In Defense of Value

After a lengthy day of work, with my fatigued mind unable to block out what it doesn’t want to hear, the last thing I want to be around is garbage reality television. I would rather go jogging through an ISIS camp wearing daisy dukes, a star-spangled bandana, and a cutoff shirt that reads “Back-to-Back World War Champs”. At least I would have principle and history on my side.

There is such an absolute absence of anything worth standing for, or remembering, in certain strains of reality TV that even when these shows are on in the background, I feel them seeping into my soul and pushing my value from asset to liability on this planet’s balance sheet.

I kid you not, a show exists called Vanderpump Rules that follows bartenders and waitresses around while they get drunk, cheat on each other, and throw screaming tantrums. Folks in the service industry work very hard; no one can dispute that. But barring the occasional sublime chef at Benihana, their skill sets and body of work are not rare enough to merit cameras documenting their daily lives. (Pro tip: A sweet-natured Asian chef at the Benihana in Beverly Hills has a trick in which he forms the fried rice into the shape of Pac-Man and then rapidly dices and fires bits of egg into the mouth. The dexterity and showmanship was like watching Bruce Lee and Leslie Chow rolled into one.)

Whether you find kung fu mastery or teabagging Bradley Cooper entertaining, I get that we all have different opinions and preferences. Here’s the thing though: You should be able to defend your viewpoints, which goes back to the notion of needing some principle. Otherwise you’re just the kindergartener on the playground answering fair questions with “Because I said so.”

I like watching sports and acknowledge them as a form of reality television. They hold value in my mind because the viewing experience celebrates competition and achievement. The audience generally has played these sports before and appreciates their difficulty. On any given night, athletes and their performances can inspire and uplift and make you remember.

From what I gather, watching trashy reality TV is not about appreciating or remembering anything. It’s about putting other people down, ridiculing their tears and anger and personalities. Maybe the goal is to feel better about yourself, which I suppose has practicality going for it, but I guarantee there are better ways.

From September to January, no Monday morning is complete for a sports fan without some conversation about what happened in football that weekend. For a fan of Real Housewives of Whatever, how long can a conversation about last week’s episode go? There is nothing to talk about, or worth talking about, beyond the conclusion “That b____ is crazy.”

I like watching news programs and acknowledge they are a distant form of reality television. They hold value in my mind because the viewing experience helps construct a sense of what the world looks like outside my bubble. Morning shows are the best. In the time it takes me to finish my oatmeal, I might ponder a global political issue, learn from an interview with a millionaire entrepreneur, get a health tip, and marvel at a human interest story.

As Paul Rudd eloquently lays out for Alicia Silverstone in Clueless:

“In some parts of the universe, maybe not in Contempo Casual, but in some parts, it’s considered cool to know what’s going on in the world.”

Somehow I got scolded for giving away the “end” of American Sniper. This isn’t a Nancy Drew mystery. This is a current-events news story. A public figure was murdered, and the killer just got sentenced to life. What did I ruin exactly? Guess what, there is also a murder in the JFK movie! The boat sinks in Titanic! We beat the Russians in Miracle!

I see a clear functional value in sports and news. I feel the same way about virtually all of television, from slapstick comedies and crime dramas to travel and cooking shows to soap operas and documentaries to children’s cartoons and blustering pundits to, indeed, reality TV with an actual premise like fashion, performance, home ownership, business. Even if the end product on the screen falls short, people put effort into being funny or thrilling or educational or skilled or impactful… There is always value in effort.

A should-be-extinct species of reality TV, mostly festering on the Bravo channel, lacks any effort or regard for the customer. That’s right, we are customers paying with our time and attention. And I can’t think of a worse way to spend these finite resources.

Potentially I can make the legitimate argument that for every hour of this reality TV within my earshot, two hours of porn should be played. It’s more productive to watch the adult genre. We can improve technique by studying people with a ton more experience. We can learn new ways to set the mood or creative role-playing concepts. We can admire the human body and connection between two or preferably more. I noticed a sex position the other day that struck me as well-suited for my long arms, and although it didn’t turn out to be as pleasurable in practice, the discovery enriched my life just a little bit.

I am not asking for nearly as much when challenging the value proposition of asinine reality TV — and still waiting for an answer unlikely to come.