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When we got the call saying we were going to be on the show, Mom went nuts. She kept saying, “I knew they’d pick us!” It was kind of sad – does she think they chose us because we’re so fascinating? But I know the truth. They picked us because they think we’re this big mother-daughter bomb ticking away with secrets and they’re just waiting for us to explode.
The other night I was still looking for book recommendations and I found this list on Popsugar about titles currently being adapted to. The seventh out of the fifteen books listed is The Dogs of Babel, the first book by author Carolyn Parkhurst. Once again sadly my library did not have a copy, but thanks to the Wollongong council online service I reserved this book.
Which was handy.
We join a number of contestants participating in a globe-hopping reality television show that bears a strong resemblance to The Amazing Race. The fictional show is called ‘Lost and Found’ and also features teams of two competing in a race around the world, having to solve riddles and race down foreign streets yelling at the native passersby for location of certain landmarks. They also have to carry an increasing number of exotic objects, including some cacophonous parrots, from city to city.
Yes it all seems somewhat familiar. There are also questions as to how ‘real’, all of this is. Laura and her daughter Cassie are dealing with what appear to be typical parent and child dilemmas. Christian evangelist couple Justin and Abby have gone on the show to preach the joys of abandoning a homosexual lifestyle for the love of Christ. Brothers Jeff and Carl are the comedians of the group, although both have recently been divorced from their respective wives. Finally Dallas and Juliet are former child stars making one last break for fame. A million dollars is at stake for the contestants, but their dignity is also at risk, their lives being exploited for entertainment value.
Each of the people involved in the Lost and Found contest are hiding secrets. As time passes, the stress mounts and alien cultures are boiled down to a series of travelogue pre-scripted moments for the viewers back in the States. What constitutes a genuine ‘emotional journey’, for the individuals on camera and what is nothing less than the callous exploitation of people, reduced through the show to one-note clichés.
Parkhurst cleverly tells the story from the perspective of each of the individuals taking part in the show. Often the differing accounts reveal more about the events described and the reader learns more about each of the people’s past, including repressed sexuality, infant illness, hidden pregnancy and hypocrisy. At base, however, this story begins and ends with the relationship between a mother and her daughter.
What I admire most about this book is how neatly the author avoids the trap of pointing the finger of blame at reality television for being an entirely corrupt and exploitative medium. Juliet and Dallas are not the only actors – everyone on the show is performing, to some degree or another, pretending to a sense of normality that does not exist. The book is hopeful where others might be snide, or cynical, which is something I find greatly endearing.
Yes the issues featured here are quite emotionally draining, but at the same time there is a surprising sense of positivity throughout.
Timely and mature storytelling.
Moulin told him of the fear of the disembodied voice. It terrified humanity in the eighteen seventies and it terrified humanity still. Hearing voices when there was no one there. A characteristic of mystical communion, of insanity. It was the preserve of the spirit world. The switchboard was a Ouija board to a sensitive mind and Chip should be aware.
I used to dream of becoming an astronaut. Then my cousin explained to me that if I did travel to the moon, an asteroid would punch a hole in my head.
That killed that dream dead.
Chip is a one-armed hotel receptionist whose best-friend is a one-legged cab driver. No one knows how Chip lost his arm. He constantly gives different stories behind the tragedy – shark attack among the more lurid examples. All that the people of the small town Chip has landed in know about him is that he is a) English and b) somewhat obsessed with shuttle launches.
As it happens, the town – and Chip’s place of employment E Z Sleep Hotel – is quite near a NASA launch site. The winner of a recent reality tv show, Sally, is on board the latest shuttle, courtesy of a bottled water company. The residents at the E Z Sleep Hotel are alarmed when Chip lets out a loud bellow to celebrate. As it turns out Chip has a very specific reason for having such an interest in space travel. See he has organised a very special party, with eight other guests. Most of them hate Chip with a troubling intensity. They are all, like him wounded, disturbed versions of their former selves. Through Sally’s memories we learn what happened to the group, while Chip in the present-day contends with an increasingly surreal assortment of hotel guests, including the owner of the E Z franchise itself, Mr Moulin, who has a very particular sexual fetish.
Cut-throat reality television contests, dementia, the Bilderberg group and some really foul-tasting mineral water, contribute to one very crazy night filled with mayhem and death. If Chip survives until the morning shift without losing another limb he will be doing well.
