Archive for dancing with the stars

Equal Opportunity Knocks

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, TV advertising with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2015 by Tom Steward

If there’s one thing Dancing with the Stars is in dire need of – apart from a decent house band, a competent co-host and, y’know, stars – it’s an equal opportunities seminar. I don’t know how many sensitivity courses you’ve been on, but they’ll all tell you (and if they don’t you should) that equality isn’t about treating everyone the same. One of the best teachers I ever had, the film writer and sociologist Richard Dyer, once explained equality to me using male and female public toilets. Men rush in and out, while women take longer. So while giving men and women a bathroom each with the same number of facilities might superficially seem to be giving them identical resources, the sexes are not being treated equally.

I'll give it 5.

I’ll give it 5.

This struck me two seasons ago when Judge Len Goodman told contestant Amy Purdy, who has prosthetic limbs below both knees, that he was going to score her like everyone else in the competition, and that she’d prefer it that way. For the entire competition, Purdy was judged against able-bodied dancers (and Billy Dee Williams) rather than on a scale of achievement that befitted her unique body type. It wouldn’t have been easy for the judges, especially as Purdy herself kept changing the rules of what was possible with her body week by week, but they never had any intention of taking her different abilities into account. To not even attempt this, and to assume Purdy wanted this kind of judging, is to ignore equality.

The Judges have continued to score disabled contestants in this fashion, even when they are physically prevented from competing at the same level as the other dancers. This season features Noah Galloway, who has both his left leg and arm missing. While the Judges are happy to gush and cry for the cameras over Galloway’s overcoming of the odds (and he’s a veteran too, so nothing but conspicuous sentimentality will do), they give him decidedly average scores, reminding us that that they are painting two more limbs on his body in their minds. The Judges’ rhetoric seems to have some idea of how equality works. Carrie Ann Inaba talked of how Galloway ‘challenged’ her judging. But there’s no evidence of this in the competition itself.

But Dancing with the Stars is already a show that seems designed to give Shami Chakrabarti nightmares. It asks people of different ages, genders, bodies and professional dance experience to compete against each other, with no consideration given to how there should be different judging criteria for each group. Doubtless there is some ideological undercurrent of the cream rising to the top regardless of adversity here and whoever said entertainment was a level playing field? However, if the show wishes to bask in the glory of giving a national TV platform to minorities and a diverse range of people (as it has referred to itself doing on several occasions) it cannot simply work around the fact that democracy is just as much about positive discrimination.

I’ve talked about the show’s objectification of female bodies before – and it’s getting no better – but in recent weeks we’ve actually seen feminist perspectives on Dancing with the Stars being written off live on air as ‘cyber-bullying’. Contestant Charlotte McKinney received harsh criticism and, let’s face it, personal abuse from social media after the star of sexist Carl’s Jr. commercials appeared in the season premiere. Her experience was the basis of the pre-dance ‘package’ (although why we have to all use the industry term here, I don’t know) in Week 2 and following her dance, the negative Twitter comments read-out on air were all dismissed as body jealousy by the judges Julianna Hough and Bruno Tonioli and then as body fascism by co-host Erin Andrews.

Benny Hill guest-judges on DWTS!

Benny Hill guest-judges on DWTS!

Now, I’m not saying that the sinister forces of the internet comments feed weren’t at work here and I don’t approve of targeting someone who is as much a victim of the sexist culture as the women it leaves out (as opposed to, say, the people who sit down and write the Carl’s Jr ads). That said, it’s clear to me that many of those comments, however personally directed they were, were aimed at McKinney’s participation in advertising that demeans and degrades women, and to disregard all the criticism directed at her as troll-grudge is to silence a protest against television’s ongoing celebration of women as sexual objects. Dancing with the Stars cannot continue to swim in these choppy waters without changing its body politics.

The Second Sets

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV advertising, TV Criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

When it comes to certain aspects of American popular culture, I feel I’m in a Twilight Zone of opinion. The stark commercialism, gross sentimentality and tasteless sensationalism that many Americans take for granted remain horribly apparent to me. And so it is with the casual objectification and sexual mapping of women’s bodies in American media. Watching David Fincher’s Gone Girl at the weekend, it occurred to me than even in a movie about how women suffer under men female bodies are still routinely exploited. What alarms me just as much as its ubiquity is how little it is commented on. There are many similarly horrific depictions of women in the British media (The Sun’s ‘Page 3’ for example). But whereas in Britain I felt the right people said it was wrong and the wrong people said it was right, when it happens here I’m not even sure if anyone cares!

