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|Topher Payne: We all know reality TV is manufactured, but what does the product say about us?|
|by Topher Payne|
|September 02, 2011 00:00|
“There are just so many questions I have about this show,” I tell Preppy as we sit on the sofa, absorbing the latest episode of “The A-List: New York.” I can’t really say any of us are watching it, as Preppy and I are both catching up on work, and Daisy has her red ball, which really demands her full attention.
“The A-List: New York” is simply the thing that happens after “Rupaul’s Drag U,” in much the same way as poots happen after eating beans. It’s mildly offensive, but you accept it as part of the process.
“You’re not going to ruin this for me, Topher,” says Preppy. “The A-List is not supposed to inspire questions. Just let it go.”
And I do. For approximately 30 seconds.
“Why are they always eating meals in empty restaurants? Am I supposed to think they’re so A-List that they shut down every eatery they enter? And wouldn’t, like, Anderson Cooper or Ben Brantley be the actual A-List in New York?”
“Anderson Cooper’s in the closet, and I don’t know who the hell Ben Brantley is.”
“He’s the theater critic for The New York Times!” I sputter, aghast this is not common knowledge in my home.
“Well then, he’s way too busy to be on a LOGO reality show.”
“That is precisely my point!”
Preppy gives me the look that lets me know I have reached the limit of his patience, and I return to my work. But the conversation continues in my head for quite some time after that.
In theory, I have no problem with the self-proclaimed “A-Listers” of New York, or Dallas, or wherever else. Saying these preening flibbertigibbets represent the American gay community is like saying “Jersey Shore” is a thoughtful depiction of heterosexual courtship rituals.
We delight in reality television because of its easily digestible extremes. The producers keep the proceedings shockingly streamlined by editing out content which doesn’t serve the narrative of each individual’s predefined trait.
I was on the set of a reality show once — let’s just say it’s filmed locally and the title promises domestic engineers being genuine. The setup was a fabulous gallery opening on a Saturday night, glittering with Atlanta luminaries. But it was filmed at 2 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, so no actual A-Listers were available, which is why they had to settle for people like me.
I’m not sure what “list” one would find me on, but if Anderson Cooper is A and Kathy Griffin is D, I’m guessing I’d be somewhere in the T or U range.
I’d never actually seen an episode of the show in question, but knew of two cast members: One who looks like Janis from “The Muppet Show” and sings about arriving late for social events, and another who’s a giantess and not a big fan of Star Jones. Neither of them was at the gallery opening, so I had no idea which ones were famous people until a PA checked their wireless mic packs.
Once I identified the stars, I moved closer to get in the shot while they delivered lines like, “It’s almost eleven o’ clock and Janis still isn’t here!” Maybe it was because Janis had her watch set to real-world time, and thought she wasn’t expected to arrive for another 60 hours.
I don’t begrudge any of these elaborate machinations. I’m a playwright. I understand an audience’s need for clearly defined characters.
But “reality TV” is like beginner-level, first draft writing. If I were on “The U-List: Atlanta,” I’d be the bossy acerbic one who needs to be taken down a few pegs, and inevitably would be in the shocking season finale. They’d cut the dozens of hours of footage of me sitting on the sofa with Preppy, tapping on laptops with a sleeping dog between us. You know, the reality part, to which viewers could relate, seeing something similar to their own lives.
Which, I guess, raises my concern: We’re living in a culture that promotes divisiveness and a sense of “other,” because it’s easier to campaign against the rights of a group of people who might as well be space aliens. So how much is our community served by media that edits out all the moments that reveal us to be relatable, complex, and achingly human?
Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.
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