Besides half an episode of the first series of Big Brother, which I switched off in cringing irritation, I have never watched a reality TV programme. Like Nando’s, homeopathy and Chris Ryan books, reality TV seems like an experience which belongs on a list of exceptions to the ‘don’t knock ’till you’ve tried it’ rule.
I just put “try anything once except…” into DuckDuckGo and discovered that it was Sir Thomas Beecham who said he drew the line at incest and folk-dancing. It reminded me how dull I am.
Nevertheless, it is a familiar world. On tired evenings, I like watching The Big Bang Theory on E4, and it is usually sandwiched between extended trailers for the bizarre sexualisation of a tropical beach or Spanish villa, with steroid-queen English boys smirking at siliconed English girls in an atmosphere of mutual loathing, humiliation and hypocritical endearments.
Worse than that incidental exposure to the wretched form is the ‘serious’ criticism that tries to elevate ‘reality’ to a meaningful topic of discussion, rather than the intellectual and moral scab-picking it really is. Oddly juxtaposed with stories about the menopause and FGM, reality TV as a ‘guilty pleasure’ is a stand-by on Woman’s Hour, as predictable as the choice of Book of the Week. Roland Barthes, I suppose, can be used to justify this attention to a form that is so static, so lacking in any sense of revelatory epiphany that even he, I suspect, would have given a Gallic pfft to this stymied vortex of attention-seeking and not-quite-rape. Semiology, seeking to find enlightenment in the dignifying of popular forms, is rendered into a simulacrum of a non-representation by an art that is only artifice: form without even the ambition of meaning.
It is a measure of my trust in the writer John Lanchester that I even started his story in the current issue of the LRB, ‘Love Island’. Such is my disinterest in the topic, that I almost decided to pass over it, even though I am usually delighted to see that he has an article in the Review. His essay on the lasting impact of the great financial crash in an issue a month or so back finally convinced me that we really are living through the death of capitalism. A review last year, You Are The Product, about the confidence trick that is social media, gave me a summary of all the fury I feel towards the corporate monopolisation of the internet and the ruination of this wonderful technology. Over the past couple of years, I have read articles and reviews by him on Brexit, Bitcoin and Nabakov, and they have all been the sort of reading that leaves me feeling empowered by a clearer vision than I can manage on my own.
I really, really recommend Love Island. Buy the edition of the LRB or read it online. It is a short story that has echoes of several science fiction stories that are buried in my collection of old anthologies, never to be rediscovered, but it is beautifully constructed and perfectly paced. He has done what I could never bring myself to do: look at the reality TV form closely and see it through the eyes of the participants: the people for whom the ritual is an elite rite of passage into the gleaming uplands of celebrity and vindication. Not individually stupid, they have buried themselves in stupidity for the sake of validating their devotion to the surface-trapped onanism of our culture. They do it to themselves and they pursue the promise that one, every other year or so, will rise out of the murk to make a career that echoes that of the most wretched of fame’s sub-tribes; the presenter.
There’s a strange further quirk to this story. In the same edition, David Thompson has a (subscriber only) article on binge-watching a drama series about Berlin in the 1930s. His experience has some of the pointlessness of watching an entire series of reality TV, as he highlights the hallucinogenic quality of view-on-demand, multi-layered narrative television drama that, to allow for follow-on series, (excuse me: seasons) never comes to anything but conditional climaxes. However, the particular topic of the series he discusses, the decadence of a doomed culture dancing towards apocalypse, came to have a far more contemporary value, once I had read Lanchester’s story about lost souls, pretending to be happy, pretending to be pursuing love, in a sun-drenched prison, isolated from any redeeming dialectic of meaning.