Reality Shows: The Art of Entertainment?

Get out your #2 pencils, class. Pop quiz today.

  1. What television network began in 1984, envisioning itself as a commercial alternative to PBS?
  2. What television network commissioned double Emmy winner Horatio Hornblower and produced outstanding classics such as as Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby?
  3. What television network claims that last year, their most watched series was a reality show titled Storage Wars, in which teams of bidders attempt to score big in the high stakes world of storage auctions?

If you marked A&E on questions 1-3, you’ve earned a night in front of the television watching classic entertainment like Gene Simmons Family Jewels about rock star Simmons and his Playmate wife and family, or Hoarders, which highlights the inner challenges of people-who-collect-too-much.

Unfortunately that last show hits home for me. This week as I recovered from some bug or other, I began condensing my hoarded four foot stack of quilt magazines into several three ring binders. As I ripped and clipped and suffered accordingly, I surfed a million cable channels, settling on Flip This House. More astonishing than the show were commercials for the other shows now airing on A&E.

A&E is no longer the Arts and Entertainment Network.  These days it’s the Art of Entertainment Network.  In a quest to interest younger viewers, A&E now specializes in “reality” programming.  After all, the world needs more televised screaming matches and fewer Emmy winning classics. 

As an entertainer myself, I’m trying to analyze the appeal of some of the most “colorful” shows in the A&E fall lineup.  After all, this stuff sells, right?  So in no particular order, and with an invitation to add your own analysis under comments:

  • American Hoggers: real-life series that follows the Campbell family and their struggle to rescue Texas residents and ranches from the devastating chaos caused by millions of invasive wild boars.  To be followed soon by Lady Hoggers.  From the clip I viewed, the show features lots of squealing and shouting.  At least on the show I was “rooting” for the hogs.

Analysis: These are difficult times, and many of us feel under attack by forces we can’t control.  Watching strong, earthy men and flashy young women take matters into their own hands makes us believe our world can still be set to rights.

  • Billy The Exterminator: Billy runs Vexcon, one of Louisiana’s busiest pest removal companies, with the help of his brother Ricky, his father Bill Sr., and his sassy mom Donnie who runs the office.  The ad shows a man face-up with millions of creepy crawlies covering him.

Analysis: See American Hoggers.

  • Monster-In-Laws: A&E Network shines a light on married couples dealing with meddling in-laws as they try to make peace with the help of an unconventional, no-nonsense relationship expert. 

Analysis: Family life is messy, but no matter how bad yours gets, watching shows like this help you see that things could be worse.  These hateful, rotten people could be your in-laws.  And if they can be set on the road to recovery, then maybe your own family’s not hopeless.  OTOH, if they look good to you and their unhappy home looks like an oasis, then it’s clear you need immediate Intervention. (There’s a show for that on A&E, too.)

  • Parking Wars: In the trenches with the men and women of the Philadelphia Parking Authority and Detroit Municipal Parking Department as they ticket, boot, tow and impound the cars of problem parkers, with unexpected and outrageous results.

Analysis: This one’s the toughest to understand.  On one hand, Parking Wars is about the law prevailing, despite total disregard by citizens who believe they’re too good to obey it.  Haven’t we all wished a cop would pull over a crazy driver?  On the other hand, we’ve all probably parked illegally.  So I think this show’s about ambivalence.  We want the bad guys to get caught and the not-so-bad guys to get away. And we want to decide who’s who. Kind of  like watching politicians debate.

If you love these shows or others like them, please don’t feel belittled.  Remember, this week I was riveted in front of Flip This House while Armando Montelongo shouted at contractors and a family’s dream disintegrated into foreclosure.  There’s something about other people’s problems that make us feel better about our own.  It’s human and perplexing. 

And that puts the “reality” in “reality television.”

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