Who's the commodity?

Who’s the commodity?

On television there are a number of ad campaigns that are content merely to have semi-nude women comporting in erotic poses and engaging pseudo-sexually with the objects around them. They are pornography in the raw, images of pure titillation designed to elicit perverted gazing and deployed without a hint of irony or subversion. Some of these are for businesses like Hooters where female objectification is ingrained in the brand, and would be somewhat expected, but others such as fast-food chain Carl’s Jr and electronics outlet Radio Shack have taken it upon themselves to invent this associative imagery. I’ve seen clips from these commercials appear in articles and videos attacking the media’s treatment of women – and I don’t discount those as notable protests – but what I don’t see is a recognition in everyday discourse of how problematic these campaigns are but rather a blind eye to or complicit acceptance of them.

I’d like to believe that the pornographic impulses of advertising account for the way that women appears in these commercials but looking at the programming around them, television must shoulder some of the responsibility. On the ABC ballroom reality competition Dancing with The Stars, group numbers featuring the female dancers invariably call upon the imagery of the strip club and the peep show, turning each of their bodies into platforms of sexual consumption for the cameras rather than a medium of artistic expression. Two recent TV awards shows even thematically incorporated the treatment of women’s bodies as sexualised objects. The Emmys had actress Sofia Vergara exhibit her body on a revolving pedestal for the sake of a half-baked pun about ‘giving viewers something compelling to watch’. The MTV Video Music Awards united female performers Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea by having them each ‘twerk’ during their respective performances.

The turn in American media towards over-sexualisation is not lost on everyone in television. On their eponymous Comedy Central show, sketch comics Key & Peele recently featured a razor-sharp piece of pop satire in which a Minaj-like artist is confronted by young female fans on a cable music television show who are confused as to how her feminist polemic equates to her lyrics, which all revolve around women demeaning themselves sexually for men. The artist is then revealed to be a man in a wig (which, of course, he already is!) who is embarking on a dastardly scheme to convince women that overt sexualisation is the same thing as empowerment. The skit reveals a sad truth about how the attractive façade of feminine authority and independence attached to the most successful women in the media offers not sexual freedom but further bondage, and might as well be from a man.

Key & Peele have a real knack for unearthing the contradictions in mainstream American culture, so we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that they pick up on these gender problems. Vergara and The Academy got roundly panned, as did Seth MacFarlane two years ago for a song about female star nudity when presenting The Oscars. It fascinates me that criticism is reserved for the higher end of television – like awards shows celebrating the best in the popular arts – and directed at instances that have some level of play and self-knowledge about them, while the same when done in the name of entertainment and spectacle, like the VMAs, does not warrant reproach. Of course, a knowing objectification of women is not much better than an oblivious one, but by dwelling on the more self-conscious examples, we threaten to leave the habitual exploitation of female bodies unchecked and trickling down into the mainstream.

Jumping Jacks & Sharks and Recreation

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2014 by Tom Steward

Recently I’ve been thinking about the phrase ‘jumping the shark’, which is TV-speak for when something happens in a TV series that precludes any subsequent developments from being taken seriously. The term derives from a scene in the fifth-season premiere of 1950s-set American nostalgia sitcom Happy Days in which Dad-aged TV surrogate of cool The Fonz jumps over a shark on water-skis. The phrase did not come into popular usage until the late 1990s – twenty years after the episode aired – when radio and web personality Jon Hein compiled a list of TV shows that declined badly in quality on his website jumptheshark.com. It’s been on my mind because the condition seemed to be peculiar to television series, especially the American ones that go on too long, and yet lately I’ve heard ‘jumping the shark’ used in connection to all walks of life. Also, there are some shows currently on the air that reminded me how easy it is to ‘jump the shark’. Can shark-jumping apply to anything but television and what does it mean for a TV show when that fin appears above the water?

Choppy Days!

Choppy Days!

