Posts Tagged reality television

Discovering new depths

OCC Fire BikeThe Discovery Channel recently cancelled its most highbrow show. This show featured a father and son who built custom motorcycles and fought, constantly. You may have heard of it. It was called American Chopper.

The antics of Paul Teutul Sr. and Paul Teutul Jr. may not seem like the stuff of intellectualism, but those bike builders looked like Rhodes Scholars compared to Discovery’s current lineup.

Without the Teutuls, we’ve got: Gold Rush, a show about incompetent miners, Bering Sea Gold, a show about downright crazy gold miners who dredge the ocean bottom with jury-rigged contraptions, and Moonshiners, which is exactly what it sounds like. Then there’s Amish Mafia, which features gun toting, tattooed teenagers that somehow still qualify as “Amish.”

While these shows are entertaining (who doesn’t want to hear about how one of the Gold Rush miners designed and built his own teeth?) but they’re about as far from Discovery’s original mission as can be.

The Discovery Channel used to show educational programs about science, nature and, well, discovery. Almost exactly ten years ago, it started moving towards car and motorcycle-based reality shows like American Chopper and Monster Garage. These shows were admittedly more lowbrow than what came before, but things are really getting out of hand now.

Most people may have watched American Chopper to see two grown men act like lunatics, but at least it showed something constructive. Fights may have taken up a lot of screen time, but the show was really about talented people building amazing motorcycles.

Other than moonshine and small quantities of gold, it’s hard to see what the people on these newer shows create. I’m not even convinced the “Amish Mafia” is a real thing; other than the fact that they have a “reality show” nothing about those buggy-driving gangsters makes sense.

Since American Chopper premiered, producers have figured out that what people want isn’t reality, it’s “characters” that are ripe for schadenfreude. That may be more entertaining than educational television, but it’s not making anyone smarter, or less cynical. Also, there are not enough motorcycles.

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Scavenger nation

Storage Wars Pawn StarsSome people say we’re heading toward the apocalypse, but in one respect we’re already there. No post-apocalyptic tale would be complete without scavengers, crafty survivors who pick through the kipple to find useful and valuable items. Apocalypse or not, those people are already out there, and they’re T.V. stars.

It started with the History Channel’s Pawn Stars. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock (or in a bunker), this isn’t a show about pizza delivery guys. It’s about a pawn shop in Las Vegas that specializes in rare items with some historical value.

If you want to sell your Soviet rocket launch keys, this is the place to go.

Since Pawn Stars, reality television has been all about scavenging. Tru TV launched its own series, Hardcore Pawn, which shows the seedier side of the pawn business. The show is definitely more hardcore than its History Channel counterpart: it’s about a pawn shop “in the heart of Detroit’s Eight Mile” run by a family of loud-mouthed shysters.

It’s not just pawn shops either. There is an entire industry based around bidding on the contents of storage units, and shows like Storage Wars and Auction Hunters depict it in all its glory.

Shows like these are a lot of fun to watch; they feature cool stuff and its easy to relate to people looking for bargains. However, there’s a bit of an unfortunate vibe to it all.

Everyone knows that the economy isn’t good and that the job market is dwindling, which brings me back to the apocalypse. In a post-apocalyptic scenario, the whole economy will consist of buying and selling material goods that were made before the world ended.  How different is that from a show about people who dig through abandoned storage units looking for treasure?

Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch these shows, and others like American Pickers and Oddities. It’s just funny to see scavengers get their moment in the spotlight.

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Comic adults

Justice League by Alex RossOnce upon a time, if you were an adult and you read comic books, people thought there was something wrong with you. Until Marvel revolutionized comic book storytelling in the 1960s, comics were seen exclusively as kid stuff. After all, what adult would take a story about a guy in tights and a cape seriously?

Apparently, a lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that more adults read comics than children. Many comic-reading kids grew up but didn’t want to give up their books (who could blame them?) and comics have grown more sophisticated to appease these mature readers. That’s great, because some of these so-called “grown ups” can act pretty childish when it comes to their favorite reading material.