The majority of the book is occupied with long rambling conversations. This allows Nick Walker to indulge in blackly comic dialogue. One sex phone-line customer discovers that the ideal sexual fantasy is harder to acquire than he thought possible and Mr Moulin’s increasingly mad phone calls to Chip read like a parody of Hunter S. Thompson. The novel’s satirical targets are also hit hard and often. Reality television in particular is subject to a steady stream of mockery. The contestants rivalling Sally for her seat on the space shuttle are not even given names, in recognition of how the general public think of them – The Model, The Chef, The Radar Operator and The Comedienne. Hounded by a team of intrusive camera-men, the cast are each eliminated and left broken by the process. Sally is not so much the most suitable candidate, as much as she is the last one standing. Pointedly it is revealed that she was referred to by fans of the show as ‘The Black One’.
Unfortunately, despite the occasional chuckle, I found this book’s cynicism suffocating. Constant, needling mockery does not a plot make – the story contorts itself into stranger and stranger shapes. When members of the cast start suffering from more extreme injuries and/or death, it almost makes no impression at all. They have become cyphers, denizens of a bizarre and tortured satirical universe.
Maybe I’m getting too old for this kind of thing.
What I definitely learned just now is that everything hinges on the words you use. Doesn’t matter what you do in life, you just have to wrap the thing in the right kind of words.
Do you remember the first time you saw a ‘Parental Advisory’, sticker on a CD? What an unusual gesture that was. I especially loved how that black and white symbol got slapped onto rap albums back in the nineties, ensuring premium sales in white middle-class teenager demographics. Here’s this badge that supposedly alerts parents to the insidious content of the album’s lyrics and it’s become a marketing goldmine for records that might not otherwise have been sold.
Funny thing that. To my mind this is all part and parcel of our instant-access voyeuristic culture. Scripted ‘reality television’, phone-in lines for talent shows, programming targeting women with low self-esteem about their body types – this is entertainment now. Not stories with meaning and innovative plots, just ordinary people jumping through hoops to find some temporary catharsis courtesy of the cathode-ray tube.
Television brings no relief for Vernon Little’s problems. His only friend in the small Texan town of Martirio just went on a shooting spree in their school, before killing himself. With the perpetrator dead and no trial to capture the media cycle, it falls to reporter Eulalio Ledesma to create a story, stoking the flames of suspicion in Vernon’s direction. When a witness to corroborate his story that he was not an accomplice to the crimes fails to come forward, Vernon finds himself transformed into Public Enemy number one.
Before he has even set foot in a court-room, trial by media has already judged him a psychopath. Ledesma, who likes to be called Lally, initially befriends Vernon, then seduces his mother and establishes himself as a new father figure for the fourteen year old boy, all in the name of controlling the story. By the time Vernon realizes he is being manipulated by the huckster it is already too late. The town of Martirio was cheated of its chance for revenge against his friend Jesus, and so he has become an accessory to murder. When another shooting tragedy in California hits the news, Lally engineers even more crimes committed by Vernon to scandalize.
Realizing he has no hope of a fair trial, Vernon attempts to run to Mexico, but with no money and televisions blaring his photo in every bus depot it seems he’ll never be able to stop running. Plus he has a secret that even Lally has failed to pry out of him. There is another gun, hidden nearby the school. It has Vernon’s prints all over it.
If Chuck Palahniuk were to reimagine A Confederacy of Dunces, it might come out something like this scorching debut from DBC Pierre. The doomed narrator Vernon sees injustice everywhere, but completely inarticulate, unable to defend himself, let alone condemn the hucksters of this world like Eulalio Ledesma. This Texan small town runs on spite, gossip and innuendo. A loner like Vernon never really had a chance. He encounters incompetent law enforcers, pedophile rings, opportunists and liars, all wanting to profit from his misfortune.
Vernon perceives the world through the moral code of television movies. He cannot understand how he can be found guilty, as at all times he has tried to live by his own set of principles. His friendship with Jesus the shooter only manages to incriminate him. His own mother is easily manipulated into identifying him as a murderer on camera by the sly Lally. Vernon has no one he can trust, no one who won’t betray him to make a quick dollar. It is only when he learns to become more like Lally, like the pimps and liars that have corrupted the world, that he earns a chance to fight back.
This book is written from the confused and hormonally intense perspective of Vernon himself, with a fixation on describing sex organs and bowel movements. As a foul-mouthed Humbert Humbert for the twenty-first century, this teenage narrator presents his own personal spin on contemporary Americana. Crimes are punished in response the degree of sensationalism they attract. Dieting is the height of discourse and innocence is just an invitation to being exploited.
Welcome to the dark heart of contemporary satire. It’s really not that funny a joke.