Watching the World Go By: Too Busy to Have a Life of Your Own? There's Always the Vicarious Voyeurism of Reality TV

By Quindlen, Anna | Newsweek, February 26, 2001 | Go to article overview

Watching the World Go By: Too Busy to Have a Life of Your Own? There's Always the Vicarious Voyeurism of Reality TV


Quindlen, Anna, Newsweek


Never watched "Survivor." never will. what's the point? I've eaten bugs inadvertently myself, dozing in the hammock by the pond on a muggy summer evening. And anyone who wants to watch two petty rival factions go at one another can just wander between the purchasing and accounting departments of any company. Add up the physical challenges and the head games, and the whole thing sounds like nothing more than gym class meets sophomore mixer, no scarier than high school. (Although in the last analysis, nothing is scarier than high school.) I don't scare easily. I've lived through a kitchen renovation in an old house with uneven floorboards, and Donald Trump is building a skyscraper at the end of my block. Here on Temptation Island, where multimillionaire divorce lawyers roam free, survivors are those who pass the co-op board.

People named Kimmi and Colby and Amber (who chooses the participants, the writers for "One Life to Live"?) balancing on rafts, living on cow brains, turning brown in the outback? This is a stunt, not survival. Liz Taylor and Debbie Reynolds doing a TV movie and making fun of Eddie Fisher, Debbie still with that tight-lipped good-girl look--that's surviving. Bill Clinton taking an overdose of stupid pills, making an endless string of what we moms call "bad choices," then being lionized on the streets of Harlem after he decides to seek salvation and office space in an all-black neighborhood--that's surviving.

Yet how quickly the voyeurism of sofa slugs has become not only a national obsession but an expected staple of the weekly program schedule. Only three decades ago America was shocked and amazed by the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., who permitted a documentary crew to plaster their imperfect lives all over public television in a series called "An American Family." Today the fractured marriages of ordinary folk are severed in the seedy real-life setting of "Divorce Court," and the people who bring you "Trauma: Life in the E.R." find themselves blurring the genital area of a patient while the camera comes in tight on his severed leg.

A very wise trial attorney, knowing of my unslakable appetite for episodes of "Law and Order" (particularly during the classic Chris Noth years), once remarked that a televised trial is as much like the real thing as a wedding is like a marriage. All the boring bits are excised, leaving only the high drama. And that's the same relationship between reality and reality TV. The broadcast version covers only the peaks and valleys, the breakups and the big events. The magic moment of birth without the tedium of toilet training. The white dress and the cutaway, not the socks on the bedroom floor. MTV's "The Real World" features more nasty arguments and aberrant hookups in a few weeks than most of us experience in a lifetime.

Conventional wisdom is that TV is the purview of those with nothing better to do. But this boom in the vicarious is instead the hallmark of a people with not enough time on their hands, people who have a to-do list instead of a life, people for whom the download can never be quick enough.

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