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Swearing off - instead of swearing at - reality TV

The biggest professional mistake I ever made in my life? Easy. I didn't take "The Apprentice" seriously.

When it began 13 years ago, none of us had any idea that it would turn out to be one of the most important shows in the history of television.

So I felt quite safe and smug in my fatuous insistence on ignoring it. On those rare occasions when I'd deign to watch -- mostly the celebrity version -- I could never make it through a whole show. I hated it. It was so far off my wavelength that I was hopelessly puzzled why anyone would watch a show about an ostentatious and bossy billionaire catered to by sycophants so that they wouldn't be the ones sent packing at episode's end.

My puzzlement has never ended.

I can't pretend to you that I was ever one of those high-minded people who considered themselves above reality TV because I wasn't. I liked "Survivor" right from the beginning. I knew it was reinventing television. And I thought "Big Brother" was diabolically entertaining, a shameful ongoing satire of corporate culture and the astonishing degree to which people can drive each other crazy.

That wasn't what I should have been paying attention to, of course. I should have been studying all the degrading ways in which people will falsify themselves to become television "stars" and remain that way. What I should have been looking at intently was the human ability to jettison reality completely for the sake of "winning."

Whatever that is. These, after all, are shows that perfectly illustrate the idea of "Pyrrhic victory" i.e. a victory which, in some ways, is indistinguishable from losing. The idea of going through the world forever chained to the personality you have invented for the sake of "reality television" is not what many of us would think of as winning.

But I was indeed perversely enthusiastic about both "Survivor" and "Big Brother" at first. "Big Brother," especially, had horrific scorpion-in-a-bottle fascination. Anyone in human history who has ever been in a room with just a handful of people knows volumes about all the ways they can drive each other batty. Why not show them doing it, ostensibly, for fun and profit?

I gave up on both many seasons ago. When "Survivor" raided its own past contestants for makeshift "celebrity" seasons, I thought it destroyed the very essence of the show, which was discovering new forms of weirdness, nuttiness and ugliness among the human species. The show had begun to play it safe. What a ridiculous thing to do. Who needed "Survivor" to do that?

It took longer to give up on "Big Brother" though there too I should have been far more mindful of how much privacy some people will throw away just for some completely bankrupt idea of "fame." That had much to teach us about the world we're living in.

I have never been able to dip into any of the consciously grotesque shows on the freak show fringes of reality TV, from Honey Boo-Boo to Hoarders to the Housewives of Budapest and Altoona and the Duck Hunters of Beverly Hills.

I'm still hooked by "Dancing With the Stars" and "America's Got Talent," though. I'm endlessly fascinated by the first show's consummately elaborate ways of normalizing people on the margins of society every new season. When a show prides itself on its ability to make dancers out of those with two prosthetic legs and audience favorites out of Rick Perry and Ryan Lochte, it's doing something that ought to give the world pause.

"America's Got Talent" had me at "hello." I have loved extreme show business since the first time I ever turned on a TV. From the medium's very beginning, it has had a fugitive affection for those who were on the outer fringes of Vaudeville. An old colleague of ours -- who was old enough to remember Vaudeville -- would regale me on slow nights with accounts of bills he had seen. One of them ended with "and then Mac Norton would come out and eat his shirt."

Norton, who has sometimes been called "the human aquarium," was best known for swallowing aquatic creatures and them regurgitating them in any order an onlooker chose. Anyone who has watched The Professional Regurgitator on "America's Got Talent" (former professional performing name Stevie Starr) should realize that despite the strangeness of his act, it's also a very old one. Lord only knows how such skills are developed (David Blaine has done it too), but they are not really new.

What I'm fascinated by is the relative second-class citizenship of those reality shows that have virtually become antidotes to "The Apprentice:" "Undercover Boss" in which bosses pretend to be workers in their own companies so they can discover what their employees go through and "Shark Tank" in which billionaires vie for the ability to go into business with poor but ambitious inventors.

"Undercover" ends weekly with the most needy employees having their lives transformed in the most heartrending, ancient TV ways -- with money and goods they desperately need. "Shark Tank" ends with some people getting well-heeled backers for their tyro businesses. Never mind how every "deal" they make sounds awfully close to an egregious ripoff; the idea of the show is to present business "sharks" as capitalist benefactors for the "little guys" ground up by the system.

Now, if someone will explain to me why "The Apprentice" had so much more influence than "Undercover Boss" or "Shark Tank," I'll be happy forever.


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