Life is the crummiest book I've ever read,
There isn't a hook, just a lot of cheap shots
Pictures to shock and characters an
amateur would never dream up
--Bad Religion "Stranger than Fiction"
I started watching the new show Lost on ABC, because I personally know its star Matthew Fox, and think he's an eminently decent guy, especially for an actor working and thriving in Hollywood. (Full disclosure: Matt was the principal backer of a play I premiered in LA last year.) Ironically enough, I also know quite well Jeff Probst , the host of the reality hit series Survivor on CBS. We met in Seattle about a decade ago, and we shared feedback on each other’s scripts. (Jeff’s also a screenwriter and director. I’ve written about him here.)
In addition to providing me fabulous fodder for name-dropping, Survivor and Lost also share the same basic hackneyed premise: disparate desperate people stranded and forced to deal with each other on a desert island. It’s hard not to watch Lost, or even consider it for that matter, without guessing that plenty of discussion went on during its development about how it turns right-side-up the premise that Survivor turned on its head five years ago by making this classic fictional scenario “real life”. I have to admit, given the fear and loathing that the reality television phenomena has spread throughout the world of Hollywood “talent” (i.e. actors and scriptwriters, i.e. my friends and colleagues), I rub my hands and grin with glee just a little bit at the prospect of fiction's victory over "truth". It’s a bit like Babe Ruth sitting up out of his grave, strolling to the ball park, taking the bat out of Barry Bonds hands and saying, “Let me show you how we do it for real, son.” Then again, it’s nothing like that. Maybe it’s more like Dracula showing up at some real-life Goth bar where wanna-be’s are playing at drinking blood and saying, “Let me show you how the real-life undead rock it.” Then again again, that's kinda dumb, too.
Anywho. . .
Lame examples aside, the writers, producers and everyone else involved with broadcasting Lost are implicitly throwing down against the makers of Survivor , saying, “We can do this better than you, because we’re story-tellers, not story fakers.” Survivor and by extension all reality television, has really only one direction to go to ratchet up interest: layering on gamesmanship either overtly or implicitly. In other words, it has to include actual games to which the outcome is unknown, or it must create circumstances where intense gamesmanship is inevitable. People love watching games, that much is obvious. Mark Burnett simply tapped into that in a semi-new, lavishly produced way. But the writers of Lost can do pretty much anything they damn well want to grab audiences and reel them in, and so far they’re doing it. At times it seems like a delicious mélange of every cliché in the book, part Castaway meets the X Files, with touches of Land of the Lost and The Prisoner sprinkled in to taste. After three episodes— corresponding to the same number of days on the island— it’s working for me, which is better than I can say for 85% of the rest of the new crap they’re slinging this season.
I suppose you could say I learned how to watch tv from my dad. There were times I suspected he prefered me to lay down on the carpet in front of his kick-back lounger and watch The Rockford Files or some Clint Eastwood or John Wayne movie with him and my farty dog Ginger than do my homework. (I didn't get the homework thing until college, actually. And then, wouldn't you know it, I dropped out with straight A's.) My dad never failed to let me know if a certain movie was based on a true story. This added serious cachet somehow. But knowing what I do about how every story, true or not, gets run through the ringer, whether it's the story of why you were late to 1st period Spanish or why we went to war in Iraq, I have to wonder what does it mean, ultimately: "based on a true story?" Can't all stories claim that provenance to some degree. Aren't all stories enhancements and variations on: there was/were this/these character(s), they lived, they struggled, they (died/lived happily ever after)?
No, the real juice comes from the shaping and re-shaping of plot, character and style for maximum impact and resonance. A true storyteller is less like a documentarian and more like a scientist in her lab; or maybe more like a chef in her kitchen, mixing and remixing, trying this heat and now that, less basil, more time, until . . . perfection. Iceowl's nonfiction accounts of life in Antartica are cool beyond a doubt's shadow, but it's when he writes the fiction he sets there that he really digs in and explores the truth of the people he has met at the bottom of the world, including, ever most importantly, himself.
In all fairness to reality tv, the first stories told, the great epics, were to some degree more steeped in Mark Burnett's tradition than Shakespeare's. The authors of Gilgamesh and The Illiad purported to be telling the truth, simply relating something that actually happened; and the modifications, enhancements and poetic adornments they employed were probably glossed over by ancient listeners with no more consideration than the majority of today's viewers give the manipulative sound scoring and quick-cut editing for effect that producers of reality shows use today.
It's too early to tell who's going to win this epic struggle for the shallow hearts and addled minds of American tube-boobs, but I feel like the game is obviously finally afoot between us honest liars and those lying reality-mongers.
Late breaking news: in yet another irony, since beginning this node I came across this article on the web by Gary Levin of USA Today: “Reality TV gets a big dose of...guess what”
"A fall season with more reality shows than ever has led to early casualties for some newcomers - and steep declines for some established veterans. . . ." Though Mr. Leven also pointed out that: "Reality granddaddy Survivor, in its ninth season, . . . is holding up as the top reality draw with 20 million viewers."
That’s a mighty burly boy bellying the bar for Lost to shove past. Then again, the bigger they come, the harder they fall.