First of all, it’s unfair to implicate Happy Days in this phraseology. People didn’t watch Happy Days for realism but rather nostalgia, kitsch and fun. The series always had room for flights of fancy, like the special science-fiction episode which introduced Robin Williams’ alien Mork to TV. If we were to go back and coin another phrase that better describes what we’re talking about, we might go instead with a reference to a show that genuinely lost its way. We could talk about TV shows that ‘found a dead man in the shower’, recalling the time that super-soap Dallas made an entire season worth of episodes a dream in order to bring star Patrick Duffy back from the dead as Bobby Ewing. The producers of Dallas forgot that just because melodrama isn’t always convincing, it can’t simply be nonsense. We might even say that a series has ‘won the Illinois lottery’ in lieu of the lottery win which made the working-class Conner family in the sitcom Roseanne into millionaires for the entirety of the final season, duly sabotaging the show’s uniquely stark and undiluted portrayal of blue-collar life.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Dancing with the Stars host Tom Bergeron use ‘jumping the shark’ in reference to social media when describing the show’s ‘shirt on/shirt off’ Twitter voting campaign for one of its male dancers but not, strangely, when discussing the tanking ABC series Agents of Shield. In his casually amazing stand-up special Obsessed shown on Comedy Central over Easter, comedian Jim Gaffigan accused Yum Yum Donuts of ‘jumping the shark’ on business names. Apparently, the phrase has been widespread in media, business and politics for years now. There’s not really much you can do once a phrase has infiltrated popular culture (or we’d have redacted ‘selfie’ from history by now), but we should remember its roots in TV. TV shows don’t ‘jump the shark’ intentionally but as a symptom of a worn-out format, a capitulation of principles or a desperate need to survive. So much of American TV is about keeping shows on the air at any price and prolonging their natural lifespan that ‘jumping the shark’ is inevitable, and much more so than in other forms of culture.

Sitcom of the Future?

Sitcom of the Future?

Season six of docu-sitcom Parks and Recreation recently had its finale and in its final few seconds arguably lost all credibility as a sitcom grounded in contemporary reality. From this point on, we’ll be watching a sitcom set in the projected near future, and nothing can undo that. This all happened for the sake of resolving story problems that the writers had themselves created and a few discontinuity gags. It’s pretty clear that a TV show doesn’t need a grandstanding spectacle to ‘jump the shark’; it can do it casually under viewers’ noses. This week marks the return of 24, which probably holds the water-speed record on shark-jumping throughout its previous eight seasons of amnesia, faked deaths, nukes and conspiracies. Yet audiences still bestow the show with the legitimacy that graced its first, and only truly believable, season. There are even websites that count the number of times a TV show has ‘jumped the shark’ during its run. Even though we may assume a show can’t come back from ‘jumping the shark’, clearly it can and we might just have to accept that it’s something that happens organically to TV shows.

Live Day-to-Day

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s been a long time since American television was purely live but it’s still an everyday part of broadcasting. Amidst the cycle of breakfast shows, daytime chat shows, primetime entertainment and 24-hour rolling news and shopping, there doesn’t seem to be an hour of the day that there isn’t some kind of live TV on the air. We know from experience that live broadcasting can be one of the most powerful, significant and thrilling forms of TV. Live television has been agent and witness to cataclysmic political changes. It made and then ruined Nixon, and then made and ruined him again. We saw the Republicans’ chances of electoral success in 2012 vanish in real time at the GOP conference as Clint Eastwood decided to go off-script and do X-rated versions of his Bob Newhart and Jimmy Stewart impressions. There are other world and universe-changing events witnessed on live TV I should mention – like 9/11 and the Moon landings – but…dude was talking to a chair! There’s no greater potential for surprise, shock and error in television than in a live broadcast, and that unpredictability carries a nervous energy that is utterly exhilarating. And we get it uncensored and first-hand.

I’m reminding myself of what live TV is capable of because, if the past week is anything to go by, American TV has forgotten. Last Monday morning, news anchors on the local Los Angeles TV station KTLA breakfast show reacted to a mid-size earthquake that happened live-on-air by panicking, shouting ‘Earthquake!’ and diving under a desk until it had subsided. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I would have done anything different in this situation, even if I had been trained to keep going. But is there any point continuing to broadcast live if all we’re going to get is dead air, an empty studio and the terrified ramblings of presenters so shaken up by the event they can offer no meaningful information about it? Anchors on the other affected TV stations may have stayed calmer, but they didn’t do much better reporting the earthquake. Deprived of information, hindsight and proportion, presenters on Fox 5 and CBS 2 were left with the remnants of a child’s vocabulary. It was ‘big’. It was ‘large’. Some over-achiever even called it ‘strong’. They might have learned something about the conditions that Fox News anchors work under every day, but we learnt nothing.

