Are you for real?

What the hell is Reality TV? A slice-of-life-documentary-soap-gameshow self-reflexive form of escapism that is loved and hated in equal parts, yet continues to thrive and flourish because of audience contempt? Well, yes.

In her review of several key TV studies theorists, Helen Piper identifies what we call ‘Reality TV’ as an ever-expanding range of programming that emerged, in its current state, around the turn of the century. She cites Big Brother as a catalyst for this change, and highlights the necessity for reality tv programming to exist within  an ecosystem of histrionic commentaries – reliant on magazines, websites and tabloids to validate / exacerbate the slice of life being shown.

Speaking of histrionic commentaries, check out Reality TVGIFs. Incredible.

In her overview of reality television, Kimberly Little also recognises an evolution of the genre, crediting the history of television programming as a whole to endowing reality tv with such a variety of qualities from the gamut of genres. As such, Little struggles to define reality television, but summarises it through the possession of four characteristics:

  1. The attempted use of passive camera surveillance.
  2. Illusion of reality.
  3. Focus on ordinary people.
  4. A certain extent of voyeurism.

Elizabeth Jensen, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, also struggles to define such a versatile genre, often referring to “Reality TV” as “unscripted television” throughout her article. She fuels her fascination for the genre – ‘a juicy mix of fact and fiction’ – by drawing upon a wide spectrum of sources, appropriating theorists’ questions to accentuate the boundlessness of the genre. What do we mean by a culture as ‘real’? How can something that claims to be real present itself as a game? And what of the school of thought that says reality tv shows are merely ‘human experiments that social scientists would perform if their code of ethics allowed them…’?

James Poniewozik from Time Magazine used network executive’s description of sitcoms and dramas as “comfort television” – familiar and boring- to then position reality television as “discomfort television” – rattling viewers through provocation and offence, and dragging them from the habitual television viewing rut they had fallen into. He recognises the humiliating aspects reality TV that often drive the genre, but tells of how these are balanced by moments of triumph. Rather than deny the presence of bad behaviour such as sexism and misanthropy within reality TV shows, Poniewozik illustrates the hypocrisy of a critical audience who views the same behaviour as ‘nuanced storytelling’ in a show such as The Sopranos’.

(And of course, the cyclical nature of television has been at play throughout. Now we see fictional shows created with reality television traits – confessional style interviews in The Office, handheld cameras in Kath & Kim.)

So the question still remains. What the hell is Reality TV?

REFERENCES

Sharing a laugh?

Klovn (Clown) is a Danish sitcom, whose protagonist Frank is a semi-retired comedian. Danish people are wild about it, as most Danish people are about most Danish things. And you know the old moniker, “When in Copenhagen…”.

The humour in Klovn is derived from everyday situations, social awkwardness and uncomfortable silences. These moments draw upon human truths and so manage to transcend language barriers and cultural differences to elicit laughter. I can’t help but wonder, though, just how much does get lost in translation. Surely nuances, euphemisms and Copenhagen slang lose something in the translation process, especially in a show whose character performances and dialogue rely upon subtleties.

Whilst the Danish culture is not as foreign to Australians as Korean or Indian might be, we are still a uniquely isolated and expansive country – the consequences of which play out in two ways: we find it hard to fathom the immediate accessibility of international travel throughout Europe on one hand, and on the other hand we have established a nation of Australians whose unique ‘Australianess’ is a result of striving to be something different to our European forefathers, a something that is often hard to summarise but easy to pick.

I really felt Australia’s isolation upon moving back here after living in Denmark, where a 20 minute train ride had you in Sweden’s second largest city. Forbrydelsen (The Killing) is a Danish murder-mystery series whose first episode deals with a Danish police officer about to move to a remote part of Sweden and continue her career within the Swedish police force. Again, the murder-mystery is the kind of genre that transcends national boundaries – criminal behaviour and law enforcement are recognisable in some form by people everywhere.

What was a little harder to understand, as an Australian, were the references and inside jokes between the Swedes and the Danes about each other’s countries. Working conditions and responsibility restraints due to nationalities were also an issue for the protagonist – which the succinct dialogue sufficiently explained, but I imagine the gravitas of the situation would’ve been more recognisable to someone who understands the visa agreements between Scandinavian countries. There were also parts of the Danish dialogue that I could understand and recognise that the subtitles did not convey what was being said accurately, in particular references to areas and suburbs within Copenhagen that relied upon demographic knowledge to understand their significance. The English subtitles had no mention of these suburbs at all.

All of this got me to thinking about Kath & Kim, a show so uniquely Australian that it struggles to resonate with transnational audiences. With over 70% of the population living in outer suburbia, Kath & Kim is a celebration of the suburbanite as the true Australian. Its wild success on home turf sparked the USA to create an American re-make, but in doing so was all the good stuff lost? The little things that Kel or Kath or Sharon do that we recognise of ourselves? The suburban environment that resonates with those of us who have grown up in similar environments?

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In response to an article on Flow, ‘Life on Mars as Seen From the United States: The Cultural Politics of Imports and Adaptations’, Jon Stratton (2009) commented:

…[in Australia] we not only get to watch the Australian, original, version of Kath and Kim but also the US version…Watching the American version of Kath and Kim in Australia is a little unsettling–perhaps I should say uncanny. The familiar is made unfamiliar but remains strangely familiar while we are so used to watching American series here that, in a disturbing way, the unfamiliar is actually almost more familiar.

The States have also made their own version of Forbrydelsen / The Killing (which I have not yet seen). It would be interesting to see if the same familiar / unfamiliar sentiment is expressed by the Danes as I’m not sure that the level of American tv infiltration is as high there as it is in our homes amongst the gum trees.