Burke’s Law VIII: The Reality of Rain and Summertime TV

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By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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Ah, summertime. It’s finally here and I’m looking forward to indulging in all the great outdoor activities I love and miss during the other months of the year.

Back in the day, when June hit, we were outside, playing until dark, TV off-and we repeated this pattern daily. As an adult, the term “play” takes on different meanings. It’s a time for BBQs, trips to the beach, mountains, friends’ summer homes, loafing on the patio, loafing by the pool, checking out every rooftop bar in the city and long semiboozy dinners with friends on restaurant terraces. Anything to get us out and about, to exert ourselves a little, to socialize, to enjoy the bliss of being outside. Unless of course it’s raining. And so far this summer, it feels like April in Seattle. Accustomed to the lull of mindless, balmy, enchanted summer evenings, the rain leaves us no choice but to face the seductive glow of our televisions.

Even with the 1980s advent of cable, not much has changed in the seasonal structure of TV scheduling. New shows air in the fall (when the betting begins to see how many shows actually remain on the air), followed by a weird break for the holidays, then spring returns, culminating in the May season finales, thus signaling the start of summer!

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Up until maybe eight years ago (that’s right, the beginning of the millennium — I knew something bad would happen!), summer TV meant reruns. This animal we call reality TV was limited to The Real World and that was about it.

Now summer TV means reality TV.

Summertime, long considered to be drought season by the networks, has come into its own. According to www.realitybites.com, there are 53 new and/or returning reality or un-scripted (smirk) shows premiering this summer. 53!

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The original original reality show, Cops, premiered on Fox in 1989 and, amazingly, it’s still on the air. The only reason it came into being at all (it’s still a great guilty pleasure — talk about feeling better than those people) was the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike and how it created a need for “unscripted” programming.

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Cops‘ simple yet brilliant premise is showing actual police officers apprehending actual criminals. And, of course, it was that groundbreaking then-new network, Fox, that took a chance on a little known, little understood format. No scripts? How would anyone know what to say? Those were exciting times.

Today, the low cost associated with reality TV and the use of nonunion actors (make no mistake, these people are actors) represents a windfall for the networks, perhaps as they struggle in the current economy. No longer beholden to actors demanding $1 million an episode (was Friends really worth it?), networks remain enthralled with lowest-common- denominator ideas, whether its asking cast member to do the most degrading things, eat the most disgusting crap, or, if the producers are lucky, drunkenly make out with most of their castmates, and all without paying them a dime. Brilliant!

Just looking at the list of summer shows makes me wonder who the people are that watch these things. I mean, who wants to watch wives swapping husbands and their unwitting families? I don’t want to watch the horror of another Bridezilla epitomizing every bitchy, cruel stereotype of every insane bride-to-be. And Farmer Wants a Wife? It sounds like a chicken-fried steak version of that revolting stripper-needs-a-sugar-daddy show otherwise known as The Bachelor. I have zero interest in watching women whore out their dignity to random guys falling “in love” to be on TV.

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While there are many more unmentionables (I’m looking at you, Bret Michaels), there are some reality TV shows that I do love and watch. I am hopelessly addicted to The Real Housewives of New York City. Not, mind you, Orange County, (too orange) and not Atlanta (too grasping), although I am finding it hard to resist the New Jersey Mobettes (after that supremely disturbing, girl-fight table-overturning episode). Yes, I really love my New York ladies; I talk with my friends as if we actually know them — first names only. The New Jersey gals, well, I’m a little afraid of them. They scare the crap out of me. The fact that they’re great friends with Bernard Kerik doesn’t help.

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I also have a standing date every Thursday night each spring with my friend Robert to watch Hell’s Kitchen and, very soon, Kitchen Nightmares. I mean, talk about the best use of the EFF word, ever! Most men I know love, love, love The Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers. Not my thing, but I get the brawniness of it. And this summer, a brand new season of Survivorman. Girlish sigh.

So, 20 years after we went on that first domestic violence call with Cops, reality TV has proven its staying power. I just wish there were more silly and funny shows. I would love to see more competition-based shows of quality, like Project Runway or Top Chef. And since The Wild Kingdom is impossible to find on cable, Man Vs. Wild fills my educational programming needs. I can do without the phony baloney “starving” on Survivor and the parade of pole, er, exotic dancers on 90% of VH1 and MTV.

So get comfy, pick your sides, pick your shows, and if it keeps raining this summer, at least you’ll know what to watch on TV.