

I happen to have watched a lot of that show (I wrote about it here), and I can say without reservation that if EM:HE were about those things, no one would watch it. The show’s beneficiaries do not merely experience the kind of financial hardships that can be blamed on economics. These families have suffered traumas of operatic proportion. Theirs are highly unusual cases — which is what makes them so compelling.

Hirschorn also calls “Survivor” a “metaphor for an imagined post-apocalyptic future” that has particular resonance in a post-9/11 world. Duct-tape hysteria aside, I’m pretty sure this is pretentious nonsense. From “Cast Away” to “Gilligan’s Island,” the idea of modern people being stranded and forced to live in premodern conditions has been a dramatic mainstay. Add a million-dollar prize to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a 21st-century TV hit.

Finally Hirschorn brings the dreaded Michael Moore into his discussion. He writes:

For all the snobbism in the doc community, reality TV has actually contributed to the recent boom in documentary filmmaking. The most successful docs of recent vintage have broken through in part by drawing heavily from reality television’s bag of tricks, dropping the form’s canonical insistence on pure observation. In “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore brings an Army recruiter with him to confront legislators and urge them to enlist their children in the Iraq War. In “Bowling for Columbine,” Moore takes children who were shot at Columbine to Kmart, where they ask for a refund on the bullets that are still lodged in their bodies.

This is, to say the least, a shot in the foot of the case for reality TV: Crediting the genre with influencing Michael Moore ineluctably argues for the deceptiveness of disingenuosness of the whole enterprise. (See here for an introduction to Moore’s falsehoods.)

Other than these missteps, I’m on board with Hirschorn — and I just might have to catch me some “Deadliest Catch.”

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