If you wanted to watch the television equivalent of muscle-wastage, then you needn’t have looked further than what CNN put on in relation to the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 last week. Either the ‘Breaking News’ button was being used as a coaster for an unwanted drink for the past week, or the network genuinely thought the FBI acquisition of a flight simulator recording from the pilot’s home was some kind of crucial development in the story. Cue hours and hours of wild speculation about the significance of the simulator’s data, even after repeated protestation from the featured experts that conjectures about the pilot’s role in the hi-jacking could be argued any which way. It took former Boeing engineer Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is used to breaking things down for people with the minds of children, to tell us that the only thing we all could do was to guess. At one point, a pilot sat in a flight simulator and took viewers step-by-step through a scenario that he had entirely invented in his head. Not even the ‘Screen of Souls’ had an answer to free them from their suspended animations in a video monitor bank.

CNN imprisons aviation experts in screen bank until flight is found.

CNN imprisons aviation experts in screen bank until flight is found.

Maybe the problem is that news reporting has too big a burden of information for continuous live coverage to carry. If so, then putting on a 2-hour entertainment programme that’s been on TV for years live should be a doddle, right? Well, not if it’s Dancing with the Stars. ABC’s primetime dance competition returned for a new season last Monday night with a re-booted format. But it was the basics of live television that the show tripped up on. The studio audience couldn’t be subdued for long enough to hear the judges’ notes on the dances. New co-host Erin Andrews comes from live stadium sportscasting and you would expect her to be adept handling live TV in the presence of spectators, but she kept overrunning, miscuing and recoiling from the audience’s spontaneous reactions. When live TV runs up against the clock and threatens to fall apart, we get a certain thrill as viewers. But it’s a fine line that if overstepped results in sheer incomprehensibility. It’s one of the qualities that makes TV so much more special than other forms of entertainment; yet live broadcasting in America is languishing. Abused, misused, and squandered, live TV barely deserves the name anymore.

No Sets Please, We’re British

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, TV Acting, TV advertising with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2013 by Tom Steward

There are endless reasons why I’m happy to be with G but I’ve always been especially grateful that she’s not an Anglophile or fangirl of British pop culture. I find G’s nonplussed reaction to most things British, including accents and the sights of London, oddly comforting.  I suppose it’s just reassuring to know that it’s me she interested in not my country of origin. I say this because you Americans are obsessed with us Brits. Actually, it’s truer to say you’re obsessed with what you think we are. American television is fanning the fires of this fascination like a Pudding Lane bake-off…and you can’t get more British than that!

There’s not a show I’ve seen on American TV that doesn’t either have in it a British performer or someone pretending to be British, often both given the lax standards of background research for writing British characters. It doesn’t even have to be a show. Various American companies have British spokespeople and mascots in their TV advertising. Why am I not flattered? Because the fascination somehow never extends to actually finding out what the diverse and varied life and culture of Britain is like. Instead it’s an incredibly narrow, dated and ignorant version of our national culture (royalty, the swinging sixties, Victorian cockneys) that is continually reproduced across American television.

A Cockney lizard is the Geico mascot…for some season!

I’m sure all non-Americans (even ethnic-Americans) and American minorities have much the same beef and I’m not saying the British have any special claim to reductive racial stereotyping on TV. It’s the inverse relationship between the interest taken and the research done that makes American TV’s obsession with the British so bemusing to me. Why go to the trouble of inorganically adding a British person to the cast of an American-set show or concept and then not do the requisite due diligence to give them a chance of convincing at what they’re supposed to be?

A cynical answer would be that Americans know so little about Britain that TV viewers wouldn’t know the difference. But why then are Brits so prominently placed in American television as leads or major supporting characters, presenters and stars, and commercial representatives? Why are we not marginalised like so many other nationalities that American TV knows next to nothing about?

‘You make one more crack about pocket-rocket and I’ll paddle you!’

There are doubtless innumerable political and historical reasons for this (the need to keep us arcane and aristocratic seems pretty closely related to an age-old American view of the British as colonisers from the old world) but in the superficial now I think it has a lot to do with Britain being a major producer and exporter of TV to an extent not seen before. The US, traditionally a powerhouse of global TV distribution, has to find methods of coping with this new threat and slotting British actors and characters into TV shows (often for no good story reason) seems as good a way of joining the competition as any.

There’s also something about always having to laugh at or undermine British people appearing on TV that means however high up in the pecking order they are, their one-dimensionality will always be more important than their function. Think about how many American shows sacrifice character development for a couple of cheap shots at cross-cultural misidentification or excuses for vicarious swearing (the British obscenity ‘wanker’ frequently passes Broadcasting Standards unnoticed). On Dancing with the Stars, Len Goodman has been hired to impart his technical opinion on dancing, drum up the crowd and occasionally play the pantomime villain. Increasingly, however, he’s been there to provide British slang for the other presenters to mock.

