On Reality TV, Nature Documentaries and Dinosaurs

I am pleased to report that I never saw a single moment of Survivor. Nor shall I, apart from some sort of odd accident, see Chains of Love (which will feature men and women handcuffed together for days at a time), The Mole (where one person spies on friends) CBS' Big Brother or Survivor II. It's not really noble restraint on my part. It's that we don't have a TV, just a video player, so we can watch old movies and cool stuff we find at the library without pitchmen yammering at us.

I like our documentaries. One, in particular, that I recommend to all viewers is a fabulous documentary that ran on the Discovery Channel some time ago called Walking with Dinosaurs. The genius of the show is that it combines magnificently rendered computer imagery of dinosaurs with footage shot on location in various tropical and woodland locations to give an uncanny look and feel of a "nature documentary" to what is, in reality, one vast set of special effects. The animals behave like animals and the "photography" is done in such a way as to give the impression that we sitting in a duck blind or scuba diving or pacing them in aircraft as we watch these beasts just going about their prehistoric business. It is easy to forget that the series was not filmed in the wild. There are even moments where the computer-generated monsters "accidentally" interact with the "camera" by splashing the "lens" with computer generated water and slime or by knocking it from the "photographer's" hands with a stray flipper. It's an awesome exercise of artistic verisimilitude that makes the narrative of the documentary almost irresistible.

There is, however, one thing I notice about the show that I notice about all nature shows: that "narrative." The fact is, animals live lives of immense dullness most of the time, and the dinosaurs, once we have absorbed their size, power and extreme antiquity are no exception. A documentary about dinosaurs, like any documentary, must heavily edit reality in order to get to "realism". It must focus on the few moments of drama (birth, killing each other, defecating, avoiding getting killed, bursts of speed, reproduction) and edit out the enormously long periods these animals, like all animals, spent in sitting around, sleeping, grazing, and doing absolutely nothing interesting. In short, they must construct a story where the animals in fact lived a random collection of wandering about with only very intermittent moments that would hold our attention once we got used to their enormity.

Which brings me back to Survivor and other shows known as "reality TV". As I say, I didn't see the show, but I'm not wholly unfamiliar with the premise. The basic narrative is "people on a desert island conniving against one another in grim Stalin-meets-Darwin fun for the whole family, all in pursuit of big honking bucks". I can see why this sort of thing would be fascinating to watch, much like a car accident or brain surgery. And I can see why networks would scramble over each other in order to get as many clones on the air as fast as possible.

What I can't see is why anybody calls it "reality programming". After all, how many "real" people are stranded on desert islands with a TV crew? Or handcuffed together? Or living like weasels and spying on friends for a nation of voyeurs? This is not "reality", this is art. But it is art which denies that it is employing verisimilitude, art that denies it is art and pretends that it is something that "ordinary people" are experiencing. Walking with Dinosaurs leaves children thinking they saw dinosaurs and grownups knowing they saw human ingenuity of a very high order. "Reality TV" leaves both adults and children with the impression that there is no difference between the Darwinian struggles of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and the ruthless conniving of the Stalinist struggle for gold among the contestants. Walking with Dinosaurs says "here are some guesses about the behavior of creatures incapable of reason in their struggle to survive." "Reality TV" urges us to think that creatures capable of reason must and should rely on the carnivorous tactics of the dinosaurs in order to win, and suggests that though repugnant, the winner is, at bottom, to be emulated merely because he wins. Both shows are constructs of art. But only one pretends to be "reality TV".

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea