When my folks went out for the evening, my sister and I would make Macaroni and Cheese, share a can of coke, and tune into our two favorite TV shows: Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. Both had all the teen drama we could want in 1992, and we watched these California small screen idols play out soap-opera scenarios in ways that seemed completely surreal from our heart of the heartland, evangelical Christian upbringing in Wichita, Kansas. The “problems” of Jennie Garth and Luke Perry seemed so much larger than life, even if the poorly drawn situations now seem banal. But the show’s writers executed perfectly their goal, drawing in developing minds like mine and my sister’s.
When MTV’s now eponymous television series The Real World premiered in the late spring of 1992, it seemed the janus face to our favorite shows. We weren’t quite sure how watching real teen drama played out in a huge New York apartment could match the unpredictable twists and turns of those scripted shows. My sister and I mostly ignored the ‘Real’ and kept our gaze fixedly on the fictitious.
Then we heard that a Conservative Christian kid from Belmont University was a part of the “cast” of Season 2. Unbeknownst to my sister, I found a way to watch it. I didn’t quite understand what I was witnessing. Later in that season when Tami revealed that she was pregnant and planned to get an abortion, it was earth shattering. Nothing revealed about Kelly Taylor could ever match this kind of drama.
The sophomores I teach now never stop talking about The Bachelor. Try as I might to dissuade them with insider knowledge about how this type of unscripted drama actually works, they can’t get enough of it. And there’s probably a good reason for their ardor.
As a young actor learning about theatre in middle school, I could, at times, imagine myself living with all those hot neighbors in the Melrose Apartments. It also seemed a completely unlikely scenario. I realized even then that I would likely never have Luke Perry’s profile. Neither was I related to Aaron Spelling, as far as I knew. I did, however, audition for a season of The Real World. And it was extremely easy to receive a callback. In fact, all I had to do was show up with my very entertaining black friend, Jermaine, and utter a few somewhat offensive and witty statements about our relationship. With his winning smile and carefree attitude, the show’s ‘casting directors’ immediately took notice of both of us.
Neither Jermaine nor I appeared on any episode of the show. A young girl from that casting call did, however, and I remember her distinctly. She came into the waiting room and controlled it. She was loud. She was abrasive. You couldn’t help but notice her. She was exactly what the show’s producers wanted.
Most days, I simply wish that Marshall McLuhan were still alive. His insight would prove so helpful right now. ‘We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us,’ Marshall taught us. And here we are, staring at a presidential candidate in Donald Trump whose tools seem all at once sharp, dangerous, shiny and provocative, brand new and yet wielded with the precision of someone who has handled them for decades.
Not one of us should act surprised that ‘The Donald’ has risen to these heights in politics. Recall a time recently when you watched a show where an adorable couple so easily flips an unsalvageable home, a series when highly-skilled chefs are lambasted and berated for failure to season properly, a singing contest that scrutinizes young talent to the point of tears. These shows are the lighter side of that dark chasm known as ‘Reality Television.’ Think about Toddlers in Tiaras, 16 and Pregnant, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. These shows receive funding from television networks and people watch religiously.
It’s difficult to tell these days which shows falls under the heading of Reality TV and which are something else. While game shows have aired since the very earliest days of television, never before the early nineties did we find out so many personal details about their contestants. Donald Trump understands the power of celebrity. He understands the power of name recognition. And he understands that TV viewers only hear and see what they want. Or what they think they like.
That’s the reason he’s a viable candidate in this Presidential race. Because unscripted, loud-mouthed, off-the-cuff drama has beaten out the written word. It’s won out over the carefully planned platforms and speeches of traditional candidates. It’s beaten down ideology or even an understanding of how government and legislation actually work. And I predict there’s no slowing it down.
Oh, Kelly Taylor. Where have you gone? Come back and save me.
That’s a terrible ending, but I don’t have a better one right now.