The State of Reality TV: How Joel McHale and Chelsea Handler Saved My Life

February 10, 2011
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First, a caveat: I have nothing against the genre of reality TV. Really. I followed American Idol through last season, chatting about it incessantly via email with two friends. I’ve watched my share of The Amazing Race and even The Girls Next Door. I’ll even venture to say that some of the “unscripted” series out there are better than some of the scripted fare.

But (yes—you knew that was coming)…there is simply too much reality TV to keep up with as a TV scholar; and there are too many relevant reality series I should be watching as a scholar that I simply cannot bring myself to view for more than 5 minutes at a time. And that is why Joel McHale of The Soup and Chelsea Handler of Chelsea Lately (both on E!) are saving my life every week.

Both series, for the uninitiated, spend time on their comedy shows recapping and discussing developments in reality series (and the lives of their stars); I can tune in nightly to Chelsea and weekly to Joel and discover what happened that regular viewers such as my students might be gabbing about—and I can see the key moments in brief, less excruciating time frames. After studying how each show presents its take on the genre, from The Soup and Chelsea Lately we can glean what some of the main appealing elements of this genre are for many viewers.

The “Showgirls” factor

Much as with the celebrated film Show Girls, a lot of reality TV is unintentionally funny, and the comic framings of both shows aim to make you laugh at even the most serious moments. It’s a cathartic, desperate humor at work: I want to weep when I see a 2 year old from Toddlers and Tiaras literally fall off a stage because she’s so exhausted after a pageant, but it feels better to see this and hear Joel say “Her prize was a carton of menthol cigarettes and a jug of moonshine.” I want to mail copies of The Feminine Mystique to the producers who green-lit Bridalplasty, but I can breathe a little easier when I hear Chelsea tell me that “the show’s alternate title is ‘Exploiting Desperate Women with Extremely Low Self-Esteem’” or see The Soup do a send-up called Idol Plasty (noting that it’s brought to viewers “by FOX—and E!—cause that’s kind of their thing.”)

The Inbred factor

Both series also glory in the fact that many reality shows tap into inbreeding—both metaphorically and generically. The worst moments (e.g., aforementioned toddler or the Civil War re-enactor from Milwaukee on Idol) point the finger of blame at the stars of the genre—and in fact have no problem lumping the “regular folk” in with the “celebrities” so that Kim Kardashian is painted with the same brush as a pageant mom. Our hosts posit these stars as the worst examples of our culture and society (Chelsea noted that Jersey Shore heading to Italy next season means we can “mark [Italy] off as another country that will now hate us forever”). This is what happens when stupid people get a chance to be on TV, right? I realize this is not at all fair, but I also believe many of us watch these shows to feel better about ourselves (we’re much classier and more well-bred than these folks!), and both series aid and abet us in this rationalization. Both series also blur their takes on the genre with their takes on other elements of our entertainment culture, skewering the coverage of the riots in Egypt (it might shut down Angelina Jolie’s filming of Cleopatra!), Brooke’s wedding on One Tree Hill, the website for cheaters, and all our reality faves in one fell swoop. We might like to think “other” TV is more refined, but there’s bad to be found everywhere.

“The Host Who Watches It All for You” factor

By reducing reality TV series to brief clips and comments, McHale and Handler and their teams announce what many of us know: a lot of reality TV is merely a hodgepodge of shocking, over-the-top moments—whether it’s the bachelor choosing no one to marry or the World War II vet demonstrating that his “memento” bazooka flame thrower still works. Not unlike certain scripted procedurals that shall remain unnamed, we can do many other things while watching a reality series, using them as a way to escape a tiring day at work, at school, or with the kids.

So long live reality TV—the good and the bad of it! It gives these two comics great fodder for their shows, which in turn means I don’t have to actually watch much. And if in the end I can do a superiority dance for a few deluded minutes, I’m all for it.


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