The British wing of the CIA.

There’s a quieter British invasion going on (we don’t like to make a fuss) in TV casting. Most of your favourite American TV shows will boast British cast members, many or all passing as natives. I’ve never quite got over Mancunian Egg from This Life as an Atlantan sheriff’s deputy in The Walking Dead or Homeland’s marine double-agent Brody being as British as the head of the CIA. Often producers are calling on past prejudices about British actors to inject a note of taste but it’s also about an Anglicisation of the American acting workforce taking root over recent years.

All the way from Ian Fleming to yours truly, Brits have recognised that keeping your accent quiet is how to be taken seriously in America. British actors playing Americans may have blended in to TV without a trace but those who chose to wear Britishness on their sleeves will remain the rodeo clowns of television.

TV Blinded Me With Science

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by Tom Steward

As if you needed me to tell you, the finale of Breaking Bad was aired on Sunday night. The build-up to this television event was swathed in publicity and hype and the show has been swaddled in blanket praise for some time now. Cyberspace is awash with bloggers and reviewers telling you what they thought about the finale, and I don’t really have anything to add, except to say that if the best shows have the most unremarkable endings then Breaking Bad is in contention for greatness. It seems everyone-including the show’s creator-is at a loss to explain why Breaking Bad has been so successful, especially as later seasons attempted to alienate viewers with their unremitting darkness. Another recent television event might help us understand.

Ricky Tomlinson in Controversial Last-Minute Casting Change For ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale.

Last week, eponymous host of 90s’ educational children’s TV show Bill Nye The Science Guy (for British readers think a hipster nerd Johnny Ball) survived the first elimination of ABC’s ballroom competition Dancing with the Stars despite a performance roundly panned by the judges, although if they’d changed the style of dance to ‘David Byrne’ it would have been tens all around. Nye was rescued by the popular vote after his Nutty Professor-themed dance to 80s cult movie soundtrack classic ‘Weird Science’ went viral. Despite an injury-enforced exit from the show this week, Nye’s routines remain this season’s hottest properties. The common denominator in these two unlikely successes is science. Is it pure coincidence or serendipitous discovery and are American TV viewers blinded by science?

Bill Nye channelling David Byrne.

It seems bizarre that in a country where the mere mention of healthcare can cause the government to shut down, science is such a popular commodity. Yet again and again American TV shows flashing their scientific credentials like phosphorus in a Bunsen burner are more likely to succeed. For years, House, a medical show about diagnostic research, beat out the competition from doctoperas like Grey’s Anatomy. Regardless of genre, shows slanted towards the scientific are bound to come out on top. CSI, the most popular cop show on TV, is about forensic scientists and recently there’s been a string of TV hits based around specialists consulting on criminal investigations such as Lie to Me and Perception, the latter beginning each week with a neuroscience lecture.

Perception, a class in TV!

It’s true that the conversations you’ll see about Breaking Bad in the press and social media probably won’t mention the show’s scientific content, except perhaps as a joke (‘kids now want to take up chemistry’ etc.) but it can’t simply be ignored either. Chemistry, physics and biology feature most typically as a way for the characters to get out of a corner, so Walt’s knowledge of the dissolving qualities of various acids helps him dispose of a body and a home-made car battery prevents Walt and Jesse dying in the desert. In this sense, science figures in much the same way it did in MacGyver, where the protagonist’s knowledge of physical sciences was a resource for removing jeopardy when only everyday items were at hand.

Breaking MacGyver.

But science in Breaking Bad is not simply a MacGuffin (or ‘Macgyvfin’) but the trigger for the entire programme. In the Pilot episode, Walt reminds us that his cooking of an unusually high-purity meth product, his route into the international drug trade, is just ‘basic chemistry’. It’s his culture’s treatment of scientists that puts him in the dilemma where meth-cooking is a viable option in the first place. While the more business-savvy of his former research colleagues soar to unlimited wealth, the true scientific genius is forced to take a severely underpaid and unfulfilling high school chemistry teaching job which can’t make up the numbers once he needs costly medical treatments. In turn, each character’s fate becomes tied to how much they know about science.