Wired.com recently ran a short review of the new television show Comic Book Men. It’s a reality show about Kevin Smith’s comic book store, sort of like Pawn Stars for the nerd set. Take a minute to read the comments.

It’s amazing how much anger can be stirred up by a reality show about silly middle-aged men running a comic shop. The reviewer didn’t like it, saying that it reinforced negative stereotypes with its all-male cast and their tendency to make typically male jokes about women and gay men.

Luckily, Kevin Smith and company have some staunch defenders. One commenter called the author a “douche,” another said she was “pretty lame;” a third commenter said she shouldn’t be allowed to write professionally.

When a female commenter (Mary 229) came to the author’s defense, she was labeled an “angry fangirl” and taunted. “Mary’s turn on’s [sic] include whipped men, spreading inflammatory lies and invective about Rags Morales, and crying misogynist every ten seconds to invalidate the other persons [sic] point. It’s “angry fangirl 101,’” said commenter “John.”

I’m not taking sides on this one, but I think some of the comments were pretty ridiculous (once again, feel free to follow the link and decide for yourself). Since this is the Internet, I have no idea how old these people are or what their life stories are, but I can’t imagine any circumstances where statements like that would be acceptable in public. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but how about a little civility?

These comic fans should really listen more closely to their favorite characters. Has Superman ever called anyone a “douche” because they disagreed with him? Does Captain America angrily stereotype people when he disagrees with a government policy? Spider-Man is constantly being hunted down by the police and press; does he ever respond with anything besides witty banter?

When comics were read exclusively by kids, superheroes were role models. The morality and emphasis on good citizenship that started out as a way to educate children became an integral part of most heroes’ characterizations. Even in today’s age of moral ambiguity, a lot of it remains.

It’s kind of funny that a bunch of adults reading the same books can’t pick up on those lessons. These characters treat everyone with dignity, even their enemies. That seems like a pretty easy thing to understand. Superheroes are super because of their extraordinary abilities; I don’t want to live in a world where having manners is an extraordinary ability.

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Obscure reality

Reality television has diluted the meaning of reality. The latest trend in reality shows follows America’s national pastime: retail. Shows like Pawn Stars, Hardcore Pawn, and American Pickers turn the everyday act of buying and selling goods in to melodrama.

In this very strange crop of shows, however, the strangest is the Science Channel’s Oddities, which chronicles the business of selling bizarre antiques. The show features Obscura, an antique store in New York’s East Village, which sells everything from embalming kits to mutant taxidermy. During one episode, the owners haggled with a seller over the price of a cycloptic pig preserved in formaldehyde. On a recent trip to Manhattan, I decided to visit Obscura and see how the reality stacks up to the television show.

One thing the show does not impart is how small and out-of-the-way the store is. Obscura is on a relatively quiet section of East 10th Street, adjacent to apartments and a Turkish bath. There was half of a bomb casing sitting in front of the store when I went, which seemed encouraging. The store itself has the floor space of a college dorm room, with every available inch crammed with merchandise.

That merchandise definitely lives up to the show’s hype. Among the items for sale were: a “No Parking: Funeral” sign, a practice mouth used to train dentists, and a human skull. “Is that a shock therapy machine?” one customer asked. I was not expecting to find anything for budget shoppers, since items on the show usually sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. However, there were some affordable items, and even some for the less adventurous. I walked out of Obscura with some vintage postcards priced at $1.00 each.

On screen, Obscura is frequented by sideshow performers and people who make sculptures out of dust and nail clippings, but the people browsing when I was there seemed quite normal. The store’s owners (and the show’s main characters) weren’t around, but the staff was very friendly. The woman working the register enthusiastically discussed the merchandise and even gave me a discount. The atmosphere is exactly what viewers of Oddities would expect; it’s one of the few places on Earth where you will hear someone say “Don’t you shake that femur at me!”

Despite the publicity of a reality show, the owners of Obscura seem to be keeping things low key. The real-life store seems quite ordinary, despite its extraordinary wares. Television has not corrupted this reality yet.

Oddities airs Saturdays at 9:00 on the Science Channel.

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