Dear reader, before you is my second and possibly last column for The Daily Californian. In the coming weeks I will become far, far too famous to spend my precious time writing for you. Take a good look at my mugshot, dear reader. I should think that in the coming days you’ll be seeing that face plastered in every gossip column from here to Timbuktu.
The rumors about Angie and me? She told me to deny them. Whoops! Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. How did I get so famous? From what chalice have I drunk and is it poisoned? What Faustian pact have I made? I must confess, this newfound glory can’t all be attributed to my own effort and rugged good looks. You see, it’s my brother. My 15-year-old brother.
On Friday night, I got a call from home. Joseph, my brother, was through to the second round of the second series of “New Zealand’s Got Talent.” It’s a hot ticket and on the road to superstardom he will need a few supporters (mainly myself) and perhaps a manager (again, probably me). While I was trying to wrangle a spot for him on Letterman, I had to pause. Had I gone too far? Am I Pygmalion sculpting my poor brother into a nightmarish Galatea (and not in a weird way)? What is reality TV fame and do I even want it?
Reality TV aspires to fulfill television’s promise of being a truly democratic medium. According to TV convention it takes “ordinary people” and makes them untouchable, Hollywood-like celebrities.
But what does reality TV teach us about ourselves? “Survivor,” one of the first reality competition shows formats, shows us that no matter what our creed or ethnicity we are united by our ability to be mutually horrible to one another for a shot at a million dollars.
While most challenge-based shows like “Survivor” revel in the darker side of human nature, the seemingly eternal popularity of the talent based “Pop Idol,” “X-Factor” and “Got Talent” formats suggest that perhaps even more than watching people miserably starve on an island, we enjoy watching them succeed. I disagree.
Some still point to the famous third season of “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2008 and say that it democratically proved that anyone could sing. At its blunt best however, what “Britain’s Got Talent” really showed is that even funny-looking Scots can sing. At worst it allowed us to indulge in turning a perfectly ordinary and quite probably nice person into an international freak show with no regard for the consequences.
Those who point to poor Susan Boyle as an unlikely success of television talent shows seem to be in denial of the reason her success was unlikely. Television has told us to believe that somehow someone’s appearance correlates to their talent.
Otherwise, the success story of a woman who lives alone and sings all day to herself is perfectly likely. Up on the Scottish Highlands, SuBo certainly knocked up her 10,000 hours of practice. Poor neighbors.
Not to wax nostalgic, but it hasn’t always been so bleak. In the 60s, reality TV gave us “The Monkees.” So what if they were a shameless Beatles rip-off, they eventually each became stars in their own right and challenged musical orthodoxy (sometimes). Even better, the money that producer Bert Schneider made from “The Monkees” television program was reinvested in the production of the 1969 breakout hit film “Easy Rider,” which banked on its originality to win audiences.
I can’t yet tell whether my brother is a SuBo or a Monkee. Perhaps he’s a Clay Aiken and I can look forward to seeing him humiliate himself in front of Donald Trump on future seasons of “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
Before I could make up my mind, I got another call from my family. They were taking the tape away for “consideration.” My dreams for sonic domination were put on hold. I asked whether Paul Ellis, the Simon Cowell of “New Zealand’s Got Talent,” lived up to his reputation.
I don’t think he did. Pity. I’d been thinking hard about my future with my friend the English Lord Montfrieze of Westgrove as we ate tiramisu with silver spoons on the Channel Island we timeshare with Prince William and the Burni-Sarkozys. Fortune — inside and outside of reality TV — is a fickle mistress.
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