The Science of Good Television

Following a week in which the talk about American TV was centred on two scientists, Walter White and Bill Nye, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that there’s some sort of cultural fascination with science at play here. I’m not naïve enough to think that the viewing public is interested in using TV to get a scientific education but they’re certainly fond of watching scientists and having the paraphernalia of science on their screens. Maybe Americans are dying to have educated experts telling them what’s going on, something conspicuously lacking in TV news and reality, or maybe there’s something attractive and compelling about TV scientists that makes people want to follow and support them, regardless of their failures and flaws.

 

Back to Reality

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by Tom Steward

Despite the name, reality TV is unflinching in its adherence to the conventions of their rigid formats. It’s tantalising when a reality TV show throws out those conventions but then doubly deflating when they still manage to collapse under the crushing weight of formula after deviating from format. Breaking with convention has also become a branding strategy for many reality shows (especially the long-running ones) so it becomes difficult to separate an experimentation with format from marketing bullshit. I’ve encountered a couple of instances of this recently. Celebrity Wife Swap is the US version of a European reality format in which the long-term partners of male celebrities exchange lives for a week. The latest season began with an episode that changed the rules of the game significantly and almost to the point of abstraction. Instead of men swapping partners it was the women that exchanged their significant other, who were also women. The partners were not romantic peers but live-in blood relatives, and different relations on each side. Comedienne and broadcaster Joan Rivers took in Bristol Palin, reality-star celebrity daughter of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, while Rivers’ daughter, TV producer Melissa Rivers, went to live with Willow Palin, Bristol’s sister.

You’re my wife/daughter/sister now!

This loose interpretation of the format may have been motivated simply by the draw of the personalities involved and the prospect of an entertaining confrontation between Joan Rivers and Bristol Palin after Rivers’ frequent jokes about the Dancing with the Stars contestant’s weight in the press. But the sister and daughter swap had the potential to undercut the patriarchy of the format and suggest alternative living arrangements or definitions of family (alas none of them gay or friendship-based). It also promised that something different would happen, since the roles of daughter and sister are so incongruous and the impact of exchanging family members unknown territory. Somehow the formula of reality TV resisted these challenges from the reality of family life to reproduce the same outcomes. The couples struggled to understand each other, they seem like they will never overcome their differences, then they do, quickly, saving recriminations for their own spouse and ending with the promise of the couple having a better relationship in the future because of the experience. The peculiar dynamics of the relationships seem to make no difference-be it sibling parents or inter-generational mothers-and are entirely secondary to ticking these boxes every week, more Bruckheimer than Broomfield.

Families are all the same…or they will be by the time we’re done.

This year’s season of The Bachelorette was billed by host Chris Harrison as having the ‘most dramatic finale ever’. Even the studio audience balked at that. By the host’s own admission, all season finales are preceded by puffed-up rhetoric promising shocking and surprising twists and turns in the normal course of the show, with a gap between promise and outcome big enough to make it a standing joke with viewers. Last year the final episode of The Bachelorette was cut in half by the contestant choosing her partner early. This was a departure from format that seemed to suggest that contestants were able to mould the conventions of the programme to their desires rather than being cogs in a media machine. But the disruption also annoyed viewers by eliminating the suspense built into the final stages of the competition. It seems that if reality TV was more like reality, with all its loose ends and uneven surfaces, fans of the genre wouldn’t necessarily want to watch it. This year’s season finale had nothing to live up to and everything to prove. It had to stick to the format to the bitter end while looking like it was a breakthrough moment.

‘Keep crying…we’ve got an hour to fill’

Like last year’s finale, the competitive element was jettisoned when eponymous bachelorette Desiree was dumped by her first choice and forwarded the rejection to her most ardent admirer, leaving only one suitor in the running. The finale was split into two parts making a cliffhanger out of the dumping, which only intensified the feeling that Desiree was going home with nothing (excuse the language of commodity exchange but this is basically a game show with prizes). The suspense of the finale strategically shifted to speculation that Desiree’s first choice would return to make a two-horse race and doubts over whether she would accept a proposal from her Plan B. The proposal happened, she accepted, and the other man in her life didn’t come back to complicate things. It almost seems like the opposite of drama to me, and as conventional an outcome as could be mustered. The viewer was not as cheated by the rhetoric as before but only because the reveal was better paced not because it broke free of the restraints of format. It feels like reality TV shows have become propaganda films for their own formats, defending their orthodoxy against any challenges the outside world might bring.

For an account of TV in 799 less words, follow @TVinaword on Twitter…

%d bloggers like this: